HC Deb 08 March 1880 vol 251 cc557-62

Sir, perhaps I may be allowed a few moments before the House proceeds to Business. It would, under any circumstances, be convenient that, as Easter is approaching, some statement should be made with reference to the arrangements for the Business of the House. But there is a larger and more important question behind, which is of interest not only to the House but to the country at large. I apprehend that if hon. Gentlemen were to go down into the country at Easter in ignorance of the views of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the Dissolution of Parliament they would pass a somewhat agitated holiday, and, what is more important, a certain amount of uncertainty and consequent anxiety would prevail in the country which might prove injurious to trade and inconvenient in public affairs generally. Therefore I am desirous, on the part of the Government, to state what the views of the Government are with regard to the Dissolution of Parliament. First, however, I wish to point out that it has not been in our power to come to a decision upon this subject earlier than the present time. In the course of last autumn the state of Ireland caused no inconsiderable amount of anxiety. We perceived at an early period the probability, as time went on, of our being called upon to take measures on our responsibility as a Government to prevent or to alleviate distress in that country. These measures we took without the authority or sanction of Parliament, and it was necessary that Parliament should be called together in order to consider and give its sanction to what we had done, and also to deliberate upon the further measures which might require to be taken. That has been the Business with which Parliament has been occupied since its assembling in February. The measures which we proposed have been in the main adopted. They have almost reached their last stage in passing through Parliament; and we may, therefore, consider that that difficulty and embarrassment in our way is at an end. The question now arises, what is the most convenient time for Parliament to be dissolved? There are obviously three periods in every Session at which a Dissolution may be made—from the opening of the Session till Easter, from Easter till Whitsuntide, and from Whitsuntide till the close of the Session at the end of July or the beginning of August. Well, it is unnecessary that I should delay the House by pointing out how very much more convenient a spring Dissolution is than an autumn one, especially if the autumn Dissolution in any way interferes with harvest operations. Well, then, looking at the periods to which I have referred, as between Easter and Whitsuntide we observe this. There is a great deal of Business which it is absolutely necessary to get through within the first two or three months of the Session of Parliament, and before the close of the financial year. That generally occupies the pre-Easter Session, and with that Business we have made very considerable progress; and there will not be any difficulty in completing it, if the House so pleases, before the usual time of rising for the Easter Holidays. Besides that Business, however, there is a good deal of matter of interest and importance. There are measures which have been introduced, and which it is desirable that Parliament should proceed with, which it could not expect to finish by Whitsuntide, and which, on the other hand, if we were to dissolve at Whitsuntide, there would not be time to take up after Parliament had reassembled. In these circumstances, and after very full consideration of the question in all its aspects, we have come to the conclusion that the most convenient course open to us is to advise Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament at Easter. The effect of that will be that Parliament can meet again by the beginning of May, and probably the new House would be in working order in the course of the first week in May, so that there will be three months available before the usual period of prorogation for Parliament to consider what measures it may be desired to pass. But, before we come to the time at which we dissolve, of course there are certain things that must be got through, and they can only be got through if there is co-operation on the part of the House with Her Majesty's Government. We are now in this position—if we are able to-night to pass the first Vote in the Navy Estimates, we shall be able to-morrow to bring in the Continuance Mutiny Act Bill, and there will be time to get that through before Easter arrives. We can also, I hope, obtain the Vote on Account which is asked for for the Civil Services; and we shall then be able to take the necessary measures for putting the Exchequer in funds to carry us over the time of the Dissolution of Parliament. A Vote has already been taken to meet the Exchequer Bonds falling due in March; and other financial Votes will, of course, be proceeded with. But there is one important subject which I must mention, and that is the Budget. Now, usually we desire—it is most convenient—to bring in the Budget after the close of the financial year; but Easter falls so early that, as it is, of course, important before we think of going to the country, before we dissolve Parliament, that the financial proposals of the Government should be before the House and the country. I propose to introduce the Budget in the usual way on Thursday next. There will be, of course, several stages in our financial measures which will follow; and in one of these, no doubt, an opportunity will be given for the redemption of a pledge which I gave at the beginning of the Session to the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Fawcett), whom I am sorry not to see in his place, with regard to a discussion upon the Indian question which he referred to. I believe there is little doubt that there will be plenty of time to get through that amount of Business before Easter. Then, there are two measures—I need not refer particularly to those measures which are of so large a character that they must be laid aside at present, though we hope they may be taken up in another Parliament—but there are two measures upon which I ought to say a word. One relates to the question of the disposal of the vacant seats. It is now perfectly obvious that it would be impossible to pass that Bill, and that, therefore, it would only be a waste of time to introduce it. With regard, however, to another Bill—the Parliamentary Elections and Corrupt Practices Bill—I do not think it would be at all impossible for the House to deal with that Bill, and also with the particular question to which the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke) called attention the other night; I mean the question of the conveyance of voters in boroughs. That is a question which we feel ought not to be left in the uncertain state in which it is at present. My hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will, in the course of this evening, move to discharge the Order for the second reading of that Bill, which has been fixed for a day too late to enable us to proceed with it, and he will move for leave to bring in another Bill to-morrow, and to put it on the Paper so that it can be discussed in the course of this week. I have stated to the House, at the earliest possible moment, what the views of Her Majesty's Government are, and I hope we shall obtain that assistance without which it will be impossible to carry through our Business. I do not wish to make any unreasonable requests; but I hope we shall be allowed to take a considerable share of the time that remains for Government Business. To-morrow I will submit a Motion on the subject; but I do not, at the present moment, do more than indicate that intention. I am much obliged to the House for the way in which it has listened to my statement.


With regard to the announcement which has just been made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I can only say that I heard it with great satisfaction—a satisfaction which, I believe, will be felt generally by Members on this side of the House. I have only to ask just one Question, and that is, Whether the Government can inform us for what period they intend to take Votes on Account? I think I may state that there will be a general feeling on this side of the House, and doubtless on the other, to co-operate with the Government in getting through the necessary Business.


Three months.


The right hon. Gentleman did not remember one very important measure which has been introduced by the Government—I mean the Water Bill. Some people seemed to think that that Bill was the subject on which the Government were likely to dissolve; and, therefore, it would be desirable to know what is to be done with it?


The hon. Baronet must know perfectly well that I stated the other night that as, far as any bargain with the Water Companies was concerned, it never was the intention of the Government, in any form or shape, to force any bargain upon the public. The only proposition which the Government has ever made in regard to the matter is this—that a measure should be introduced into the House and go before a Committee; and if the Committee or the House thought the bargain would not be a beneficial one there would then, of course, be an end to it. There was no intention on the part of the Government to force any proposition on Parliament. The new Parliament will not meet until the beginning of May, and there will be plenty of time to consider the matter fully in the meantime.


I suppose the Chancellor of the Exchequer has considered the question with regard to Private Bills which have been introduced? Some of the parties to those Bills will have been put to considerable trouble and expense.


It is a common practice, whenever there is a spring Dissolution, to pass a Standing Order which puts Private Bills at the beginning of a new Parliament in the same position which they occupied in the old one.


I do not know that it would be asking too much, if I were to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he can inform us on what day the Dissolution is likely to take place?


I mentioned the other day Tuesday, the 23rd instant, as the day on which I hoped the House would be able to rise; and I see, at present, no reason for altering that expectation.


asked whether, after the announcement which had just been made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Committees on the Bankruptcy Bill and the Criminal Code Bill would continue their Sittings?


With regard to the Bankruptcy Bill, I hope the Committee will be able to finish their labours before Easter, and I see no reason why they should not do so. As to the Criminal Code Bill, I think it would be quite useless for the Committee to go on any longer with it.