HC Deb 24 March 1865 vol 178 cc215-23

in moving for a Select Committee on this subject, said, that hon. Members might well be forgiven for feeling a good deal of dread of blue-books, because of late years it had rained blue-books—Pelion had been piled on Ossa, and Ossa on Olympus. It had been sarcastically remarked that if you wanted to hide a question the best plan was to bury it in a blue-book—you might then defy anybody to excavate it. And if you were praised in a blue-book your fate was certain— Cum scriptore meo capsâ porrectus apertâ, Deferar in vicum vendentem thus et odores, Et piper, et quidquid chartis amicitur ineptis. The subject had been repeatedly considered, not only by Committees of the House but by the House itself, and the desirability of such an arrangement as he was about to suggest had been universally admitted. In submitting the Motion on the paper he had in view two objects—one being the convenience of Members, and the other the diffusion among the people of sound information on political questions. The difficulty consisted in having two sets of blue-books, the one containing the original documents in extenso, and the other simply the substance of the information contained in them carefully abridged and condensed. There was at present an immense waste of public money in printing blue-books, which were for all practical purposes wholly useless—the public never looked into them, and their end was to find their way to the waste-paper dealers. One suggestion for preventing the useless accumulation of these blue-books was, that they should be stopped in initio, and abridged before they were printed. No doubt it was important to abridge as much as possible in this stage, but it was also important that too much should not be cut away. He believed that their librarian, Mr. Vardon, to whom hon. Gentlemen were so much indebted, did curtail these voluminous publications, to which Commissions of Inquiry seemed to contribute very largely. He believed that one of those Commissions had given in 39,000 questions, and on being expostulated with had said they had intended to have sent 80,000. Mr. Hume had devoted himself to the Printing Committee of the House of Commons, and Mr. Tufnell moved for a Committee with a view to circulate these blue-books among mechanics' and other institutions. Little, however, had been done, and indeed you could hardly expect that the members of these institutions should read with attention such ponderous volumes. On the other hand, efforts had been made by private individuals to provide condensed abstracts of these papers, somewhat similar to what he now asked for. He should much prefer, if possible, that it should remain a matter of open competition; but these abridgments, though executed by men of great talent, had not been successful in a pecuniary point of view. There was an able publication called The Parliamentary Record, by Mr. Charles Boss, which was exceedingly well arranged, and as well digested as a book could possibly be. He did not know whether the book was still issued, but while it was issued The Parliamentary Record was a very valuable publication. Mr. Toulmin Smith also issued a valuable publication, The Parliamentary Remembrancer, which gave much information as to current political literature; and Messrs. Smith and Elder published a third book, called The Annals of Legislation, which was edited by Mr. Leone Levi, was much consulted by foreigners, and was a most useful publication. Although, however, these gentlemen had devoted their time and talent to the work, he understood that, owing to their peculiar nature, they had not been successful in a pecuniary point of view. Mr. Hansard came under a different denomination. A certain number of copies were taken from him by the Government and distributed among the public offices, and this support, along with that of private purchases, enabled him to carry on his undertaking. Now he (Mr.Ewart) did not know for what use we had a statistical department of the Board of Trade if it was not to render service in such matters as this. This department issued yearly a valuable paper called the Statistical Abstract, which was known to and highly valued by foreigners as well as Englishmen; and if they were able to furnish so good an artiticle in respect of figures, he thought they might furnish an equally good article in respect of facts. It was the opinion of the late Prince Consort that the statistics issuing from the various Departments should be combined and issued in a condensed form, avoiding the repetitions which now frequently occurred owing to their issue from different departments. He thought that the convenience of the Members of the Legislature would be greatly consulted by the issue of such digests as he proposed; and he thought also that if the English people were really to be worthy of the political franchise, they ought to be supplied with the means of political education, and with information which was now often unavailable in blue-books. He trusted that some assurance would he given that the Board of Trade was not so inert as people supposed, and would employ itself in the useful work he had suggested.


in seconding the Amendment, reminded the House that two Sessions ago a Committee was appointed to consider the expediency of providing a compendious Record of Parliamentary Proceedings for the use of Members. The Home Secretary, Mr. Massey, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), and other Gentlemen of experience served upon that Committee, and after evidence had been taken a unanimous opinion was expressed as to the extreme inconvenience of the system under which these blue-books were now piled upon the House. Certain practical suggestions were then made—as, for example, that this House should procure the Journals of the Lords, which were now generally one or two years in arrear. An amazing amount of useless literature was at present forthcoming; but I what was really wanted was some guide to current political literature, an alphabetical register of the publications and the business of the Session, giving the dates of each proceeding. The Report contained some very useful suggestions on this and other points; but nothing was done, and he hoped the attention of the Government would now be turned to the subject, and that the result would be some practical measure.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it is expedient that a digest or abridgment of Parliamentary Papers and Blue Books be provided from time to time, and consolidated into one or more volumes at the close of each Session, under the authority of the Statistical Department of the Board of Trade, for the convenience of Members and for the diffusion of information among the public at large,"—(Mr. William Ewart,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


as a young Member of the House, thought that nothing was more depressing to the spirits and trying to the temper than the attempt to extract a few simple facts out of the mass of documents which now encumbered one's rooms. Last year he found that nearly 1,000 of these Parliamentary Papers were issued, containing upwards of 50,000 pages, at a cost of £67,000. It was lamentable to reflect what a large proportion of this expenditure might be said to be entirely thrown away, for the great mass of these volumes found their way to the waste-paper dealers. He would suggest that the large number of copies now printed in extenso were not necessary, and that if a small number were printed and deposited in the British Museum, the public libraries, and other places, so as to be readily accessible for reference, that would be quite sufficient for all public purposes. If a digest giving something like a history of the various matters to which the documents referred were provided, it would greatly further the convenience of Members, and would also effect a considerable saving of public money. If such a plan could be adopted, there arose the further question—by whom was it to be carried out? Supposing that the Government were to undertake the duty, he believed that in practice the fairness of the extracts given would be called in question. The undertaking would offer few temptations to private enterprise, as unfortunately but little public interest was exhibited in respect of public documents to hold out the prospect of a profitable return. For that distaste on the part of the public, the House probably had itself to blame for presenting facts in so repulsive a form as at present. Another suggestion was that the Speaker should be intrusted with the superintendence of the work; but he doubted whether the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair would be willing to add to his already arduous duties such a novel responsibility. The only practical plan appeared to be for the Government to follow the example of Hansard's Debates, and to guarantee to the publisher the sale of a certain number of copies, which would encourage private enterprise to undertake the task. It would, of course, be necessary that the work should be intrusted to competent hands, and if any particular person could be indicated, as well qualified for the duty, he might mention the name of Mr. Leone Levi, who for the last seven years had been conducting the Annals of British Legislation, a very valuable work. He thought the Motion was a very useful one, and he hoped the Government would give it their support.


said, that as his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade wished to reserve himself for a question that was to come on later in the evening, he would say a few words upon the Motion. There was no doubt that, under certain circumstances, a work of the nature indicated by the hon. Member, well executed, and brought out promptly, would be an advantage, inasmuch as they would have presented in a portable shape the information now spread through voluminous Re- turns, but it could not effect any saving in the expense of Parliamentary printing. The hon. Gentleman desired to have an abridgment of Parliamentary papers; but that pre-supposed that the Parliamentary Papers were first printed. Even if the abridgment were to precede the printing, he should doubt whether it would prevent the necessity of printing in extenso all the documents that were called for by Parliament, or were presented by command. No abridgment could be made so authoritative as to dispense with the papers in full. It was possible that such a work as that proposed might have the effect of reducing the number of copies of documents that were printed; but that at present the Printing Committee of either House considered themselves at liberty in the case of subjects of minor and local importance to reduce the number of copies of papers to be printed. But had the hon. Gentleman considered how small a proportion of Parliamentary papers were of more than ephemeral interest, and were worth the labour of being abstracted? The House would remember that in respect of a considerable number of Parliamentary Papers—those relating to commerce—a most valuable abstract was already to be found in the Statistical Abstracts of the Board of Trade. There were also the copious Indices to Hansard, which were very well prepared. So that the Motion of the hon. Gentleman would apply principally to Foreign Office papers, of which it would be difficult to prepare a satisfactory digest. Then, supposing that such a digest was desirable, there came the question, by whom should it be prepared? It might be done under the authority of the House, by a Department of the Government, and reference had been made to the recommendation of a Committee which sat in 1862 upon the subject of another work, which was a digest of Parliamentary Proceedings. But there was a great difference between a digest of the Proceedings of Parliament and a work which professed to be an abstract of all the papers presented to Parliament, which was a far more difficult work. The Committee referred to recommended that the assistance given should be limited to a certain subsidy in aid of private efforts. The work of Mr. Leone Levi which had been mentioned was, no doubt, a valuable work, but it had not been a profitable undertaking in a pecuniary sense. An abridgment of Parliamentary Papers was also to be found in the Annual Register. All those works were, no doubt, deserving of public favour, but it would be a disagreeable task to select one to be supported by a public grant. As the hon. Gentleman's proposal now made varied from the Notice on the paper, he trusted that there was no intention to press it, but that the hon. Gentleman would be satisfied with the discussion which he had originated.


suggested that the Government had the power of limiting the number of papers that were presented, and thereby of reducing the expenditure under that head. He especially referred to the class of "unopposed Returns," which were moved for and granted without attracting any notice, which cost sometimes large sums of money and great expenditure of time to prepare, and which, after all, were never read by anybody. An hon. Member might move at a late hour of the night for an unopposed Return, it was put and carried, and the whole proceeding occupying about half a minute; but the printing of the Return might cost £1,000. It was no argument against a digest of valuable papers to say that a vast number of the papers that were laid upon the table were useless.


thought the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of the Treasury had rather overrated the difficulty of complying with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart). At present they had annual Reports on the Post Office, Inland Revenue, Customs, Board of Health, and Poor Law Board, and these were most satisfactorily abstracted in Mr. Leone Levi's publication. What was really wanted was something like the abstract information comprised in Mr. Leone Levi's valuable work. Hansard, useful as it was, could not be carried on without a subsidy in the shape of a subscription for copies. Something of this sort might be done with regard to the suggested abstracts—at any rate, it was worth consideration.


said, the question seemed to be taking two forms. It was said that a great many Parliamentary Papers were printed that were useless; and then, on the other hand, it was proposed that somebody should have something for printing digests of these useless papers. But Parliamentary Papers, to be really useful, must be full. Suppose they had set a wise man to digest the Danish Papers. What would he have had to do? Would he have had to come to a conclusion upon them? In that caseins digest might have hanged the Government or exonerated them. Again, when a Committee presented its Report, it recorded its conclusions, and perhaps they were arrived at by a very narrow majority, after numerous divisions. Then immediately hon. Gentlemen turned to the evidence to test the value of those conclusions. But were they to set some one to digest that evidence over again, perhaps bringing out a Report directly opposed to that of the fifteen gentlemen who had sat on the Committee? Unless they proceeded carefully they might get into a great deal of useless expense; they would be saddled with the same material twice over—once in extenso, and again in little. In talking about printing useless Parliamentary Papers, hon. Gentlemen forgot the multiplicity of subjects which engaged the attention of Parliament. The House of Commons was like a pack of hounds—one hunted one thing, and another hunted another; and they were not like a good pack either, for they would never go off together on one scent. Directly one took up a subject somebody else took up the other side; then they wanted all sorts of information, that they might pick out their points and battle over them, and by this means the truth was got at. No doubt the Statistical Abstract was a very valuable document, and it was prepared very much from Parliamentary Papers; but the principle of that Abstract would not apply to the Reports of Committees and Commissions, the printing of which was the chief expense. These abstracts might do for people who merely took a cursory view of things, hut they would not be used as authorities, nor could they be put into anybody's hands to make them authorities. However well the digest might be made, whoever wanted an authority must go direct to the fountain head. He would give no opinion as to taking a number of copies of a publication, in order to assist private undertakings of works of this nature, but he hoped the House would not be deprived of the means of obtaining the information they now got from the blue-book.


hoped that the Secretary of the Treasury would endeavour to carry out the idea of the hon. Member for Dumfries, which he thought was exceedingly useful and would be the means of diffusing a great deal of valuable information throughout the country. He would suggest that means might be found by restricting the number of blue-books and Parliamentary Papers now printed to what might absolutely be required.


said, he had found Mr. Levi's publication of great use to him in following out the course of legisislation, and he had no doubt that a digest of Parliamentary information would be of great utility; but he doubted whether a grant of public money ought to be made for preparing it. In 1854 a Committee had recommended that selections from the Parliamentary Papers should be presented to mechanics' and other institutions in the country; but it had been found impossible to make these selections on account of the voluminous nature of the papers. The House was bound to carry out the suggestions of the Committee. He thought this was a public view of the matter which the House might consider. The expense would be small, and the value immense. No one who had read the digest which had been referred to could say that there was any party spirit running through it. It was a wise way of giving the public the knowledge of the general course of legislation which Parliament was pursuing. If it was found that there was any party spirit pervading this selection of papers it would be open to the House to stop the small subsidy, and throw the matter into the market for others to undertake. He was sure this would be of great value, and he trusted the Government would not refuse it.


said, he would withdraw the Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.