HC Deb 24 June 1875 vol 225 cc440-50

Order for resuming Adjourned Debate thereupon [22nd June] read.


Sir, I very much regret that my unavoidable absence from the commencement of the Business of the House on Tuesday last has occasioned the Motion which I placed on the Paper to be to some extent misunderstood, from want of explanation. During the various periods in which it has been my fortune or fate to conduct the Business of this House, I have never at any time when I have appealed to independent Members to surrender their privileges to the Government contemplated accepting such a sacrifice on their part unless it was made unanimously. These are questions which, in my mind, ought not to be matters for controversy or division, and had I been here and heard the objections which were made I should have at once terminated the discussion by not pressing the Motion. The fault is my own I acknowledge, and I regret extremely that I was not present. And, indeed, acting in that spirit, I rise now to move that the Order which is on the Paper should be discharged. But as I am on my legs, and as the Business of the House this Session has been a subject of considerable interest, I will, with the permission of the House, make one or two remarks on the progress and prospects of Public Business, because I think it is a subject on which considerable misunderstanding exists. Some time ago the noble Lord who is the Leader of the Opposition inquired of me whether I could inform him what were the measures mentioned in the Queen's Speech which I contemplated would be carried to a successful issue this Session. I thought the question of the noble Lord then premature, and I think that was the general opinion of the House: but we are now more advanced in the Session, and I will therefore call the attention of the House to the measures which were introduced to the notice of the House by the Queen's Speech, and to the position which they now occupy. There were 11 Bills mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Of these the first was the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill. That Bill has passed and has received the Royal Assent. Three other measures—the Artizans Dwellings Bill, the Public Health Bill, and the Friendly Societies Bill—have practically passed. The Land Titles and Transfer Bill and the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (1873) Amendment Bill have passed the House of Lords, and now stand for Committee in this House. The Merchant Shipping Acts Amendment Bill has far advanced in Committee. That makes seven. The Labour Laws Bill, making the eighth, stands for a second reading. The Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill, the ninth measure, will in a few minutes, on my Motion, I hope, reach a second reading. It has already passed the House of Lords. The tenth measure is the Offences Against the Person Bill, and that stands for a second reading. The eleventh measure, relating to the Pollution of Rivers, is now in Committee in the House of Lords. Therefore, I think the House will agree with me, that when they consider the position which these 11 measures occupy in the Business of the Session, there is no reason whatever to assume that they may not all be carried to a successful termination. Consequently, the House will feel that the noble Lord, who more, I think, than a month ago made his inquiry, is scarcely justified in having done so by the progress which we have since made with the 11 measures recommended to Parliament in the Queen's Speech. Some of those measures have passed, and every one of them has been considerably advanced. Now, Sir, having made this statement, I may be permitted to remark that Her Majesty's Government, in conducting the Business of the House this year, have experienced a difficulty which has rarely occurred. Certainly it has not previously occurred in my memory, although I have been a Member of this House for nearly 40 years. It is this—The House is well aware that every year there are expiring laws which would cease to exist at a certain time, and not generally during the period when Parliament is sitting. Well, our predecessors—I do not mean our immediate predecessors only, for I trust they will not suppose I am making any particular remark on their conduct —but our predecessors for many years, in order to devote all the time at their command to novel legislation, have treated these expiring laws, though they are often of the highest and foremost interest, in the following manner:—They have shuffled them all at the end of the Session into what is called a Continuance Bill, and a wearied House, being unable to resist the inevitable result, has sanctioned that course. But after we acceded to office the abuse of this system became, at the end of last Session, so flagrant that the House was no longer prepared to sanction it. It is, indeed, impossible to complain of the conduct of the Irish Members when they protested against a measure which suspended the constitutional liberties of their country being passed as a mere Continuance Bill. Considerable opposition was offered to that Bill on that occasion by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and I gave them a pledge that if they would forego that opposition they should have full opportunity of discussing the measure in the present Session. That pledge, on the part of the Government, I have redeemed. But what has been the consequence of the redemption of that pledge? Why, five weeks of the Government time and a more considerable period of the time of the House—for several days belonged to independent Members, of which we were obliged to avail ourselves—were spent in discussing a Bill which was an expiring Bill, and which, under other circumstances, would have been passed without discussion as a Continuance Bill at the end of the Session. Therefore, I trust the House will remember that we have not only made the progress I have indicated with those measures which in the Speech from the Throne we promised to bring forward, but that we have also experienced a very serious difficulty in contending against the consequences of giving up the old system of dealing with measures of great importance when they were expiring laws. I say this because we have yet to deal with an expiring law, and that one of the greatest importance and upon a 'most interesting subject—I mean the Criminal Law Continuance Act. It is one of that group of Bills with which the Government attempt to deal with the long-vexed question of labour and the relations between master and servant. I hope the measures which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will call upon the House to consider in the course of a few days are such as will recommend themselves to the minds of those hon. Gentlemen who are deeply interested in the question, and that we shall encounter no vexatious opposition to them. I trust they will be taken as a whole, and as a generous and wise settlement of a great public controversy. The House must see, however, that those who have the conduct of the Public Business of the House have had to contend with difficulties of rare occurrence, such as have arisen from dealing with these expiring laws. It would, in fact, have been impossible to counteract these difficulties if the Government had not appealed to the generous sympathy of the House to allow us at an earlier period than usual to avail ourselves of Morning Sittings. It was from no caprice or negligence that we made that demand, which was but the necessary consequence of having to pass the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill. Well, these Morning Sittings have not entirely compensated us for the loss of these five weeks, but they have greatly assisted us; and in case of difficulties arising in respect of this question to which I have alluded—namely, the expiring law of master and servant—or in respect of other questions, it is only by the generous support of the House that we can possibly carry the measures announced in the Queen's Speech, especially when we have to deal with difficulties so great and of such rare occurrence. With regard to asking for Tuesdays the other day, I believe it really arose from the following circumstance:—It appeared that the Gentlemen of the long robe on both sides of the House were anxious to have a discussion on Tuesday on the legal measures which are now before us—namely, the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (1873) Amendment Bill and the Land Titles and Transfer Bill. Now Tuesday morning was most inconvenient for them and they therefore appealed to the Government to assist them in obtaining another Tuesday. As it had been customary, though not quite so early in the year, for the Government to apply that Tuesday might be given up, it was thought that it might be for their convenience to make a general appeal at that time. I am not for a moment wishing to contest the right of the House to demur to that arrangement. I am grateful to the House for the indulgence we have experienced in obtaining Morning Sittings, without which, no doubt, our position would have been greatly inferior to what it is at present in regard to the progress of Business. As far as we can avail ourselves of the time we can command we shall endeavour to forward the measures which we have placed before the House, and if we find it necessary to ask the House to assist us I feel confident that I shall not appeal to the House in vain. In conclusion the right hon. Gentleman moved that the Order be discharged.


said, he thought it would be agreed that no factious opposition to the Government had arisen from the Members of the Opposition who sat below the Gangway. He must remark, however, that the right hon. Gentleman had somewhat changed his ground. Some time ago, he said the House would have to sit until it had passed all the measures which had been proposed by the Government and read a second time. Now, however, the right hon. Gentleman proposed to pass only the measures mentioned in the Queen's Speech, and this was, of course, a very different thing indeed. The former statement produced a slight feeling of alarm among hon. Members, who, consequently, were less willing the other night than they would otherwise have been to comply with the wishes of the Government. Another cause of protest was that private Members had the idea that their privileges were being invaded, and they had an objection to such a precedent being adopted. The Prime Minister had given many good reasons for what had been done, and as the right hon. Gentleman was always ready to consult their convenience, he should be unwilling to show any undue opposition to the Government.


pointed out that the present Government had not proposed to re-enact the rule which was in force during the last Parliament with reference to Committee of Supply. In the present Parliament independent Members had had the opportunity of bringing questions forward on the Motion for going into Supply on every night when Supply was down.


Sir, I wish to make a few observations on this question before the House proceeds to another subject, which I know it is anxious should not be delayed. The hon. Members who were in the House last Tuesday will be aware that when I rose immediately after the Secretary of State for War I did not do so with the object or intention of interposing any obstacle whatever in the way of the Government obtaining any portion of the time of the House which might be considered necessary for the successful prosecution of the measures before it. What I did venture to remark upon was that the unusual Motion—a Motion which, as I showed, was made at a considerably earlier period of the Session than it had ever been made before, with the exception of last Session—should be made without any statement whatever on the part of the Government as to their intentions with regard to the numerous measures before the House. It appears now the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman was made without sufficient consideration; for although he would, no doubt, be supported by a large majority in any demand on the time of the House which he might think it necessary to make, he has now withdrawn his Motion without any statement whatever with regard to the progress of Business. I do not recollect the exact occasion to which the right hon. Gentleman refers when he says that I prematurely asked the Government their intentions with regard to the prosecution of their measures. I do not think that until last Tuesday I have ever done so—that is, asked the Government whether they had any intention of abandoning any of the measures they had introduced. What I think I have done on more than one occasion was to point out some inconveniences experienced, owing to the very short notice which on several occasions the Government gave with reference to the course of Business. The consideration of one measure has been dropped, and another taken up with very small notice; and although I am quite willing to bear testimony to the courtesy which characterizes all the proceedings of the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the Business of the House, I think the course which has been taken in this respect has been sometimes not altogether for the convenience of the House. I cannot charge my memory with having on any occasion before last Tuesday afternoon expressed any opinion as to what measures the Government intended to take; but, Sir, I think the time has now come when it would be very much to the convenience of the House, and expedite the Public Business, if a somewhat more definite announcement were made as to the measures to be seriously prosecuted. The right hon. Gentleman, in the observations he has made, has chiefly confined himself to the measures mentioned in the Queen's Speech; but there are other measures of great importance before the House not mentioned in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech, and which, if proceeded with, will occupy a considerable portion of our time. I admit there are Bills mentioned in the Queen's Speech which may be said to be practically disposed of as far as we are concerned. The Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill and the Public Health Bill are disposed of, and great progress has been made with the Friendly Societies Bill, and a measure introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—the National Debt Bill. But there remains a very formidable list of measures, some of which have hardly been considered by this House at all. There is the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill, which has not yet been considered by this House. There are two Bills, dealing with the relations of employer and employed. There are the Land Titles and Transfer Bill and the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (1873) Amendment Bill, which have not yet been reached. The measures introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Local Authorities Loans Bill, the Public Works Loans Bill, the Savings Banks Bill, and another Bill relating to Banks, have not been fully discussed. Having now reached the 24th of June, I think the right hon. Gentleman and the Government must be of extremely sanguine dispositions if they think that all these Bills can pass during the present Session; and I think it would tend to the convenience of the House and the despatch of Public Business if the right hon. Gentleman could harden his heart and commence that operation generally known as "the Massacre of the Innocents" by giving us a preliminary massacre. I admit that the Government is not responsible for the expenditure of time on the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill; but I must point out that the right hon. Gentleman has taken credit for this on two different accounts. The Bill was introduced in the Queen's Speech as a question of public policy in regard to Ireland, and it was received in that way by the House. But now the right hon. Gentleman takes credit for that as being an improvement upon the procedure of his Predecessors, who were content to deal with these matters in Expiring Laws Continuance Bills. I must remind the right hon. Gentleman that it fell to the lot of the late Government twice to pass measures relating to the preservation of peace in Ireland, which also took up a considerable portion of the time of the Session, and at the same time they were able to pass other measures of the very greatest importance. I think there are measures which have occupied a good deal of the time of the House, for which the Government are responsible, and which have occupied a larger share of the time of the House, in proportion to their importance, than measures which are now waiting for consideration. I do not think that either the Regimental Exchanges Bill, or the Bill, introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, relating to an imaginary scheme for the reduction of the National Debt, was of so much importance that the time of the House should be wasted upon them while such questions as the improvement of the merchant shipping laws, and the relations between employers and their workmen, were left to be discussed at the fag-end of the Session. There is only one other observation I wish to make. It will be in the recollection of many hon. Members that no subject was made more frequent ground of complaint against the late Government than than the manner in which, according to hon. Gentlemen opposite, we neglected the primary business of the House of Commons—namely, the business of Supply. We were complained of for taking the Estimates late for the purpose of proceeding with legislation which hon. Gentlemen stated was unnecessary. What has been the course of the present Government with regard to Supply? In the last year of the late Government, in which I believe that complaint was as usual brought forward, I have ascertained that the Committee of Supply sat, before the period at which we have arrived, no less than 13 times. I find up to the present time the House has had Committee of Supply only five times; and, although the Army and Navy Estimates have been entirely or nearly all disposed of, we have at present spent only one evening on the Civil Service Estimates, and only one class of those Estimates has yet been voted. We have, as yet, had no discussion on the Education Estimates, and there is no probability that a day will shortly be fixed for the discussion; and we have not yet been informed by the Government what are their intentions with regard to an increased grant for Irish Education, for the increase of the salaries of the National School teachers. Something has been said about Supplementary Estimates; but not a word has been stated to the House as to the intentions of the Government. When we look at the number of measures which I have read over, all of which will require very great consideration—when we look at the state of Supply, and the small progress that has been made in the Civil Service Estimates—I am of opinion that the right hon. Gentleman would exercise a wise discretion if he made up his mind to sacrifice some of the Bills now before us, so that we might devote ourselves more completely and more satisfactorily to the consideration of those that remain.


ventured to express the extreme anxiety that was not only felt in the House, but also out-of-doors that the Government would find or make time to carry the Merchant Shipping Bill to its termination. To do so would be to terminate a state of things that was very troublesome to shipowners themselves, and which also caused a frightful loss of life. He did not refer merely to unseaworthy ships or to overloading, because the Bill ignored this, but because the Bill afforded an opportunity to insert clauses which would bring about a better state of things. He had carefully abstained from occupying the attention of the Committee whilst the preliminary clauses were under discussion, and he had used all his influence with others to prevent discussion until they should reach the heart of the subject; and when the Government should bring on the Bill again they would find that they would be able to proceed much more rapidly in the future than they had been able to do in the past, and he had every confidence that they would be able to make the Bill into a satisfactory measure, and thus secure an immense amount of good. He believed that a satisfactory-measure passed upon this subject would earn for the Government an amount of gratitude which no Government had received during this century.


said, he thought that an eulogium had been passed upon the Merchant Shipping Bill to which it was not entitled; and he hoped that, whatever Bills the Government should resolve to abandon, they would include it among them, for if it passed it would perpetuate all existing evils and add to the loss of life which the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) deplored. He congratulated independent Members upon the stand which they had made for their privileges. The chief cause of the loss of time this Session was not the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill. That, no doubt, took up a certain portion of time; but the Government ought to have foreseen that result. He contended that the real cause of all their difficulties in the present and in the past Sessions was the bad practice of this and of other Governments in overloading the Paper. At the beginning of the Session there was an amount of Business introduced that no rational man could hope to see carried. It was very much to be regretted that at this period of the Session the House had not had an opportunity of dealing with the three principal Votes in the Navy Estimates. He should like to know when the Navy Estimates would be likely to be brought forward again?


observed, that the last Government was frequently attacked for asking for Votes at this period of the Session, and yet now there was an intimation that there would be still further Votes on Account asked for within the next three days. He was told that if these Votes on Account were not taken the service of the country would have to come to a full stop. He desired therefore to ask whether the House would have a proper opportunity of considering the remaining Votes of Supply, and whether in another Session care would be taken that there would be no necessity for asking for Votes on Account at so late a period of the Session.


pointed out that it was not owing to the discussions on the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Bill that Supply was so backward. During the whole month of February the House had sat only three times after 10 o'clock, and if the Estimates had been ready much progress in Supply might have been made. They had heard of the privileges of Members; but it was really the privileges of the people which were in question. He wished to remind hon. Gentlemen that the highest function of this House was not legislation. Its highest function was to be the Grand Inquest, of the Nation and the Committee of Grievances of the Nation. What had given the House of Commons its geat position was that it had the power to originate discussions apart from the Business brought forward by the Ministers of the Crown. He believed that if ever the time came when this House would lose its character for being the Committee of Grievances of the Nation it would also lose its influence with the people. Of late years great encroachments had been made on the liberties of the House. It was true that each in itself was but a small encroachment; but it was by gradual encroachments Session by Session, day by day—each encroachment small in itself, and of a character which it would appear factious to resist—that in progress of time serious inroads were made upon the liberties of the House.

Motion agreed to; Order discharged