HC Deb 19 February 1868 vol 190 cc941-52

Order for Second Reading read.


, in rising to move that the Bill be now read the second time, said, it had three distinct objects. The first was to make the day after Christmas Day, commonly called St. Stephen's Day, a Bank holyday; the next was to enable the Queen in Council, by Royal Proclamation, to make a Bank holyday either for the whole country or for any particular part of it, without the necessity of obtaining an Act of Parliament, which was at present required; and the third was to make bills of exchange and promissory notes which fell due upon Sunday, payable on Monday instead of, as now, on Saturday, and those which fell due upon a holyday payable on the day after, instead of the day before. In respect of the first object, he believed there was no substantial objection to the Bill. The general feeling, inside the House and out of it, was that the day after Christmas Day should be made a Bank holyday. Hon. Members were aware that the day after Christmas Day was becoming more and more a general holyday for the whole kingdom. The holyday was celebrated in all the public offices, except, perhaps, the Customs, and he trusted that soon it would be made one there. In the columns of The Times at Christmas an immense number of commercial houses announced that they would be closed the day after Christmas Day. It was, however, impossible for the banks to close without an Act of Parliament, and hence the necessity for this Bill. This holyday was its chief object, and he did not think that any reasonable objection could be raised to it. The bank clerks were a hard worked body of men and ought to have secured to them any reasonable relaxation, and considering the few holydays they got as a body, it was not too much to give them the day after Christmas Day. It was an old saying that Christmas came only once a year. He had presented a petition for this holyday signed by 3,500 bankers' clerks, and another petition had been presented which was signed by influential bankers in different parts of the country. On the other hand, there had been an entire absence of opposition to the Bill in the organs of public opinion. A banker's clerk could hardly enjoy Christmas Day if he was obliged to be at the bank by nine o'clock next morning; and it was utterly impossible at present for him to join friends in the country. As to the making of a Bank holyday without an Act of Parliament, no such holydays could be made at present except on days of Public Fast or Thanksgiving. It often happened that it was advisable or necessary on a particular occasion that there should be a holyday in the whole country or in some part of it; but the holy day could not be made unless Parliament was sitting. On the occasion of the funeral of the Duke of Wellington public feeling was so strongly in favour of a holyday that Government brought in and Parliament passed a Bill making the day a Bank holyday in London and within ten miles of the City. The Government were able to do that because Parliament happened to be sitting in November, otherwise a Bank holyday could not have been obtained. He therefore proposed that the Queen in Council should have the power to proclaim a Bank holyday in London, in Dublin, or in Edinburgh without the necessity of having recourse to an Act of Parliament and the House would feel satisfied that the discretion was not likely to be improperly exercised. From what he had heard he believed there was some difference of opinion about the last part of the Bill, which would make promissory notes and bills of exchange payable the day after instead of the day before Sunday or a holyday. He was quite prepared to accede to a suggestion for further inquiry before that part of the Bill was adopted. It might be said that he proposed a radical change in the commercial law of England; but it was only in England and in France that payment on the day before the holy-day was required. Payment the day after was the rule in Holland, in Russia, and in Germany. In 1847 Prussia proposed a commercial code for Germany. It was considered at a meeting of delegates from Northern States held at Leipsic in October, 1847, and in November, 1848, the code was adopted by legislative enactment at Frankfort. Since then the code had been adopted in thirty-seven different States, including Hamburg. By that code bills falling due upon a holyday or a Sunday were made payable on the day after. France and England were, so far, exceptions to the rest of Europe in this respect. Even in France, under the Code Napolêon, although bills were payable the day before, they could not be protested until the day after a holyday; here they might even be protested the day before. In America the law was peculiar. There might be days of grace according to agreement between the parties. If there were, and the last day of grace was a Sunday, the bill was payable on the Saturday; but if there were not, the bill was not payable until the Monday. It was no great revolutionary change to adapt the law of England in this respect to that of the majority of European States. It was a curious thing that even here, although promissory notes falling due on the Sunday were payable on the Saturday, the interest of bonds or debentures under like circumstances did not fall due until Monday. The Bill would make the law alike with respect to bills of exchange, notes, and bonds. If two days' bills were to be paid on one day, it was much more convenient that they should be paid on the Monday than that they should be paid on the Saturday, which was more or less of a half-holyday. In some parts of England the banks closed in the middle of the Saturday, and in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast they closed at one o'clock. A great number of commercial bills fell due on the 4th, and when that was Sunday, Saturday's business was very heavy. It had been said that if St. Stephen's Day were made a Bank holyday three close days might come together—Christmas Day, Saturday, and Sunday; but that could occur only once in every five or six years; and the objection to it was not so great as it otherwise would be when it was remembered that there was a general suspension of business at that period.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir Colman O'Loghlen.)


said, the hon. Baronet was kind enough to speak to the President of the Board of Trade and himself on the subject of this Bill. They informed the hon. Baronet that it was not the intention of the Government to oppose the second reading; because they considered the subject was a fair one for consideration, and there had been an expression favourable to the hon. Baronet's opinion out of doors; but, at the same time, they guarded themselves carefully from saying that they approved of the details of the Bill. Since that time he had made it his business to inquire what was the general feeling of the commercial public in the City; indeed, he saw an influential deputation on the subject an hour ago, He found very great variety of opinion with respect to the measure, and as the hon. Baronet had clearly stated the arguments in favour of his proposals, he would mention very briefly some of the objections to the Bill passing in its present shape. In the first place, the provisions with regard to Christmas Day and Good Friday could not apply to Scotland, because those days were not observed north of the Tweed; and he believed that the practice of Edinburgh as to fast-days and holydays differed from that of the rest of Scotland. Well, then, suppose the Bill limited to England, or England and Ireland. In Scotland, bills due on Sunday were payable on Saturday. He would take the case of a trader in Scotland—and the same might be said of a foreigner, at least of a Frenchman—having to pay a bill on a Sunday—that is, on a Saturday—and expecting a remittance to enable him to do so on account of a Bill due to him in England on the same day. But if that Sunday was the day before Christmas Day, he would not under this Bill get his money till the Wednesday, so that he would have to provide, it might be said, 40s. in the pound in the interval. It was a serious thing for a man not to get his money until four days after he expected it. Again, it had been represented to him by bankers that there would be immense inconvenience in large establishments in crowding into one day the work of four; and it must be remembered that though this was called by some a merchants' question, it was one of great consequence to bankers. The merchant advised the bill, but the hanker had the trouble of paying it. With respect to holydays by Royal Proclamation, it might seem clumsy that an Act of Parliament should have to be passed to enable these to be kept as close holydays; and it was, of course, impossible to pass such an Act when Parliament was not sitting, as would, under ordinary circumstances, have been the case at the time of the Duke of Wellington's funeral. But, at the same time, there was some advantage in submitting such a question to the review of Parliament. It was becoming the fashion to give more holydays than formerly, and it had been urged, though he did not insist on the argument, that the practice might be extended till considerable inconvenience arose. It had been suggested to take a middle course, and provide that these should be holydays except for clearinghouse purposes—that was, except for paying bills—and that not more than two should be so proclaimed in the year. He found a more general concurrence in the proposal to make bills falling due on Sunday payable on Monday, as a matter of convenience, and for the sake of the half-holyday; because Saturday was now scarcely a half-holyday in banks, and certainly not when it was the 3rd or 4th of the month. Moreover, it being a short day of business, small traders, who had to run about here and there to collect money to meet bills, were very often put to great straits. On the whole, the opinion of those whom he had consulted agreed that these questions had better be referred to a Select Committee, in order that the balance of advantage or disadvantage arising from the change might be inquired into. He understood from the hon. Baronet that he assented to this course. There were two other points akin to the subject-matter of the Bill which were also of great importance. The first was the abolition of days of grace, which he believed had taken place in every country, or nearly every country, except England. The object of days of grace seemed to have ceased in these days of telegraphy and acceleration of mails. The other was the practice of noting bills on the day on which they fell due. The practice of noting bills was rather curious, and perhaps the House would allow him briefly to describe it. Unpaid bills came back from the clearinghouse at five in the evening to the banks to which they belonged, they went through the banker's book, and were placed in the hands of a notary, who sorted them into districts or "walks," and committed them to clerks, who took them, presented them at the banks at which they were made payable, and then applied to the acceptor at his place of business. This happened long after office hours—any time, in fact, before 12 o'clock at night. The clerk, of course, found no one either at the bank or at the place of business except perhaps an old woman. He went next day to the bank with his notarial ticket attached to the bill, for which he charged 1s. 6d., and this became the legal evidence for the protest which ensued. This operation seemed very absurd; and it had been proposed to extend the time for noting bills to 12 at noon on the following day, by which time he was told many bills would be taken up and expense saved. Attempts had from time to time been made to legislate on both these questions, but had not been successful. The deputation he saw that day expressed a strong wish that these points should be inquired into by the Select Committee on this Bill; and, if the House agreed, he should be willing to move that the order of reference include them. He found a general wish for a full inquiry before legislation on these matters, and a feeling that we ought not for the sake of mere symmetry, and unless the advantage gained be great, to change ancient customs, because any change, even for the better, in the commercial practice of an old country like this must be productive of disturbance and inconvenience.


said, that a very large question had arisen, out of what was originally a very small one. The origin of the Bill was the desire to make the day after Christmas Day and other holydays perfectly close; but that was a matter very distinct from the question raised by the Vice President of the Board of Trade as to general legislation on the subject of bills of exchange. As regarded a bank holyday on the day after Christmas Day and Good Friday, there was much force in the objection based upon the Scotch law. There were other objections besides that. The Bill professed to deal only with questions of banking; but it would affect many other branches of commerce. It was a serious thing to stop the commerce of the country even for one day. One question which would arise was that of insurances. What was to cover the insurance of ships announced by telegraph, supposing there were three or four close days together? It might be said that insurance was not banking; but you could not stop half the business of the city without stopping the whole, and the laudable intention of increasing holydays must embrace all branches of business. So long as the mails ran it would be difficult to keep a close holyday. The case of Scotland had been mentioned; but it would be the same with foreign transactions. It might happen that remittances would have to be made to foreign creditors on Saturday, while, owing to the intervening holydays, the money due to the same firm by English debtors might not be received until the following Wednesday. He would not encourage the proclamation of holydays by the Queen, for unless the days to be proclaimed were known long beforehand they might cause great inconvenience, and perhaps, in some cases failure, owing to the disappointment of money not coming in on the day when it was due, through the action of Parliament enacting that money should be paid the day after instead of the day before. He thought it most desirable that the question with respect to bills of exchange should receive the fullest investigation, for it was one infinitely more difficult than might appear at first sight. With regard to the question of making bills due on Sunday payable on the day after, instead of the day before, there was some force in what fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade, but it should be remembered that Monday was one of the busiest days in the London banks. On Monday, there are generally two days' mails bringing two days' bills, which involved a great deal of additional work, and, therefore, by attempting to relieve Saturday, a burden might be thrown on the Monday which it would not be easy to bear. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Stephen Cave) had raised the important question of referring to the Select Committee on this Bill the general subject of alterations that might be made in the law on bills of exchange. He would suggest that if we were setting about changing our laws with respect to bills of exchange, it would be exceedingly desirable to do so in concert with foreign countries. Bills of exchange were the means by which our business with foreign countries was conducted, and the greatest confusion might arise from a difference in our laws upon the subject, and those of foreign nations. The laws with regard to the endorsing, noting, and protesting of bills, differed in France, Germany, England, and other countries; and the consequence was that, in many cases, people receiving bills from abroad, scarcely knew what measures they ought to take to secure their payment. As the Board of Trade had taken advantage of some opportunities for assimilating the law of this country to that of foreign nations, he would suggest that it might be opportune, in dealing with the subject before the House, to see whether, by common consent, some fairly universal system might not be adopted. Such a course would not, he thought, interfere with the investigation by the Select Committee, which might elicit some valuable information on this subject. He should deprecate any attempt at legislation without the fullest previous investigation.


said, he had been anxious to hear what were the reasons for the proposed changes, for he had heard a great deal against it from persons of very high authority. The hon. and learned Baronet had said that his Bill might be called a revolution. He was not going to object to it on that account; he only thought it an imperfect and useless measure. The Vice President of the Board of Trade had said that in a commercial country there was an evil in change unless it were counterbalanced by immediate or great pro- spective benefit. He must say he saw no advantage in the proposal of the hon. Baronet. The Bill contained two principles—the compulsory making of holydays without any disturbance of the rate of remuneration, and the postponement of the payment of just debts. The hon. Baronet proposed that Bills should, in some cases, be paid four days after they were now payable, but that might become a very serious matter indeed. There was no doubt that the transfer of business from Saturday to Monday would entail enormous additional labour on the banks. He confessed he saw no ground for a Committee of inquiry. It was a small and petty measure as proposed, and the Government might have fairly accepted the opinion of those most interested—the gentleman at the head of the great banks. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Goschen) had suggested an inquiry into the whole of our commercial system of bills of exchange and international relations. But if they were going to propose a new code of commerce what an absurdly vast inquiry to enter into in connection with such a petty measure as this. The British Code of Commerce was founded on the decisions of the Courts of Law, and there was no better code of commerce in the world. But if we were to enter upon an inquiry in the first place whether we were to change the days of grace, and then whether our system of endorsement and all our usages of commerce were in conformity with those of the rest of the world, we should enter not only into a vast and endless field of investigation, but throw an injurious uncertainty into our commercial relations. The hon. and learned Baronet was for postponing payment, but the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President was for anticipating it and doing away altogether with the days of grace. But such changes would, in point of fact, be very mischievous; they would derange commercial usages abroad, where they reckoned on the three days after the bills were due. His right hon. Friend was of opinion that on Saturday it would be more convenient for the small trader to put off cashing his bills until Monday, because Saturday was a short day. But, however short a day it was, the petty trader, in all probability, would find it more convenient to have his bills cashed. The hon. and learned Gentleman had said that he had got 3,000 or 4,000 petitioners for an increase of bank holydays. He had no doubt of it. It was easy to find petitioners for such a purpose, and if it were proposed to get up a petition for an increase of the Easter and Whitsuntide holydays of that House, he was not sure that it would not receive a great number of signatures. The gentlemen who had signed the petition for this Bill thought that they could do less work for the same pay. But he did not know what benefit was proposed by increasing the number of compulsory holydays, and it was well known that the paucity of holydays, in Protestant countries, was regarded as giving them a commercial advantage. He was sorry that the Vice President of the Board of Trade had given his consent to a Committee, but he hoped that they would not have to go into an inquiry as to our commercial code.


said, it was a great advantage to the House to hear upon this subject the opinion of the first commercial authority in this country. As far as he was acquainted with the views of the banking interest, they were most anxious to relieve their clerks and give them as many holydays as they could; and if the Bill had been limited to the power of the Privy Council to grant holydays, he would not be disposed to offer any opposition. What bankers felt alarmed at was the change of day upon which mercantile obligations were payable. It was now well known that bills coming payable on holydays must be paid the day before. In Scotland the practice was the same, both as regarded general holydays and certain Church holydays. He had made inquiries about the American usage, and he found that almost all the States followed closely the custom derived from the mother country. Then it should not be forgotten that the commercial regulations of France were derived from the Code Napoléon which was compiled by men who had examined carefully all the customs of society, and a part of that Code was that bills payable on any recognized holyday should be paid the day before. He believed that in every part of Europe in which the Code Napoléon prevailed the custom as to the payment of bills was the same; but his hon. and learned Friend (Sir Colman O'Loghlen) had been compelled to cite Prussia and Russia as authorities to this country. Now, if the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade and the Committee of Inquiry were of opinion that, with due regard to the interests of commerce, the custom of pay- ing bills should be altered to the day after instead of the day before they were due, he was quite prepared to give his consent; but he would say that when a man of honour and commercial reputation had given his bill, and found that it could not be paid on the day it was due, he would feel it, not merely a matter of commercial usage, but of personal honour, to go at once and pay the Bill the day before, and that had been the usage of this country ever since it had become a commercial nation.


said, he decidedly objected to the extension of the Bill to Scotland, for the simple reason that the great mass of the people of Scotland being Presbyterians know nothing at all about Good Friday, and he might almost say they knew still less of St. Stephen's Day. He confessed, for his own part, that he did not know there was such a Saint's day in the calendar until he heard the hon. Gentleman name it. To propose to suspend business for two days, as to which the mass of the population of Scotland were utterly ignorant—not even knowing when they occurred—seemed to him most preposterous. Suppose a man went to the Bank on Good Friday to get a remittance, the bill being due in London, what was he to do when he found the doors closed? It was most objectionable to try and force a practice of this kind upon a people who had no sympathies with it, or knowledge of the reasons why these particular days should be set apart.


said, he thought the Government had taken a wise course in referring the Bill to a Select Committee, and he hoped the inquiry would be limited, as far as possible, to the scope of the measure. The existence of bank holydays affected a larger number of the community than might be supposed in the first instance, and it would not be right to set the convenience of clerks against that of the public at large. One of the principal points for the Committee to consider would be how utterly impossible it would be, when there was an accumulation of business for three or four days, for the clerks to perform their duties. With regard to establishing a holyday by proclamation of the Queen in Council, he was inclined to think that that part of the Bill might be very fairly adopted, because on more than one occasion some inconvenience had arisen owing to the necessity of passing an Act of Parliament for the purpose.


said, he assented to the proposal that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. With regard to Scotland, it would be easy to make any exceptions which were thought necessary or desirable in the Bill. The holydays at present were Good Friday and Christmas Day, and the Bill only proposed to take one additional day—the day after Christmas. With respect to three days' bills falling due on that day, the slight inconvenience which might be created would only happen once every five years.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.