HC Deb 08 June 1871 vol 206 cc1678-90

I wish to put a Question to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for War with regard to the Motion which stood in my name for Tuesday with reference to the Royal Cornwall Rangers Militia; and I desire at the same time to ask for the indulgence of the House for a few moments while I refer to a matter personal to myself, with reference to which I think I have some reason to complain of the conduct of certain Members of Her Majesty's Government. It will doubtless be in the recollection of the House that on Monday night I had occasion to refer to the "count-out" on the preceding Friday, and that I then asked the Secretary of State for War whether he would give me any other opportunity of bringing forward the Motion I desired to make with regard to his conduct in reference to the Royal Cornwall Rangers Militia. The right hon. Gentleman on that occasion refused to give me such an opportunity, and late on the same night the right hon. Gentleman at the head of Her Majesty's Government denied that the Government were in any way responsible for the "count-out" of which I then complained. On Tuesday evening my Motion stood in such a place on the Notice Paper that I had every reason to suppose that it would come on at an early hour; but at half-past 7 o'clock the House was counted out, and the whole of that evening was wasted. After I had called attention on Monday to the "count-out" on the previous Friday evening, a circumstance came to my knowledge with respect to that "count-out," which, after full consideration, I feel bound to bring under the notice of the House. Shortly before the House was counted out on that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Committee of Council was speaking on the subject of the diseases of cattle, when a Member of the Government was observed by a friend of mine to hand a little bit of paper to him, which I am told he glanced at and shortly afterwards concluded his remarks, when the House was at once counted out. That little bit of paper the right hon. Gentleman placed upon the box before him, and left it there. Another hon. Friend of mine happened to have a friend that evening who desired to see the House. Soon after the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Forster) had sat down an hon. Member (Mr. G. Bentinck) rose to continue the debate, and was immediately counted. Then my hon. Friend, after the House was cleared, brought his friend to see it. They walked up the opposite side, and in passing the box observed this piece of paper—["Oh, oh!"] I assure the House that I can wait with patience. On the paper are these words—"We want to count Pakington out, he comes on next." The obvious intention of this paper was to intimate to the right hon. Gentleman that if he did not conclude his speech at once there was an apprehension lest Members should come in and so prevent the House from being counted out. The House will recollect that on Monday evening the Members of the Government drew attention to the fact that many of them were in their places at the time, and asserted that they had done all in their power to prevent the "count-out." But hon. Members will see that it is impossible to doubt, after what I have just said, that it was the deliberate intention, on the part of certain Members of Her Majesty's Government, to prevent my bringing on my Motion. I have no right to say whether or not they were parties to the "count-out" on Tuesday; but all I can say is that all confidence is shaken with regard to the subject. I can easily understand that hon. Members opposite are desirous to get rid of this unfortunate fact in any way they can; but I repeat, that after the Government deliberately attempting to promote a "count-out" when I was about to bring forward a Motion impugning the right hon. Gentleman opposite the Secretary of State for War, and on an evening when there is an under- standing the Government will keep the House, all confidence is shaken. Nor do I shrink from saying that the inference on my mind from the two "counts-out" is, that the right hon. Gentleman desires to avoid the discussion that I am anxious to initiate. Therefore I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman and also to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government to give me an opportunity of bringing forward the grounds of complaint of two distinguished men—the Lord Lieutenant of the county of Cornwall and a gallant officer. I desire to make a statement on that subject, and I desire to hear the answer. I, for one, shall be quite ready fairly to consider that answer, and it is a matter of astonishment to me that the right hon. Gentleman, instead of availing himself of these "counts-out," should not be desirous of giving the answer which I wish to receive upon that subject. With regard to these "counts-out," I must say I think they are not creditable to the Government or to the House. Through the two last "counts-out" two evenings had been wasted. ["Order!"]


reminded the right hon. Baronet that there was no Motion before the House.


It is my intention to conclude with a Motion. I have no desire, for one, to put an end to the power of counting out; but I think when a Motion is made for counting out the House, it should not be done by a Member who sneaks round your Chair and whispers in your ear that there are not 40 Members in the House, and then runs away like a boy that has thrown a stone at a window. When a Member desires to "count-out" the House, I think he should stand up in his place and state openly and audibly that there are not 40 Members in the House. If that course were adopted, we should not have so many interruptions of Public Business. I conclude by moving that this House do now adjourn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Sir John Pakington.)


said, he wished to say a few words with reference to what the right hon. Baronet called the practice of "counting out." The right hon. Baronet and himself were Members of the Committee that had been sitting upstairs on the Business of the House, when the subject of "counts" was fully considered; but the right hon. Baronet did not make any proposal to the contrary of the existing practice. There was no proposition except one from the hon. Member for Liverpool, which met with no support, that the House should, at the resumed sittings on Tuesdays and Fridays, sit from 9 to half-past 9 without a quorum. After all, what did a "count-out" mean? It meant that the business of the country should not be conducted unless there was a quorum of the House; that if there were only 25 or 30 Members within the four walls it was neither decorous, nor proper, nor useful to the country that the labours of the House should be continued. Some two centuries ago the question was raised whether 40 or 60 should be a quorum, and it was resolved that 40 should be a quorum. Surely if 40 was a proper quorum 200 years ago, when there were no railways, no telegraphs, no Scotch and Irish Members, it was most discreditable that business should be conducted when less than 40 Members were present. For his own part, he was inclined to think that the quorum ought to be fixed at 80 rather than 40. It was now 20 years since he first entered the House, and he was bound to say that he had not seen the practice of "counting out" abused. In the last instance to which the right hon. Baronet had referred, it must be remembered that the House sat till 3 o'clock on Tuesday morning, and that it was a private Members' night, and if private Members would persist in bringing forward matters that did not interest the House, or the country, or anybody in the world except themselves, it need be no matter for surprise that hon. Members did not stay to listen to them. The House was never counted out when useful measures were under discussion, but only upon idle Motions, which hon. Members were perhaps obliged to bring forward at the request of one or two influential constituents—for he did not believe that many hon. Members spoke for the sake of getting into the newspapers, except under such pressure as he had described. He confessed that it had long been his opinion that private Members should have the right of bringing forward Bills on Tuesday. That, however, was not the opinion of the Committee upstairs. But while the Tuesday and Friday evenings continued to be occupied principally with private Motions—many of them of an uninteresting character—"counts-out" would certainly take place. Nor did he consider that any blame or discredit should attach to the House in consequence. As to the complaint of the right hon. Baronet that hon. Members who moved a count did so from behind the Chair, he remembered that the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Osborne) once referred to the same practice as that of persons who "did good by stealth and blushed to find it fame;" but he confessed that he entertained no such scruples himself. On the contrary, he thought that counting out under certain circumstances was a laudable practice, and he never felt any objection to do it openly.


The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has said so much to the purpose in reference to the general question of "counting out," that in rising to answer the appeal of the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Pakington) I shall not detain the House for any length of time. He said that the inference he drew from the circumstances he narrated was, that I am extremely anxious to avoid the discussion on the Royal Cornwall Rangers Militia. Well, I can only assure the right hon. Baronet, with all sincerity, that whenever that great question shall come forward I am not entirely without hope that I shall be able to satisfy, not only my other auditors, but also himself, that the course I took was not only the proper and regular course, but that it was also the course which, if he had been in my position, he would most undoubtedly have adopted himself. I beg, therefore, wholly to deny his inference that I have the smallest objection to answer this question whenever the proper opportunity occurs; but as he has drawn his inference, I will draw mine, and my inference is that as the subject has been twice discussed in the other House of Parliament, and twice reports have gone forth to the public, if it had excited much interest either in Parliament or in the country, or if it were in any degree a formidable question, the right hon. Gentleman could not have failed in finding an opportunity hitherto to bring it forward. I make this observation with the more confidence, because I am told that on Friday night, when the House was counted out, there were 26 Members present, of whom nine sat on the Treasury bench, and only three in all on the opposite side of the House—the right hon. Gentleman being, of course, one of the three. Then, with regard to this little bit of paper, of which the right hon. Baronet has spoken, I beg to disclaim all responsibility for it. In the first place, I did not write it; in the second, I did not find it; and in the third place, if I had found a note written by one gentleman to another I should disclaim all the responsibility of making any use of it. But I have made it my business to ascertain what actually took place, and I have communicated with my hon. Friend the Member for Shaftesbury (Mr. Glyn). There were three counts altogether, in each of which I was myself present. On the first occasion there were more than 40 Members present, and the House continued; on the second occasion it was with the utmost difficulty that the exact number of 40, including the Speaker, was maintained to give my right hon. Friend the Vice President of the Council an opportunity of replying to statements which had been made in the course of the debate. My hon. Friend assures me that it would have been hopeless to attempt to keep the House afterwards, and he admits that he made no further attempt to do so, though he had nothing to do with the count which took place at a quarter before 11 o'clock. I may observe that the right hon. Baronet's Motion was not the next in Order. The next was a Motion that stood in the name of the hon. Member for Caithness (Sir Tollemache Sinclair). I do not know who actually moved that the House be counted; but the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. G. Bentinck) had just directed attention in the course of his speech to the paucity of Members present, and it was, I presume, upon that hint that the hon. Gentleman who moved a "count" took the opportunity of moving that the House be counted. I have given an account, so far as I know, of the whole of these proceedings. And now, to turn for a moment to the question of the Royal Cornwall Rangers Militia, I beg to repeat that, whenever a suitable opportunity offers, I shall be happy to give such an explanation as, knowing his candour, will, I hope, be satisfactory even to the right hon. Baronet himself.


said, there was one point which he thought it worth the while of the House to consider, and that was how far it was consonant with the honour of the House and the course usually pursued among hon. Gentlemen, that when a gentleman found a paper not intended for himself he should hand it to a third party to make use of. Every day it happened in that House and the lobbies that Members left papers, open letters, and notes about; and why was it that there was never any idea of concealing them? It was because they knew they were among Gentlemen who would scorn to make use of such means of information, and who, if their eye did chance to fall on anything that was written, would act as though they had never seen it. He very much regretted that the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Pakington), whose sense of honour he was happy to acknowledge, should have accepted the communication from the Gentleman who had given it to him. There was one omission in the right hon. Baronet's speech which it would be well to supply, and that was the name of the Member of the House who took up the piece of paper and handed to the right hon. Gentleman to be made public.


said, the hon. and gallant Member (Mr. O'Reilly) seemed to have constituted himself the guardian of private communications between Members of the House. It was obvious private communications should not be left about the House for the waste-paper basket, and that was evidently the destination of the paper found. It had appeared that morning that imputations had been cast on private Members, on account of these "counts-out," while it was clear that on Tuesday the Government were cognizant, if not parties to, the intention to count. The hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins) had appealed to his conduct during the 20 years he had sat in the House. He (Mr. Newdegate) could remember several occasions when that hon. Member had relieved the House from its labours against its will. He, and several independent Members, had recently and on the present occasion felt that. The hon. Member had passed a somewhat impertinent censure—["Order!"]


The hon. Member will, I am sure, recognize that it is quite out of Order to characterize as "impertinent" the conduct of a Member of this House.


said, as the word "impertinent" applied to the hon. Member for Boston's conduct seemed to be extra-Parliamentary, he begged to substitute the word "officious." He must say that on several occasions that hon. Member's conduct was wanting in respect for other Members of that House and for the House itself. He thought it was very fortunate that by this accident of the paper the origin of the last "count-out" had been discovered. He had been very anxious that the House should not meet on Tuesday morning, for reasons which he would not repeat; but after the House had come to that decision it was somewhat superabundant on the part of the hon. Member for Boston to have been the means of preventing the business from proceeding.


I beg to say I did no such thing. I was at Oxford that night.


said, that at all events the hon. Member had risen to justify the conduct of the person who caused the "count-out," conduct of which the House had very great reason to complain. He had felt for some time, and he knew it to be the feeling of other hon. Members, that under the guidance of Her Majesty's Government the energies of the House had been unduly exhausted; he was, therefore, strongly of opinion that the House would do well now to undertake the revision of its Standing Orders, so as to assure itself and the country that the Business of the House was really in the hands of the House itself.


There seems some misapprehension on both sides of the House as to the publication of private documents. I do not think hon. Gentlemen opposite have any right to claim any superiority on this subject. I know a case—a remarkable case—with which my right hon. Friend (Sir John Pakington) was intimately connected, in which, if I can trust my memory, a letter was found addressed to a right hon. Gentleman opposite upon a subject of great interest, at a moment of much excitement, the contents of which might have been very disagreeable to the Govern- ment, and under the advice of my right hon. Friend the letter was placed under cover and forwarded to the right hon. Gentleman to whom it was addressed. I am sure my right hon. Friend would, under similar circumstances, always act in a similar manner. But certainly it is not my impression, or that of those intimately acquainted with the particulars in the present instance, that the document which has been referred to this evening was of a private nature, or partook at all of the character of a letter. It had never been sealed; it was never in an "enclosure;" and had never been signed. It was found on the Table, and threw light on a course of proceeding which the majority of this House does not approve—namely, those frequent "counts-out"—especially on nights when the Government, as it was understood, was bound to keep a House. ["No, no!"] I think there should be some general expression of feeling in the House on the subject—that there should be no doubt that any difference of opinion exists on either side as to the propriety, when any Member finds a private letter, although it may touch on subjects of public importance—that there should be no doubt as to the course which my right hon. Friend would take and which other Gentlemen would adopt—namely, to forward that letter to the person to whom it belonged. But I protest against this paper being placed in the category of private and confidential communications. It was not a private communication; it was not sealed; it was not signed. It imparted information which suggested, as it explained, a course injurious to the public interests. I think, therefore, that my right hon. Friend and the Member who gave him the information ought not to be censured for what they have done.


It appears to me that the observations of the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down have left this matter in a more unsatisfactory position than it occupied before he rose. For my own part, I am bound to say frankly that, while no man stands more clear of any positive imputation affecting his sense of honour than the right hon. Baronet, I think it was an error—one of those errors into which any of us might fall—to make use of the paper, or to give to it the importance which he ascribed to it. But I should not have thought it my duty to give utterance to that opinion had it not been that the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has tended rather by his observations to stereotype, if I may say so, that mistake. The doctrine of the right hon. Gentleman appears to be that if there be a letter of a formal character upon subjects of importance, a document of a certain dignity of form, it is to be private; but that the slight communications often written in pencil and unsigned, which pass between Members of the House in the course of the evening, are not to be treated in the same way. I think, however, on the whole, that the prudent and safe course is that no notice should be taken even of these slight, informal communications when they happen to fall into hands for which they were not intended. If they can be identified they ought to be sent to the parties to whom they belong; but if not, they should be regarded as not having been discovered. The right hon. Gentleman hardly meets the difficulty by saying that this paper tended to disclose a course of conduct prejudicial to the public interests; and he lays down, with a degree of rigour that cannot be admitted, the doctrine that the Government are bound to keep a House on Friday nights. What I have always understood was, that the Government were bound to make reasonable efforts to keep a House on Friday nights. The House met at a quarter to 4 o'clock on each Friday evening, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shaftesbury (Mr. Glyn) succeeded in keeping a House during the critical hours of dinner, and after that on another occasion, when there were special grounds for it, he was able to secure the attendance of 40 Members. If afterwards, when the low-water mark was passed, and the House had been sitting six or seven hours, it was counted out at 20 minutes to 11, no blame can, I think, be fairly attached either to my hon. Friend or the Government. I wish, at the same time, to make the general observation that, although we do not in the slightest degree shrink from the reasonable duty of continuing our efforts to keep a House, we are, in my opinion, entitled to some assistance in the performance of that duty from hon. Members on both sides of the House. That small list of statistics which was given to us by my right hon. Friend near me when he pointed out that of 26 Members who were present on one of the occasions of a count-out nine were Gentlemen holding office—not the least occupied men in the House—while there were only three or four Members on the benches opposite, shows, it appears to me, that the Government ought not to be blamed for the cessation of business on that occasion.


said, with respect to the first point involved in the discussion—the production of a certain piece of paper—he would merely observe that the only rule which he thought could be properly adopted in such cases was to keep that secret which was evidently intended to be kept secret. As to the other point which was raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli), who said the majority of the House were opposed to "counts-out," he would remark that although he knew nothing about the "count-out" on Tuesday, he knew a good deal about that of Friday, inasmuch as it was he himself who moved that the House be counted, at a time when neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the right hon. Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington) was present; when there were only three Members on the benches opposite, and only 15 in the House altogether. Upon that occasion he was a most disinterested mover, inasmuch as he happened to have paired for the night; but he did not think it right that very important measures should be proceeded with, and Votes involving millions of money taken in Committee of Supply, when the attendance of Members did not amount to much more than a dozen. What he had done on Friday he should not hesitate to do again under similar circumstances; and the way in which hon. Gentlemen could prevent a "count-out" was by being in their places, and thus proving the right hon. Gentleman's assertion that the majority of the House disapproved such a proceeding.


said, he had always been a consistent and conscientious advocate of the right of private Members. It was sometimes contended, and indeed he had observed an article in the leading journal that morning to the effect that the rights and privileges of private Members ought to be extinguished as soon as possible, inasmuch as they did not appear to care for them themselves. That advice appeared to be quite in accordance with the view taken by the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins), who talked about the necessity of having a quorum, entirely forgetting that there was scarcely ever a quorum in the House at 8 o'clock, even when the most important subjects were under consideration. The hon. Gentleman had spoken also of the House having sat till 3 or 4 o'clock on Tuesday; but whose fault, he should like to know, was that? The fault of the hon. Gentleman himself, who moved the adjournment of the debate contrary to his (Mr. Bentinck's) wish and to that of many other Members sitting on the Opposition benches. In reply to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin) he would merely put a simple question. How, he should like to know, were independent Members to keep a House during the dinner hour? Was there any private Member on either side of the House who had sufficient influence or popularity to induce 38 other Members to remain in the House during that time to listen to his speech? He believed not; but the case was quite different with the Government. The right hon. Gentleman at its head had under him at least 30 paid Members, and besides he had almost absolute command over something like 380 other Members sitting on the benches behind him. It was very extraordinary, then, that he should not be able to secure the attendance of these 30 paid Members and some 10 or 20 Members more from among his followers in order to carry on the business of the country. He maintained that it was the duty of the right hon. Gentleman, instead of proceeding in the policy of confiscating the rights of private Members, to compel his 30 paid Members to be in their places to keep a House, or else to dismiss them from office.


said, he wished to put a question to the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin), who had stated that he should not hesitate to continue the practice of moving that the House be counted. The hon. Gentleman had got a Notice on the Paper for 9 o'clock to-morrow night, and he should like to know from him whether he intended to count out his own Motion? He was personally interested in the answer, because he had a Notice on the Paper immediately following that which stood in the hon. Gentleman's name.


said, he had no objection to the House being counted out when his Motion was under discussion if 40 hon. Members did not think it worth while to be present.


said, there was one point on which he wished to say a word, and that was respecting the imputation that had been thrown on his right hon. Friend the Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington). He (Mr. G. Hardy) could not look upon the paper as being anything different from what had been spoken on many occasions, when remarks were overheard, and when anyone said in an audible voice "Let us count out," no one could help taking notice of the remark. What had been done by his right hon. Friend amounted to nothing more than that.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.