HC Deb 01 May 1879 vol 245 cc1499-501

Sir, I wish to submit to you a Question of Privilege, which I will put before the House in as few words as possible. Yesterday, when I had the honour of being Chairman of a Committee which has been sitting some time in this House, the Sergeant-at-Arms came up into the Committee Room without the Mace, and informed me that you, Sir, desired—indeed, some of us understood him to intimate that it was your "order" that we should assist—to make a House, and that we must attend downstairs in order to make a House. Now, Sir, I want to know in what position hon. Members serving on Committees are placed? It might be, as it was the case yesterday, that a very large number of hon. Members were outside the House in the Lobby, doing absolutely nothing, but declining to make a House, while we were performing an arduous, and by no means pleasant, public duty upstairs. And I should like to know from you, Sir, whether it is not the Constitutional Privilege of every hon. Member of this House to show his dissent to any particular measure about to be brought before the House, by abstaining from attending to make a House, and thereby preventing that particular measure from being brought forward? And I am informed that that was yesterday the reason why a large number of hon. Members declined making a House. I do not conceal the fact that I myself entertain great objections to the Bill which it was proposed to bring before the House, and I, for one, should have been glad if a House had not been made; and, even if I had been doing nothing, should have been very unwilling to have assisted in making one. But I am always anxious to bow to your authority, and I wish to know whether, when hon. Members are serving on Committees upstairs, they must attend and make a House? It amounts to this—that under your authority the Sergeant-at-Arms calls the Committee away, inflicting no hardship upon them, but putting the parties appearing before the Committee to considerable expense if the proceedings of the Committee are thereby extended. I ask your advice, Sir, upon the point, because it not only affects the independence of hon. Members, but also the interest of a large number of persons out-of-doors. I should like to know, Sir, if you will kindly inform us whether, under your authority, the Committee-room is to be cleared; whether, when that is done, we have obeyed your order; or whether it is our duty, whatever our feelings may be with regard to any Bill, to come down to make a House? I ought to add that the Sergeant-at-Arms came without the Mace, and informed us that if we did not attend the summons, he would have, with your authority, to come with the Mace. What the meaning of that menace was I could not quite make out. I shall be much obliged, Sir, if you will kindly condescend to inform me what are my duties under such circumstances? I think it would be well, Sir, if we could have some information on the point, as many other hon. Members would like to know in what position they are placed.


As the House is aware, it has been the custom whenever a quorum of hon. Members has not been present after prayers, for the Speaker to send the Sergeant-at-Arms to the rooms of such Committees as may be sitting, in order to request the attendance of hon. Members in order to make a quorum. That is a practice which has been founded upon ancient custom, and I may inform the House that I have in my possession a manuscript book, which was carefully prepared under the authority of Mr. Speaker Abbot in 1805, which bears upon this practice, and, with the permission of the House, I will read an extract from the book, premising that it has been handed down to me by my Predecessors, and is now in my custody. The book is entitled A Work on the Officers and, Usages of the House of Commons, and the passage is as follows:— After prayers, the Speaker generally retires to his own chamber, or sits in the House in the Clerk's chair. When he says he wishes to take the Chair and there are not 40 Members in the House, the Sergeant must go to the Committees upstairs, and, addressing himself to the Chairman, must say—'Sir, the Speaker wants to take the Chair, and desires the Members of Committees to come down and help to make a House.' If they do not comply with this summons, the Speaker can send—and frequently has sent—up the Sergeant-at-Arms with the Mace; and on the appearance of the Mace at any Committee, that Committee is dissolved, of course. But it is convenient and usual first to inform the Committee that the Speaker intends, or threatens to send the Mace if they do not come, and for the messenger, when the Mace is coming, to inform the Committee of it, that they may adjourn and not be dissolved. The House will observe that the course which I took yesterday was founded upon the practice described in the passage which I have read. I may remark further, in reference to what has been said by the hon. Baronet, that I have no authority to compel the attendance of hon. Members who are serving on Committees. The attendance of Members in this House at the request of Mr. Speaker must, under the circumstances, be left to their own good sense and judgment.