HC Deb 13 February 1871 vol 204 cc182-93

, in moving that a Select Committee be appointed to consider the best means of promoting the Despatch of Public Business in this House, said, as he had already detained the House at perhaps too great length, he would take care now not to fall into a similar error. He thought there was such a general concurrence as to the necessity of appointing this Committee that it would be best to avoid on the present occasion all discussion as to details, and he would merely remind hon. Members that the proposal had grown out of an occasion of a very grave nature. On a subject of a most critical character which arose for discussion in the course of last year they had the spectacle of Members rising in their places to require the withdrawal of Strangers. Some approved the proceeding on the part of Members who so used their privilege, others questioned the propriety of it; but almost everyone owned that it created an absolute necessity for the consideration of the subject. The general pressure of business on the House made it also desirable that a Committee should be appointed, who would have an opportunity of ascertaining the opinions of the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair, who was the highest authority, and other high authorities connected with the working and management of the business of the House, and he had therefore great confidence in proposing the Motion of which he had given Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the best means of promoting the Despatch of Public Business in this House."—(Mr. Gladstone.)


rose to move an Amendment to the effect that it is not expedient to restrict further the privileges afforded to private Members by the present arrangements for the business of the House. As it had fallen to his lot last year to do his utmost to prevent the rights of private Members from being infringed upon, he had felt it his duty to place this Amendment upon the Paper for the purpose of obtaining some expression of opinion to the effect that, if any change was to be made, those rights and privileges which rendered that House the most respected of all popular Assemblies should in no way be diminished. He had been still further actuated by the recollection that no Committee had been appointed under the right hon. Gentleman without further restricting those privileges, and also by a report which had been widely spread as to the opinions of the right hon. Gentleman and his Government. Besides, he had read an article in a certain Review with which the right hon. Gentleman was familiar, which had gone deeply into this question; and though it could not certainly have been written by any Member of Her Majesty's Government, because none of them would disclose the policy likely to be adopted by himself and his Colleagues, yet it was known that the right hon. Gentleman had intimate relations with that Review, and the article in question might, to use a foreign phrase, be fairly looked upon as having been "communicated." In this article considerable onslaught was made on the privileges of private Members. In the first place, it was suggested that the power of putting Questions in Committee of Supply should be taken away, and then that some foreign invention called the clôture should be used. With regard to the first point, he wished to refer the right hon. Gentleman to the last debate on the Report of the Committee of 1861 Certain Resolutions were at that time proposed for the adoption of the House by Lord Palmerston, the principle of which was to take away from private Members their right to Thursday, giving the Government Thursday and Monday evenings, and also to deprive private Members of their privilege of putting Questions on the Adjournment of the House; while in exchange Friday was made an Order day, and Supply was put at the head of the Orders. On that occasion Lord Palmerston said that— It was more in unison with the fundamental principles of the Constitution that when Supply is proposed it shall be open to every Member to discuss any subject. Well, if that were so, and if he did not get from the right hon. Gentleman a distinct pledge that this vital principle of the Constitution was not to be interfered with, he would be disposed to divide the House against the Motion. He came now to another point, that of Morning Sittings. In 1867 and 1868 his right hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire introduced a new plan of Morning Sittings which interfered greatly with the rights and privileges of private Members. He believed his right hon. Friend now considered he had committed a great error of judgment, and would gladly retrace his steps. What had been the result? By making the Morning Sitting commence at 2 instead of 12, and end at 7 instead of 4, private Members lost at least 2½ hours a day on an average. Besides, there was the great inconvenience that professional men and men of business could not attend so well under the new plan. Then there was this further inconvenience—that mischievous people came down to the House, and in the Session of 1869 the House was counted out by these mischievous Gentlemen no fewer than four times, and three times last Session. Apart from the actual inconvenience of Morning Sittings, other encroachments had been made on the privileges of private Members. Until the year 1869 the Morning Sittings rarely commenced before the middle of the month of June; but in that year, on the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone), they were begun at a much earlier period—on the 4th of May—and were continued almost till the end of the Session. Again, last Session, the right hon. Gentleman, on the 31st of March, announced to the House that on the following day he intended to move for Morning Sittings, and he continued these Morning Sittings on every Tuesday and Friday till the Easter vacation. And for what reason? That he might remedy the blunder he had committed in his policy with regard to Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman was a powerful Minister, with great command over his supporters, and, possessing a large majority, might find other means of saving the public time besides curtailing the privileges now enjoyed by independent Members. Unless some satisfactory promise were given by the Government on that subject, he should press his Amendment to a Division.

Amendment proposed, To leave out all the words after the first word "That," in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is not expedient to restrict further the privileges afforded to private Members by the present arrangements for the Business of the House,"—(Mr. Cavendish Bentinck), —instead thereof.

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


said, he believed he was able to give the hon. Member every satisfaction that he required. He appeared to think that the Government had some foregone conclusion, some formidable proposal to make, which they would be able to carry through the Committee to the great disadvantage of private Members. The Government knew perfectly well that it would be impossible to make any alteration in the mode of conducting the Public Business unless the consent of the House was freely given to such alteration. Consequently, their desire was that the most competent Committee that could be formed should be appointed to consider the whole matter without prejudice. Government influence had nothing whatever to do with it. The conclusion at which the Committee arrived would be their spontaneous act. Under these circumstances, he thought the hon. Gentleman would see that it would not be well to tie up the hands of the Committee in any way.


said, that having been a Member of the Committee of 1861, he had naturally watched the effect of the recommendations of that Committee, as they had come into operation after receiving the sanction and approval of the House. On several occasions previous to the passing of the Reform Bill, he had entertained some doubt whether the House had duly considered its own dignity in framing the Standing Orders, which it had adopted, and since the passing of that Bill he had become convinced that the Standing Orders ought to be considerably changed, for the purpose of remedying the confusion which prevailed in the transaction of Public Business. In the reformed House there was at first a strong inclination to curtail debates on great and vital questions, while the practice had grown up of hon. Members leaving the House almost empty during certain hours of the night. He was sorry to say that sometimes when questions of the greatest interest had been before the House, those who ought to have led the Opposition had been absent for hours. There were instances of the House having been counted out during the well-known dinner hour. He thought the time had come when the House ought to consider whether it would not conform its proceedings in some measure to the well-known social habits of its Members. He considered it unbecoming that the conduct of Public Business should be left in the hands of a small minority from half-past 7 to half-past 8 in the evening. He had no doubt that it was this consideration which induced the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire to propose Morning Sittings to commence at 2 p.m., but the proposal was too absolute, and the interval chosen was too long; it might be possible, however, to make some modification of that principle, so as to prevent the House from neglecting matters of great importance in the absence of hon. Members during the dinner hour. He agreed with the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Mr. C. Bentinck) that the privileges of independent Members ought not to be curtailed. There had been carelessness on the part of the great body of the House on the subject of Questions put before the commencement of the regular business of the House began each afternoon. One of the objects of the Committee of 1861 was the limitation of the enormous number of Questions on Fridays on going into Committee of Supply, but it seemed to him (Mr. Newdegate) that now this excess of Questions prevailed whenever the House sat. The House had virtually no control over the Questions which were asked; he had heard Questions put which were most unworthy of the attention of the House, and yet the House had no opportunity of expressing its opinion either for or against these Questions. Before that habit grew up hon. Members were in the habit of submitting Motions, and then the House had the opportunity of expressing their opinion upon them, but the House was quite helpless in the case of Questions. Another inconvenience was the late hour at which the important business was sometimes brought on—an hour when those advanced in years were unable to attend in their places, when they were exhausted by the labours of the day. If any hon. Member watched his opportunity and pressed on his business between 1 and 2 in the morning, there was no resource for those who objected, but to move adjournments, and to incur the imputation of faction. Besides this, it was impossible for the newspapers to report debates that occurred after a certain hour. Business of importance was thus often debated without the country knowing anything of the discussion, although the public were under the impression that they were fully cognizant of all the Parliamentary proceedings which took place. He thanked the right hon. Gentleman for fulfilling his promise of last year, by proposing that the House should have another opportunity of re-considering the Standing Order by which its debates were regulated, and concurred with the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Mr. C. Bentinck) in thinking that the great body of the House ought to resist any further restrictions upon its independent action. He thought it necessary to the dignity of the House that it should endeavour to adopt such rules as would restrict the obtrusion of Questions over which the House had not adequate command, and by some expression of opinion enjoin that every Member should pay proper attention to the dignity of the House.


avowed his readiness, as a private Member, to waive some portion of the privileges which he now enjoyed; and he would do this the more readily that one result of the privileges private Members now enjoyed was that he had frequently been compelled to listen to long discussions in which he felt little interest, and which led to no practical result, up to 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, because the interests of his constituents were involved in legislation, often of a very experimental character, attempted at that hour. Upon Members who were engaged in mercantile or commercial pursuits during the day attendance at such hours as those pressed with great severity—especially when it was remembered that they were expected to be again at business the following day. It was really becoming a question whether hon. Members could hope to combine with their own proper avocations the duties of a Member of the Legislature. The appointment of a Committee, he feared, would have the effect of delaying any remedy to the end of this Session or the beginning of the next. Might it not, therefore, be possible to apply some remedy at once? If there were an understanding that no new business should be taken after 12 o'clock at night it would be possible to close the general debate at 11 o'clock. There was no good reason why this should not be done. Something could be gained at the other end of the Sitting, for Private Business was frequently got through at, or shortly after, 4 o'clock; yet the Speaker was obliged to remain patiently in the Chair till half-past 4 o'clock before the Public Business could commence. It might also be practicable to place some limits on the time occupied by speakers.


said, he had anticipated, from the terms of the Notice given, that the Motion to be proposed by the Government would be similar in spirit to the speech just made by the hon. Member opposite—that was to say, that it would proceed upon the assumption that the forms of the House were used by private Members, if not for the purpose of obstructing, at least with the effect of impeding Government legislation, and that it was accordingly desirable to appoint a Committee to ascertain whether it was not possible further to curtail the privileges of private Members, and to increase the opportunities of carrying Government measures. But he now learned distinctly from the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government that they had no object, purpose, or intention of restricting, and would not lend themselves in any way further to restrict, the privileges of the House or the opportunities of debate—


The right hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth. I did not say that "we never would lend ourselves." What I did was to suggest the appointment of a Committee to investigate the subject, and that the whole subject should be left to the consideration of the Committee.


said, that on the last occasion when a Motion on the subject was made from the Government Bench, he moved an Amendment similar to that of the hon. Member for Whitehaven, knowing that frequent attempts had been made with the result of removing some of the safeguards that had been estab- lished for the protection of the minority. If any intention existed to restrict the privileges of Members it would only have been fair to state it openly, and he had no doubt the right hon. Gentleman would have done so. Understanding that the Government had no proposition of that kind to make, and that when the Committee reported hon. Members would be perfectly free to express their opinions in case any changes hostile to the privileges of the House should be recommended, he thought it advisable that the Amendment should be withdrawn, and that the Committee should be appointed without opposition. As far as private Members were concerned, any change, he thought, ought to be in the direction of restoration rather than restriction.


expressed his entire concurrence in the opinion expressed by the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, that any change which might be made ought to be rather in the direction of increasing than of decreasing the rights of private Members, which had been attacked and impaired on former occasions. If there was one question more important than another, it was the freedom and independence of Members. The right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government told them that he had not arrived at any foregone conclusion. He was quite prepared to assume that the right hon. Gentleman was the very soul of candour; that he never at any time in his life had the slightest feeling of reticence, but was always prepared to lay before the House every thought and feeling of his mind. But why, then, did the right hon. Gentleman move the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the business and proceedings of the House? Was it possible that he could have done this without having arrived at some foregone conclusion? Was it to be supposed that he had made this Motion without thinking that some change was required; or was it likely that the right hon. Gentleman, with his grasp of mind and attention to business, had never considered in what direction he would like the change to be? Gentlemen who were in the House of Commons formerly at the same time as himself, would remember the attacks which were then made on the privileges of independent Members by previous Governments, and the promises then made which had never been redeemed. In 1861 there was a change in the order of business, with the distinct understanding that Supply was to be put down on Friday nights for the purpose of enabling private Members to introduce any subject which they might wish to discuss, and the much lamented noble Lord (Lord Palmerston), then at the head of the Government, gave a pledge which, no doubt, he fully meant to carry out, that the Government would always keep a House on Friday nights for the purpose. Subsequent Governments, however, had failed to redeem the pledge, and the consequence was that Friday nights were virtually lost to private Members. He much regretted that a clearer explanation had not been given by the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government. He most deeply regretted—and he was sure every Member of the House would deeply regret—the absence from the House of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright), who had always exercised great control over the proceedings of the Government itself, and of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of it. He could not think that if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham had been present now, acting in the spirit which had always made him one of the most able champions of the liberties of the House, he would have failed to raise his voice and to protest against any inroad being made on the rights of private Members; and he trusted that when the matter again came under consideration the House would have the benefit of the right hon. Gentleman's presence. For his own part, he did not believe the Committee could meet without coming to some conclusion adverse to the rights of private Members. As happened 10 or 12 years ago, when this subject was investigated, the inquiry would result in a fight between those who held and those who expected Office against the independent Members of the House of Commons, their object being to prevent any voice but their own being heard. Of course, he could not anticipate the decision of the Committee; but he hoped his hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven would not press his Motion to a division. The composition of the Committee ought, however, to be closely scrutinized, and he trusted that when the Report was brought up the House would be prepared to defend its own independence.


said, that as matters stood at present, it was very difficult for a private Member to carry a measure through the House. He himself had made the attempt, having spent nearly half last Session in the endeavour to get a Burial Bill passed; but, considering how slow was its progress, he believed he should be buried himself before he attained his object. Indeed, so many difficulties were in the way of a private Member, that the result would be that all opposed, measures would have to proceed from the Government. Now, was this desirable? The remedy he would suggest was that some check should be put on the practice of making Motions to report Progress and to adjourn the debate. He should be exceedingly sorry to put any unfair restraint on the rights of the minority; but when, as happened last Session, 15 Motions were made in the course of one night for the adjournment of the debate, and six to report Progress, and when two hours were spent after midnight in debating whether there should be any debate at all, it was high time a check should be put on so pernicious a practice.


said, that much prominence had been given in the speeches just delivered to the rights and feelings of private Members in reference to this matter; but the first duty of hon. Members was to legislate for the advantage of the country, and he thought no one who had had much experience in that House could avoid coming to the conclusion that Bills were often hurried through in a by no means creditable manner. Now, he did not conceive that the mere retention of certain antiquated forms ought to be regarded as of equal importance with the turning out of measures in a creditable and satisfactory form. He had read the Reports of the Committees which inquired into the forms he had just referred to, and also the suggestions made by the witnesses examined before them; and he found that the late Speaker, the present Speaker, and all the most experienced Members of the House, concurred in the opinion that many forms observed by the House were perfectly useless, and might be abolished with great advantage to the legislation of the country. He hoped the Committee would not be fettered by any pledge as to maintaining the rights of private Members, or the old forms of the House; but that they would be left perfectly free to consider the best means of conducting the legislation of the country.


said, that as a Member who attended the House at all hours, however late, he thought he had a right to say a few words on this question. It appeared to him there were but two methods by which it was possible to gain more time for the transaction of the Public Business of the House. One, which, perhaps, would not be relished by many Members, was to give the House a certain power of limiting the length of speeches; but of the usefulness of the other method a very good illustration would be given that evening, when the House was about to enter upon a discussion of an Elementary Education Bill for Scotland. It would be in the remembrance of the House that this very ground was gone over two Sessions ago, when this House, after much and careful labour, completed and passed a Scotch Education Bill; but all its work was thrown away and lost because the measure reached the Lords so late in the Session that they declined to take it into consideration at all. The remedy he would suggest for such a state of things was to provide that, when a new Parliament had not been elected in the meantime, Bills passed in this House towards the end of one Session should be taken up to the other House at the beginning of the next. The present system not only caused much loss of time, but gave rise to a great deal of hasty and improper legislation, for no other reason than that Bills might be got through the House in time to be considered by the other.


said, that after the discussion which had taken place, and after learning that it was not the right hon. Gentleman's intention to limit the rights of private Members, he should not press his Amendment to a Division.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Select Committee appointed, "to consider the best means of promoting the Despatch of Public Business in this House."—(Mr. Gladstone.)

And, on February 28, Committee nominated as follows:—Mr. DISRAELI, Mr. CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER, Sir GEORGE GREY, Mr. DODSON, Colonel WILSON PATTEN, Mr. BOUVERIE, Mr. HUNT, Mr. KNATCHBULL-HCGESSEN, Mr. NEWDEGATE, Mr. DALGLISH, Sir HENRY SELWIN-IBBETBON, Mr. CAVENDISH BENTINCK, Mr. CLAY, Mr. GRAVES, Mr. GOLDNEY, Mr. CHARLES GILPIN, Colonel BARTTELOT, Mr. RATHBONE, Mr. VANCE, Mr. BOWRING, and Mr. CHARLES FORSTER:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Seven to be the quorum. March 1, Sir JOHN PAKINGTON added, Mr. HUNT discharged; March 3, Mr. COLLINS, Mr. WHITE added.