HC Deb 30 June 1879 vol 247 cc1046-57

Resolutions [27th June]reported.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the said Resolutions be now read a second time."


I rise for the purpose of making a complaint against Her Majesty's Government for taking a course which appears, so far as my experience goes, entirely unprecedented. The effect of the proceeding on Friday night was certainly to prevent hon. Members who might have been desirous of taking part in the consideration of Votes in Supply from doing so. I did think, Sir, of appealing to you to say how far these proceedings were strictly in Order; but I came to the conclusion that they were in Order, or they would have been stopped. But, admitting they were strictly in Order, I can say they were entirely contrary to custom; because on Fridays it is the usual Order of Business to put down Supply, in order that the Motion for your leaving the Chair may give the opportunity to Members of bringing forward Motions. There is no doubt that in ordinary cases the questions introduced by private Members, though worthy of consideration, do not excite interest and attention among the House generally; and it is not thought necessary, during the discussion of these preliminary Notices on going into Committee, that Members should be present when the matter under discussion is only of special interest; but there can be no doubt at all, from the practice of the House, that Members rely on the fact that these discussions on going into Committee will take a certain amount of time, and then Members come down to the House, about 10 or 11 o'clock, in the expectation that after the Notices of Motion are disposed of the House will resolve itself into Committee and take the Votes of Supply. Instead of this, on Friday night, the Government took a course somewhat in the nature of a surprise, and instead of the Votes in Committee being taken at the close of the proceedings they were taken at the commencement. A form was gone through to which the hon. Member having the first Notice gave consent. That Notice was put aside—in fact, was not made—Mr. Speaker left the Chair, and three Votes in Supply were gone through unexpectedly and without discussion; then, these three Votes having been passed through, the Chairman left the Chair, and, Supply being again set up, the Motions on the Paper were proceeded with, and hon. Members coming down to the House expecting to have the opportunity of discussing these Votes found they had been agreed to. Now, I maintain if the Business of the House of Commons is to be conducted in this way it is unfair to private Members, and it is calculated to prejudice our proceedings in public opinion. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his conduct of the Business of the House, would not—as I am sure we can all bear testimony—willingly take a course unfair to any Member; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not, at the earlier part of the day, give the slightest intimation that the course would be taken, and I do not suppose at the moment he had the intention to take that course when he announced that, if possible, the Navy Estimates would be taken in the evening. It was not stated at the Morning Sitting that there was an intention to take the unusual course, the step was taken while most of us were away from the House, and what is the excuse put forward? I am told it was said these Votes did not necessarily involve any contention, it was such a matter of course to take them that no one could complain of the course taken. But the Votes were for £2,000,000! A sum by no means insignificant. I do not know how long the Committee sat, but I suppose the Votes were taken in about two minutes; but even if this were not so, and the amount of money of no consequence at all, I should equally complain of this course being taken, because it forms a precedent. Though hon. Gentlemen on the other side support with so much loyalty a Government in which they have such unbounded confidence—though they support the Government now—let me remind them that it may possibly happen that Members on the front Bench may change sides. Then the Government may take the same course, and the then Opposition may complain. I cannot let the House understand that I am raising the question in a Party spirit at all. I am speaking as an independent Member; and hon. Gentlemen who remember the course I took in the last Parliament will believe me when I say that had the then Government acted as the Government did on Friday night, I should have protested as strongly as I am now doing. I say, moreover, these Votes were of the greatest importance, and the excuse is not a good one. Not only was the amount of £2,000,000 a large one, but there was an increase in the amount of the Votes in excess over previous years of something like £30,000. Another excuse put forward is that Supply is very much behindhand, and I dare say the First Lord of the Admiralty will say that he was absolutely obliged to take these Votes. But why are the Government in this state? If I take the Return circulated amongst hon. Members this morning, I find that out of the Votes of Supply we have taken 100, and there are 88 to take—a large number, certainly. We have still to pass 58 Civil Service Votes, and 15 in the Navy. We have taken four, including these three surreptitiously obtained. ["Oh, oh"] Well, obtained in this unusual way. We have others in the Army, and in the Indian Home charges. We have 88 in all—a very serious number, I admit; and I fully sympathize with the Government in this matter. But why are they in this difficulty? Do not right hon. Gentlemen recollect they took Mondays away from us at the beginning of the Session, and are now entitled to go into Committee on Mondays, without independent Members having the opportunity to interfere with Motions; and I remember we were told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his happy mode of looking at the bright side of things for the future, that by this means we should have Supply so far advanced as to avoid all complications. But the Government have not taken the Mondays for Supply. Why did they not take to-night, or last Monday, or the Monday before? If the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty had taken these Votes a fortnight ago, he would not have been driven into this corner. Why did he not take them on Monday? I know I may not with propriety refer to what has taken place to-night; but I am quite sure that if the conduct of Business is fairly examined, it will be found that a good deal of the delay has arisen from the mode in which Business has been brought before the House of Commons. Be this as it may, I do say Government should have taken the Mondays for Supply. They have not done so, and now they complain they are driven into a corner; for I am told the First Lord admitted this, and said it was absolutely necessary for the Public Service that he should have these Votes scrambled through as they were on Friday. It is not my object to make an attack upon the Government; but I do wish to give them the opportunity of saying this is not to become a precedent for the future, and to assure us that though Votes are put down preceded by Motions on going into Committee, that we shall not run the risk of losing the opportunity of discussion if we are not down here at the very first moment of the Sitting.


would give the reasons for the course which he took on Friday night. Anyone who took an active part in the proceedings of Parliament would know the reasons which had prevented the Government from putting down Supply for Monday last, or for the preceding Monday. Except on those two occasions, the Government had put down Supply for every Monday. But, with reference to those two occasions, the Government gave them up in order to allow hon. Members to express their opinion upon the course taken by the Government. He might say that he was, personally, responsible for the Votes being taken; and, in the ordinary course, they would have been taken on Monday. But they were unable to be taken that night, and it was a matter of the greatest importance that they should be taken on Friday. Under these circumstances, at 9 o'clock, he asked the hon. Gentleman the Member for Clonmel (Mr. A. Moore), who had a Notice on the Paper, to allow the House to go into Committee, in order that these Votes might be taken, as it was absolutely essential to the Public Service that they should be got through that night. That proposal was accepted by the hon. Member for Clonmel, and was adopted by the House. The hon. Member said that the House was taken by surprise by the course; but it was impossible to communicate to every hon. Member what the Government was about to do. The Government proposed to take these Votes in this manner—they announced it publicly in the House, and appealed to the hon. Member for Clonmel to withdraw his Motion. The hon. Member for Cavan was in his place, and he was by no means careless with regard to the proceedings of the House. No objection was made on that occasion; and if there had been an Amendment put down against the Votes by any hon. Member, an opportunity would have been allowed him to have brought it on. But no Amendment of any kind was put upon the Paper; and the Government felt themselves obliged, in the interests of the Public Service, to take the Votes that night, and they, therefore, took them at an early period of the evening, in order to avoid any contingency which might afterwards occur to prevent them being brought on.


said, that the objection made was not so much that the Government took the Votes on Friday as that they took them at a time when they did not usually take them. Hon. Members had every reason to suppose that the Government could not take Supply later in the evening; and the conduct of the Government, in taking the Votes in this manner, in his opinion, amounted to nothing less than sharp practice. There were about 650 Members in the House of Commons, and how many of those knew that the Government intended to depart from the usual practice to take the Votes at the commencement instead of the close of the proceedings? And when Votes were taken out of their usual course, and Members were ignorant that they would be so taken, they did not attend in their places to discuss the Votes. He thought that the Government should not adopt any such irregular proceedings as those, and they could, if they chose, have taken Supply on Monday; and, if so taken, it would not have been necessary to do so unprecedented a thing in Parliament as was done on Friday night. The point to which he wished to draw attention more particularly was this—that, up to the present time, they had not taken any Irish Votes in Supply at all. It was a question of great importance to Irish Members to know when Irish Supply was to be taken. There were 50 Notices of objections to the Irish Votes, and yet no sign was made by the Government of their intention to take those Votes. The Government had given up their practice of taking Supply on Monday in favour of certain Bills, and when Irish Votes were reached the opportunity was taken away from hon. Members to bring forward matters of importance which they desired to have discussed. If the Government had continued their practice of going on with Supply on Monday, the Irish Votes would have been taken in their ordinary course. He knew that he should be told that Irish Supply had been brought on, and objection had been made. But that objection was some time ago, and they would not have objection to Supply being taken immediately after the Whitsuntide Holidays; but they were then told by the Government that Irish Supply should not be taken. But when Irish Supply was brought on on the last occasion, the Government had previously allowed them to suppose that it would not have been brought forward, and all the hon. Members that desired to be present at this discussion were not in their places. He wished to ask whether they were to have an opportunity of discussing the Irish Votes that Session?


said, that it was absolutely necessary for hon. Gentlemen to understand that the time of Parliament was limited, and that there were certain things which must be done before they separated. Although there were things upon which it was perfectly right to have a full discussion, yet it should be borne in mind that the effect of those long discussions, so much in favour with certain hon. Members, was to take up a great deal of time, and to delay the progress of Public Business much more than was necessary. On Friday the course taken by the Government, no doubt, was not a usual one. He did not know whether there was any precedent for it or not. Supply was taken under circumstances which he did not think he should be going too far in saying were circumstances which arose from an emergency. It was absolutely necessary that certain Votes in Supply should be taken. It was proposed on Friday to take certain Votes of a non-contentious character at 9 o'clock, when the House sat, and that course was adopted with the full consent of all hon. Members who were present at the time, and who were thoroughly conversant with the matters in question, and aware that what was being done was not to the prejudice of the Public Service. It was very much the same thing whether the Government took Supply at the commencement or the end of the evening when matters were not pressing; but when there was an emergency, and it was absolutely necessary to get the Votes passed, Supply was taken at the beginning of the evening, in order to prevent the possibility of its not being taken at all. And that possibility was not ill-founded, for on Friday night an attempt was made to count out. If that had been done, Supply would not have been taken at all; and, in that event, immense inconvenience would have arisen to the Public Service. With regard to the charge of not having taken Supply on every Monday evening, he must remind hon. Gentlemen that upon several occasions during the present Session the Government had been urged to bring forward their Business in such a manner as would enable hon. Members to introduce Motions amounting to censure upon the conduct of the Government. They had been anxious that these Motions should be fairly discussed, and for that reason had given up some nights. Then there had been the Customs and Inland Revenue Bill, and the Army Discipline and Regulation Bill, which required to be pressed on. He must put it to the consciences of hon. Members, who had made reflections upon the course of Public Business, to decide who was responsible for the delay of Public Business. Hon. Members knew that the Army Discipline and Regulation Bill was a measure essential and necessary; and they knew the reasons for which the Government had brought it in. On the suggestion that it would necessarily take up considerable time and discussion Government had agreed to pass a short temporary Act, in order that no delay might occur. One might have thought that by that time the Bill would have passed the House; but although they had now got to the end of June—or, rather, into the month of July, when the temporary Act would expire—they had not got the Bill through Committee. It was absolutely impossible, in the interests of the Public Service, that they could allow other Business, however important, to take precedence of that very important measure. Let them imagine what a state of things would happen if no Mutiny Act were passed. The only course for the House to adopt would be to sit for long after the usual time, and to ask for a prolongation of the temporary Act, while the permanent measure was being passed. Hon. Members must feel that it was the object of the Government in that way to facilitate the taking of Public Business, and to press forward the measures which were necessary. No harm was done by taking the Votes on Friday; and when they proposed to go into Committee at once, they were only proposing to take that course with Votes of a non-contentious character. If they had proposed to take Votes which would lead to a long discussion, there might have been objections to the course which they pursued. But the Government had no intention to do anything of that sort. What was done was only done with the concurrence of hon. Members who were present at the time. Any hon. Member had a right to oppose the Motion that Mr. Speaker do leave the Chair. He trusted that the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Rylands) would be satisfied with the explanation that had been given; and although he was quite right in drawing attention to the matter, he hoped that the House also would be satisfied that nothing had been done that could hear the name of sharp practice. It was only for meeting an absolute necessity that they were obliged to take the Votes in this manner. With respect to the Irish Votes, they were very anxious for them to come on, and they had always promised to take them at a convenient time. It was impossible, however, to put aside other Business in their favour, and they must be brought on when there was an opportunity.


had never before seen anything like the course which the Government had taken on Friday night. Unless the Government carried on the Business of the House in a due and orderly manner, it struck at the root of the confidence of the House. It was not a question of Party, but only a question of the conduct of Public Business. He did not see that there was any necessity, or any emergency, which would justify what had been done. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had alleged that if Supply had not been taken at the commencement of the proceedings on Friday, it might not have been taken at all. But he would remind the Government that they could always keep a House. There was no objection to taking Votes at an early period of the evening, if Notice had been given; and many hon. Members would have been in their places if they had known that the Votes were to be taken. But by bringing on the Votes without any previous intimation they were got through when very few Members were in the House. His belief was that the Votes were passed two minutes after 9. He was very glad that the hon. Member for Burnley had brought this question forward; and he hoped that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would give an assurance that what had been done would not be used by the Government as a precedent for future occasions.


did not think that the right hon. Gentleman was right in saying that no harm had been done by the course taken on Friday, for the harm done was that the conduct of the Government would be drawn into a very inconvenient precedent. This was no Party question, and equally concerned hon. Members on both sides of the House. Had a precedent of this kind been established by a Liberal Government lion. Members on the other side of the House would have been the first to have protested against it; and he fully agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Burnley in raising his voice against any such precedent being established. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty had informed the House that it was not taken by surprise in this matter; but he ventured to differ from him. He was in his place at a quarter past 9, and the Votes had then been taken; and had he been there at 9 he should certainly have made some remarks before the House went into Committee. He trusted that, for the future, no Government—either Liberal or Conservative—would ever take such a liberty with the House again.


said, that on Friday night an appeal was made to him to defer his Motion, on the ground of necessity for the Public Service. He yielded to the appeal on that ground, and should always take the same course for a like reason.


said, that perhaps the House would allow him to state that it had always been the desire of the Government that the Irish Votes should be properly discussed when they were brought on. He would remind the House, and hon. Members from Ireland, that there were some very important Bills that had to be passed, and that the time they had to do it in was limited. Until a very important Bill which was now in Committee had been discussed Supply would have to be postponed. But when that had been got through they would take the Irish Votes in the regular order; but until that Bill went through everything else must be postponed.


said , that on Friday night the Votes were taken without discussion, and, in his opinion, the entire proceedings were wholly irregular; and he did not think that it was right to conduct the Business of the House by means of a system of private arrangements. He thought that the Government should give an opportunity for these Votes, which had been taken in Supply, to be discussed; and for that purpose he should move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question .proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Biggar.)


hoped that the Motion for adjournment would not be pressed by the hon. Member for Cavan. In his opinion, the discussion that had been raised would show the Government that the course which they had taken was open to considerable objection, and ought not to be persisted in. There was no reason why they should refuse to pass the Report of Supply now under discussion, as the observations which had been made had been answered in a fair and reasonable manner.


did not think that they ought to ask the Government to postpone the Report of Supply; but he thought that the statement of the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury was a most extraordinary one. The hon. Gentleman had stated that he did not intend to bring forward the Irish Votes in Supply until the Army Discipline and Regulation Bill had been passed. It would be seen whether the Government would persist in that determination or not—he rather thought that they would want a Vote on Account before the Army Discipline and Regulation Bill had passed the House; and, in all probability, they would want a Vote on Account in a month's time. They were then at the end of the Session, without a single Irish Vote having been brought forward. It was utterly monstrous that Ireland should be treated in this manner; the same thing had been done year after year up to the present time; and he thought they ought to resent the conduct of the Government in continually postponing Irish Supply until the end of the Session, when it was impossible to freely discuss it. The consequence of postponing these Votes was that no discussion could take place upon them, although they were continually promised by the Government that they should have an opportunity of considering the various questions. The practical effect was that there was no control whatever over the Votes taken for Ireland. He might say that, so far as the efforts of an individual Member could go, he should do his best to prevent Supply being taken at a much later period of the Session.


I leave it to the House to judge between the hon. Member and myself as to who is responsible for the delay that has taken place, and which may prevent our arriving at these Votes. If hon. Members will assist us a little by somewhat condensing the speeches they make upon other subjects, I do not think there will be any difficulty in getting the Army Discipline and Regulation Bill thoroughly discussed, and in getting Irish Supply through in good time. The hon. Member for Cavan spoke of some private arrangements; but I can state that all that was done took place openly across the floor of the House. An appeal was made by my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty to the hon. Member for Clonmel; and, so far as I remember, the hon. Member for Cavan took part in the discussion which followed. In the discussion which ensued five or six hon. Members took part.


said, that he did not wish the House to divide upon his Motion, and he begged leave to withdraw it. But, at the same time, he wished to make a personal explanation, as he saw that the right hon. Gentleman was convinced that what he had stated was thoroughly true. He knew that before Mr. Speaker was in the Chair, the hon. Member for Clonmel was sitting on this side of the House, conversing with one of the Members of the Government. Afterwards, he went up to the hon. Member, and asked him to tell him the purport of the conversation.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Resolutions read a second time, and agreed to.