HC Deb 01 June 1880 vol 252 cc931-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Select Committee on Merchant Shipping do consist of Twenty-three Members."—(Lord Richard Grosvenor.)


observed, that his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had given Notice that he would oppose the nomination of the Committee which the noble Lord had just moved. Unfortunately, this Motion came on a little earlier than was anticipated by his hon. and learned Friend, who was not now in his place, and by a large number of Gentlemen who, as he (Mr. Balfour) happened to know, also objected to the constitution of the Committee. Under these circumstances, he felt bound to move that the debate be adjourned, in order to give an opportunity to those Gentlemen to express their views on a matter which could only be regarded as one of the highest importance. He did not pretend to have accurately followed the course of events which had induced his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chatham to object to the constitution of this Committee; but he understood that last night some discussion on a Bill took place with respect to this Committee, and that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade gave a pledge to this effect—that he would not frame this Committee on a certain principle which the Prime Minister had recently adumbrated to the House. The principle laid down by the Prime Minister was that Parties should be balanced on Committees in the same proportion as they were in that House. Now that principle, which was an altogether novel one, and which, if generally adopted, would render the impartiality of Committees open to question, appeared to have been followed in the constitution of the present Committee. This body consisted of 23 Members; 12 of these were constant and recognized supporters of the Government, two belonged to what was called the third Party in that House, and nine only were drawn from what he might call the normal and Constitutional Party of Opposition. Either, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain) had forgotten his pledge, or he interpreted it differently from hon. Members on the Opposition side. The principle pursued previously in the appointment of these Committees was, he (Mr. Balfour) maintained, that each Party in the House should, as nearly as possible, be equally represented. In order that full consideration should be given to this most important matter, and that hon. Members specially interested in it might have an opportunity of attending, he begged to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—{Mr. Arthur Balfour.)


reminded the hon. Member that the names of the Committee now proposed did not appear on the Paper that day for the first time, so that there could be no breach of pledge on the part of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade such as was suggested. His only object was to obtain the services of those Members who were peculiarly conversant with the subject under discussion. As the third Party in the House did not rank among the Liberal Party, the Government had really only a majority of one in the Committee. The Prime Minister himself would be able to correct, if it was wrong, the hon. Member's definition of the principle supposed to govern the constitution of Committees under the present Government. For himself, he would only point out to the hon. Member that the question of grain cargoes was not one of a Party character; and that, therefore, complaints as to any Party inequality in the constitution of the Committee would not lie.


said, he understood the Prime Minister last night to intimate that Committees were to be constituted with due regard to the strength of the Government. Such a principle was quite new, not only to Members who came for the first time, but to those who had previously the honour of a seat in that House. Therefore, on the ground of principle, he should certainly support the Motion for adjournment.


remarked that in his experience it had always been a recognized principle that the Government should have power in Committees. The Prime Minister, as he understood, did not go quite so far as that, but only claimed a fair representation upon Committees of the views of the different sections of the House. By the formation of a third Party in Parliament the old lines of Business had been changed; and if the Government constituted Committees without regard to that change they would probably find themselves in a minority. He trusted the Motion would not be persevered with, as it was unprecedented to adjourn a question at an early hour merely because certain Members did not happen to be in their places.


said, he would be sorry if anything were to occur to delay the appointment of the Committee on a subject of this important character. He suggested that the present difficulty should be met by the addition to the Committee of a few Conservative names. The late Government did their best to remedy the evils which the late Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) had pointed out. He thought they had been only partially successful; but, at all events, they were more successful than their Predecessors. He ventured to suggest to the Prime Minister that such names should be added to the Committee as would give the Conservatives and the Liberals equal representation upon it.


said, he should have thought that this was a question which it was impossible to connect with Party. He hoped the practice would not be introduced of moving adjournments because of the absence of Members between 8 and 9 o'clock. Such a practice was unknown in his Parliamentary experience, and would be productive of much inconvenience and obstruction to Public Business. As regarded the Main Question before the House, what they asked was that each Party should have the benefit of its actual position in the House when it entered upon an investigation in a Committee. A Committee was, in a certain sense, an imperium in imperio. It was an authority, although a secondary authority, in the House. The judgment of a Committee did not foreclose a question, but its decision upon a question did, up to a certain point, influence the House; and, therefore, a Committee was, in some sense, a reproduction of the House for the purpose of influencing action on public questions. The principle for which the Government contended as reasonable in itself, and as established by long usage, was that a Committee should be constituted with some regard, but not an exclusive regard, to the distribution of political opinions in the House. Committees which were to advise and guide the House ought, in some degree, though not too minutely, to be something like faithful miniatures of the House. Against this the hon. Gentleman who spoke last on the other side set up an opposite principle. It was that those whom the hon. Member called Conservatives and Liberals ought to be equal in number on every Select Committee, and that some fraction of the Committee should be composed of Members of the third Party, because, according to the hon. Gentleman, it was to this third Party that Her Majesty's present Government owed its position. The hon. Member seemed able to bend even the stern and rigid rules of arithmetic to his own views; because the figures which he (Mr. Gladstone) possessed showed that the position of the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the present and last Parliament had been almost precisely reversed, putting aside all those Members who were supposed to belong to what was termed the third Party. In the last Parliament the Conservative Party were 108 more in number than the Liberals, and in the present Parliament the Liberals were 107 more than the Conservatives; so that if an equal representation were given to Liberals and Conservatives, the voting power would rest with the third Party which had been spoken of. What was asked in regard to Committees was not that the Government might have a majority on the Committee. It was not the Government that nominated Committees, it was the House, and it was usual that the majority of the House should be represented in some degree by the majority on the Committee. With that the Government were perfectly content, and it seemed to him that the opposite side should be content with that division of strength. At the commencement of his Parliamentary life Committees were very large, consisting of 30 or 40 Members; but in later years, when the numbers were limited, the practice had been that the majority of the House should be represented by a majority on the Committee. Such was the case in the last Parliament; and, unless he was much mistaken, such was the case at an earlier period. Although there would be a majority on Committees, he trusted they never would be extreme in pushing their rights, but would keep within limits. On these grounds he objected to the adjournment.


said, his hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Balfour) had moved the adjournment of the debate on the ground that the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) gave Notice early in the evening that he should oppose the nomination of this Committee, and the appointment of the Committee had come on at a much earlier hour than there was reason to expect at the time the Notice was given. He agreed with the Prime Minister that it would be setting a bad precedent to move the adjournment simply because an hon. Member who wished to take part in the discussion happened to be absent. On the present occasion, however, his hon. Friend moved the adjournment because he had reason to think that the hon. and learned Member for Chatham wished to bring forward a personal matter, and because the question raised by the appointment of this Committee was much larger and wider than that contained in the Motion of itself. They were all agreed that this ought not to be treated as a Party question, and that the Members nominated on the Committee were unexceptionable; but they could not shut out from view the fact that there were circumstances which rendered the appointment of this Committee in a certain sense a test question, and that they were not now merely engaged in appointing a particular Committee; but that they might be held to be laying down a precedent by which the appointment of Committees all through this Parliament was to be regulated. He believed that the hon. Member for Hertford had exercised a wise discretion in asking the House to adjourn its decision of the question. He felt that in the present circumstances of the House the question was not free from difficulty, and that the difficulty was of a peculiar and, to a certain extent, novel character. For a great number of years the custom had been to nominate an uneven number of Members to serve on Select Committees, and that the majority of the Committee should be drawn from the Ministerial side of the House, and the minority, being one less than the majority, from the ranks of the Opposition. That had been the rule—the unwritten rule—in many Parliaments, and it had been observed without reference to the precise strength of the Ministerial majority, whether that majority consisted of three or of 30 Members. He thought that, on the whole, it was best that such an understanding should prevail—that those hon. Members who were specially interested in the Business of the House should suggest the names of a certain number of hon. Members from their respective sides to serve on the Committee to be appointed. That principle had been a good guide at a time when there were only two Parties in the House; but they had now a third Party, who, by their own wish, desired to be recognised as an independent Party, and the Opposition recognized them as such. How would the Government deal with the ease of the Members forming that Party? There were on the Committee 12 Gentlemen who were all distinctively Members of the regularly recognized Liberal Party; on the other hand, there were nine Gentlemen who were Members of the recognized Conservative Opposition; and then there were two Members upon it who represented the third Party. That Party attached itself to neither side of the House, and they did not desire to be regarded as a mere appanage or sub-division of the Liberal Party; and they desired the same liberty that had always been accorded to the Conservative and Liberal Parties of having a voice in the selection of Committees. It was quite as likely that the views of the third Party upon any given question might side with the Government as that they might go against it. The Government had a majority of one, and if they sided with them the Government would then have a majority of 14 against nine, which was rather an inconvenient division. He wished to know upon what principle they were to proceed. His right hon. Friend urged that the House ought at once to make the appointment of the Committee in accordance with its views of the rights of the majority, and, no doubt, the Government would have force enough to do so, if they chose; but so extreme an exercise of the power of a majority would be distasteful to the great bulk of the Members. It seemed to him that when, in the present state of the House, a Committee had to be appointed, the Members of the Government, as representing a majority, should propose such a number of names as might be appropriate to the size of the Committee, and that the regular Opposition should nominate a certain number falling short by one of the numbers of the majority, while the third Party nominated two Members chosen from their own adherents. He thought that his hon. Friend was not only perfectly justified in moving the adjournment of this question, but that they ought to be thankful to him for having done so in order that the question might be deliberately considered. If, however, they were forced to proceed with the nomination of the Committee, it would be on the understanding that they were not bound by the precedent, but, on the contrary, protested against it. They could not accept the principle upon which it was now proposed to act as a law or a guide for the future.


said, that the Government proposed to follow the invariable custom of nominating from their side of the House the majority of the Committee. It did not appear from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that their right to do so had been called in question on behalf of the Opposition, or that the fact was disputed that it was usual for the majority of a Committee to be drawn from the majority of the House. Now, there were broadly 350 Members of the present House of Commons who might be recognized among the usual supporters of the Government, 240 were supporters of a homogeneous Opposition, and 60 Members, or thereabouts, constituted what by their own wish was called the third Party. If those proportions were maintained in the Committee about to be nominated, they would give 12½ Members to the supporters of the Government, 8¼ to the recognized Opposition, and 2¼ to the third Party. Thus, in claiming only 12 Members on the Committee, the majority in the House, according to its strength and power, was really giving the turn of the scale to the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition said it was not desirable that the majority in the House should push its rights to an extreme. They were not pushing them to an extreme. The right hon. Gentleman opposite contended that the Treasury Bench should invariably include among its supporters the third Party—which refused to be so included —and that they should take a bare majority for themselves and for the third Party also. The practical effect of that would be that the supporters of the Government would be in a minority upon every Committee. The mere statement of the proportion was sufficient to condemn it. The plan of nominating Committees now proposed was practically the same as that adopted by the late Government; and as to the Committee now in question, it was one which had the confidence of the House, it fairly repre- sented its political complexion, and, at the same time, it comprised fair representatives of the great interests concerned in the matter. The Leader of the Opposition had thought fit last night to warn his followers that it was possible their motives might be unfavourably construed. That was quite possible. Hon. Gentlemen opposite said that legislation as to merchant shipping should be proceeded with; but when the Government proposed even to consider such legislation, some delay, or other was interposed. When the Government proposed to appoint a Select Committee, an adjournment was moved. As all the proceedings of hon. Gentlemen opposite tended to delay that question, the country might possibly be led to infer that delay was their object.


said, he felt much surprised at the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman who had last spoken. That right hon. Gentleman, who was new to his position, had lectured the House for adopting the course which he himself notably, and many others sitting on the same side, had pursued when they were in Opposition, The right hon. Gentleman now-had certain things to do, and was anxious to gain the credit of passing' certain Bills; and, therefore, he maligned the Opposition for exercising its legitimate function of seeing that those who were in power did their duty honestly and properly. In that House there was a sacred hour, and during that hour every means were taken by Gentlemen on either side to secure the fair discussion of important questions, and expedients were resorted to in order that Members might be in their places for such discussion. He was surprised at the way in which the Prime Minister had put that matter before the House. That right hon. Gentleman had last night stated that the third Party did not belong to that—the Ministerial—side of the House. Now, he had sat many years in the House, and he ventured to say that never had a Committee been appointed in the manner this one was about to be appointed. In constituting Committees the usual course was to take one Member from this side and another from that; but now it was proposed to take 12 Members from the Ministerial side and to give them an absolute majority, including all Parties. How could they have an impartial Committee when one side had such a preponderance, and the inquiry was to be begun with a foregone conclusion? Both sides of the House ought to be fairly represented, and equal numbers ought to be taken from both sides, with the exception of one more for the Government. If the late Government had done what was now being attempted, the present Prime Minister would have loudly inveighed against it. He now appealed to the justice and even to the generosity of the House in the matter. The course proposed could not be a satisfactory settlement of the question; and unless the Prime Minister agreed to an alteration of the proposal hon. Gentlemen on his side would protest. He had known them to sit till 3 or 4 in the morning on a question of such importance as this; and unless they got some assurance that they would be fairly treated, that might even happen again. They were a determined Party, and could not easily be coerced. They rather preferred being on that side of the House; it was a place they liked; they were far more independent; they were a united Party; and the Prime Minister knew that when they took up a question they carried it to a logical and legitimate conclusion. Let the Committee be constituted on the old lines, by which the Government should have a majority of I only, instead of, as was now sought, 12 against 9. The right hon. Gentleman opposite knew more or less how Members would vote. ["No!"] He supposed that those on the other side of the House would vote with the Government; if so, they could calculate who belonged to their Party, which made the matter much easier, and gave no pretence for altering the old custom of constituting a Committee. ["No, no!"]


observed, that they were engaged on a question of the very greatest delicacy and importance, and he hoped that they would be able to discuss it with temper, with moderation, and also with due deliberation. They were considering the constitution of a Committee to which should be relegated an inquiry of a highly important character. They were also dealing with a problem that had never been considered before. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had truly said they were establishing a pre- cedent. Bearing that in mind, although he was prepared to support the solution which Her Majesty's Government had arrived at, he thought it would not be amiss if they agreed to the proposal of the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Balfour). It could not be said that the mind of the House was now fully informed on the matter. The mode of constituting Committees to which the hon. and gallant Member for West Sussex (Sir Walter B. Barttelot) had referred originated when the House was divided strictly into two Parties. That state of things had passed away, and new circum-stances required a new procedure. He believed the Government had offered a proper solution for the House, but this was the first time it had been put before the House; and being a grave question he thought another opportunity might be given before they finally decided upon it. He was fortified in that by an observation of the right hon. Baronet (Sir Stafford Northcote), who, if he had thought a little more, would never have submitted the solution which he did submit — namely, that the Government should have one more than the number allotted to the usual Opposition, leaving to the third Party a proportion of their own. The right hon. Gentleman said the third Party might be very well content with that. Why, that made the third Party master of the Committee. He was quite sure the right hon. Gentleman would not adhere to that proposal. It would seriously diminish the strength of his own Party if they came into Office again.


said, he did not see why they should not have sufficient time for the consideration of this subject. During the last Parliament the matter did not arise in this way. It was true that the existence of a third Party was acknowledged in the last Parliament; but it so happened that the third Party sat with Her Majesty's Opposition, and the Opposition, being generally of the same opinion as the third Party, did not think any inequality arose in allowing the third Party to share in their portion of the representation of a Committee. It was arranged that that share should be in proportion to the numbers of that Party. But now they had an entirely different state of affairs. They had the third Party sitting on the side of those against whom they always contended in the last Parliament, and a proposition that the third Party should have a share of representation in the composition of a Committee. He must confess that if he saw any hope of the House agreeing to the very ingenious proposal of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir Stafford Northcote) he should be inclined to support it. It would, undoubtedly, give the third Party a very great advantage in the deliberations of all Committees. It was, however, defective in principle, and he did not think the House would adopt it, so he regretted to be obliged to stand on principle, and oppose it. He thought that, although in times past it had not been the custom to take into consideration the relative numbers of the different Parties in the House, yet, under the new circumstances which undoubtedly existed, the House could not adopt any better rule than that of forming its Committees in proportion to the numbers of the different Parties. And, as for the third Party, he trusted that it would grow in number.


wished to say a word on the question as it affected the general character of the House and forms of representation. According to the published lists, the majority of the Liberal Party over the Conservatives and third Party was very large. If the name of every Member were put in an urn and drawn out to form Committees, the effect would be that the Liberal Party would always have a large majority. He quite agreed, however, with what the right hon. Gentleman (Sir Stafford Northcote) had said, that although the Liberal Party might claim a much larger majority on Committees, it would not always be expedient to exercise that power; but if the present proposition were carried into effect, the result would be that the Liberal Party, with a large majority over both sections of the House combined, would always be in a minority. If the Tory Party proper had only one fewer than the Liberal Party, and if the Home Rulers had two independently, the result would be that in every Committee the Liberal side of the House would be in a minority of one, although they had a large majority of the whole House.


could assure the right hon. Gentleman opposite that several Members below the Gangway on the Opposition side of the House were most anxious that the nomination of this Committee should be, at any rate, discussed, and that they should be able to state before the right hon. Gentleman and the Government their views on the matter.


hoped, as Notice had been given that the appointment of this particular Committee would not be accepted as ruling the general principle on which Committees were to be selected, and as it was important that the question under consideration should be proceeded with, that the House would allow the Committee to be appointed without prejudice, and take a discussion on the general question on the occasion of the appointment of another Committee.


in explanation, wished it to be understood that he had not accused the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade of any breach of faith in reference to this matter. Probably the misunderstanding had arisen from the fact that the right hon. Gentleman was not in the House when he addressed it, and a distorted account of what was said had reached him. He accepted the Prime Minister's statement that the present case was not to bind the nomination of future Committees, but felt bound to take a division. If the division was against him he should not press the question further now.

Question put.

The House divided: — Ayes 28; Noes 128: Majority 100. — (Div. List, No. 13.)

Original Question again proposed.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the words "Twenty-three," in order to insert the words "Twenty-five,"— (Mr. Norwood,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words 'Twenty-three' stand part of the Question."

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question put.

Resolved, That the Select Committee on Merchant Shipping do consist of Twenty-three Members.


In reply to Mr. A. BALFOUR,


said, that when the next Committee came to be appointed he would take care that an opportunity should be given to raise the question again.