HC Deb 02 August 1876 vol 231 cc319-30
MR. RAIKES (Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means)

said, he desired to call attention tithe Report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Agency, and to move certain Resolutions, Notice of which he had placed on the Paper, founded on that Report. The Notice he had given was, no doubt, of the shortest—but the necessities of the case made it inconvenient for the Chairman of the other House and himself to take part in the deliberations of a Committee or to devote attention to the matter at an early period of the Session, and the delay which had occurred was therefore unavoidable. It was impossible for him to indicate to the House the line he proposed to take until Saturday, when he placed the Notice on the Paper; but though he thought it desirable that the Report of the Joint Committee should be discussed before the close of the Session, he did not, considering the shortness of the Notice, propose to press for a final decision upon it. There were three principal matters with which the Report dealt—first, the constitution of the roll of practitioners; secondly, the mode of ascertaining the fitness of persons to be admitted to practice as Parliamentary Agents; and thirdly, the question of the division of profits between Agents and solicitors. The Committee, therefore, recommended that the names of all persons authorized to practise as Parliamentary Agents should be entered on a roll to be kept by the Clerk of the Parliaments. With regard to the constitution of the roll, the Committee had not attempted to interfere with existing interests; they therefore recommended that the roll should comprise, in the first instance, the names of all persons who during this or the preceding Parliament had introduced and conducted any Private Bill through both Houses, and of such other persons as the Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords and the Speaker of the House of Commons should have, for special reasons, considered to be entitled to be placed on it. With regard to future admissions, it was a matter of some difficulty and delicacy. It was, above all things, desirable that Parliament should not be suspected of the design of preventing any man from obtaining the means of earning an honest livelihood, or of any desire of establishing a monopoly in a particular class;—the question was how to reconcile the interests of the public with private interests. He did not think there would be much difference of opinion as to the proposal that there should be a recognized body of Parliamentary Agents;—it therefore became of importance to lay down rules by which the status of Parliamentary Agents might be obtainable. As he had said, the recommendation of the Committee was that there should be placed on the roll all persons who during the present or the preceding Parliament had conducted any Private Bill through both Houses, and of such other persons as the Chairman of the Lords' Committees or the Speaker might for special reasons think fit to be admitted. Representations had been made to the Committee on behalf of solicitors, such as solicitors of Railway Companies and other Incorporations, who were necessarily largely engaged in Parliamentary practice, but who in preference to conducting that business through their own office delegated to regular Parliamentary Agents the conduct of their business through Parliament. It seemed but fair that solicitors in this position ought not to be excluded from the roll because of the largeness of their practice; but he had little doubt their case would come within the special consideration of the Chairman of Committees of the other House and the Speaker. Here arose another point as to the question of opposition in Committees. A mistaken impression had got abroad that the Committee wished to restrict the persons who should be admitted to oppose Bills in Committee to those who were on the roll of Parliamentary Agents. This was not so. The Committee were unanimous in recommending that any person, whether on the roll or not, should conduct the opposition to any Bill on entering into the same engagements as might be required in the rules prescribed in respect of Parliamentary Agents. No doubt they were of opinion that in most cases it was desirable that the opposition should be conducted by properly qualified practitioners. The second important point to which the Report called attention was a test of fitness for the future. And here he must admit there was a strange irony in fate when he, who had never hesitated to say that he had no confidence in any examination as a test of fitness, found himself advocating examination in this instance. He thought that a much more effectual test would be service in the office of an experienced person; but that was open to the serious objection that it would confine to a few, who would be able to exact large fees, the business of educating their successors, and that a monopoly would be created. The apprenticeship test was therefore abandoned, and they had to fall back on examination; and though he had no great confidence in any examination as a test of general fitness, there could be no doubt, where the special knowledge of an expert was required, it was much easier to apply this test successfully than in a wider field. It was stated by the Taxing Officer of the House of Lords, who had an experience of 40 or 50 years, that he could find out in 10 minutes whether a person was versed in Parliamentary procedure or not. It had been suggested in a Memorial of the Incorporated Law Society that barristers and solicitors only should be permitted to practise as Parliamentary Agents—but the Committee had refused to adopt that recommendation. Originally the Agents were not solicitors, but clerks of the House; and when, in 1836, it was decided that clerks of the House should no longer practise as Agents, many of them surrendered their clerkships in order to practise as before, and founded those most respectable firms by which the largest part of Parliamentary business was conducted at the present day. Some of the best Parliamentary Agents had not been solicitors. It was therefore thought desirable that Parliament should institute some test of special fitness of its own. The Committee, therefore, recommended that any barrister, advocate, solicitor, writer to the signet, or graduate of an University, and any person who Should have passed a certain examination, to be conducted by the Civil Service Commissioners, should be allowed to present himself for a special examination. This examination was to be conducted by Examiners to be named from time to time by the Chairman of Committees and the Speaker, and was to be specially directed to the fitness of the candidates for practice as Parliamentary Agents. The persons who should pass this examination would then be placed on the roll. A much more vexed question was as to the division of profits. A country solicitor believed himself capable of doing anything—and he would probably be very unfit for his business if he did not; he conducted cases through the Courts of Chancery, Common Law, and Bankruptcy, and therefore he considered himself capable of conducting a Private Bill through Parliament. And there were many country solicitors who, taking this view of their capacity, regarded their Parliamentary Agents as they did their London Law Agents—namely, as delegates with whom they might fairly arrange the terms of their remuneration. The Committee were of a different opinion. They were of opinion that this system led to great abuses—to exorbitant expenses in some cases, to great and unnecessary delay, and frequently to disastrous failures. They therefore recommended that the Special Rules regulating the admission and practice of Parliamentary Agents, to be drawn up by the Chairman of Committees and the Speaker, should absolutely forbid this practice, that any Agent who should be proved guilty of the violation of the rules in this respect should be summarily removed from the roll. Under the present system the country solicitor who employed a Parliamentary Agent considered himself entitled to half the fees, because, he said, if he had resided in London he could conduct the Bills themselves, and receive the whole of the fees. But where special fitness was required this would not be the case. Theoretically the solicitor was supposed to prepare all the preliminary documents—practically the business was done by one man, the Agent. The solicitor was entitled to charges over and above what were paid to the Parliamentary Agent—but here, besides what he was entitled to as solicitor, he took what the Parliamentary Agent was entitled to—he took double fees. Suppose, for instance, a Bill consisting of 100 folios. The solicitor was entitled to 2s. a folio, or £10, for drawing it, and the Parliamentary Agent to a further fee for "settling" it—as in ordinary legal business the solicitor drew a deed, and counsel was paid for settling it. Here, in point of fact, the Agent did both—but the country solicitor received his charges for doing nothing, besides half the Agent's charge. This system could not be equitable in itself; but it led to further injustice, forth Agent was obliged to invent business and make charges which would otherwise not be incurred. The client and Agent were both sufferers by the practice. Here was an instance. A Bill affecting the interests of a very important borough was introduced; it was promoted by the town clerk, who was paid by salary, not by fees. The town clerk, however, made a charge upon the Parliamentary Agent, who, thinking him to be a customer it would not be wise to disoblige, paid him 100 guineas out of his fees. The matter was brought before the Town Council, which ordered the money to be paid into the borough fund. The leading firms of Parliamentary Agents entirely condemned the practice and refused to adopt it. Mr. Theodore Martin, who appeared before the Committee as the representative of the Parliamentary Agents' Society—a body comprising all the leading firms and most experienced practitioners—gave this evidence— 118. And among those rules, if they were made obligatory upon the profession, I presume that you would include a rule against the division of profits?—Certainly; I think that to divide profits is utterly vicious in principle, and I have seen it operate very badly. Of course you cannot always, in a numerous society, secure high character; the best you can do is to make the risks of temptation as small as possible. As I have already stated, I consider that the scale of fees is not too high; in fact, no man could conduct his business properly, I am sure, if it were to be reduced. If a man gives up half of those legitimate earnings the temptation is great to replace them by some other process; that process, as one has seen it in practice, is by creating unnecessary work, and in our profession it is quite possible to do that. I will illustrate it in this way: Supposing that a local solicitor wanting to come to London, makes his Bill an excuse for it, and says, 'I want to come to London and see you about this Bill.' There is nothing whatever to see him about; the Bill is probably settled, but he comes to London and stays here; he calls upon me, and I charge for receiving him and talking about his Bill. He still remains in London, and something else comes into his mind, and he comes to me again the next day, and so charges are accumulated without any real benefit to the client. The temptation, of course, lies in this and similar directions to a man to compensate himself for what he has given away; and I think that the officials of the House under whose eyes these things come can give evidence of its working in the way I have indicated. Take another case—namely, that of witnesses. An experienced Parliamentary Agent knows well what class of evidence is likely to have weight with a Committee. The local solicitors send up a bundle of papers with the proofs of the witnesses; we read them, and come to the conclusion: If all that these proofs contain were said, what would be the good of it? It would not influence the Committee a bit. We therefore write down and say, 'Don't send those people;' but a man who has an interest, along with, the local solicitor, has sacrificed his independence, and he will not deal with them in the same way that I or others who do not participate in profits do. In the first place, we want to do business efficiently in the least time and at the least cost. That is the idea which I think that every member of our society has steadily in view; but if you allow anybody to have an interest such as I have indicated, the temptation becomes very great not to conduct business upon this principle. 119. I understand you to say that upon the whole you regard the practice of dividing profits between Parliamentary Agents and solicitors as essentially different from the practice of dividing profits between solicitors and their London agents?—Quite so, upon an obvious principle. A solicitor in the country gets his London solicitor to do certain formal things, which he, the solicitor in the country, can do quite as well if he chooses to come to London to do them. But he is not in the position that a Parliamentary Agent is in, who at very many important stages of a Bill is more in the position of a counsel to advise, than of solicitor, and the work which he does, if his existence is to be retained at all, is work of a special kind, quite distinct from that of a solicitor. Therefore the solicitor has no right to participate in the profits of the Parliamentary Agent. Moreover, Parliament itself has settled the matter, because Parliament has fixed a scale in minute detail for the charges that a solicitor is to make for Parliamentary business quite distinct from those of a Parliamentary Agent. The solicitor gets his legitimate profits; he has the preparation of the case in the country, the service of notices, &c., all very remunerative things, with which we have nothing whatever to do; he is well paid for this work, and therefore he is perfectly well provided for, and should not be allowed to have any interest with the Parliamentary Agent. But the great point upon which I dwell is that it has a tendency to corrupt the mind of a Parliamentary Agent, which I think ought not to be allowed. After quoting from the Petition of the Parliamentary Agents Society, which embodied views very similar to those expressed by Mr. Martin, he (Mr. Raikes) continued to say that he had no wish to push the matter forward at the present moment in opposition to the wish of any considerable number of Members of the House: at the same time, it was a matter of much importance, and the settlement of it ought motto be delayed longer than was absolutely necessary. There could be no doubt that for the profession of a Parliamentary Agent certain special qualifications were necessary; but it was equally important that Agents should be men in whose character implicit trust could be placed. Another point of importance was that in both Houses definite rules of procedure should be laid down and followed. In the House of Lords there were no such rules at present, for the obvious reason that Lord Redesdale was a sort of embodied code; but the noble Lord was mortal, and it was important that the results of his long experience and wide knowledge should be gathered together for the guidance of those who might succeed him. While he was willing for the present to postpone the consideration of this question, he hoped the House would not allow the result of much unprejudiced and painstaking labour on the part of the Committee to be lost to the country. The hon. Member concluded by moving the first of the following Resolutions:—

  1. "1. That this House, having considered the Report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Agency, is of opinion that it is desirable to lay down more definite rules respecting the practice of Parliamentary Agency, and the regulation of the conduct of Parliamentary Agents.
  2. "2. That, in the opinion of this House, the efficient conduct of private Bills through Parliament will be further secured by the establishment of some standard of general and special fitness in the case of persons seeking hereafter to be admitted to practise as Parliamentary Agents.
  3. "3. That this House, having regard to the objects sought to be attained by the establishment of the existing scale of fees for Parliamentary Agents, considers that the division between agents and solicitors of profits obtained by services rendered by the former to the latter is contrary to the intention of Parliament in fixing that scale.
  4. "4. That Mr. Speaker be requested, in concert with the authorities of the other House of Parliament, to frame rules to give effect to these Resolutions."
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House, having considered the Report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Agency, is of opinion that it is desirable to lay down more definite rules respecting the practice of Parliamentary Agency and the regu- lation of the conduct of Parliamentary Agents."—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)


in moving, as an Amendment to the Resolution, to leave out all the words after the word "That," in order to add the words— At this late period of the Session, and without further time for consideration of the Report of the Joint Committee, it is not expedient to delegate the powers of Parliament for the purpose of constituting Parliamentary Agency as a distinct profession, said, he sympathized with the objects which the Committee and Lord Redesdale had in view; but he believed there was a difference of opinion in the other House as to the general policy of the legislation proposed to be founded on the Report of that Committee. The question had only been brought under their immediate consideration during the last 48 hours, and the subject to which it referred was too great to be satisfactorily dealt with after so short a period for thought concerning it, and at the fag-end of the Session. There was much in the details of the Report to which he objected—and among other things that, if carried into effect, it would create an entirely new profession—a proceeding contrary to the policy which the Legislature had pursued under analogous circumstances, as in the case of the proctors in the Consistorial Courts, when those Courts were thrown open to solicitors generally. No less an authority than the Lord Chancellor had expressed an opinion that many of the details of the scheme contemplated were fraught with danger, and after that, it would be unwise, as well as unfair to press the Resolution, delegating as it did such an enormous power to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees in the other House, and to the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair. Therefore, he begged to move the Amendment.


seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out all the words after the word "That," in order to add the words "at this late period of the Session, and without further time for consideration of the Report of the Joint Committee, it is not expedient to delegate the powers of Parliament for the purpose of constituting Parliamentary Agency as a distinct profession."—(Sir Joseph M'Kenna.)

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


thought the statement of the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means was one which would satisfy all persons interested in the matter that the intention of the Select Committee was to deal fairly with all the interest involved. It would also satisfy hon. Members that the subject was too large a one to be satisfactorily settled at that late period of the Session. The Report of the Committee had been but a very few days in the hands of hon. Members, and now they were called upon to say that the House had considered the Report, and were of opinion that it was desirable to make some changes. Perhaps they ought to read through the Blue Books on the day of delivery, but that they could not do. The House was now in a state of liquidation and winding up its accounts, and it would not be well to open any new ones. That was sufficient to justify the withdrawal of the Resolutions till next year, by which time those who were interested in them would be able to give them due attention. He would not discuss the Resolutions, but would merely remark that if the proposed rules were made they would establish a monopoly. They were not quite consistent, as it was proposed to allow all the present agents to practise whether they were fit or not. One feature which he missed from the speech of his hon. Friend was any statement of the grievances which called for an alteration of the present system. During the time when he practised at the Parliamentary Bar he always found the Agents to be men of capacity and integrity, and he had come to the conclusion that in a Parliamentary Agent it was not so much capacity as character that was required, and this could not be given by any system of examination such as was proposed in the Report of the Select Committee. While he did not approve the system of Agents and solicitors dividing the fees, he did not think any rule that might be drawn would put a stop to it. If a solicitor had business to offer to an Agent he would always make his own terms, on the same principle that publishers, for instance, regulated their trade allowances. He hoped the further proceeding would be postponed for the present Session.


said, the House was indebted to the Joint Com- mittee for the attention they had given to this subject, and to the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means for the very clear way in which he had stated the proposals of the Committee. He agreed with the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir William Harcourt) that the House had not had time to study the Report of the Joint Committee; that as the matter affected a large body of most respectable gentlemen throughout the country, it would only be just and fair that the further consideration of the question should be adjourned. His opinion, under the circumstances, was that it would be unwise to proceed further at present. He suggested, therefore, that both the Resolutions and the Amendment should be withdrawn, and the whole subject postponed till next Session. No practical effect would be gained by proceeding with the discussion further.


said, he fully concurred in the postponement of the matter until next Session. He wished, however, to point out that the Committee had not shown any desire to create a monopoly in those who became Parliamentary Agents, but to throw open the Profession to all who could pass a certain examination, whether they were admitted to practice as solicitors or not.


said, he had read the evidence taken before the Committee and was prepared to discuss the subject, but would not attempt to do so in the face of the evident wish of the House that the discussion should be postponed to another Session. He quite concurred in that wish, and did not desire to express a decided opinion for or against the Report of the Committee without further consideration. But he found great fault with the Committee, influential as it was, in one respect. They examined six witnesses, one represented the Incorporated Law Society, one spoke on behalf of the Parliamentary Agents Society, and the other four were officers of the two Houses of Parliament. But not one single witness was examined on behalf of the public, who were just as much interested in the matter as the agents and lawyers. Nothing would have been easier than to have called as witnesses persons connected with some of those great Companies who were annually promoting Private Bills and whose opi- nion ought to have been ascertained upon the satisfactory or unsatisfactory state of Parliamentary Agency at present. He trusted that this would not be lost sight of and that some information as to the feeling of the public would be before the House when they were called upon to decide this question. It was one of very considerable importance, and he would only add that the officers of the House of Lords differed in their evidence from the officers of the House of Commons, and that whereas the Chairman of Ways and Means had stated one object to be the attainment of uniformity of practice between the two Houses, they had commenced by anything but uniformity of action, the House of Lords having adopted 19 Resolutions very different from the four much milder Resolutions proposed that day by the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means.


suggested that the new rules should be framed during the Recess and laid on the Table for consideration before the matter came on for discussion next Session.


said, there was a growing feeling in the country that some means should be adopted for reducing the present extravagant cost of Private Bill legislation. It was a scandal that several thousand pounds should be required for the purpose of passing a private Bill.


said, he was quite ready, if the House so wished, to withdraw his Amendment, in order that the Resolution might be disposed of in some other way.


said, he also had an Amendment on the Paper, the sole object of which was to protest against what he considered to be an injustice. Anybody could become a Parliamentary Agent if properly recommended, except a Scotch law agent. Against that distinction he protested, and thought that his Amendment, which was in the following terms:— To add to the 4th resolution the words 'and that any rule under which it may be proposed to exempt any legal practitioner from examination for the position of Parliamentary Agent shall include, in addition to "writers to the signet," "enrolled law agents" so as to embrace the legal practitioners of Scotland,' should have the consideration which it deserved before the matter came before the House next Session.


said, he would offer no opposition to the course proposed by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, but withdraw his Motion on this occasion. He would consider the proposition of the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) before the matter came on again for discussion.


pointed out that the description "law agents" had been substituted for that of solicitors through the instrumentality of Lord Advocate Young, in 1873, and remarked that, unless the suggestion of the hon. Member for Glasgow was adopted, a great injustice would be done.


complained of the enormous amount of Parliamentary fees.


believed that the best mode of reducing the expenses of private legislation was to employ well-qualified, competent, and honest Agents.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.