HC Deb 30 April 1866 vol 183 cc163-72

Sir, I stated on Friday night—or rather, to be more accurate, at daybreak on Saturday morning—that I would to-day, with the permission of the House, make known the views of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the course of the most important parts of public business with which they are concerned; and of course after such a division as that which took place at the time I have named, it is right that I should explicitly state the view which Her Majesty'3 Government take of their position. Her Majesty's Government have not seen in that division any reason or warrant for their desisting from the effort in which they are engaged to pass into law a measure with reference to the Representation of the People. They understand their position—not to dwell for a moment upon the slight numerical difference between the majority and the minority—to be as follows: One moiety of the House was prepared to accede to the proposal of the Government to enter upon the consideration of the Franchise Bill, upon the under- standing which subsisted before the second reading—that is to say, the understanding, or rather the pledge, which was given by the Government, that they would introduce into the House before proposing to go into Committee on the Franchise Bill, a Bill relating to the Re-distribution of Seats and Bills relating to the subject of Reform in Scotland and in Ireland. The other moiety of the House did not declare itself unwilling to enter on the consideration of the Franchise Bill, but, on the contrary, acquiesced without a division in the Motion for the second reading, when it had become the substantive and main Question; but they interposed an important condition—I must not understand the Amendment differently, though its terms were hardly adhered to by those who supported it—namely, that before considering the question of the Franchise the House must have before it the whole intentions of the Government with respect to Parliamentary Reform. By the whole intentions of the Government I understand—although there are other points of great importance—our intentions with regard to the re-distribution of seats; and, no doubt, as collateral to that, our intentions with respect to the question of boundaries, as well as the arrangements for reforming the representation in Ireland and Scotland. The position in which we stand, therefore, appears to be this—that the whole House is agreed in the disposition to take into consideration the measure of Parliamentary Reform before it on receiving that information—of course, without the smallest prejudice to the course any hon. Members may think it right to take when in possession of that information. I stated in the course of the debate on Friday night that Her Majesty's Government would be very unwilling to quarrel upon any mere question of procedure with those who might be agreed with them in regard to the main objects which they have in view. Nothing has occurred, and, indeed, nothing could very well occur, between that time and this to give us any further information as to the views or wishes of the House or any part of the House with respect to questions of procedure—in fact, I think it is obvious that hon. Gentlemen whose minds may still be open upon that subject to any further view, may naturally be waiting for the production of the Government Bill with reference to the re-distribution of seats. That being so, we have come to the conclusion that our present duty is a very simple one. It is to lose no time in producing the plan we shall recommend to the House with respect to the re-distribution of seats. Now, that cannot be done till after Thursday next, because after the arrangements that hare been made as to the Financial Statement, it would not, I think, be convenient for the despatch of public business generally that that statement should be further delayed. What we propose, therefore, is, that on Monday next I shall ask leave—postponing for that purpose the Orders of the Day—to bring in a Bill for the Re-distribution of Seats. In concurrence with that step, I shall also propose to place for Monday next the Motion for the Committee on the Franchise Bill; of course, not with the view of asking the House to go into Committee at that time, for till that day we are not in a position to arrive at any clear view, or to ask the House to adopt any clear view, with regard to the precise day for moving that the Speaker do leave the Chair on that Bill. I have nothing else to say so far as regards the question of Parliamentary Reform. And the House will therefore be good enough to understand that I propose on Thursday next in Committee of Ways and Means, to make the usual Financial Statement. And I will venture to offer an observation on that subject, which is intended entirely for the convenience of the House, and which they will please to put in practice according as they see fit. The old and regular practice of the House, until quite recently, was this—that after the Financial Statement an opportunity was given to hon. Members of rising in pretty quick succession one after the other, to put Questions to the Minister with respect to any point requiring explanation. There was very great convenience in that practice, because it brought the whole matter into a very small compass, and enabled Gentlemen to obtain at once whatever information they might desire. Of late years there has been a tendency to substitute for that practice a general debate upon the Budget; and the consequence is that hon. Gentlemen have often great difficulty in putting Questions which, if they had had the opportunity of putting, the whole plan would have gone forth to the country in a more complete and intelligible form. Of course, I should not think of questioning the liberty, or offering any advice to hon. Gentlemen, as to limiting the privileges of debate, in any way whatever; but I would respectfully submit that it would be for the convenience of the House if after the Financial Statement those Members whose object is not to enter into a general discussion, but to put Questions with a view to obtaining information, are allowed to take precedence in obtaining such information. There is another very important subject on which I answered the noble Lord the Member for Leicestershire (Lord John Manners) the other night, when he asked me whether I was able to decide upon the plan I proposed to submit to the House on the subject of Church Rates, I wish to say that I am not able to-day to announce any result of such communications as I have held with hon. Members in regard to Church Rates, but I hope on Thursday to be able to make some announcement on the subject.


asked, whether the right hon. Gentleman proposed to proceed with the Franchise and Re-distribution Bills together, or to carry the two Bills separately?


My intention is confined for the present to the Notice I have given; because, as I have already stated, I do not think, as far as we are able to judge, that hon. Members themselves are in the most favourable position to form their own judgment until our Re-distribution Bill shall have been introduced. When that shall have been introduced, we do not wish to fetter our own discretion, or in the slightest degree to fetter the discretion of any Member of the House, as to any further procedure.


Ireland having been alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman, I wish to know what are the intentions of the Government, with relation to dealing with the franchise in that country? I do not ask what they are going to do, for I do not want them to do anything, but whether they intend to introduce a Bill relating to the franchise as well as to the re-distribution of seats in Ireland.


The best answer I can give the right hon. and learned Gentleman is, that I hope the Bill relating to Ireland—which I trust may be introduced on Monday—will be, as far as the intentions of the Government are concerned, a complete measure.


said, he understood the Chancellor of the Exchequer to intimate to the House that he would proceed with the Re-distribution Bill pari passu with the Franchise Bill. ["No, no!"] What he wished to ask was, in the first place, whether the right hon. Gentleman would give the House a sufficient opportunity of considering the Re-distribution Bill?—and whether, in the next place, he would take the second reading of that Bill before asking the House to go into Committee on the Franchise Bill? It seemed to him very desirable that the Re-distribution Bill, and also a Bill for regulating and defining the boundaries of boroughs, should pass the second reading before the House were asked to go into Committee on the Franchise Bill.


It may be taken for granted—and if it is not I have no hesitation in saying—that the Government will make no attempt to deprive Members of this House of due time for considering their course after our plan with regard to the re-distribution of seats is before them. By placing it on the table, and taking as much time as is necessary, it will put both themselves and us in the best position for considering any ulterior measures.


reminded the House that there was an unimportant part of the Kingdom called Scotland, and he begged to ask whether the Franchise Bill for Scotland would be read a second time before or after the other parts of the scheme were proceeded with.


The Reform Bill for Scotland will, I have no doubt, be introduced on Monday night by my hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate; but with regard to its further stages, I would rather give no pledge at present.


I do not wish to act irregularly, and I shall, therefore, conclude with a Motion. I wish to say that I think, on the whole, the course taken by Her Majesty's Government seems to be undoubtedly the right and the proper one; because it must be borne in mind that now that the Bill for the Reduction of the Franchise has been read a second time, the whole House is agreed upon the principle; for the minority which, on Friday night, divided in support of the Amendment of my noble Friend the Member for Chester (Earl Grosvenor), expressed their desire to consider a measure of Reform which would lead to a settlement of the question, and also a desire of seeing the scheme which the Government proposed to submit to the House. These two objects will now really be achieved, as before we go into Committee we shall have the scheme of Her Majesty's Government before us. Now, the settlement of this question depends altogether upon the Bill about to be submitted to the House; and, of course, not having that Bill before us, and having no idea of what it is to contain, it is impossible to express any opinion now whether the two Bills together will afford any chance of a settlement of the question or any prospect or basis for a settlement. I am one of those, in common with a great many Members on this side of the House, who supported Her Majesty's Government on Friday night; but I am one of the section who think that this question ought to be considered as a whole. I gave my support to the Government and voted against the Amendment of my noble Friend because their plan appeared to me the only feasible mode in which we could see some prospect of coming to a settlement. It is quite clear at any rate, that if the Amendment had been successful, and the Government had gone out of office and the Bill had been lost, we should have been as far off any chance of a settlement as ever. Now, Sir, I am inclined to agree with what fell from an hon. Member the other evening, who said that no satisfactory settlement of the question could be arrived at by Parliament without the consent and the co-operation of the Conservative party. I think the powers of resistance to any measure of this kind in quiet times like ours are so great that unless terms of conciliation are held out to all parties there is very little likelihood of those powers of resistance being overcome. I think it is to the interest of Gentlemen opposite that a proper and reasonable settlement of this important question should be arrived at; and I cannot help thinking that if the measure to be introduced next week is a fair one, fairly weighing the opposite interests of the country, and taking into consideration what cannot be justly neglected—namely, the claims of the landed interest to have at least some share in the re-distribution of seats—I cannot but think that if the question of the re-distribution of seats be treated in some such way, it may afford a basis for a settlement of the question. There are two grievances in respect to this question—the grievance of the great unrepresented towns and portions of towns, those places which have sprung up chiefly in the North of England and one or two in the South of England, and which have no representation in this House. According to our old fashioned Constitution, had the same circumstances occurred 200 years since, those places would have at once had writs sent down to them for the election of Members to this House. Another grievance is that the counties, in proportion to their wealth, their taxation, and their population, are very much leas represented than the boroughs. I cannot help thinking that much of the resistance offered to the Franchise Bill by hon. Gentlemen opposite during the past debate has been in consequence of their alarm and uneasiness arising from the supposition that these claims of the landed interest would not meet with fair consideration unless the whole question was brought before us. When this question, as a whole, comes before the House, it will be perfectly competent for the House to deal with it as a whole. They will have power to submit the two Bills to the same Committee—for there is a Standing Order enabling that to be done—there is a power in this House which enables them to direct a Committee to join two Bills in one; so that when the House is in possession of the scheme, if it is a good one, or admits of being turned into a good one, by reasonable alterations, they can pass it, for I apprehend the Government is not prepared to stand upon the ipsissima verba of every section and item of the Bill. Surely this is not a bad opportunity for Members interested in and desirous of obtaining a fair settlement upon reasonable terms to try and see whether we cannot come to some agreement on the subject. I think the probability of such a settlement being come to depends upon the spirit in which we and in which hon. Gentlemen opposite approach this question. I trust that hon. Gentlemen opposite will not offer resistance to the measure simply because it is proposed by Gentlemen on this side, but will consider it with a view to the public interests, and with a view to the settlement of the matter. I cannot conceive any worse position for hon. Gentlemen opposite as a party either in the country or in the House than for this question to remain upon the table of the House, and to allow it to be a trouble to them whenever they have a chance of attaining power, and to be a stick in the hands of the Liberal party to thrash them with whenever they come into office. I must say I think there is a fund of good sense in this House which would enable us, if we approached it in a proper manner, to settle this question, I expressed my opinion in the early part of this Session, and I adhere to it now, that the Government made a great mistake in the mode in which they first approached this matter; but that, of course, is a question of judgment in which, perhaps, they were as well able to form an opinion as I was. At any rate, that mistake is now remedied—we are now to have the whole scheme before us, and we can now see whether it is possible to come to some common understanding on the subject and arrive at a fair settlement. I beg, in conclusion, to move the adjournment of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn,—(Mr. E. P. Bouverie.)


asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether the Reform Bill for Scotland about to be introduced would, like the Irish Bill, be a complete measure, involving a re-distribution of seats as well as a reduction of the franchise? It was not to be supposed that a re-distribution of seats was not required in Scotland. In Sutherlandshire, for instance, there were only 200 electors, almost all of whom were tenants of one individual. That county might very fairly be united to Caithness-shire, and the Member for Sutherlandshire might with propriety be transferred to the City of Glasgow. He there fore wished to draw the attention of the Lord Advocate to the subject when he introduced the question.


took the opportunity of asking the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer a question on the subject of the Reform Bill. They had heard much talk about standing or falling by the Bill, and when Government had so miserable a majority he thought in his ignorance that they would resign. The speech of the right hon. Gentleman conveyed to his mind the impression that if they went into Committee upon the Bill, and the House in the exercise of its wisdom should agree to an increase in the borough franchise, such a Resolution would be accepted by the Government as fatal to the Bill. He wished to know whether that would be the case or not—whether if the House were to put the borough franchise at £8, the Government would consider such a result as fatal to the Bill, and, therefore, that the natural consequences would follow?


I understand the meaning of standing or falling by the Bill to be this—that as long as the Bill stands we stand. If the Bill falls we fall. But the view we take is that the Bill still stands. With regard to the question of any alterations to be made in the Bill in Committee, I did not intend to convey, and I believe I did not convey, anything as to what clauses we consider important and vital, or what clauses are unimportant. That is a matter which I conceive to be entirely out of the province of the short explanation I have made to-day, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will not draw any inference as to this question from it.


said, he rose, in this rather premature discussion upon the Bill which they had not yet seen, to echo the wishes and the opinions of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie). He trusted that before they again had reason to "destroy their bridges" and to "burn their boats" they should arrive at a satisfactory settlement of the question. If the present opportunity were not made use of, he feared that the consequences might be serious. In his opinion, the party to which he belonged made a great mistake in not going into Committee upon the Reform Bill which was before the House in 1859, and he earnestly hoped that the hon. Gentlemen opposite would not now make a similar mistake.


I wish to say a few words as to the promise which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made to lay before the House some clauses which he will propose to add to the Church Rates Abolition Bill. We have now heard that it will be impossible for him to make his statement before Thursday next, and the Bill for the total Abolition of Church Rates stands for Committee for the following Wednesday. This being so, it will be impossible for the country in this short time to make up their minds upon the matter. If the result of the negotiations between the Government and the hon. Gentleman who brought in the Bill (Mr. Hardcastle) should be that the Government will become responsible for the Bill; and indeed under the circumstances I do not see how it is possible for the Bill of a private Member to be amended by the Government before going into Committee without their making themselves responsible for it, I think that my suggestion is a reasonable one. However that may be, I would entreat the right hon. Gentleman to make some arrangement to give the country time to consider his proposal.


I fully agree with what the noble Lord has stated. I promised that I would state on Thursday what the Government would or would not do in this matter. Nothing would be so objectionable as that we should not give all persons both inside and outside of the House time to consider the clauses proposed to be introduced. I will, therefore, intercede with the hon. Gentleman and endeavour to arrive at some arrangement to secure the object of the noble Lord.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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