HC Deb 24 January 1878 vol 237 cc408-19

in rising to move— That, except for a Money Bill, no Order of the Day or Notice of Motion be taken after half-past Twelve of the clock at night, with respect to which Order or Notice of Motion a notice of opposition or amendment shall have been printed in the Notice Paper, or if such Notice of Motion shall only have been given the next previous day of sitting, and objection shall be taken when such Notice is called. said, that the House would see that his Motion was of a limited character, and differed entirely from that of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in being the recommendation, not of an individual, but of the Select Committee of 1871. It had in its favour their unanimous opinion, the experience of the past six years, and it would materially conduce to the comfort and convenience of hon. Members. He introduced it in no Party spirit, because he knew it was supported by many hon. Members opposite as well as by hon. Members on his own side of the House. All he asked of the House was that it would renew temporarily and until the Committee had reported the Resolution which had been popular for some time. It had been originally proposed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone), and had since been continued on several occasions, being re-enacted, when it was last challenged, by 185 votes to 23. He was told that there was some little revulsion of feeling on the part of hon. Members, partly on account of the "obstruction" that had been practised dur- ing the last Session, and partly because the Rule had been abused. It was true that it had been discovered that since 1871 the House had sat on an average a little later than before; but, at all events, the Rule had been productive of much practical convenience, especially by the certainty which it gave that Opposed Business would not be taken after half-past 12. The principle was a sound one, and he would accept the Amendment of the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory), which came to much the same thing—namely, that the names of three hon. Members should be put to every Notice of Opposition. He begged, without prejudice to the inquiries of the Select Committee, to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, except for a Money Bill, no Order of the Day or Notice of Motion be taken after half-past Twelve of the clock at night, with respect to which Order or Notice of Motion a notice of opposition or amendment shall have been printed in the Notice Paper, or if such Notice of Motion shall only have been given the next previous day of sitting, and objection shall be taken when such Notice is called."— (Mr. Mowbray.)


said, there was much dissatisfaction in past Sessions with the Half-past Twelve rule, and it was a fact that the House had sat many more hours after midnight in the six years since this rule had been in operation than in the six years previously. It was therefore a fit question to be considered by the Committee the House had just agreed to appoint. The rule was used vexatiously to prevent Business coming on, for a debate which otherwise would close about midnight was sometimes prolonged in order that the rule might be enforced against the commencement of another discussion. This was an indirect way of closing the Business of the House; and he thought they should say by way of Standing Order, if at all, that no Opposed Business should be taken after a certain hour. He would therefore move the Amendment of which he had given Notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out all the words after the word "That," in order to insert the words "it is inexpedient to deal with the proposed rule in reference to Opposed Business after half-past Twelve until the Committee on the Despatch of Public Business has reported to the House."— (Mr. Hibbert.)

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


said, that the question was a very small one; only what they should do in the interval before the Committee reported, and, under the circumstances, the fair thing to do was to withdraw both the Motion and the Amendment, and leave matters in statu quo.


thought the proposal could hardly be said to leave matters in statu quo, since this rule had only been enacted for three or four years past, and then merely as a Sessional Order. He never could understand why the rule should be supported; like some other things of modern invention, it was not quite as good as the customs of their forefathers. There was no doubt that this rule had two very considerable disadvantages. In the first place, it practically put a stop to all legislation by private Members. That might be considered by some people desirable, but was one undoubted effect of the rule. Only last Session he (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) had carried the second reading of the Colonial Marriages Bill by a considerable majority against the opposition of the Government. But no effort of his could procure an opportunity even for the further discussion of that Bill at its next stage at any period during the Session, and such a state of things was a scandal to a Legislative Assembly. Under the old system he should have agreed with the opponents of the Bill to take it at a late hour on some particular night, and so settle the question one way or the other. But this could not be done under the Half-past Twelve rule. Another great objection was the encouragement given by this rule to Members to talk upon some measures to which there was no opposition in order to prevent some Bill coming on before 12.30 A.M.; and he believed that if it were possible to obtain a Return of the time wasted during the Session in this manner between the hours of 11 A.M. and 12.30 A.M., the result would be somewhat surprising. It would surely be far better to leave the rule to the consideration of the Select Committee.


congratulated his right hon. Friend upon the true old-world Man-of-Kent ring of his sentiments; but he reminded the House that for all practical purposes the question had been taken out of their hands. In the good old times, to which his right hon. Friend looked back so fondly, the late nights were few, and then they were really late, while the public was content to wait for its reports even till the second day. Now science and competition had changed all this state of things, and the revolution was consummated by the system of early newspaper trains. Whether the House made this rule or not, the gentlemen of the Press in the Gallery had of inevitable necessity set up their Half-past Twelve or One o'clock rule, since the necessity of writing out and of printing in time for the newspaper trains rendered it impossible to report debates after midnight. He would support the original Motion.


expressed the hope that the House would accept the Resolution of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford University (Mr. Mowbray). He had no doubt that, taking Business generally, the Half-past Twelve rule had been an improvement. Formerly the House might be found sitting up to 1 and 2 o'clock in the morning passing important measures, the deliberations on which were never reported—the Members themselves not being in a condition for maturely deliberating upon them. He had himself heard two most important statements by present and past Lords of the Admiralty delivered at such an hour that it was impossible to give more than a line or two to them in the next morning's papers. They had no right to dip their hands in the public purse when the reporters were away from their duty. Those who objected to the rule were mostly private Members who had charge of Bills which they were unable to push through. Now, although he sympathized with independent opinion, he did not think it desirable that private legislation, which was often crude and pernicious and fussy, ought to have undue facilities given to it. The rule, therefore, tending, as it did, to prevent mischievous measures from slipping through after half-past 12, when many hon. Members had gone home, was a useful one and ought to be maintained.


in support of the rule, cited the following 11 names of old and experienced Members of this House, headed by Mr. Lowe, who, as Members of the Committee of 1871, had declared in its favour: —Mr. Lowe (Chairman), Mr. Bouverie, Mr. Disraeli, Mr. Dodson, Mr. C. Forster, Sir George Grey, Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen, Mr. Newde-gate, Mr. Wilson Patten, Mr. Rathbone, and Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson.—[See 3 Hansard, cciv.]


who had given Notice of the following Amendment:— That such notice of opposition shall be removed from the paper on the Clerk at the Table being assured that the Member in whose name it stands is absent from the House, and has been so for two successive sittings, said, that as he had put this Amendment to the Resolution on the Paper, it would perhaps be convenient that he should say a few words on the subject now. Having listened to the strong speeches of the hon. Members for Cambridge University (Mr. Beresford Hope) and Burnley (Mr. Rylands), it did not appear to him that they bore on the Half-past Twelve rule at all. In reference to speeches delivered to thin and sleepy Houses which were not reported in the newspapers the next morning, he would like to point out that the Half-past Twelve rule did not apply at all; because if, when half-past 12 came, they were engaged in Supply, they could go on until any hour, or if they were engaged in an important discussion affecting the Admiralty, or anything else, they could go on until any hour. The only remedy would be to stop the whole Business at half-past 12, if the hon. Members for Burnley and Cambridge wished to stop all that could not be reported in the newspapers. He was strongly in favour of early hours, but the Half-past Twelve rule had not been successful. From a Return moved for by the hon. Member for South Durham (Mr. Pease) it appeared that in the six years previous to the Half-past Twelve rule the House sat for 642 hours after midnight; but in the six years after the rule the House sat 724 hours, thus instead of getting earlier closing they got later closing. There was not the slightest doubt an immense amount of time was wasted on account of the Half-past Twelve rule. No doubt many speeches made after half-past 11 were not made in the interests of the Business then be-fore the House; but were made solely for the purpose of preventing Bills coming on before half-past 12. It would be an evil day if the House came to the conclusion that private Members' legislation was mischievous. All great measures of reform had been at some period the measures of private Members, and it would be very unfortunate if discouragement were thrown on their right; but in any case no single Member ought to have power of preventing any private Member from passing a Bill. He had a Bill last Session, and only one Member in the House was against it, but that one Member prevented him from getting it through until, close to the end of the Session. This might be done from conscientious motives, but it might be a mere crotchet by a single hon. Member. An hon. Member might put down opposition to a Bill on the Paper, and might go to Italy or Scotland, or anywhere, and could still delay the progress of the Bill, thus controlling the proceedings of Parliament, while really not attending Parliament at all. If the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory) would amend his Amendment to admit the words "to be renewed weekly," he would accept it; but he wished particularly some safeguard that the opposition should be a real one, and that the Mover should be at any rate in London and not in Italy. If anything could be suggested to meet the case he had mentioned, he should be content without moving his Amendment.


expressed a hope that the Motion of his right hon. Friend would be adopted. He did not think that the arguments of the hon. Member for Glasgow were of any avail. What they had to consider was whether the Half-past Twelve o'clock rule interfered with the Business of the House or the convenience of hon. Members. For his part, he was of opinion that it had been a great benefit to the House. It might be that the House had sat a greater number of hours during the last six Sessions than it did during the six previous Sessions; but the reason of that fact would be plain to all who remembered the Notices of Motion that had been given, the Bills that had been introduced, and how the time of the House had been occupied during the last six Sessions. When he and his Friends sat at the other side of the House they took good care that the Estimates should not be proceeded with beyond midnight, and they were all aware that great debates were invariably adjourned at or about 12 o'clock. He asked the hon. Members who sat below the Gangway on the Opposition side whether they would not take advantage of the non-adoption of the rule—and rightly—to bring forward their measures at any hour of the night or morning? Without such a rule as that proposed by his right hon. Friend the House would be compelled to sit very much later than it would if the Motion was adopted.


said, the incessant labour and fatigue of watchful opposition was greatly relieved by the introduction of the Half-past Twelve rule. During his Parliamentary career the Government of the day at one time introduced a number of measures affecting Ireland which were extremely objectionable to Irish Members, and the then Secretary for Ireland refused to name an hour when he should bring them on. Therefore they had to sit till long summer mornings to be ready to enter their protest against those Bills. In the interests of hon. Members of the House it was most desirable that such a rule should exist. He thought, however, that it might be abused if in order to put off a Bill which stood second the first Bill was unnecessarily talked out. If that was made a frequent practice it was the thing which should endanger the Half-past Twelve rule. He trusted, on behalf of the independent Member, who profited most by the rule, that such a thing would not often occur. He agreed with the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) that the opposition which would prevent a Bill being brought on after half-past 12 should be bonâ fide and earnest opposition. He was not prepared to say how this could be effected, but it was not a fair use of the Forms of the House when one hon. Member gave Notice of opposition and then left the House or the country, thinking it impossible for the Bill to pass. He should cordially support any proposal to ensure that the opposition should be of an earnest and bonâ fide character.


asked the House to consider whether when, on the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Resolution had already been passed for the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the whole question of the Business of the House, it was wise to weight the Committee with a prejudged opinion on a matter of this kind. ["No, no!"] The passage of such a rule as the one now proposed must inevitably weight the Committee, and it was idle to say it did not.


said, he could not agree with the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bristowe), that the decision of the House upon the question now before it would prejudice the action of the Committee. The House having several times agreed to a like Session Order to that proposed, its opinion was already known in reference to it. They had been told that under the Half-past Twelve o'clock rule the House had sat a greater number of hours than it did in Sessions when the rule did not exist, and that might be quite true; but they had no means of judging what would have been the case under the old system. Those who, by their official position, had to remain in the House until a late hour, and who could form an impartial judgment on the subject, felt that, even if the hours of sitting had not been largely reduced, a great boon had been conferred by the rule upon hundreds of hon. Members who, by its means, were able to go home instead of being compelled to remain until all hours of the morning to see whether certain Business was to be proceeded with or not. The rule did not apply to proceedings in Committee in the case of Bills in which Progress had previously been reported, and those proceedings, carried on to a late hour, had certainly not been in the highest degree satisfactory or creditable to the House, and had certainly not increased the value of the legislation so carried on. Setting aside all other questions, for this reason alone, he should be exceedingly sorry were the rule to be allowed to lapse during the present Session. He did not think the Committee to be appointed to consider the conduct of the Business of the House would be greatly influenced by the fact that a Sessional Order of the kind had been renewed; while, on the other hand, if the passing of the rule were to be delayed until the Committee reported favourably upon it some two months hence, much injustice would be done to those private Members whose Bills, by the mere acci- dent of the ballot, did not come on until the latter part of the Session. He must, therefore, give his voice in favour of the Motion.


said, he felt himself at considerable disadvantage in addressing the House after the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees, especially as an appeal had been made to the feelings of a large number of hon. Members on the ground that, by passing the rule, they might be able to go away after half-past 12 and neglect the Business of the House; but he could not concur in the remarks of the hon. Gentleman. He agreed with the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hibbert) that the matter was one which should be left in the hands of the Select Committee about to be appointed. He reminded the House that there could be no fear that the Government could bring on important measures after a late hour, inasmuch as it was the practice of the Members of the Government to state early in the evening after what hour they would not proceed with their measures. He thought, from the experience they had had, that the conduct of Business had not been greatly improved by the adoption of the rule; on the contrary, it often led to long discussions on unimportant measures with the view of throwing measures of consequence over until after half-past 12 o'clock, so as to preclude their being taken on those occasions. The only result of the rule was to set up for themselves a point of debatable ground which did not previously exist.


remarked that the House of Commons was certainly a very singlar Assembly, because he did not believe that there was another Legislative Assembly in the world which would seriously discuss the question whether it was right to bring on fresh important Public Business for discussion after half-past 12 o'clock at night. His only complaint was that the rule did not go far enough. If they had a rule that no new Business should be taken after 12 o'clock or half-past they would get through the work with much greater credit to themselves and more advantage to the country. A few years ago it was the custom of the Irish Secretary to introduce Bills habitually after 1 o'clock in the morning, and no assurance could be got that he would not bring them on after that time. The consequence was everybody had to wait until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning on the chance of a discussion coming on on the particular subjects in which they were interested. They had the advantage, under the existing rule, of knowing that no important legislation could be thrust upon them by surprise; but notwithstanding, the rule was open to abuse on the part of the Government, and also on the part of private Members. For instance, hon. Members were accustomed to put their names down in opposition to a Bill when they never attended, and did not intend to attend the House. That was an unfair advantage which ought to be put down by the good sense and high honour of the House. It must be put down in such a manner as the hon. Member for for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) suggested.


Sir, we are discussing the Half-past Twelve rule upon its merits, and I think the discusssion may be well likened to the painter who put up a picture that anyone might point out its faults, and put up the same picture in order that its beauties might be noticed. The truth is, that you cannot conduct the Business of an Assembly, and certainly not such an Assembly as the House of Commons, merely by rules, and if Business is to be properly conducted you want something more than that—you want an actual agreement as to the spirit and manner in which you are to proceed. In regard to this rule, no one can doubt that it has many great advantages, because it enables hon. Gentlemen to know that certain measures they are interested in will not be brought on after a certain hour, and therefore they are enabled to leave the House if it is necessary for them to do so. The rule is not at all conducive to the conduct of Public Business. On the other hand, we cannot help seeing that this rule is frequently abused by hon. Members who give Notice of opposition to a Bill, and then go away, thus delaying the Bill for an indefinite time; it also leads to discussion being carried on, the effect of which is that Bills which should come on are crossed out. I must say, looking at the questions from both sides, it is very difficult indeed to say which has the advantage and which has the disadvantage, in the discussion. I have always desired my- self to promote early hours, and I have always endeavoured to promote certainty as to what Business was to be transacted. Now, this rule is brought forward with a double view of promoting early hours and certainty of Business. I trust that we shall be enabled to arrive at some conclusion by which we shall get rid of the evils under which we suffer at the present time. The question is whether we shall renew the rule for the present Session in the same manner as it had been renewed in past Sessions, or leave it until the Committee had reported on the question. I think that the Committee will consider very carefully the proposition as to the Half-past Twelve rule, and what modification it will be necessary to move in it; but the question is if the matter is left for the Committee what is to be done in the interim? There is no desire on the part of the Government to unduly press any conclusion on the House. So far as the Government is concerned, I own it is against rather than in favour of my own wishes to have this rule in operation; but, on the other hand, I believe that both in this debate and on past occasions, when attention has been called to this subject, a large majority of the House has approved of it. I believe the rule is one well in favour with the House. I therefore think that after such a recommendation we should renew that rule for the present Session with the view of its being carefully considered in Committee, and with a view to see whether there are any means of modifying it. Therefore, I shall be prepared to support the Motion of my right hon. Friend.


observed that after the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and believing that a large majority of the House was in favour of the rule, he was willing to withdraw his Amendment, on the distinct understanding that the rule would come before the Committee without prejudice in any way.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Resolved, That, except for a Money Bill, no Order of the Day or Notice of Motion he taken after half-past Twelve of the clock at night with respect to which Order or Notice of Motion a notice of opposition or amendment shall have been printed in the Notice Paper, or if such Notice of Motion shall only have been given the next previous day of sitting, and objection shall be taken when such Notice is called.


said, that after the course which the debate had taken he would leave his Amendment to be considered by the Committee to the appointment of which the House had already agreed.


said, he should not press his Amendment.