HC Deb 24 April 1872 vol 210 cc1754-7

asked the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether, as it had been stated that the Government would consider the decision of the House on the Instruction to the Committee on the Dublin University Tests Bill, of which the Chief Secretary for Ireland had given notice, as involving a Vote of Confidence in the Government, he would, according to usage, fix a day for its consideration?


Sir, my hon. Friend has—quite allowably perhaps—embodied an argument in the Question he has put to me, and I will state what I conceive his Question to mean. He considers that the Government have stated that the vote on the Motion of my noble Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland for dividing the Dublin University Tests Bill is regarded by them as a Vote of Confidence; and he says that there is a usage, in case of a Vote of Confidence, of fixing an early day for its consideration, and interrupting the Public Business with that view; and he therefore assumes—quite consecutively I think—from these premises, if correct, that we should fix a day for its consideration. I need not add that, if the Motion were so considered, such a day would probably be not later than Monday next. Now, Sir, I am not prepared to agree in the correctness of the recitals in the Question of my hon. Friend, or to agree to treat his Bill at all on that footing. The substance of his Question really comes to this—A Vote of Confidence, my hon. Friend says, with perfect truth, is always taken at the earliest period. It is a direct challenge of the title of the Government to carry on public affairs: it is brought forward advisedly by a Member of the House, and generally indicates more or less of the support and concurrence of the House; and it is thought—and rightly thought—that such a Motion as that is an adequate justification for the serious step of interrupting the Business and absorbing the time of the House, and especially of the Government, by a debate which in all cases runs to a very great length, because, on a Vote of Confidence, every Member who thinks fit is perfectly entitled to discuss—and many would probably feel themselves bound to discuss—not only the particular merits of the question immediately involved, but the general policy of the Government. Therefore, the Question, as my hon. Friend has put it, really comes to this—whether we are prepared to suspend the deliberations of the House on the Ballot Bill, and whatever other measures may be impending, until a debate of that kind is brought on and disposed of on one of the earliest days at our command. I must tell my hon. Friend, without the smallest ambiguity, that we cannot consent to do this, or to place his Motion on that footing. But I do not wish the matter to rest in that negative form—I will proceed to state to my hon. Friend what I conceive to be the real position of the case. I do not adopt the recital of facts contained in his Question. What may have been stated during the last few days is in perfect conformity with what was stated in this House on former occasions, and in particular by myself in April, 1870—what may have been said, and quite truly, is this—that a negative vote of the House upon the Motion of my noble Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland would, in our judgment, fairly construed, imply that the House was prepared to accept my hon. Friend's Bill as a settlement of a great and important question connected with the Dublin University and of Trinity College upon its present general basis, not only as to the test clauses, but also the reconstructive clauses of the Bill; and in our view the adoption of that Bill would place us in a condition in which it would become totally impossible for us to ask the House with consistency to enable us by legislation to redeem the pledges we had given to the country when we took office at the end of 1868. That is the position in which we should be placed; and if we were placed in that position, power being taken out of our hands with regard to that subject, we could not with credit to ourselves or satisfaction to the House and the country continue responsible for the conduct of public affairs. I am not aware that a case of this kind—a measure brought forward and promoted by a private Member of Parliament—has been considered as standing in the same category as a Vote of Confidence with regard to setting aside the general course of Public Business; and it is evident the adoption of such a precedent would be a matter of the gravest importance, because it would amount to this—that it would open to Members of Parliament the power, by the proposal of measures which might be perfectly legitimate in themselves, but which they knew to be inadmissible by the Government without the responsibility of a Vote of Confidence, to stop Public Business, and place the discussion of measures they themselves preferred in the position of measures which the Government had pledged themselves to bring forward. At the same time, having stated so much and given my hon. Friend reasons which will show him that, from our point of view, it is impossible for us to regard the matter in the light in which he presents it to us, I have to assure him with regard to his Bill—as I have often to do with regard to other subjects pressed on us, and sometimes even in regard to Bills of our own—that we are not indisposed, but well disposed, to invite the judgment of the House on that important question. Without undertaking at this moment to state what measures might be preferred to it, I think it desirable that the judgment of the House should be taken on the question; and, within the narrow limits of our power, we have every disposition to assist my hon. Friend with that view. We cannot set aside proceeding with the Ballot Bill; and there are other measures which we cannot undertake to postpone, with every desire to give precedence to the higher University education in Ireland, important as that question is. If it is agreeable to my hon. Friend—having stated distinctly the only conditions under which we could approach the question—if it is agreeable to him that I should endeavour to review the state of Public Business, and then let him know whether any suitable and convenient opportunity can be made available for full and fair discussion, I will willingly undertake to do so. But at present, knowing, as I do, quite enough of the pressure of Public Business, I must unequivocally state that, although I should hope to be able to name a time within the working portion of the Session, yet, with every disposition to do all in our power, we cannot undertake to make an opening for it on what he or I would call an early day.


Mr. Speaker, I am not going to make a speech; but, considering the course of proceeding adopted by the Government during the last few days as fatal to the legislative privileges of independent Members, I have to say—["Order! order!"]—


The hon. Member is not in Order in making a speech.


I am going to give a Notice—["Order! order!"] I am perfectly in Order—I beg to give Notice that, unless in the meantime Government come to some more precise understanding with me on this matter, I shall, to enable me to call attention to the subject, move to-morrow afternoon the Adjournment of the House.