HC Deb 05 July 1869 vol 197 cc1184-90

said, he rose to call attention, pursuant to notice, to the effect of the present arrangements for Morning Sittings upon the Business of the House. Previous to 1861, ample time had been afforded to private Members for the discussion of those questions which they desired to propose. In that year the House was induced by Lord Palmerston to give up the Thursdays to Government Business, in exchange for the Fridays, when subjects might be introduced by private Members on the Motion for going into Committee of Supply, instead of, as before, on the Motion of adjournment from Friday till Monday. That state of things continued, without any great inconvenience to independent Members, until the change which was adopted in the Session before last, at the suggestion of his right hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli), who, in proposing that the House should meet for Morning Sittings at two instead of at twelve o'clock, and should sit to seven and re-assemble at nine, instead of sitting till four and re-assembling at six, as in accordance with the previous practice, expressly stated that he had no wish to interfere with the rights of private Members, and that the Government would always undertake to make and to keep a House at nine o'clock. The practical result, however, of the alteration had been that while the Government gained one hour before dinner, during the cream of the day, the time at the disposal of private Members after dinner was shortened. The idea of his right hon. Friend, when the change was made was, that the House when it re-assembled at nine o'clock, and entered upon a discussion, might continue it until two o'clock the next morning; but, on the 8th of last month, when his hon. and learned Friend the Common Serjeant (Mr. T. Chambers) sought to press on his Bill respecting marriage with a deceased wife's sister at half-past twelve o'clock, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department immediately objected to its being proceeded with at so late an hour; although on the previous day his Colleague the President of the Poor Law Board had Contended, when his hon. Friend the Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) protested against his urging forward his Poor Law Bill at a similar hour, that it was by no means too late to go on with the discussion. Now it was quite clear that any person who wished to oppose the progress of a Bill after twelve o'clock had the means of doing so most effectually at his disposal; and, as a matter of fact, private Members could calculate only on having at their command the three hours, from nine till twelve, on those days on which Morning Sittings were held. But there were, independently of that, two other extinguishers put on their privileges. One of these was the practice of "counting out." When the House re-assembled at nine o'clock, there might be a bonâ fide intention on the part of the Government to keep a House; but the good intention was completely frustrated by such Motions as that which had been made on Friday evening last, as soon as the Speaker took the Chair. But he must say that on a recent occasion—when a Motion respecting the Boulogne Harbour stood first on the Paper—he was given to understand that some Members of the Administration had not only connived at, but had actually assisted the efforts that were successfully made to empty the House for a count. It was the duty of the Government, he maintained, not merely to assist in making a "House," but also to set its face against "counts out." Another point to which he wished to call attention was the encroachment as to the period at which Morning Sittings were resorted to. Previous to 1862, they were rarely held before the month of July; and ever since then, with the exception of 1867, they had not commenced until the middle of June. 1867 was exceptional. Morning Sittings commenced that year on the 28th of May. In 1868, they commenced on the 15th of June; but this year they commenced on the 4th of May; and if, in future years this year's precedent were followed, the rights of independent Members would be almost entirely extinguished. They could not expect hon. Members, after sitting five hours, to come down again at nine o'clock for another long sitting, for the sake of the private Motions. The thing was impossible. Human nature could not stand it. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman the First Minister of the Crown would take this matter into consideration, and be prepared, next Session, to introduce a new system. He would content himself with having called attention to the matter, and would not move any Resolution on the subject.


said, that he regretted at the time—as he had done ever since—that the suggestion had not been adopted which he threw out two years ago, for preventing Motions to count until 10 or 15 minutes after the Speaker had taken the chair. Some such provision was absolutely necessary for the protection of the rights of independent Members. He considered it to be decidedly unfair, and an abuse of the Standing Order, that the moment the House had re-assembled the Motion for adjournment should be put; but the only way to prevent the practice was by giving 10 or 15 minutes' grace. He must say, in regard to Friday last, that it was generally understood that there would be no House. He did not say that he was told so by any Member of the Government; but the rumour to that effect was very widely diffused. He was not sure that the whole of the time at the Morning Sittings should be at the command of the Government; and it ought also to be remembered that many private Members who had their own affairs to attend to, were greatly inconvenienced by these regular sittings, which left them no alternative but to neglect their own interests or those of their constituents. Morning Sittings used to be resorted to only exceptionally, and for some special measure. They had now become a recognized procedure, and Members were incapable or unwilling to sit as a rule from two in the afternoon until three o'clock the following morning. If any Motion was made for preventing counts being attempted until 10 or 15 minutes after the Speaker was in the Chair he should gladly support it.


said, he thought Morning Sittings had become an absolute necessity; and much more business was done when the House sat from 2 to 7 than when it sat from 12 to 4. When there was any subject on the Paper of importance there was no difficulty in getting or keeping a House. When the Evening Sittings were protracted till three o'clock in the morning, it was not surprising that occasionally there should be a "count out" from sheer exhaustion; but "counts out" were no more frequent now than formerly. He hoped the grievance would be remedied, and that the Speaker would give his attention to the subject.


said, he entirely agreed with the observations which had been made by the hon. Member for the City of London (Mr. Crawford). These Morning Sittings, recurring so frequently as they now did, were unquestionably productive of much inconvenience to private Members who had large businesses of their own as well as the public affairs to look after. He hoped some better arrangement would be come to.


said, he admitted that when the Government were under an implied or actual engagement to keep a House, it would be a virtual failure in. their engagement if Members of the Government took any part in promoting a count out; but he certainly was not aware that any such case had occurred. With respect to last week he might say the case of private Members, as compared with the Government, was not a hard one—private Members having occupied fully three-fourths, and the Government only one-fourth of the time. With regard to Morning Sittings, he thought the suggestion of his hon. Friend the Member for London (Mr. Crawford) well deserving consideration; but he would not now presume to give an opinion upon it. The difficulty really lay in this—that with the growing demands of the business of the Empire the House of Commons, which attempted to do, and did more than any legislative assembly that ever sat since the days of Adam, wanted more hours in the day, more days in the week, more weeks in the month, and more months in the year, and until some such device could be adopted perfect satisfaction would not be given. According to the theory of the House there were five days for business, of which three were appropriated to independent Members and only two to the Government. Now, was that a fair division of the time of the House relatively to the respective responsibilities of the Government and independent Members? The Government were charged necessarily with the Votes in Supply, and he thought he put it moderately when he said that nine-tenths of the legislation of the House, looking to numbers and importance, passed through the hands of the Government. If that was so, there must be a discrepancy between the actual results and the time—only two days a week being allowed to the Government and three days to private Members. All who had held Office must admit that the Two o'clock Sittings had eminently contributed to the progress of public business. He was far from wishing that private Members should suffer unduly in consequence of that arrangement. There was a Morning Sitting on Tuesday; and it was rarely that the House broke up before two on the nights when they met at nine o'clock. Probably the Speaker and the Clerk at the table who assisted him were the chief sufferers by that system; but he did not think the time available for the Motions and Bills brought forward by private Members had undergone any very great reduction. When the time absorbed by the Government was spoken of, it should be remembered that the portion of the business of the country which the Government was expected and required to transact was increasing from year to year. Again, in the case of important measures brought forward by private Members, like the University Tests Bill, for example, the Government were called upon to facilitate their discussion; and in the case of others the Government had often to take them into its own hands when they had reached a certain state of ripeness. He did not disguise that to some extent, though he thought to a very limited extent, the time at the disposal of private Members was abridged; but then the only alternative open to them was a somewhat longer Session of Parliament. If hon. Gentlemen were willing that another fortnight should be added, on the average, to each Session, then, no doubt, the Two o'clock Sittings might be given up; and it would not be for the Government to resist such an arrangement. If, as he believed, they had no choice but between comparative inconveniences, he did hope that hon. Members would be disposed to abate something, not only of their personal convenience, but even of their personal convenience when it stood in some connection with public duty, for the sake of their common desire to do what was best on the whole to expedite the enormous mass of business which the House had to transact every Session, without utterly overtaxing the physical as well as the mental strength of its Members.


said, he thought that the practice of holding Morning Sittings at two o'clock and meeting again at nine might be confined to Tuesdays. Then private Members would be certain of having the Friday for the Questions and Motions which they desired to bring forward. He thought, also, that the Government should introduce the Estimates at an earlier period of the Session than is now done; and if before Easter, or immediately after that date, the House knew that they would have to meet for four hours or so in the morning to discuss the Estimates, he believed the result would be more satisfactory both to the Government and to independent Members. He hoped the First Minister of the Crown would consider that suggestion during the approaching Recess.


said, that during the last Session of the last Parliament a measure of great importance, and one that was supported by large and constant majorities in that House (the Metropolitan Foreign Cattle Market Bill), happening to be down on the Paper for a Nine o'clock Sitting, was counted out by a Member of the present Government. He should look with some dread on the adoption of Morning Sittings even earlier in the Session than they had commenced this year; the system once begun would never be given up. While admitting that most measures of real importance ought to originate with the Government, he yet thought that private Members, who occasionally attempted to bring forward measures, ought to feel some certainty that they would have a fair chance of carrying them through successfully. He was inclined to support the suggestion of the hon. Member for London (Mr. Crawford) in reference to "counting."