HC Deb 25 February 1862 vol 165 cc690-700

said, he rose to bring forward the Motion of which he had given notice, to make an alteration in the 57th paragraph of the Rules, Orders, and Forms of Proceeding of the House. He would ask the attention of the House for a short time while he endeavoured to explain the object which he had in view. If hon. Gentlemen would do him the favour of reading the motion as it stood, and of comparing it with the rule of the House to which he referred, they would at once see the modification which he wished to effect. He had put his Motion in the shape which he thought would render it most intelligible to the House. By the insertion of a few words at the commencement of the rule of the House he wished to prevent any hon. Member being interrupted in the course of his speech in order that the House might be counted. By the introduction of a few words at the end of the paragraph he proposed to fix upon the hon. Member who called attention to the fact that forty Members were not present, and thereby interrupted the progress of public business, the responsibility of that act, by the insertion of his name in the votes and proceedings of the House published the following morning. All those Members who were present on the occasion, and who might fairly be considered as dissentients from the Motion, would also obtain the advantage of having their names recorded in the votes and proceedings of that House. He begged the House to understand that there was nothing in his Motion, nor had he the slightest desire, to interfere in any way with the existing right of any hon. Member to call upon the Speaker to count the House. On the contrary, he believed nothing was more essential to the proper conduct of the business of the House, or a better safeguard of their rights and privileges, than the retention of this power to count the House when circumstances occurred to justify such a proceeding. The alteration only affected the manner of exercising that right. It might be contended that for a debate to continue when forty Members were not present was an infringement of the rule of the House; but what happened practically was this:—A number of Members flocked in as soon as the Motion was made, and the Speaker having counted and declared that more than forty were present, those Members who had come in for the purpose of being counted left the House again, and the hon. Gentleman who had been interrupted continued his address to an assembly not larger than that in which the original attempt to count out was made. To prevent a Member finishing what he had to say was a practical denial of the privilege of free speech; and it was unfair as well as discourteous, because, no matter how dreary the opening of a speech might be, no one had a right to say that the conclusion might not be full of interest and argument. He could not see how any of their rules could be affected by the adoption of his proposition, nor how any person could be inconvenienced by it except the Speaker himself. Although he was sure that every hon. Gentleman would be desirous of promoting the convenience of the right hon. Gentleman, he was equally certain that the Speaker himself would not allow any feeling of his own to stand in the way of the convenience of the House generally. He was prepared to show that the rights of independent Members were most deeply involved; for, generally speaking, the House was counted out with one of two objects—either to get rid of some very dull subject, or to avoid the discussion of some very inconvenient one. The first of these objects was perfectly natural, and he had not a word to say against it; but the attempt to get rid of an inconvenient discussion by resorting to a count-out was not only unconstitutional, but directly opposed to the whole spirit of their proceedings. It was within the knowledge of the House, that when there was a desire to get rid of an inconvenient subject, a "count-out" was understood to be effected by an arrangement between the distinguished occupants of the two front benches, and to be managed by those hon. Gentlemen who were known by the familiar name of "whips." "When he said that, he meant no discourtesy to either the distinguished occupants of the two front benches or to the Gentlemen who carried out the arrangement of their chiefs. The House was to blame, and not those who only availed themselves of one of the rules which governed the proceedings of the assembly. Would independent Members of the House allow him to ask them whether they had considered what the effect of "counts-out" was? He found that the House was counted out twelve times during last Session and thirteen times during the Session of 1860.

The recent change in the mode of conducting the business of the House had resulted in leaving to independent Members only one night in each week. Now, thirteen "counts-out" deprived them of thirteen nights, or one-half of that portion of the Session which the rules of the House left at their disposal. It was manifest, therefore, that independent Members lost one-half the Session by the practice of counting out the House. He therefore asked them whether their interests were not seriously affected by the existing system, and whether it did not create a very irregular and improper state of things? Was it fair that their privileges should be thus frittered away by this surreptitious arrangement? His right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Cambridge, a great authority, had warned the House to be on their guard against any rule which might have the effect of diminishing the control over the proceedings of the Executive which independent Members exercised. He thought he had shown them that the present mode of counting-out had that effect; and he asked them, therefore, to bear in mind the sound advice of his right hon. Friend. There was another objection to the present system. A great deal of time was lost by it in another way. They did not get rid of a dull speech or of a dull subject by counting out the House, for the speech was sure to be spoken over again, and the subject to be again introduced, when there was no escape from either. The hon. Member who was counted out availed himself of his right to move an Amendment or to call attention on going into Supply; so that the "count-out" had not even the merit of accomplishing its object. But that was not the only loss of time suffered; all the other Motions that stood on the paper after that which was interrupted by the count-out were also to be disposed of on a future night. The result was to cause a great accumulation of business at the latter part of the Session, to the serious interference of the progress of fair discussion. On public, as well as on private and constitutional grounds, then, the House was bound to withdraw its sanction from such a system. He trusted he should receive for his Motion the support of all independent Members, whose privileges were greatly impaired by the practice to which he referred. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving— That if it appear on notice being taken, at the close of the Speech of any Member (such notice not to be taken during the time that any Member is addressing the House), or on the Report of a Division of the House by the Tellers, after Four o'clock, that Forty Members are not present, Mr. Speaker do adjourn the House without a Question first put till the next sitting day; and the name of the Member who has taken such notice, and also the name of every Member present when the House is counted, shall be taken down by the Clerk of the House, and published on the following day in the Votes and Proceedings.


said, he rose to second the Motion, as he believed it was calculated to remedy a state of things that was most inconvenient, particularly as regarded independent Members. He was at a loss to know on what ground the Motion of his hon. Friend could be opposed. On occasions when the fate of a Ministry was at stake, and when, perhaps, 600 Members voted in the division, it frequently happened that there were not thirty Members present at some portions of the debate. If that was the case on occasions of great importance, a fortiori it might be expected to happen dining ordinary debates. If the House thought it necessary to adhere to the principle on which "counts-out" were founded— namely, that no business should be transacted when forty Members were not present. He intended to move that the original spirit and intention of the regulation in question be strictly adhered to, and that on every future occasion when the Speaker's attention was called to the fact that there were not forty Members present, the doors should be immediately closed, and the House immediately counted, without the alarm bell being rung. Why should those hon. Members who did their duty in the House suffer on account of those who merely thought it sufficient to linger about in the refreshment or other rooms adjoining the House, in order that they might be within call to rush in when their attendance was required for the purpose of recording their votes as they were desired, and, perhaps, without knowing anything of the merits of the question that happened to be under discussion? If it was essential to have forty Members present, why did not all the officials of the Government imitate the conduct of the noble Viscount the First Lord of the Treasury, who was always to be found in his place? Why should that noble Lord be, like —The last rose of summer, left sleeping alone, "While his lovely companions are vanished and gone? He called upon the House, for the sake of its own dignity, to put a stop to such a system, as far as it was possible to do so. Believing that the proposition of the hon. Gentleman would tend to improve the regulation in question, he begged leave to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed.


Sir, I must express my hope that the House will not assent to a Motion which will, I think, tend very much to discredit the proceedings of this House. The hon. Gentleman has said that he does not intend to limit the right which any hon. Gentleman now has to take notice that forty Members are not present; but if the House adopts his Motion, it will, I think, tend to restrain that right, by limiting the period during which the Speaker may be called on to count the House to the short time which elapses between one Member sitting down and another rising. The hon. Member says there are two motives for counting out the House—one to get rid of a dull and uninteresting debate, and he does not object to get rid of such debates; and the other to prevent the discussion of some inconvenient subject. But is it in the power of any Government or of any Opposition to prevent the discussion of any inconvenient subject, provided it is one which, in the opinion of any considerable number of Members, ought to be discussed? It is a complete delusion to suppose that at the present time, when there is so much less party following than there used to be, any Government can prevent the discussion of a subject which a very considerable number of the Members of this House think ought to occupy the attention of the House. The hon. Gentleman has stated that the practice of counting the House was had recourse to twelve times during the last year, and thirteen times during the previous year; but I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken in supposing that the House was counted out on the majority of those occasions at an early period of the evening. The House has been counted out once already during the present Session; but it was then between twelve and one o'clock in the morning, after the principal business had been disposed of; and it would, I think, turn out that on many occasions during the two previous years the House was counted out after twelve o'clock, owing to hon. Members becoming wearied and leaving the House. I believe that during the last two Sessions the practice of which the hon. Gentleman complains has been very unfrequently resorted to for the purpose of interrupting business on Tuesdays. The hon. Gentleman says the practice is a very unfair one, because only one night is now devoted to private Members instead of two. I think that is a very great mistake. Tuesday is a day on which notice of Motion may be given by any Member, and they come on according to the priority of the ballot, whereby any Member has an equal chance with any other Member of obtaining precedence. In addition to Tuesdays, Wednesdays are exclusively devoted to the Bills of private Members. The Government never bring forward Bills on Wednesdays so as to interfere with the Bills of private Members. The reason why Thursdays are given to the Government is, that Friday, which was formerly an order-day, had, by the practice that had grown up, been virtually turned into a notice-day, and it was in order to secure two order-days that the Thursday was given to the Government. The privilege of bringing on questions for debate on the order of the day for Supply on Fridays, is made use of very largely, so that, practically, three days in the week are given to private members. Now, with respect to the specific proposal of the hon. Gentleman, it proceeds entirely from forgetfulness that this House is a deliberative assembly, and that speeches are made not merely to be communicated through the reporters to the country, but to influence the opinion of the House and to guide us in our decisions. If the hon. Gentleman's proposal were adopted, it would not be impossible that the House might be emptied of all its Members except the hon. Member who might be addressing it and you, Sir. I have no doubt he has paid a just tribute to your patience and public spirit in supposing that you would be willing to sit and listen. But it would not be creditable if it were known that an hon. Gentleman had risen to make a speech, accompanied by a declaration that it would be of no short duration, and that the whole of the Members might go away with the certainty that the House would not be counted out until the hon. Member had resumed his seat; nor then, except in the short interval between his fitting down and the rising of some other Member who might have entered the House a moment before. The hon. Gentleman says that frequently speeches are dull in the beginning but interesting in the end. Now, I think that one effect of the knowledge which hon. Members possess, that the House may be counted out, is to lead hon. Members to compress their speeches; and I think it would be no slight advantage if they were to begin with the interesting part of their speeches. It would be also possible for some hon. Gentleman to make a speech of three or four hours' length, and then take notice that forty Members were not present, so as to prevent any other hon. Member from rising to follow him. The House had better adhere to its existing rule; it was based on good sense, and in practice it has not been found inconvenient. I trust that the House, for these reasons, will not agree to the Motion.


said, that the right hon. Baronet had selected the most unimportant part of his hon. Friend's proposal for his criticism, and had quite passed over the kernel and gist of his Motion. The right hon. Baronet had, in fact, censured, not the proposal of his hon. Friend, but the practice that existed in the House at that moment. It was quite conceivable that the Speaker and some hon. Gentleman should be confronted in the House, while one spoke and the other listened, and that might go on the whole evening, because there would very likely be forty Members in the library and smoking-room who would rush in, make a House, and then disappear. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman condemned that which existed,' and not what his hon. Friend proposed. If hon. Members intended to carry out the rigid theory, and to hear every speech before they voted upon it, then they must abolish the two-minute glass, which enabled Members to leave the smoking-room and make a House. If they did not intend to act on that theory, then there was no standing-ground for opposing the Motion. By maintaining the present system the House did not get rid of one dull speech, silence one bore, or facilitate the business of the House. The important part of his hon. Friend's Motion was, that when an hon. Member took notice that forty Members were not present, he should do so on his own responsibility, and that he should not conceal his name. He wished the House to observe that that was the solitary bit of secrecy in their Parliamentary institutions. It was the one point in which the ballot had crept in. If a Member chose to denounce a Minister, he must do so in the face of day, and his name was known. If he wished to denounce a particular policy, he did not shrink from publicity. But if he wished to insult a man against whom he had an enmity [Cries of Oh!]—yes, they all knew that such things were done—still more, if it were wished to banish fair discussion upon a subject which those in office, and those likely to be in office, both wished to avoid—a Member need not come forward in the face of day. He had only to slink behind the Speaker's chair, and, unseen by the reporters, and unknown to the world, he was enabled to put a stop to the legislative proceedings of the House. If a debate ought to be put a stop to, surely hon. Members were willing and courageous enough to come forward and give the sanction of their names to their opinions. If a debate ought not to be put a stop to, no opportunity of doing so secretly ought to be allowed. Wherever secrecy was permitted abuses took place. No hon. Member could have been long in the House without having seen Government whips in the lobby asking hon. Members not to go into the House. They were asked "just to stay there a little while," and every Member had known that moral and sometimes even physical pressure had been placed on hon. Members to induce them not to go into the House. If they were to vote on the question as it affected the character and credit of the House, he appealed to hon. Members, whatever else they might do, to let their proceedings be open, above board, and in the light of day, and not preserve that one piece of secrecy.


observed, that he regretted to say he felt himself at variance with the hon. Member who moved the Resolution. He thought it exceedingly inexpedient to pass any law or by-law which would sooner or later become inoperative. He did not think the object of the hon. Mover would be attained by the adoption of his Motion. Were they to consider that a quorum of the House should consist of forty Members or not? If they considered that fewer than forty Members should not constitute a House in which questions of importance should be debated and decided, the whole argument fell to the ground. He thought forty too few. The time was when sixty was the smallest number of Members that could transact the business of the House. His hon. Friend thought it discourteous to interrupt a Member in his speech. That might be true. But what was the object of a speech? Not merely to have it reported, but to influence the decision at which the Member who made it wished the House to arrive. If forty Members would not remain in the House, what was the inference to be drawn? Why, either that the House did not care for the subject, or that the speaker was unable to place it in an attractive light. Nor was it fair to say that Government could always command a House. The House would remember the extreme efforts which the Government made in a former Session to keep a House for one of their most important measures—he meant the Reform Bill which was introduced by Earl Russell, and to which the noble Viscount was godfather. The House, however, was counted three times while that measure was before it. It was, therefore, quite clear that Government could no more prevent a House being counted out than others could sometimes keep a House. As to hon. Members sneaking behind the chair to give notice that there were not forty Members present, that arose, when it did happen, not from any discourteous wish to interrupt a speech. On the contrary, he should consider that he was upholding the privileges of the House in maintaining that no subject should be discussed unless that number which the House, in its wisdom, had thought proper to fix as a quorum, should be present. As to the publicity which the hon. Member wished to give to the names of the Members who were present at the count, he could hardly think that any one would shrink from such publicity.


said, he thought that it was important that the Member who might move to count the House should have his name published, as he assumed a great responsibility in putting a stop to the machinery of legislation and the business of the House. The whole of the hon. Member's propositions appeared to be worthy of consideration. Publicity was the soul of their proceedings, and for that reason he objected to a Member going secretly, stealthily, behind the chair and putting an end to a debate in that way, when all the other proceedings were fair and open. He thought the Motion deserved the attention of the House.


I do not know that I formed any definite idea of the Motion before I came into the House, nor should I have attached much importance to the subject; but, in the present dearth of more important topics, we may as well discuss this. Save for the romantic notion of the noble Lord the Member for Stamford—and really I think he has contrived on this question to give forth a great deal of sentiment—I should not have addressed the House. But I must protest against its going forth to the country that any hon. Gentleman who chooses to go to you, Sir, and make the remark that there are not forty Members in the House, entertains any enmity towards the Member who is speaking. I really was quite surprised to hear the noble Lord adduce such an argument. Does the noble Lord suppose that any hon. Gentleman who acts the part of prompter behind the scenes—and the prompter's name is never given in the bills—does the noble Lord mean to say, that when he himself has been counted out, any hon. Gentleman could have entertained a sentiment of hostility against him? Why, I have had the dissatisfaction of hearing the hon. Gentleman who spoke last (Mr. Ewart) counted out on several occasions. Does anybody believe that any hon. Gentleman entertained hostility to that hon. Member on those occasions? The hon. Member below me (Mr. A. Smith), who is always counted out—why, I remember he was counted out five different times in one Session on the celebrated question of the foreshores—does any one entertain any enmity to that hon. Gentleman? No, Sir; I deny it. I think that when the noble Lord indulged in the little bit of romance about secrecy, and endeavoured to hurl odium on that useful class of men, the counters-out, he forgot that they might be justly looked upon as of that class who Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame. I hope the House will not be led away by these new-fangled notions, but that they will stand by the old and accredited mode of counting out the House, and instead of heaping odium on a useful body of men they will stand by them to the last. What has been the practical working of the rule? Has the House ever been counted out on a really important subject that moved the public mind? I am perfectly willing that this subject should be separated into two parts, and that the names of those indus- trious people who remain here all day and all night shall be before the public. But, on the part of those who are the counters-out, I protest against their being dragged into the light of day. I have never acted that part myself, because I have been content to suffer quietly under a great many speeches; but I will never give a vote that shall heap odium on that useful and meritorious body of men, the counters-out of this House.


in reply said, that the admirable speech of his noble Friend (Lord R. Cecil) had not been answered. He had never heard much romance in the speeches of the hon. Member for Liskeard (Mr. Osborne), and the speech just delivered was not only devoid of romance, but of matter of fact, because he entirely misconstrued both the Motion and the arguments in support of it. As to the insuperable difficulty alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary as to the shortness of the time which would be afforded for counting out, all he need say was that the difficulty would be avoided by giving the mover of the count precedence over any other new speaker. The right hon. Gentleman had made another starling assertion. He said the front benches had no power to 'arrange a count-out. Now, he (Mr. Bentinck) appealed to hon. Members whether, over and over again, they had not known the whips arrange the count out—whether it had not taken place frequently? The right hon. Gentleman had stated that private Members had three days each week. But, really, Wednesday went for nothing; Friday, generally speaking, was a dies non; and he repeated that private Members were restricted to Tuesday, and that, by the practice of counting out, they were frequently deprived of both their opportunities. The right hon. Gentleman had harped upon the number that had been fixed by the House as a quorum. He (Mr. Bentinck) did not propose by his Motion to interfere with that number at all. If any proof were wanting of the propriety of the Motion, it would be found in the fact that the right hon. Gentleman, with all his eloquence and ability, had not attempted to controvert any material portion of the statement which he (Mr. Bentinck) had made in introducing it to the House.

Question put.

The House divided;—Ayes 43; Noes 219: Majority 176.