HC Deb 21 June 1870 vol 202 cc704-13

, in rising to call attention to the unusually late Sittings of the House during the present Session, and to the necessity of imposing some check upon, proceeding with Opposed Business after 12 o'clock, said, it was a subject really interesting to them all, and in which great issues were involved. He believed, when they came to think of it, the length of time the House had sat after midnight during the present Session would surprise even those who were most regular in their attendance. The Motion with which he should conclude was this— That it is undesirable, for the efficient discharge of Public Business, that Opposed Business should be brought on after Twelve o'clock at night. He limited himself to Opposed Business. He did not propose to say, as on Wednesday, whenever the hand of the clock was at a certain figure, discussion should necessarily stop or a Division be prevented being taken; but he did say it was incompatible with their health and strength that they should be called on to discuss disputed Bills, and to transact business after the small hours of the morning. In March, 1867, the House sat 10 hours 45 minutes after midnight; in April of the same year the House sat 10 hours 45 minutes after midnight; and in May 19 hours 15 minutes. In March, 1868, the House sat 10 hours and a quarter; in April 9 hours and three quarters; and in May 16 hours. In March, 1869, they sat 12 hours and 45 minutes after midnight; in April, 20 hours 45 minutes; and in May, 12 hours; while in March of the present year they sat 17 hours; in April, 17 hours 15 minutes after midnight; and in May, 1870, 32 hours and 30 minutes. In the three months of 1867 the House sat 40 hours 45 minutes after midnight; in 1868, 36 hours after midnight; in 1869, 45 hours 30 minutes after midnight; and in 1870, during the same three months, the House sat 66 hours 45 minutes after midnight. He asked them to consider within their own knowledge what had been the effect of these late sittings on the health of public men. The absence of one right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bright) had been alluded to that evening; and the cause of that absence was in no small degree attributable to the late hours of the House. Another right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Childers) was absent from the Treasury Bench through illness, brought on, he believed, in the same way. On May 2–3 the House sat till 2 o'clock; on the 3rd till 1; on the 5th-6th till 2; on the 6th-7th two hours after midnight; on the 9th-10th two hours after midnight; on the 10th, till 1 45; on the 12th-13th, till 2 o'clock; on the 13th-14th, till 1 45; on the 16th-17th, till 1 45; on the 20th-21st, till 3; on the 23rd-24th, till 1 15; on the 24th-25th, till 2; on the 26th-27th, till a quarter to 2; on the 27th-28th, till 2 o'clock; on the 30th-31st, till 2 45, meeting again at 12; and on the 31st, the House sat till 1 15. They all owed a deep debt of gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman who generally presided over their deliberations—the first Commoner in England, and they ought not to put a pressure upon his health, his time, and his energies, which, in his (Mr. Gilpin's) opinion, was wholly unnecessary and, therefore, wholly unjustifiable. In addition to the right hon. Gentleman, there were the clerks at the Table and the Sergeant-at-Arms and Deputy, whose attendance at this time of the Session was frequently required both morning and night. He had intended to call the attention of the House to several suggested modes of economizing time; but if what he had said did not recommend itself to the judgment of hon. Members, he could not suggest anything that was likely to enforce that for which he argued. As a rule, the business that was done after 12 o'clock or 1 o'clock in the morning was badly done, and he could say from personal experience that attendance at those late hours was very detrimental to health; for, having been 14 years in the House, he could not now remain until the small hours of the morning, or, if need be, "go home with the milk in the morning," in order that some hon. Members might divide over and over again as they did on Saturday. Looking back over the Divisions which had been taken after midnight he found that, as a rule, only 60 or 70 Members were then present, and that number, he contended, was not sufficient to despatch the public business of a country which returned 650 representatives. He put this matter to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, who had it in his power to do much, for the Government were to some extent responsible for the extreme pressure caused by too much being put within the compass of a comparatively short time. Having sat some years upon the Treasury Bench he knew what it was to come there to "make a House and to cheer the Minister." He asked the right hon. Gentleman to consent to accept this Motion so far as he possibly could in order to bring about such a state of affairs as would enable hon. Members to transact Public Business at a right time, and in a proper way, having due regard to the health of those who guided the destinies of this country, and who were not returned to Parliament to lose their lives by premature decay. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.


said, he ventured to second the Motion as one who had sat in the House formerly, who saw what was going on, and who had heard their proceedings after midnight and during the early hours of the morning severely censured and even stigmatized as a disgrace to the country. He could not help concurring in that observation. It was, in his opinion, most improper and embarrassing to see so many Motions and Orders of the Day placed on the Paper for consideration on any one day or night. Private Members who were opposed to any of them were unable to ascertain whether or when such questions would be brought on. That sort of contrivance had been frequently resorted to, in order to pass a measure in a thin or exhausted House, so that when both the public and absent Members rose next morning they were astonished to hear what had occurred. The real question was, whether the House should sit from 4 o'clock in the afternoon until any time the following morning, in order to meet the caprice, the fancy, or the disposition, or encourage the efforts of official or private Members, who might be desirous of slipping a Bill through the House of Commons, to its reproach and discredit, for it too frequently happened that hon. Members were obliged to confess to their constituents—who were criticizing their proceedings—that they did not know what measures had thus been sanctioned. In the time of Lord Palmerston or other Prime Ministers it was generally understood that, as a rule, no Opposed Business should be brought on after 12 o'clock. Mr. Brotherton was the first Gentleman who suggested that arrangement, and although he was laughed at at the outset, he was ultimately treated with that respect which he deserved. He could recollect when it was the general rule of the able and leading men to accept invitations to dinner only on the two leisure evenings—"Wednesdays and Saturdays. ["Divide!"] It was, no doubt, unpalatable to modern Members of Parliament to hear those truths, because the course now adopted was to accept an invitation to dinner for any day; and, consequently, common courtesy did not allow them to leave the dinner table before 10 and 11 o'clock, and the remark had been rather disrespectfully made, that many who arrived at those late hours appeared to have come down to the House simply "to make a night of it," and for this working Members of the House had to suffer. He asked the House to look through the names of the last Parliament and this, and to see how many estimable and able men had died or become unable to continue the work. Patriotic representatives had been heard to declare that rather than neglect their duties, or desert their post, they would perish on the floor of the House; but those heroic days had passed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is undesirable, for the efficient discharge of Public Business, that Opposed Business should be brought on after Twelve o'clock at night."—(Mr. Gilpin.)


proposed, as an Amendment, that no Opposed Business should be taken after 1 o'clock; and his reason for moving the Amendment was, that discussions on great questions were adjourned at 12 o'clock; and after then a number of unopposed Motions might be rattled off in an hour, and business be thereby advanced a stage without detriment to hon. Members' health.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "Twelve" and insert the word "One,"—(Mr. Collins,)—instead thereof.


pointed out that one great inconvenience of protracting the debates to a very late hour was that the newspapers were necessarily unable to give full reports of the proceedings. He wished to repeat the suggestion he made to the Prime Minister a day or two ago, that when it was intended to have a Morning Sitting, from 2 o'clock till 7, notice thereof should be given at half-past 4 on the previous afternoon. Members would then be able to post their letters and make arrangements for the following day.


said, he thought it would be imprudent for the House to pass a positive Resolution on this subject, for by doing so the House might impede business instead of facilitating it. Such a Resolution would be an instrument of delay in the hands of Members who wished to arrest the progress of a measure. The real source of the difficulty which was so universally felt was the enormous pressure of Public Business. Indeed, he believed there was no Representative Assembly in the world which got through so large an amount of work as the House of Commons. Hon. Members, it was true, occasionally grumbled at the inconvenient pressure of business; but they were incessantly urging the Government to introduce measures on various subjects. As a partial remedy for a difficulty which was to a certain extent unavoidable, he would recommend the appointment of a Committee to consider whether the business could not be in some way divided, and in particular, he would suggest the advantage of an arrangement similar to that adopted in the French Legislative Chamber for referring certain Bills to sectional committees, instead of requiring them to be dealt with in detail by a Committee of the Whole House. To prohibit business during the small hours would practically be tantamount to stopping the greater part of the business altogether. The House of Commons had two separate functions. The early part of the night was devoted to debating subjects of the vastest importance; but the great bulk of the business was transacted at a later hour, when a large number of Members who took an interest only in subjects of paramount importance had retired. He would here remark that a House consisting of 650 Members would be a most unmanageable body for discussing the details of ordinary business, which could be far better considered by a House of 100 or 150 Members. The amount of work got through in the course of a Session by a limited number of Members during the small hours of the morning was really surprising, and though it might sometimes appear to be hurried through in a higgledy-piggledy fashion it was, on the whole, performed with marvellous skill and accuracy. This was due, in great part, to the attention and laborious industry of the officers of the House—not only the gentlemen who sat at the Table, but also those employed in the offices outside, who took care that no great mistakes were made. All these matters might well be considered by a Select Committee; but he entreated the House not to tie their hands by passing a Resolution which might be productive of great inconvenience.


, as one of the private Members who on more than one occasion had met with great indulgence at the hands of the House, regarded with some concern a proposal which, if carried out, would destroy their power of taking a share in the legislation of the country. If an hour were fixed for stopping the further progress of business, a faction might resort to the practice of talking out any measure they disapproved.


said, he thought the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) was perfectly justified in saying that the House could not abandon its present mode of proceeding without considerable inconvenience. The best mitigation of the evil with which they had to deal was to be found in the exercise of good sense and forbearance on the part of hon. Members. Protracted sittings to late hours were, no doubt, deleterious to the health of hon. Members, and injurious to the efficient discharge of the Public Business, and he believed more business was scamped in the early hours of the morning than was at all creditable to the reputation of the House of Commons. The House would, however, in his opi- nion, exercise a wise discretion if they were to leave the matter in the hands of Her Majesty's Government.


said, he was sorry to say that he was more sensible of the difficulties of the question than acquainted with any mode of solving them which would bear the test of rigid inquiry. It was only by the exercise of forbearance that he thought any satisfactory understanding or course of action could be arrived at. There was, in his opinion, much weight in what had fallen from his right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock, and the blame lay not with any Member or any class of Members that the House had frequently to sit so late, but was rather attributable to the mass of business which had to be discharged. Of course, portions of the time of the House were often occupied unnecessarily, and he himself was, perhaps, one of the greatest offenders in that respect; but freedom of speech was a thing which the House very jealously cherished. It was, however, desirable, if possible, to impose some check on late sittings; but there would be great inconvenience in passing a Resolution with that object. Even had the Resolution of his hon. Friend been worded more stringently, to the effect that no business should be proceeded with after a certain hour, the first thing the House might do on the very night after its passing, might be to break through it. If, on the other hand, a Resolution, not absolutely binding in its terms by being converted into a Standing Order, were agreed to, it would amount to nothing more than a mere understanding. That being so, he thought hon. Members would be disposed to come to the conclusion that such an understanding was the best mode of dealing with the difficulty to which it could have recourse. In contributing towards carrying out that view he would, so far as the Government was concerned, be prepared to suggest that Opposed Business should not be proceeded with after half-past 12 o'clock, except under special circumstances. A little difference ought, however, he thought, to be made in the case of private Members. They ought to have a little more latitude, and they might very fairly be allowed to exercise the privilege of proceeding with their business up to 1 o'clock. Such a proposal would, he believed, meet, in the view of the highest authority in the House, the reason and justice of the case. In reply to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate), he might observe that he looked upon his suggestion, that notice should be given of the meetings at 2 o'clock, as necessary when these meetings were only occasional, and not regular, as at present, for the discussion of the Education Bill. Should there be an intermission and renewal of those sittings during the present Session, he should take care that notice should be given.


suggested that when the month of June arrived in each Session, the Bills of private Members which had received a second reading, and might have been referred to a Select Committee, should be taken before the Notices of Motion on Tuesdays, so that they might go up in good time to the House of Lords.


pointed out that the difficulties of the case might be met if hon. Members would only make short speeches. For his own part, he never made a long speech. It would be well, too, he contended, if the Government would use their influence to stop over-legislation, for as things went on at present it would seem as if nothing which existed was right. There should, in his opinion, be more real and less sham legislation. As to the late hours to which the House sat, he would only say that his own habits when at home led him to go to bed at 10 o'clock every night. Owing, however, to the different system which he was obliged to adopt during the Session, it was only from the 1st of August to the middle of February he got the amount of sleep which he required. It was all very well for single men like the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins) not to care about staying up late because they had no attractions at home; but he was entirely opposed to the system, and he therefore hoped his hon. Friend would press his Motion.


said, he was afraid hon. Members must make up their minds to have either long sittings or a long Session. He was for working hard in order to shorten the Session; and, therefore, he should oppose both the Motion and the Amendment.


said, he wished to get a further declaration from the Government that they would use the consider- able influence they possessed to induce private Members not to bring forward Opposed Business after 1 o'clock. [Cries of "12."] He would say 1 o'clock, rather than not carry his Motion. The right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) had hardly dealt fairly with him, for he never proposed that an important discussion should be cut short; but what he proposed was that new and Opposed Business should not be brought forward. Unless he could have a fuller declaration from the Government he would divide the House. He had designedly put the Resolution in such a shape that it might become the duty of the Government to form a Resolution upon it, and he did not mean to bind their hands beyond a certain point. He regretted the absence of three of the leading Members of the Opposition, who had expressed to him very strong opinions on the subject. With the leave of the House he would adopt the Amendment and say 1 o'clock. ["No, no!"] Well, as his supporters were disposed to try to get 12 o'clock, he would abide by his first proposal.


said, he did not think, as Mr. Brotherton's efforts to close debates at 12 o'clock never succeeded, that such a proposal was likely to succeed now. After what had been said on the part of the Government he must vote against the Motion.

Question put, "That the word 'Twelve' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 83; Noes 104: Majority 21.

On Question, "That the word 'One' stand part of the Motion,"


objected to drawing a hard and fast line on this question, which would only end, as often on a Wednesday evening, by having a measure talked out.


said, that as one of the Tellers in the last Division he would also object to a hard and fast line.


objected that there was no analogy between his Motion and that of a Wednesday evening, for it was now proposed, not to stop a discussion at once, but not to take up a new subject after that hour.


reminded the hon. Member that it was quite possible to talk out a measure by keeping up a discussion on the previous subject.


said, he had suggested that the time should be half-past 12 o'clock, after which no opposed Government Business should be commenced, and now the hon. Member kindly proposed to make the Government a present of an additional half-hour; but he could not support the proposition, as he felt the inconvenience of the House binding itself by a Resolution on the subject.


said, he thought the House ought to be satisfied with the promise of the right hon. Gentleman not to take opposed Government Business after half-past 12 o'clock, except in a case of great urgency.

Question put, "That the word 'One' be there inserted."

The House divided:—Ayes 76; Noes 94: Majority 18.


then called attention to the fact that the House had struck the word "twelve" out of the Resolution, and now refused to insert the word "one" for the purpose of filling up the blank. The Motion had, consequently, become a mutilated Motion.

Original Question, as amended, proposed.

Whereupon Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Viscount Galway.)


said, he thought that in the present state of the question the most proper thing for him to do was to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Original Question, by leave, withdrawn.

  2. c713