§ MR. SPEAKER
called upon the Attorney General to make his Motion for Leave to bring in the Parliamentary Oaths Bill.
§ MR. R. N. FOWLER
said, he had a Petition to present from the Committee of the National Club, praying the House to refuse its assent to any Bill which proposed to abolish the appeal to Almighty God, and that legislation upon the subject might not be hurried through.
Petition ordered to be laid on the Table.
§ MR. PARNELL
I beg, with great respect, to submit that I had addressed you, and had intimated my intention of moving the adjournment of the House 1619 before you called upon the hon. and learned Attorney General.
§ MR. SPEAKER
I am simply carrying out the Order of the House. The House has already ordered that at this Sitting the Orders of the Day shall be postponed until after the Motion of the Attorney General with regard to the Parliamentary Oath, and in pursuance of that Order of the House I have called upon the Attorney General, who is now in possession of the House.
§ MR. ARTHUR O'CONNOR
I rise to a point of Order. The Order of the House to which you have referred states—That the Orders of the Day, subsequent to the Order of the Day for resuming the Adjourned Debate on the Second Reading of the Land Law (Ireland) Bill be postponed until after the Notice of Motion for the introduction of the Parliamentary Oaths Bill.The debate on the second reading of the Land Law (Ireland) Bill has been adjourned; the Orders of the Day, in pursuance of the Resolution I have quoted, have been postponed, and we have come to the Notices of Motion. The Notices of Motion are some 20 in number; and the Notice which stands in the name of the hon. and learned Attorney General is No. 8 upon the list. The point I wish to submit to you, Mr. Speaker, is, whether the Orders numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, down to No. 8, must not be disposed of before the Motion can be taken which stands on the Paper in the name of the Attorney General? If it be said that this is a Government Notice, and that it ought to have precedence on a Government night, then I would respectfully submit that if that were so, it would have been printed at the head of the Notices of Motion. What I wish to ask now, as a point of Order, is, whether the Notices which precede that of the Attorney General should not have precedence?
§ MR. SPEAKER
In calling upon the Attorney General to submit his Motion. I have only followed out the Order of the House. The Motion of the Attorney General, according to the Order of the House, was to be called up out of its place; and, in pursuance of that Order of the House, I have called upon the Attorney General.
§ MR. ARTHUR O'CONNOR
I do not for a moment, Sir, question the complete accuracy of your statement as 1620 to the ordinary practice of the House; but I would submit further to you, whether, upon Notice being taken of the points to which I have alluded, it is not within the competence of any Member to insist on the programme furnished to us in regard to the Business of the House for this evening being strictly adhered to. Even if the custom be as you have mentioned, when an objection has been taken to a departure from the prescribed Orders of the Day, I would submit that although that custom may be as you have stated, we have a right to insist on the Notice Paper being gone through.
§ MR. PARNELL
Upon the point of Order I wish to add for your further consideration, whether, where it is desired that a Notice of Motion should take precedence of other Notices of Motion which are before it on the Paper, as well as of the Orders of the Day which are also before it on the Paper, it has not been customary in times past to move a Resolution of this kind—that the Orders of the Day and Notices of Motion subsequent to the Order of the Day for resuming the second reading of the Land Law (Ireland) Bill be postponed until after the Notice of Motion for the introduction of such and such a Bill or Notice of Motion? In the present case, I think I can recall to your mind the fact that there have been several such precedents afforded to us in the past practice of the House when it has been desired to move a Notice of Motion out of its usual order, and that the Notices of Motion have always been included as well as the Orders of the Day. On the present occasion, the only Resolution we have adopted is the Resolution moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, which directs that the Orders of the Day subsequent to the Order of the Day for resuming the adjourned debate on the second reading of the Land Law (Ireland) Bill should be postponed until after the Notice of Motion for the introduction of the Parliamentary Oaths Bill. That refers only to the Orders of the Day; and I take it that the Notices of Motion which stand on the Paper after the Orders of the Day should now be taken according to the order in which they stand. Certainly, the Resolution which the House has adopted does not give precedence to the Motion of the learned Attorney General over the Notices of 1621 Motion which stand before it on the Paper.
§ MR. SPEAKER
I can only repeat to the hon. Member, and to the House, that the ordinary course has been followed upon this occasion, and that I am only pursuing the ordinary and uniform practice of the House in calling on the Attorney General, who has charge of the Motion in question, to proceed with that Motion. I am, however, bound to say that, after the distinct intimation I have given, it does appear to me that this continued interruption is in itself disorderly.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES)
I have now to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the Parliamentary Oath. In making that Motion, I think it would be the most convenient course that I should explain the reasons which render it desirable that the Bill should be brought in. In the statement I have to make, I can assure the House that I shall occupy its time as briefly as I can, and I shall do all in my power to avoid entering into matters of a controversial nature. It is necessary, however, to remind the House that the responsibility of introducing the Bill has been cast on the Government; how it is that the difficulty which the Bill proposes to deal with has arisen; and why it is that it has become necessary to meet that difficulty by means of the proposed legislation. In the first place, it is only seemly that I should give credit to the foresight displayed some time ago by hon. Members opposite, and especially to acknowledge that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Assheton Cross), who, when this matter was before the House on the 1st of July last, expressed his views almost in the words of a prophecy, which prophecy now appears about to be fulfilled. When we were then discussing the proposed Resolution of the Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman said he thought the only course to be followed was to bring in a Bill to solve the difficulty; and he also added—They might depend upon it that, whatever the fate of this Resolution was, it would not settle the question. Legislation must be brought forward, whatever the sacrifice of time."—[3 Hansard, ccliii. 1330.]At that time it was thought that the Resolution of the Prime Minister might 1622 have been sufficient to meet the difficulty which the House had to deal with; because, if the judicial opinion had been in concurrence with the opinion of those Members of the House who thought that Mr. Bradlaugh had a right to affirm, there would have been no need for this legislation. But it was not so. The Courts of Law have decided that Mr. Bradlaugh was not entitled to affirm, and a claim is now made by him to take the Oath. The difficulty which the right hon. Gentleman referred to on the occasion which I mentioned has arisen; and, that difficulty having arisen, the prophecy which he made to the House seems about to be fulfilled. At any rate, the necessity for legislation has become apparent; and the first question which presents itself is upon whom shall the responsibility fall of introducing that legislation to the consideration of the House? With regard to the proposal now to be submitted to it, whatever may be its fate, I think there will be an universal concurrence of opinion that the responsibility should fall upon the Government, and not upon any private Member. We have now to consider for one moment what is the difficulty with which we have to deal; and I am very anxious that there should be an agreement of feeling amongst the Members of this House upon this point, however we may disagree as to the manner of meeting the difficulty. I understand it to arise from the fact that Members of the House who have been anxious and willing to take the Oath—or, at least, willing to take it—ought not, in the opinion of other Members of the House, to be allowed to take it. Sir, I think the reason why they ought not to be allowed to take the Oath must be narrowed to a very simple issue, and in that sense I am encouraged to believe that the difficulty we have to meet is a very small one. That encouragement proceeds from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Devonshire, who said that he did not object to Mr. Bradlaugh sitting in this House, and that he had no objection to those who entertained the same views as Mr. Bradlaugh being Members of this House. ["No, no!"] I will not come into conflict of opinion with those hon. Gentlemen whose recollections are not the same as mine. I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say he had no 1623 objection to the fact of Mr. Bradlaugh sitting here; but that he objected to the profanity of his taking the Oath at the Table of the House. He objected, in fact, to an appeal to the Supreme Being, in whom there was no belief, as a mockery.
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
That certainly was the point; but I do not think I made use of the term that I had no objection to Mr. Bradlaugh taking his seat as a Member of this House.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES)
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is more likely to be right than I; but I understood him to say that, as a matter of principle, he did not object to Mr. Bradlaugh being in the House, but that he objected to the profanity of his taking the Oath. At any rate, I believe there will be those who share that opinion. Again, as the law stands at present, persons entertaining opinions identical with those of Mr. Bradlaugh cannot be prevented from sitting in this House. There is no possible means of preventing the Oath being taken by such persons, because we have agreed that the Report of the Committee of the 23rd of June last is to prevail; and you, Mr. Speaker, have ruled that if a Member is silent on entering the House, and does not contemporaneously with taking the Oath make a declaration of his opinions, the House would not interfere. Thus, if a person, however atheistical in his opinions, and however morally certain this House may be, from what he has said or written out-of-doors, that he has no belief of any kind in the Supreme Being—if such a person shall come here and merely remain silent, that which hon. Members opposite so conscientiously object to and believe would be profanity in the case of Mr. Bradlaugh may day by day be enacted at the Table of this House, and there will be no means of preventing it. That is a condition of things which I understand hon. Members to say they must put an end to. In deference to the conscientious views of those who think thus, some legislation is necessary to prevent the repetition of that which has been so forcibly complained of by hon. Gentlemen opposite. But, Sir, it is not necessary to rest this Motion upon that ground alone. Without regarding the circum- 1624 stances immediately before us, I believe there is a far stronger and better ground on which to base the introduction of this Bill—namely, that there should be no religious tests for persons entering this House. Therefore, I conceive there are ample grounds for this Motion being accepted. The necessity for legislation is almost unanimously admitted; but certainly to many Members of this House the question will present itself, as to what kind that legislation shall be? It may be that many will object to the proposals of the Government, thinking that there might be legislation on a much more extended basis. There may be many who will say they desire that all Promissory Oaths should be done away with; but probably most will agree that the present is not an opportune time to raise that question, and that it had better not be brought under our consideration so soon after the circumstances which have occurred within our walls. In doing anything to mitigate the necessity of the Oath, I am encouraged by the example set by the Conservative Government in the year 1868, who, in the Promissory Oaths Amendment Act of that year, showed that it was not always necessary that a Promissory Oath should be taken. In relation to the Oath of Allegiance, the importance of which one would suppose to be greatest in the case of those whose fidelity to the person of Her Majesty was most necessary in consequence of their forming her body-guard, a Conservative Government held in this House that the Oath was not necessary, and that a solemn Declaration would supply all that was required. The same Government also proposed to substitute a solemn Declaration for a Promissory Oath in the case of persons taking municipal offices; in short, in every case except those mentioned in the Act of 1868 the Promissory Oath was abolished, and a Declaration accepted in its stead. That was the proposal of a Government of which right hon. Gentlemen opposite were Members, and it received the acquiescence of the House of Commons. Notwithstanding this example, I confess it appears to me, on the whole, undesirable to raise the broad question whether or not Promissory Oaths should be abolished. I think, under the circumstances in which we are placed, it will be better to propose legislation that 1625 will relieve this House from legal difficulty, and which will also afford due consideration to the consciences of hon. Members. I trust, therefore, that the Bill will meet the views of hon. Members opposite, and be a remedy for the evil of which they complain. I have quoted the views of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and if I am right in what I believe to be the view of the majority of the House, we have to deal with the difficulty not as to what is a proper test of the religious opinions of hon. Members, but as to what are the means, or what are the doors, by which hon. Members should enter this House. There are, at the present moment, two doors only, so to speak, by which they can enter, one of which may be represented by taking the Oath. The second is that which has been constituted in accordance with the terms of the 4th section of the Act of 1866, that provides that any Member of this House who claims to be a member of the Society of Quakers is entitled to make Affirmation as an equivalent for the Oath. We do not propose to open any fresh doors by which Members may come amongst us, nor to close any by which entrance is at present effected; but we propose to widen one of those of which I have spoken. The proposal of the Government is that the 4th section of the Act of 1866, by which Affirmation is allowed to be made by Quakers, shall be extended to every Member of the House who may desire to affirm in preference to taking an Oath.
§ SIR EARDLEY WILMOT
rose to Order. He wished to know whether, according to the Standing Orders of the House, the proposal of the hon. and learned Attorney General should not be made in Committee of the Whole House?
§ MR. SPEAKER
The statement which the hon. and learned Attorney General is making is not out of Order. I presume the hon. and learned Gentleman will conclude with a Motion that the House resolve itself into Committee of the Whole House to enable him to ask leave to introduce the Bill which he has in charge.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir HENRY JAMES)
I have already stated that it was my intention to follow the course which you, Sir, have alluded to. The proposal being that any hon. Mem- 1626 ber may make Affirmation instead of taking the Oath, I presume that every person on whom an Oath is binding will still desire to take the Oath; and certainly those persons, for the most part, who will ask leave to make an Affirmation will be those on whom an Oath will not be binding. How can you wish men to take the Oath upon whose consciences it will have no binding effect? What advantage can possibly arise from compelling men to go through such an empty form? If you do so there will be the profanity of which you complained, and there will be an empty form without any good effect. It will be said that men now take the Oath who preferred to take the Affirmation; what then? The Affirmation will have an equal effect upon their consciences to the taking of the Oath; therefore, all the advantage that ever accrues to anyone from taking the Oath will still remain, for those upon whom it is binding and effective will still take it, and those upon whom the Oath has the same binding effect as an Affirmation, if they take an Affirmation will be equally bound by that. It has been said that an Oath is a religious test; but I will remind the House that we can never enforce our test, because we cannot question a man in this House as to his conscientious belief, nor can we receive evidence in respect of it. Therefore, what is the use of seeking to apply the test of the Oath to a man upon whom it cannot have the slightest effect? No one man has ever been kept out of the House by means of the existence of the Oath, and it is now sought to substitute for it an Affirmation, which, for all practical purposes, will have precisely the same effect. It will give them exactly the same security that an Oath would give. There is only one other matter to which I wish to refer, and which I have heard much discussed. The question is raised that if this Bill becomes law a person in Mr. Bradlaugh's position will still be able to take the Oath in defiance of the feeling of the House; and it is suggested that there ought to be some legislation to prevent him taking it. That question, I think, arises from a misapprehension. The House on Tuesday last decided, under the very exceptional circumstances of Mr. Bradlaugh's previous declaration, and upon the ground stated by the hon. and learned Member for Plymouth (Mr. 1627 Clarke) that the circumstances of last year and this year amount to a contemporaneous act, and are so continuous that they cannot allow Mr. Bradlaugh to take the Oath. I will not enter now upon the question whether the House ought to have arrived at that conclusion; but I will say this—that if the House had the power then to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh taking the Oath, it will have exactly the same power after the passing of this Bill. This Bill will make no difference in the power of the House. If Mr. Bradlaugh affirms, he will do so under this Bill; but if, after making the same declaration, he came again to take the Oath, the House can again exercise the same power and again prevent him taking the Oath. There is not the slightest desire on the part of Her Majesty's Government, in bringing forward this Bill, to interfere with the decision at which the House has arrived. In saying that, I am not saying for one moment that the position of those who voted against the admission of Mr. Bradlaugh is a right and proper position to take up, or that the power which the House then exercised was rightly exercised. But whether it was right or wrong, this Bill will leave matters in precisely the same position in relation to the exercise of that right. I do not wish now to enter into any matter of a controversial nature; but I have explained what will be the purport and substance of the proposed Bill; and, in conclusion, I can only say that I trust that the House will accept the measure in the spirit in which it is proposed, which is in no sense hostile to the decision of Tuesday last, and in no way desires to interfere with the discretion or the conscientious views of hen. Members opposite. Whether the Bill is accepted or dissented from, I hope it will, at least, be discussed in a spirit free from any tinge of religious intolerance. I now beg to move "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair, and that the House resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole House," with the view of asking leave to introduce the Bill.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—(Mr. Attorney General.)
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
wished to offer one word of personal explanation with reference to the citation 1628 which the hon. and learned Gentleman had made from some remarks of his, and which might possibly produce a wrong impression as it stood in the hon. and learned Gentleman's statement. He could not remember the exact words he (Sir Stafford Northcote) had used; but what he had in his mind at the time was this—he was defining the point of the objection which he had been taking; he was taking objection to the use of the Oath by a person to whom some of the words were meaningless and an empty formality; and he meant to state that he did not take any objection on that occasion to Mr. Bradlaugh sitting in the House; but he did take objection to his taking the Oath. He did not wish, at the time, to raise the other question; but neither did he wish that it should go forth that he had no objection to Mr. Bradlaugh sitting in the House. He simply did not raise that point.
§ LORD RANDOLPH CHURCHILL
said, that in accordance with the agreement arrived at earlier in the evening, he would now move that the Debate be adjourned.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Lord Randolph Churchill.)
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
trusted that, as the subject was not introduced until a quarter past 12 o'clock, the House would see the desirability of adjourning the debate. He would only add that the Attorney General, in the very temperate speech which he had introduced to the House, had made assumptions which could not be supported by the practice of the House in this very case of Mr. Bradlaugh.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till Thursday.
§ MR. ONSLOW
inquired whether the Prime Minister proposed that the debate on the Land Law (Ireland) Bill should be stopped at any hour on Thursday, in order that this debate might be resumed?
replied that, although the debate was formally put down for Thursday, it was intended, in conformity with his previous statement, that it should be resumed on Friday.