§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer.)
THE MARQUESS OF HARTINGTON
Before, Sir, this Bill is read a second time, I desire, with the permission of the House, to make some observations upon the course and conduct of Public Business during the present Session. I can assure the House that I do this with the greatest reluctance—partly, because I feel myself incompetent to enlist the attention of the House as it should be enlisted in reference to a question of this kind, after it has undergone labour so long and arduous, and, partly, because I feel still more incompetent to dispel those mists of illusion, which somehow or other—perhaps before the conclusion of this debate we may discover how—have, in my opinion, gathered round the subject. But statements so remarkable, and, in my opinion, so calculated to lead the public mind to false conclusions, have been made within the last few days, that I feel myself absolutely compelled to lay before this House a plain and bare, but I trust a true, statement of some passages that have occurred within this House during the present Session, in the hope that some one more competent than I am may hereafter be able to place the matter in its true light before the public mind. We are all aware that very recently the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury dined with the Lord Mayor, and that after the banquet he made, as he said, "some not party, but rather historical comments on what may have "—I do the right hon. Gentleman the justice to say that he is reported to have said—What may have occurred in great places during the present year? In the first place, it should be recollected," said the right hen. Gentleman, "with regard to the present Session, that it has been a Session in which, as a Ministry, they were called upon to perform that ceremony which in homely language, but in popular phrase, was generally described in that country as redeeming 653 their pledges! During the five years that they spent in Opposition they endeavoured to impress upon the country their sincere convictions that the time had arrived when political change was no longer required, when the distribution of political power was no longer the problem to solve in the country, but that its intelligence and energy should be directed to the improvement and elevation of the condition of the people.I propose, as shortly as I can, to discuss the manner in which, the right hon. Gentleman and his Government have redeemed these pledges and carried out the policy stated in the words which I have just quoted. And, in the first place, let me give to the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues, as composing the Government, the credit which, in my opinion, is duo to them by frankly acknowledging that, in regard to the questions of the Labour Laws, they have acted wisely and boldly. But I think the House will agree with me that the task was not one of such magnitude and difficulty as was represented by the right hon. Gentleman. The question was ripe for settlement, and I believe the Government found the materials for its solution ready to their hands. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary will not deny that he derived, at least, considerable assistance in his task from the materials which had been accumulated at the Home Office by his Predecessors, and in the conduct of the measures through the House I think I may be permitted to say that the Government were well supported by the Opposition. I may also be permitted to add that the Bills as they stand at this moment are, to a very great extent, the work of the Opposition. To the Opposition it is due, as the right hon. Gentleman boasted the other day at the Mansion House, that punishment by imprisonment for breach of contract no longer exists, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for the University of London, it is due that the law as to intimidation and annoyance has been made general and is not confined to particular classes. Well, the right hon. Gentleman stated that the difficulties surrounding this subject were so great that success was believed to be almost impossible; but with the advantages that I have enumerated, I cannot see what difficulties the Government have had to meet and combat, unless they were their own repugnance and aversion 654 and the repugnance and aversion of their supporters to undertake to deal with the question at all. But while I give the Government credit for the spirit in which they have brought forward this question, I cannot give them equal credit for the manner in which they have executed their task. They adopted, as I have said, the clause of my right hon. Friend the Member for the University of London, but in adopting it they, to a great extent, spoilt it. They spoilt it, at least in our opinion, so that we were obliged several times to divide, of course unsuccessfully, against Amendments, which they introduced. But the Bill containing that clause has gone to "another place," and the Lord Chancellor of the Government has given his decision, not in favour of the clause as moved by the Government, but for the Amendment proposed by the Opposition. The Amendment in favour of which we divided and which the Government rejected has been proposed by the Lord Chancellor to the House of Lords. At the same time, the Lord Chancellor, I believe, has introduced new matter into the clause, matter which raises questions of no unimportant character, questions which ought to be thoroughly discussed when they come before this House, but which at this period of the Session it is impossible can receive adequate consideration. I will pass on to the consideration of some other measures affecting the social condition of the people to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I admit that the Government has called attention to many important questions affecting the social condition of the people; but I ask, have the pledges of the Government been fulfilled by merely calling attention to these questions? None of them have been broadly or completely dealt with. Why, the Social Science Congress—an institution for which I suspect the right hon. Gentleman has no great respect—could do as much in calling attention to questions of great public interest; and I may say that in the course of the present Session it has occurred to me that the right hon. Gentleman and his Cabinet would make no indifferent members of the Social Science Congress—the right hon. Gentleman himself acting as President and the heads of his Departments superintending Political Economy, Education, and the other sections. I maintain that in dealing with these 655 questions affecting the social condition of the people, the Government have established no principle, grappled with no difficulty, solved no problem. I maintain that the Government have subdued no class interest conflicting with the public welfare. Let us see how far these assertions can be substantiated. First let us take the Bill relating to Public Health introduced by the Government. In reference to that measure the right hon. Gentleman is reported to have said—Sanitary reform is the great object and need of the day, including in that phrase, so little understood, most of the civilizing influences of humanity.I confess I am unable to comprehend that sentence; but I humbly suppose it means at least that the question of Public Health is a very large one. But what has the Government done in relation to Public Health? Either they found that a great portion of the work to be done had already been performed by their Predecessors or else they have grossly neglected their duty; for all they had done was to introduce a Consolidation Bill, containing no new provision whatever. I admit that that Consolidation Bill is a useful undertaking, and I believe an excellent piece of work; but it is essentially the work of a draftsman, and I venture to say it has never been submitted to the Cabinet at all, or, at all events, has not cost the Cabinet an hour's labour. Well, that is the way in which the Government have dealt with the question of Public Health. We have heard a great deal of the Artizans Dwellings Bill. That is a Bill which gives certain powers to certain authorities in a certain limited number of places, enabling those authorities to destroy dwellings unfit for habitation and replace them by others. But under the Bill the authorities act only if they feel inclined to do so. It is an invitation to local authorities—nothing more; and it is simply an enlargement of certain local Acts which the Government found already in existence. Glasgow and Edinburgh have obtained local Acts which give them almost all the powers they could obtain under the Artizans Dwellings Bill of this Session. But when they obtained those useful and salutary Acts, Glasgow and Edinburgh did not deem it necessary to call heaven and earth to witness what a magnificent work 656 they had achieved, and I do not suppose it ever occurred to the authorities of those cities that they were setting in motion "almost all the civilizing influences of humanity." In short, the Bill does for towns little more than Glasgow and Edinburgh have succeeded in doing for themselves, and I doubt whether it will even facilitate improvements, for the trouble of obtaining a local Act, perhaps better suited to the necessities of a particular locality, would be small in comparison with the operations to be performed. Then there is another measure affecting the condition of the people which the Government have introduced and carried—I mean the Bill relating to Friendly Societies. What is the history of that measure? The late Government appointed a Commission to inquire into the subject, and last year the Government introduced a Bill which embodied some of the recommendations of that Commission. This year they introduced a Bill embodying fewer of those recommendations, and in its progress through the House they abandoned some of its provisions—in fact, I believe, everything objected to by anybody, even by the representatives of the societies which were admittedly conducted on unsound principles, was struck out, and scarcely anything was left in it that anybody could object to. It is, in fact, a Bill which deals little with principles and only with details. The result is, that it makes very little difference in the existing state of things, and it can hardly be held to justify the somewhat magniloquent description of it which appeared in Her Majesty's Speech at the opening of Parliament. There is another question which the Government have dealt with, and in which, at this moment, the House and the country, perhaps, take a deeper interest than in any other. The difficulties of the historian in dealing with materials for history are proverbial, and in case the future historian of the year 1875 should seek to save himself trouble by referring to the "not political, but historical" remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the other day as to the Merchant Shipping Bill, I think it will be only an act of charity to indicate some authorities by referring to which the historian may possibly be able to form a more correct estimate of the matter and of the real circumstances of 657 the case. We have all read the history of the Merchant Shipping Bill as given at the Mansion House on Wednesday last. I believe it was a short history, and I propose to give the House a short history of that Bill too, and I will refer to no authority except the Journals of this House and the recorded words of the right hon. Gentleman himself spoken in this House. The Bill was read a second time without very much discussion, and certainly without any serious opposition. Three sittings were occupied in the discussion of it in Committee. In one of the earlier sittings two of its most material clauses were postponed, either because the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade did not exactly understand them himself, or because he was unable to make them comprehended by the House. In the third sitting the time of the Committee was occupied to a very great extent by a discussion on the subject of advance notes, and after the Committee had been for some hours laboriously engaged in the discussion, after the President of the Board of Trade and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had taken part in the debate and assented to certain Amendments in the clause, the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government got up and coolly informed the Committee that that was a clause to which he had never been favourably disposed, inasmuch as it interfered with the sacred principle of freedom of contract—that it was introduced into the Bill in deference to the opinion of the Royal Commission; and that as there was some difference of opinion on the subject, he thought it better to drop the clause altogether. The Committee separated on that occasion in something like amazement, and that Committee has never been asked to resume its labours. The right hon. Gentleman has referred more than once to the number of Amendments on the Paper of the House as the cause of his abandonment of the Merchant Shipping Bill, and he stated that—When he came to examine the Paper on the 22nd of July he found 178 Amendments, of which 140 were placed there by Members of the Opposition,I am not certain whether I have the numbers quite accurately, but I believe they are very near the mark, and I should like to call the attention of the 658 House, not to the Notices on the Paper when the Bill was abandoned, but when we went into Committee on the Bill. When we went into Committee on the Bill there were 290 Notices of Amendment on the Paper, 175 being placed on the Paper on this side and 115 on the other. When the Bill was abandoned, if my figures are accurate, of which, however, I am not absolutely certain, after the three not very satisfactory sittings to which I have referred, no fewer than 112 Amendments had been disposed of, and very considerable progress had been made in the discussion of the Bill. It is impossible to estimate the amount of opposition a Bill will encounter by merely counting the number of Amendments. Everybody who has taken part in the discussion of a Bill knows perfectly well that 20 or 30 Amendments may hang together, and may depend on the adoption or rejection of one. But in these three sittings considerable progress had been made in the discussion of the Bill, and I believe it was the opinion of competent authorities that four more sittings would have brought the Bill through Committee. [Laughter.] I hear an hon. Gentleman laugh, but I do not know what reason he has to do so. I am informed that eight pages of Amendments out of the 16 on the Paper were disposed of; only eight pages were left, and I repeat I am informed on most competent authority that four more sittings would have brought the Bill through Committee. I now come to that eventful Thursday—not Monday, by-the-by, when the 15111 was abandoned. On the previous Tuesday things had not gone quite as well as had been hoped with the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill. On the Wednesday there was a meeting of the Cabinet. On Thursday morning we were informed a meeting of the Conservative Party was held, and on Thursday evening the Bill was abandoned. The inference I should be disposed to draw from these facts would have been that the abandonment of the Merchant Shipping Bill was not altogether unconnected with the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill; but I do not want to draw any inference at all. I would rather call the attention of the House to the words used in this House by the right hon. Gentleman himself. On Monday the 19th the right hon. Gentleman 659 told us that he would proceed with the Merchant Shipping Bill after the Agricultural Holdings Bill had been disposed of. On Thursday the 22nd—I will read his own words—the right hon. Gentleman said—Certainly it was shown to my satisfaction that if we could have got through the Committee on the Agricultural Holdings Bill this week we might have succeeded in passing the Merchant Shipping Bill without detaining the House to an unreasonable period. In that we have been disappointed; and, therefore, I have to say—and I say it with unfeigned and unaffected regret—that it is impossible for Her Majesty's Government to continue their efforts to pass the Merchant Shipping Bill this Session."—[3 Hansard, ccxxiv. 1820–21.]We know a change took place since, but at that time it was clear that, in the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, the Merchant Shipping Bill could not be proceeded with on account of the Agricultural Holdings Bill. But we know now he thinks otherwise. However, we are informed that after dropping the Merchant Shipping Bill, the idea immediately presented itself to Her Majesty's Government to proceed with another measure. [Mr. DISRAELI: Not another measure.] Well, then, it is the same measure. Certainly, that idea did not present itself to my mind when the right hon. Gentleman first made the announcement to the House. On the Thursday to which I have already referred the right hon. Gentleman said—It has been suggested to me that we might pass the measure in a limited form, and in that limited form it might not be devoid of utility; but I am not myself disposed to deal with the measure in that fragmentary manner, and on reflection I declined to take that course."—[Ibid. 1821.]Well, Sir, the Government, as we know" had reason to change their minds, and they thought it desirable, after all, to deal with the question in a somewhat fragmentary way. Let me now say a few words as to the measure which has been introduced and passed through this House in substitution for the larger Bill, which, let the House recollect, was one of the nine measures mentioned in the Queen's Speech which the right hon. Gentleman takes credit for having passed in the present Session. The Bill which has been read a third time this evening contains five important provisions. Two of them were introduced by the Government and have been passed—one of them 660 in a somewhat modified shape. One provision, that relating to the owner's load line, is a provision which was not included in the original proposal of the Government, and which found its way into the re-committed Bill. Another provision relating to the loading of grain in bulk does not find a place in their proposals, either in the Government Bill or in the re-committed Bill. Another, which is due to the hon. and learned Member for Durham (Mr. Herschell) relating to the punishment of officers under the Act, was not included, I believe, in either of the proposals of the Government. Another provision, which was due to the hon. Member for Heading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre), I believe—a most important provision relating to the liability of owners to their crews—had found a place in the original proposals of the Government; but upon consideration had been omitted by the Government in their re-committed Bill. [Sir CHARLES ADDERLEY: No, no!] If I am in error, I apologize; I am under the impression that provisions have even been omitted or considerably modified by the Government in their re-committed Bill. [Sir CHARLES ADDERLEY: No!] A measure which contained so many provisions which were not introduced by the Government, but were rather introduced in spite of the Government, can hardly be claimed by the Government as one of their legislative triumphs during the present year. Add to what I have said, the whole of this measure is to last only one year, and it was explained by the right hon. Gentleman, when in a more humble mood, that it was introduced mainly as a material guarantee to bind the Government to legislate early next Session. This is the account, which I think it would be difficult substantially to contradict, that I have to give of the history of the two Bills relating to Merchant Shipping which we have been discussing during the present Session. If it were not for the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman at the Mansion House, I should be inclined to say of the Merchant Shipping Bill it had dragged heavily in its progress through this House, partly because the Government did not very well understand it, partly because they did not care much about it; that it had been abandoned by the Government without regret in order to make way 661 for the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill; that the question had been taken up again, partly on account of the excitement produced in the House by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll), and partly on account of the agitation which had been excited throughout the country. But, Sir, we are informed this would have been an entirely erroneous supposition. How fortunate it is that there is not far from these walls a sympathetic audience, where the right hon. Gentleman can un bosom the secrets not only of his own mind, but of his Cabinet, to whom he can confide the details of Cabinet Councils—details which are never vouchsafed to this House; where he can reveal his hopes and fears, where he can exchange his despondency for ultimate triumph, and where he makes known the real gist of the misunderstood plans of the Government to the whole country. Well, Sir, I have referred, I am afraid at too great length, to the measures introduced and carried by the Government—the Merchant Shipping Bill, the Artisans Dwellings Bill, the Public Health Bill, and the Friendly Societies Bill. I maintain, as I stated at starting, the Government have not, in their conduct of these measures, established any principle for the guidance of the House, nor solved any problem, nor attempted to battle with any difficulties; and the Bills, such as they are at this moment, are rather the Bills of the House than the Bills of the Government. The Government have given us little assistance in dealing with them; they have given us no principle to work with; they have scarcely even afforded the House the requisite structure of a Bill upon which to graft Amendments. But, forgetful of all this, the right hon. Gentleman has told us "that the Government has achieved other triumphs besides those connected with the social condition of the country, and that a Government which has reconstructed and reformed the Judicature of the country cannot be said to be indifferent to law reform." We have had partial discussions of the question this evening, and I will dwell upon it as briefly as possible. I think the real facts of the case are not unworthy of the attention of the House. In 1873 the late Government introduced and carried a measure relating to the re-construction of our Judicature. The measure was complete in its principle, and it was 662 nearly so in its structure. It is true that Scotch and Irish Appeals were not dealt with, because the Opposition of that day would not allow us to deal with them. What remained to be done? It was to allow the Act of 1873 to come into operation, and to provide for Scotch and Irish Appeals upon the principle which had been assented to last Session by both branches of the Legislature, and which in the present Session has been assented to by the House of Lords. That, I say, was what remained to be done; what was done? In deference to a Committee consisting of Members of both branches of the Legislature, but sitting outside its walls, the Government have declined to make that provision to the principle of which Parliament had already assented. The consequence is that the principal provision of the Act of 1873 has been suspended for another year, a temporary Court of Intermediate Appeal has been constructed, and the Act of 1873, shorn of its principal provision, is allowed to come into operation. This is what we are now told is the re-construction and the reform by the present Government of the Judicature of the country. I must say I think this statement does credit to the courage of the right hon. Gentleman, especially if he recollects that the Lord Chancellor, when he announced in the Lords the withdrawal of the original Bill which had been introduced by the Government, in accents which vouched for the sincerity of his words, said that he deeply regretted the necessity under which he was placed. Sir, I think it is worthy of the genius of the right hon. Gentleman that he has been able not only to turn what others would have considered a defeat into a victory, but that he has been able to reap a triumph where others would only have seen humiliation. With regard to the next subject, I have on another occasion endeavoured to bring before the House my views in regard to the Government legislation on the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill. I still regret that the Government did not think fit to postpone their proposals until another year, because I think if they had done so they would have brought in a simpler, more useful, and much better measure. I have before said, and I still say, that the Bill contains in my opinion a valuable principle—namely, that the tenant should be entitled to the unexhausted 663 value of the money he has laid out in the improvement of his land. I cannot help thinking, however, that it would have been far better if the principle had been laid down in a simpler form, leaving the parties to make their own agreement, or in default of so doing leaving them to the common process of the law; whereas, as it was, the Government at first professed to construct a complicated and minute detailed code applicable to landlord and tenant, but being conscious of the impossibility of regulating those matters by Act of Parliament they were obliged to re-consider the subject, and by a simple notice on one side or the other the Bill may be absolutely and completely got rid of. I cannot think that this is a complete and satisfactory solution of this important question. I should wish to make one other remark upon this Bill. The Government have entirely altered the principle and structure of the Bill since they first introduced it into this House. It came to us with the principle of compensation for the letting value. That principle was the keystone of the measure. That, however, has gone, and with it the whole structure of the Bill had to be altered, and that measure which we received from the other House in good time we are going to send back to them in the second week in August. That is the respect with which a Conservative Government treat the House of Lords, which they call upon us so often to respect. The Government, in addition to these legislative triumphs, we are informed, "made a frank and vigorous attempt to deal with the Public Debt of the country." But when the right hon. Gentleman told the Lord Mayor this, he omitted to inform him that the Government have not devoted one single sixpence of the Revenue of the year on account of that object. They neglected to make due provision for the Supplementary Estimates we have lately had before us, and if certain contingencies occur, so far from reducing the Public Debt, they will be under the necessity of increasing it. Then, again, Sir, we were told that although the subject of Local Taxation was not formally mentioned in the Queen's Speech, yet that various measures incidentally raising it would be introduced. The Local Authorities Bill, we were told, raised the question of Local Taxation. That Bill, which was introduced with considerable 664 pomp, contained two important proposals—one that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be authorized to advance to the local authorities sums from the savings banks, and the other that the local authorities should submit to the audit of their accounts. Both these provisions have disappeared from the Bill, and that has been the contribution of the Government in the present Session towards the settlement of the question of Local Taxation. But the Government have laboured, we are told, under considerable difficulties. They have had to encounter, not one, but three Oppositions, and although we are told that is favourable to the discussion and ventilation of public questions, it is costly in point of time. I think I might appeal to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich, whether a homogeneous Opposition is always economical in point of time. I will not go into statistics; but if it were desired I could point to measures passed by the. late Government, which I will not say were factiously opposed by a homogeneous Opposition, but which Opposition could hardly be described as economically conducted in point of time. When therefore the right hon. Gentleman regrets that he has not been confronted by a homogeneous Opposition, and that in consequence a great deal of time was spent in discussing the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill, I should like to ask him whether, if he had not been supported by a large portion of the Opposition, the debates on the Peace Preservation Bill, instead of occupying 12 nights, might not have been protracted to 20 or 30 nights. I have already referred to the Public Health Bill. That Bill contained 240 clauses, and, although it comprised no new provisions of importance, it did contain some new matter. If the Opposition had desired to obstruct the Business of the Government, what would have been easier than to prevent the passing of a Bill of 240 clauses? What was the unusual course taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Stansfeld)? He went through that Bill, and gave it his most careful consideration. He found that it had been admirably drafted, and was an excellent piece of workmanship, but that it would be impossible to pass it, if it were gone through clause by clause, and he entreated the House to pass the 665 Bill almost without discussion. That Bill was accordingly passed at two sittings of the House. I maintain that the Government have no right to plead want of time for the paucity of their measures. Want of time is not the origin of the weakness and feebleness of the Government measures. Those measures were prepared before the Session began at all, and if they have been wanting in principle and resolution, it is not want of time which can be pleaded as an excuse. Time, it is true, has been wanting, but it has been wanting for the discharge of the first duty of the House of Commons—namely, watching over the Estimates. On the 22nd of June, I pointed out that the Committee of Supply had only then sat five times, and although since then we have sat in Committee of Supply now and then during the month of July, yet that has happened which has rarely occurred—namely, that some of the most important Votes in the Navy Estimates were hurriedly passed through Committee on Tuesday last, without sufficient discussion, and that a very large portion of the Civil Service Estimates were passed through in the course of an hour or two on Wednesday. If time has been wasted, it is not the House of Commons or any other section of it that is entirely responsible. Time has not been wasted only on the consideration of the Irish Coercion Bill. I maintain that time has been wasted by Her Majesty's Government. Why were five nights of the Session occupied at that most valuable time of the year, when the House was fresh and ready for Business upon the Regimental Exchanges Bill, which never even found a place in the Queen's Speech. The right hon. Gentleman will scarcely deny that the Opposition were entitled—in fact, were bound, to give that Bill a thorough discussion. The question I ask the right hon. Gentleman is, were not some of the most valuable hours of the Session devoted to the consideration of that measure when measures of immeasurably greater importance, and which the country really demanded were allowed to wait in vain, for discussion? There is one other subject which I desire to touch upon. Sir, the right hon. Gentleman has always been profuse in his acknowledgments of the high character of the House of Commons and of its debates. I ask the House whether, in 666 its opinion, the character of its debates have been raised under the Leadership of the right hon. Gentleman? I ask any hon. Member who has had a seat in this House for some time, whether there has ever before been so much time, as there has during the present Session, spent upon personal questions—questions of Privilege and other interruptions of the ordinary course of Public Business? I am quite aware that it would not be fair to charge all, or even a large part of, those interruptions upon Her Majesty's Government; but I do ask whether the right hon. Gentleman led the House wisely when he supported the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Charles Lewis) in his Motion to summon the printers of two newspapers to the Bar of this House upon a matter which, after all, was merely personal? If that were a wise proceeding on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, how came it that the Order for the attendance of the printers at the Bar was ultimately discharged, but that the right hon. Gentleman at the outset had not the slightest idea of what he asked the House to do? I should like also to know when it has ever before been boasted by a Leader of the House that a measure earnestly desired by the people of this country could not be introduced until the necessity for it had been forced upon his attention by what he calls a dramatic scene? When we recollect what was the character of that scene, what was the cause of that scene, and what were the proceedings of the Government, I think the House has reason to blush. Then, in regard to the Rules for the Exclusion of Strangers, it was only under pressure that the right hon. Gentleman agreed to place our Rules upon the basis of common sense; and he has deferred settling questions in regard to the Publication of our Debates until some pressure of the same kind again arises. I do not think I need trouble the House any further. I repeat what I said when I rose—that I have discharged this duty with reluctance. I would willingly have allowed this Session to expire in the silence which would have best befitted it; but when it is held up for comparison with some of its glorious predecessors, I believe that I am bound to express the opinion which I firmly entertain, and which I believe will be re-echoed by the country—that, compared with many of 667 its predecessors, this Session has been marked by feebleness; that it has been aimless and purposeless, and barren of all benefit to the country and all credit to Parliament.
§ MR. DISRAELI
In war, Mr. Speaker, there is a military evolution which is well known. It commences with a thundering cannonade. When the clouds are dispelled some sharpshooters are seen advancing to the front. Soon a mass of infantry terrifies you by their compact and serried ranks. Then come squadrons of cavalry, trampling the earth, creating a great dust, and waving sabres. But, when the clouds have vanished, you find that your enemy has retired to a prudent distance, and this military evolution is called covering a retreat. The noble Lord to-night has covered the retreat of his forces; but, while he has criticized what we have done in this campaign, I am unable to criticize the conduct of the noble Lord and his Friends. They have done nothing, for the simple reason that they have attempted nothing. The noble Lord has alluded to my description in another place of the three sections of the Opposition. I did not make that reference that those who heard me might infer that the Opposition being broken into three sections was a source of strength to themselves, or of embarrassment to the Government, but to show that the representation of three sets of opinion opposite to us—often contrary and sometimes contradictory—must necessarily lead to considerable—I will not say waste of time, but—expenditure of time. If the noble Lord, instead of being what he now appears to have been, the sedulous and silent critic of the Government, had only employed his energies and his constant presence in disciplining his forces and inspiring them with those homogeneous sentiments upon which he now looks with so much contempt, the noble Lord might to-night when he entered upon the discussion of the policy of the Government and the conduct of the Session have brought forward the cases of rival measures which had been introduced to our notice and which were candidates for public approbation. He might have referred to the long and determined struggles he had made in favour of some great object, and the hosts—even if they were in a minority—which had supported him, at least, by 668 their enthusiasm. But the catalogue of events, so far as the Opposition is concerned, is a barren and ignominious one, and this attempt at the end of the Session to bring forward a Motion—or rather to make a speech of this kind will not cover their failure. The noble Lord has talked of my historical account; well, we have had an historical account from the noble Lord this evening of the doings of the Session, and that without the excuse of its being made after dinner. Let us follow the noble Lord in his criticism and see what is his case. In the first place, he deals with the laws, which I am glad to say have now been passed, with reference to the relations between the employers and the employed. The noble Lord could not refrain from offering his congratulations on the passing of those measures, nor from giving credit to the Government which had introduced them. But what does the noble Lord go on to say? He says—" You are entitled to no great merit for passing those Acts, because you found the accumulated information upon which you acted already prepared for you at the Home Office." All I can say is that that information was never known to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. If so, he certainly concealed it from his Colleagues, and from whomever else took an interest in the subject. The noble Lord goes on to say—" Not only did you find this accumulated information in our pigeon-holes, but the most important part of the Bill was suggested by one of my Colleagues." Why, Sir, the most important part of the Bill is not what was suggested by the right hon. Gentleman to whom he referred. I have not at hand its exact expressions; but the Amendment suggested by the right hon. Gentleman, though no doubt an improvement in the Bill for any one to make, yet it had nothing whatever to do with the main principle of the Bill, which was the abolition of imprisonment for what we now consider a civil offence, and dealing with the law of conspiracy. The noble Lord says that in dealing with a question affecting the social condition of the people the Government have proposed no new principle, and he says that our Public Health Bill is a mere Bill of consolidation. That was not a mere haphazard phrase on the 669 part of the noble Lord, because he repeated it two or three times. He dwelt upon the idea; he praised the dexterity of the draftsman, and more than once assured or reminded his Friends that it was nothing more than a consolidation of the laws upon the subject. He further said that he had no doubt that it had never been submitted to the Cabinet. No doubt, if the account of that Bill given by the noble Lord is correct, it never was submitted to the Cabinet, because the Bill which was submitted to the Cabinet in December was not a mere Consolidation Bill, but contained considerable alterations and amendments in the existing law, and alterations and amendments of the law were made in it not only by the Cabinet, but also in both Houses of Parliament. Well, then, we come next to another measure which the noble Lord sneers at—the Artizans Dwellings Bill. That, forsooth, is a mere "permissive Bill"—it is, he says, in fact, perfectly nugatory, and only attempts to do that which every great city might do, and which some great cities have already done for themselves; in short a mere pretext and pretence of a legislation. "It is an invitation merely to do something," says the noble Lord; but in that case I ask—" Why did not you and your Colleagues give that invitation?" What has been the consequence—of our giving that invitation—of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department? The consequence has been that before this year passes, as I am informed—and I believe on the highest authority—many millions of money will have been invested with the view of carrying out the purposes of that Bill by an association brought forward and supported by the highest persons belonging to both parties in the country. So much for our permissive legislation at which he sneers—so much for the invitation which he never gave, but which we have given, and which has been so amply and so zealously accepted. Then the noble Lord proceeds, with his easy sarcasm, to criticize the Friendly Societies Bill, and says—"You are entitled to no credit for this piece of legislation, because the late Government issued a Commission to inquire into the subject." I admit that—it is the first statement of the noble Lord that I admit to be perfectly accurate, but I must also 670 remind the noble Lord that he quite forgets to inform us that that Commission was forced upon the late Government, and he cannot fail to recollect that two of the most active and distinguished Members of that Commission are Members of the present Ministry. So much for the noble Lord's sympathy with the three measures which I have mentioned, one of which will have a speedy effect in improving the habitations of the artizans of this great City; another which has effected a great improvement in our sanitary laws, by altering and codifying them, and has laid the foundation for future action; and another which is a measure so provident and so prudent, and, I will say, so essentially charitable, that it has placed the Friendly Societies of this country in an intelligible, an intelligent, and a secure position.
Now, Sir, we come to a subject which the noble Lord endeavoured to make much of, but I do not think he succeeded in treating it with the hand of an artist, because he began with the end and he ended with the beginning, which is not the way to place a case perspicuously and effectively before a popular Assembly. With respect to the Merchant Shipping Bill, he makes a great accusation against the Government, and especially against me. Upon that subject I must, with the permission of the House, which I am aware must be much wearied of the subject, make a few remarks in answer to what the noble Lord has said. I cannot myself see that there has been any inconsistency in the conduct of the Government in their treatment of this subject. It is true that we brought forward a Merchant Shipping Bill which nobody can deny was a large measure, and was one which had been well studied, and was well conceived, and dealt with a subject of a controversial nature, and which everybody knew must meet with criticism and opposition. I would not, I must again say, advert to a point which has been so fully alluded to lately, for it must weary the House, and I know I shall be trespassing upon their indulgence if I dwell for a moment or two upon it. But it is necessary for me to do so since the noble Lord accuses me of great inconsistency. He says that when I gave up the Bill which we first introduced, I announced that I would not deal with the subject in a fragmentary way—that proposals had 671 been made to me to deal with it in a fragmentary way and that I declined to do so. That is perfectly true and perfectly consistent with all the course which I have taken. It was suggested—I am not sure that it was not suggested in debate, but certainly all those who took a deep interest in the subject on both sides of the House were aware that the question had been mooted—that it might be well to omit the clauses which had not been reached, and which would give rise to great controversy, and be satisfied with those which had been passed and others that we might pass without controversy, and in this manner pass during the present Session what I would call a fragmentary measure. I refused to do so. I said in my own mind it was a matter which must be dealt with, if at all, in a comprehensive way, and that I objected to a permanent measure of a fragmentary kind. I did not object to a temporary measure being fragmentary; but when I was asked to pass a large measure which omitted to deal with many of the problems involved in the subject, I saw that great mischief would result from the course proposed, and that such a measure would be only an obstacle to any future legislation. The noble Lord says I was not justified in giving up the Bill, and that the presence of a large number of Amendments on the Paper was not at any time an adequate and valid reason for giving up a Bill. Well, of course, the number of Amendments is not an adequate reason for giving up a Bill. You do not give up a Bill because you see 240 Amendments notified by the Opposition; but you look at the Amendments, you examine their character, you inquire as to their objects, you seek to find out what are the interests of the particular sections of the House in bringing forward those propositions, and also what are the means of resistance. You must go into very minute calculations. It is not a subject which you can debate openly in the House of Commons, because the House would be wearied by such details; but the person who is responsible for the conduct of Public Business must enter into these minute calculations before he decides whether he will go on with a Bill or not. As to the idea that a Bill could be given up, simply because the Secretary of the Treasury came and said there were 240 Amendments on the Paper, I can hardly 672 conceive how it can have occurred to the noble Lord, holding so responsible a position, to which he has proved tonight that he is adequate. The noble Lord says that on the Monday I announced to the House that I had hopes, if the Agricultural Holdings Bill got through Committee that week, we might carry the Merchant Shipping Bill. Well, I had hopes; and as long as I had hopes I adhered to my determination. But you must remember that when I made the second announcement, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday were gone, were wasted. We had not advanced a single step, and we had, under these circumstances, to consider the course which it would be necessary to take. I will not enter into any discussion on this point. It is not necessary. It is scarcely a fair discussion, and it could never be settled to anybody's satisfaction by discussion, whether we sacrificed the Merchant Shipping Bill to the Agricultural Holdings Bill or not. What I want is 'simply to assure the House that in the opinion of the Government, the consequence of our proceeding with the Merchant Shipping Bill would have been this—that we should have sacrificed both Bills, for if we had sacrificed the Agricultural Holdings Bill, we should not have been able to get on with the other. Well, it has been said that we acted with great inconsistency, and solely in consequence of public excitement in bringing in the short temporary measure. Well, so far as I am concerned, I say, without the slightest wish to disguise my feelings, that if there was a measure which I desired to carry, I should not in the least object to have the aid of public excitement, and I should not shrink from the responsibility. When we decided to give up the Merchant Shipping Bill, we considered whether it was possible to render more effective the administration of the Act of 1873—an excellent Act passed by our Predecessors. We had actually before us a plan for increasing the staff of the Board of Trade. We considered, also, the necessity for drawing up new instructions for those officers. That was conduct on our part which required no appeal to the House. But in examining the question in this way, we, of course, deeply felt the necessity for statutory assistance. My right hon. Friend was my principal counsellor at that moment upon the subject. Indeed, at the first, he was 673 my only counsellor, because it was impossible to consult to the same extent with my other Colleagues, who were scattered. "Well, a Cabinet Council had been already summoned for the next day on the subject. My having said Wednesday instead of Saturday, on another occasion, seems to be considered by the noble Lord, who referred to it, as one of the greatest mistakes that ever was made. All I can say is, if the noble Lord never makes a greater mistake than saying Wednesday for Saturday, when he dines at that distinguished place which he has described to-night in such singular phrases, his career will be one of the most enviable. Whether I said Wednesday or Saturday, what I wanted to impress upon those whom I was addressing was, that the day after the dramatic scene which we witnessed in this House, a Cabinet Council was held, at which I submitted for consideration the measures upon which I had consulted with my right hon. Friend. Knowing that statutory powers were necessary for us to do anything very effective, I proposed, that as there was now an opportunity of bringing in a Bill, that, as time was precious, and we did not know what discussion might arise, a Bill of only one clause should be introduced. That is the simple history of the whole affair, and it was, I must say, a most successful move. It is perfectly true that the Bill as passed contained more than one clause, but how was that done? They plundered our own Bill and presented us with the spoil. This Cabinet secret, the noble Lord says, was not told to this House. I am not quite sure of that. I think it was told to the House. But he proceeds with his catalogue raisonné of our acts, which he could not contrast with any proposals that were ever made in the dreary annals of his own Party. They scarcely brought forward a single Bill; they scarcely offered even a single counsel; and but for the dignity and good breeding of the noble Lord—whom we all recognize as an ornament of this House—I think the Opposition would not even have been represented. The noble Lord says our conduct of the Judicature Bill was extraordinary—that it was not creditable to us. All I know is that our Judicature Bill, which has passed this House, will introduce most beneficial changes, and I believe it is very popular in the country, 674 and for the very reasons which the noble Lord has made matter of accusation against us. The late Government in their legislation acted without sufficient preparation, and in ignorance of the public temper and the public mind. Their Bill died, because it had no public sympathy and it excited much odium. And why the people look with interest and satisfaction to the Judicature Bill which has just passed this House is, because they believe there is now a hope of the happy settlement of one of the greatest questions in this country—a question near and dear to the hearts of Englishmen—the establishment of a High Court of Appeal which historically possesses the confidence of the nation. Then the noble Lord came to the Agricultural Holdings Bill, that Bill which, we were led to believe, was never to pass. Why, there is no subject on which the noble Lord has given such advice to the Government as on the Agricultural Holdings Bill. Every time that the Order of the Day has been read for that measure, he has always recommended us to postpone it to another year. I am not at all surprised at that. The noble Lord seems extremely dissatisfied that any happy solution of that question should be undertaken and accomplished by those who sit opposite to him. But, with the greatest personal respect for the noble Lord, I cannot conceive that it is any part of my duty in the position I now occupy to take his advice on any subject. Although I do not believe a man of more honourable or more amiable qualities exists, yet when he gives me advice, I must view it with the greatest suspicion, and put on that adamantine armour which, they say, guards one from spirits hostile to one's career. Then, he comes to the measure relative to the Public Debt. I do not know whether the feelings expressed in the magnificent chamber which the noble Lord has certainly not described in poetic language—I do not know whether the feelings there expressed by public men of eminence and of all parties in the City the other day with regard to that measure was justified or not; but this I believe I have reason to say—that if I can judge from those expressions and from what reaches me from all quarters and all parties in the City of London, represented by men who sit even on both sides of this House, that measure is 675 looked upon as a wise and prudent one, and that whether this year it will work much or little is not what the people of England—and the most sober portion of the people of England—are thinking of; but whether at least there is not a practical foundation laid for dealing with that vast Public Debt which in times of doubt and difficulty, and when the country is not prosperous, causes us so much anxiety and concern. I do not know that there is any measure that we have brought forward for which the approbation of those classes whose esteem must always be valued by a Government has been more decidedly pronounced than in respect to that one. Then the noble Lord says that we proposed Bills as to local taxation and local authorities, but that they were given up. But the noble Lord has belonged to Administrations in his time; and did they not at the end of the Session give up measures? "Why, I found an eagerness on the part of the noble Lord himself to get me to give up our measures at the beginning of July, or rather at the end of June. Indeed, he has been educated in the school of statesmen who have been so accustomed to give up their measures that, in his most serious mood and almost with passionate fervour and glowing words, he has attacked us night after night because we did not begin in the merry month of May to give up our measures. Then the noble Lord defends himself against the charge which I made against the Opposition. He says I described the Opposition as factious. Now, my memory completely deceives me if I over made that charge. It is not a charge which I am in the habit of making. I have passed a considerable part of my time in Opposition, and I acted freely when I was in Opposition; but I hope those to whom I was opposed generally consider that I was a fair opponent. I remember Lord Palmerston's saying once—" They accuse us of faction, but faction is only another man's action;" and it struck me that there was pith in that remark. I have never for one moment thought of charging the Opposition with factious conduct during the present Session. Indeed, I have never accused them in any way. The noble Lord went on to say that he was very much opposed to the Regimental Exchanges Bill, and he defended himself against the charge of 676 faction in that ease. Well, we all know that the Opposition to the Regimental Exchanges Bill did waste—I will not say waste, but consumed—a great deal of time. But the noble Lord, without being accused, excuses himself—which is a dangerous process—with respect to the Regimental Exchanges Bill. I never accused the noble Lord, though the Opposition to the Bill proceeded from the front bench, and was not carried on by the three great parties opposite. I recollect five nights were occupied on one clause. [Several hon. MEMBERS: There was only one clause.] Well, another great charge which the noble Lord makes against the Government is that their measures are wanting in principle. What principle? The principle in which it seems they are wanting is the compulsory principle, and the question is, whether the country is in favour of that principle? Laws of general application must be founded on compulsion; but in this country, when you are dealing with the manners and the customs of some particular class or trade or part of the population, if you have recourse to the compulsory principle you will do nothing but create bitterness and opposition. It is only by persuasion—the finest persuasion in the world, which is example—persuasion in action, that you can influence and modify and mitigate habits which you disapprove. Then the noble Lord comes to Supply, and charges us with having been very lax and deficient with respect to the progress which we made with the Committee of Supply. Well, we gave you a whole fortnight for Supply only very recently; but the noble Lord was not ingenuous enough to admit—if, indeed, he recollected the fact—that we, whom he so easily charges in this matter, took off the restrictions on the right of hon. Members to bring forward their Motions which were imposed by our Predecessors in office. If we had established those restrictions, Supply, of course, would have been more readily obtained. I am not, however, prepared to say that I regret the course we have taken in this respect. I should be sorry to be obliged to recognize the necessity of again imposing those restrictions, although I think they were salutary and constitutional, and that it may yet become necessary to do so. Then the noble Lord proceeds to criticize my conduct of the 677 Business of the House. It has, he says, lowered its dignity. There have, he tells us, been scenes in the House which I ought to have prevented. What scenes? Does the noble Lord mean to say that it was my duty to order the hon. Member for Stoke (Dr. Kenealy) into the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms, when he rose to make a speech after entering the House? There was a scene on the occasion to which I refer. Does the noble Lord think I was responsible for it? Why, the hon. Member for Stoke is a great supporter of the noble Lord. He sits exactly behind the noble Lord, and I daresay offers him suggestions on constitutional points which, perhaps, are offered to a deaf ear. I appeal, then, to the candour of hon. Gentlemen opposite whether I was responsible for the exhibition which was then made? Was I responsible for the course which was taken by the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Sullivan) with respect to the presence of Strangers? Was he not to use his Privilege of taking notice that Strangers were present, if he thought right to do so? I do not think I was at all responsible in that case either; but I am perfectly prepared to take my share of the responsibility in the case of the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Charles Lewis). I have touched on the points in connection with the scenes produced by the hon. Member for Stoke and the hon. Member for Louth—scenes which, it is said, have lowered the dignity of the House. If I had interfered, it would have been supposed that I did so to restrain the legitimate exercise of the Privileges of hon. Members. But with respect to the action of the hon. Member for Londonderry, my own opinion is that what occurred never would have happened—though, for reasons I will allege, I do not regret that it has—if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London (Mr. Lowe), who was Chairman of the Committee whose conduct was questioned, had done that which, I believe, every Gentleman in the House expected he would have done, and which I have the highest authority for saying would have been perfectly consistent with his duty. That scene, however, was rife with very important consequences, because it enabled the Leader of the Opposition to take the only decided step which he has taken during this Session of six months. 678 Then he was for once not only the Leader of his Party, but the Leader of the House. The course he then pursued received the congratulations of his friends out-of-doors; and all the newspapers—those representing the three sections—said—" Here is a man come to the rescue of the dignity of Parliament and the principles of the Constitution; he is going to knock up all 'the musty precedents' which the right hon. Member for the University of London said were no longer adapted to the ago." Well, the noble Lord did go on manfully, and appealed to the House. But what was its decision? By an overwhelming majority, swollen by many of his own most influential supporters, Members whoso opinions, from their experience and talents, rightly have great influence, this House gave its verdict that the policy with regard to Privilege recommended by the noble Lord and his right hon. Friends was a policy fatal to the dignity, the freedom, and the power of Parliament, and that decision never would have been come to but for the accidental conduct of the hon. Member for Londonderry. The noble Lord said, though I refused the concession which related to the public Press, still I had to make one great concession—that the presence of Strangers should not be noticed in the Gallery. The concession I made was an extremely guarded concession, I think at that moment, in consequence of the inexperience of some hon. Members in the now Parliament, who, I am sure, will never do the same thing again, it was necessary to come to some resolution which could check their vagaries. But that was only a Sessional Order; it does not touch the Privileges of the House, which I do not think over can be interfered with. I do not think the noble Lord will burn his fingers again with that matter. I believe I have now touched on every remark made by the noble Lord adverse to the Government—at least I am not conscious that I have omitted one. I have no doubt the points which he urged against mo were well-considered, that the charges were well-meditated, and that he had the advice of those who have much Parliamentary experience as to the mode in which he was to dispose his arguments and accusations. I ask the House what case has he made out? Has he proved that we have done nothing; has he 679 proved that he has done anything? I believe the opinion of the country at this critical moment, now that our labours are nearly at an end, will be unanimous on the subject. The country will see, in a few days, in the most authentic and official record, the catalogue of the labours of the House of Commons. They are not discreditable to the Ministry. They are, I think, manifestly calculated to be beneficial to the country. But I take no credit to myself, whom the noble Lord has made the author of all these delinquencies. I take no credit for that authentic catalogue of the achievements of Parliament. Though I am placed here to take some chief direction in the conduct of the Business of this House and its general management, the House must know full well that it is not my shoulders or the shoulders of a more gifted man than I that can bear this burden. I am assisted by those who surround me, by Colleagues most able; and I will say this—whether I speak of Parliament, or of the Cabinet—the most devoted Colleagues a Minister ever possessed. But above all, and beyond all, Cabinets or Colleagues, what the country is most indebted to for the measures of infinite benefit which have been brought forward this year and carried successfully, is the patriotism of Parliament and the good feeling and high spirit of Gentlemen who sit on both sides of the House.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.