HC Deb 25 May 1881 vol 261 cc1263-70

said, that on behalf of the Prime Minister, who was not able to be present, he begged to ask the leave of the House to move, without Notice, a Motion, Notice of which would have been given last night but for the "count-out" at 9 o'clock. The Motion was— That Committees shall not sit To-morrow, being Ascension Day, until Two o'clock, and have leave to sit until Six of the clock, notwithstanding the sitting of the House. Some time ago, exception was taken to the Committees only sitting two hours on Ascension Day; but when the alteration was made, and they were allowed to sit four hours, opposition ceased, and the Motion had been passed without remark. He trusted, in the circumstances, the House would allow him to make the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Committees shall not sit To-morrow, being Ascension Day, until Two of the clock, and have leave to sit until Six of the clock, notwithstanding the sitting of the House."—(Mr. Secretary Childers.)


said, he had no objection to the Motion.


said, before this Motion was agreed to, he wished to call attention to the circumstances under which the House was counted out on the previous evening. At 1 minute past 9 o'clock there were 36 Members present—with one exception, independent Liberal Members—to take part in the discussion of a very important Motion relative to the Crown Lands to be brought forward by the hon. Member for Cardiganshire (Mr. Pugh). He thought the Members in that part of the House were entitled to the respect of the whole House, because they represented a larger number of the electors in the United Kingdom than Members sitting in any other part of the Assembly. He was one of those who spent a large part of his time in the House in supporting the Go- vernment; and while he was happy to do so, having unbounded confidence in them, yet he felt that the confidence which had been displayed in that part of the House demanded some return from the Government. He did not ask the Government, as was sometimes done, to keep a House for the Motions of hon. Members on the rare occasions on which they could bring them forward; but, seeing that they were prepared on the previous night to keep a House for themselves, and that if reasonable grace of 5 or 10 minutes had been allowed before the Motion for a "count" was made there would have been 60 Members present, they were entitled to some support from the Government. There were 32 Members of the House who were Members of the Government; and whilst he felt strongly that the illustrious Statesman at the head of the Government devoted only too large a share of his time to attendance in the House, and whilst he regretted to see the right hon. Gentleman so constant in his attendance, yet he was surrounded by younger and stronger men, whose attendance it was not too much to expect on an occasion when 36 of their independent and devoted supporters were present in reference to a subject which, he could say, having given some attention to it for 20 years, involved a saving to the country of, at least, £50,000 a-year. So far as he observed, only one of the 32 Members of the Government was present on the previous evening when the House was counted out; and it would have been becoming on the part of the Government if, at least, four Members had been in their places on such an occasion, so that his hon. Friend might have been enabled to proceed with his Motion.


reminded the House, that on Tuesday, April 5, the House was counted out at 7.30; on Tuesday, May 10, at 8.45; on Tuesday, May 17, at 8.45; and on the previous night at 5 minutes past 9. He was on his way to the House, and was going upstairs when he met hon. Members coming down, announcing, with great delight, that there had been a "count-out." He wished to call attention to the deplorable waste of public time in consequence of these proceedings. If the subjects brought forward on private Members' nights were so unimportant that it was not necessary or desirable to keep a House, the Government should appropriate those nights for some useful Business. It was quite evident that at present the nights devoted to private Members were practically wasted.


said, he was afraid he did not come within the description—"young and strong Members of Her Majesty's Government." He wished, however, to acknowledge the considerate way in which the hon. Member for Salford (Mr. Arthur Arnold) had spoken on this subject, especially in his references to the Prime Minister. The whole House would sympathize with the desire to spare the Prime Minister attendance on the House as much as possible. He asked the hon. Member to remember that Tuesday night was rather exceptional, as the House had been occupied till 4 o'clock in the morning, and also with a protracted and somewhat anxious discussion during the earlier part of the day. Then, what took place in the evening was a little bit of sharp practice in the way in which the House was counted out, as the earliest opportunity was taken after the Evening Sitting. If an allowance of five minutes had been given, no doubt, more Members would have been on the Government Benches. The Motion to "count" did not come from that side of the House, nor from the Benches opposite, but from a Gentleman who frequently counted the House. He was quite sure that the hon. Member for Salford did not wish to impute to the Government any desire to prevent discussion on the important matter that was to have been brought forward; and he wished to put forward a plea on behalf of the Government. His hon. Friend said there were 30 odd Members of the Administration who had seats in the House. That left 610 Members who were not Members of the Administration; and he did think it a little hard that those 610 Members did not undertake the function of making and keeping a House on a private Members' night. No doubt, it was the duty of the Minister who was in charge of the particular subject to be discussed to be in attendance. The labours of Members of the Administration were becoming from day to day greater; and he, for one, felt that they were becoming almost intolerable. A Minister began his day's work at 9, and ended about 2 o'clock in the morning. That was 17 out of the 24 hours. He ventured to say, from what he know of the humanity of the House, that hon. Members would not wish to impose such hours of labour on any other class of Her Majesty's subjects; and he was afraid they would require to have a Bill for Her Majesty's Government somewhat like the Workshop and Factory Bill. He was not at all in favour of "counts-out," and this was the first occasion on which he was not present when the House had been counted out this Session; and, considering the exceptional circumstances connected with the "count-out," he hoped his hon. Friend the Member for Salford would not think Her Majesty's Government had culpably neglected their duty.


said, that, as in the case of the policeman in a popular opera, "taking one consideration with another, a Front Bench life is not a happy one." He did not blame the Government for not being present last night; but he wished to point out that unless some assistance was given by the Government in making a House on Tuesdays and Fridays, when there had been Morning Sittings for the transaction of their own Business, private Members would not so willingly allow the Morning Sittings to take place. He hoped this consideration would weigh with the Government in the future.


said, he had risen previously to support the proposal of the Secretary of State for War with regard to the usual arrangement made as to Committees on Ascension Day; but, with respect to the conversation that had taken place upon the "count-out" on the previous night, he wished to say that nobody, of course, could expect that those Members of the Government who were so very hard worked as the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and other Members of the Cabinet, should be always in attendance upon short notice, and at an inconvenient time. They did their work with very great conscientiousness and with very great labour. The House was perfectly sensible of the force of the appeal made by the Home Secretary upon the present occasion. But there were other Members of the Government who were really not in that position, and who might be bound, if desirable, to make a House and keep a House. It was a hardship upon private Members, who had obtained by ballot a day some three or four weeks in advance for bringing forward Motions, that, for want of a proper attendance, they could not bring forward their Motions. He thought there ought to be a clear understanding that when arrangements were made to enable Members of the Government to take a Morning Sitting for Government Business, the Government should make arrangements somehow or other to keep a House in the evening, at any rate for a reasonable time, in order that private Members might bring their Motions forward.


said, that as he was the Member whose Notice of Motion was first on the Paper last evening, and as the "count-out" prevented him from bringing it on, he might state that the circumstances were exceptional. It was not merely private Members' Motions, but Government Business which was stopped last night. He thought that no part of the Kingdom had greater claims on the attention of the Government than the Principality of Wales; and as the subject of his Motion—Crown lands in Wales—was one of great interest in the Principality, he would ask the Government to take some steps with reference to an inquiry into the question.


said, he was afraid that "counts-out" were not altogether due to Morning Sittings. In a recent "count-out" which had not occurred after a Morning Sitting, Members of the Government, including himself, were in their places. On that occasion, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. H. H. Fowler) brought forward the interesting subject of the National Expenditure; but as soon as that hon. Gentleman had made his speech, his Friends all went away and the House was counted out. That was an instance in which the Government had come down to keep a House. It would, he thought, be rash for the Government to undertake to keep a House on Tuesdays and Fridays. If the "count" had been postponed two minutes last night, he believed there would have been a considerable attendance of hon. Members.


thought the Motion for changing the hours of Select Committees on Ascension Day was objectionable. The mere fact that it was in ac- cordance with the usage of the House was not a sufficient justification for it; and if it were a new proposal, the House would hardly allow it to be adopted. He did not see why Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, or the Derby Day should be allowed to interfere with the Business of the House. If Members wanted to go to church or to the Derby, let them go; but let the Business of the House go on. He would not allow the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman to be made without protesting against it as being quite unnecessary and causing a waste of time to the parties concerned before the Committees.


contended that it was no part of the duty of the Government either to make or to keep a House on private Members' nights. Besides, when the House sat till 4 o'clock in the morning, some consideration was due to the Speaker and the officials of the House. There was nothing unreasonable under the circumstances of the "count-out," because if the subject for discussion was not of sufficient interest to attract 40 Members, the best thing to be done was for the House to adjourn.


said, he hoped that the House, as an Assembly of Christian Gentlemen, would accede to the Motion made by the Secretary of State for War.


thought that the proposal made by the Secretary of State for War was one on which the sense of the House should be taken. It meant that all Business in the Committees of the House should be suspended for two hours, and they were asked to observe a regulation which outside was not considered at all. There was no other part of the business of the country which was suspended for two hours on account of Ascension Day, and he did not see why the House should be asked to assent to its observance. How many Members of the Committees were likely to be found at church to-morrow morning? He thought no countenance should be given to the waste of public time in such a manner. This Assembly was not altogether composed of members of the Church of England, and members of that Church did a great injustice to regard harshly the opinions of those who did not belong to it. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had spoken of the waste of time in Ireland by the observance of so many Saints' days; but they had better begin a reform in this House. If there was a minority of Members who regarded this observance in a conscientious light, the House would, no doubt, willingly dispense with their services; but, because a minority was of that feeling, it did not follow that the majority should also be bound by it.


begged to remind the House of the strange admixture of two subjects they were discussing—namely, the Motion respecting Committee sittings on Ascension Day, and the "count-out" of Tuesday night. To the latter he did not so much object, having regard to the fact that the House sat until 4 o'clock in the morning, and, in his opinion, the Government were entitled to an acquittal in regard to it; but they ought to have given an opportunity to the hon. and gallant Member for South Ayrshire (Colonel Alexander) to bring on his Motion with respect to the Metropolitan Police. With reference to Ascension Day, he maintained that the wish of the 500 Churchmen and Roman Catholics in that House ought to be respected by the Nonconformist Members.


said, he was glad that the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth) intended to test the sense of the House on that Motion. The practice of delaying Public Business on account of Ascension Day was comparatively of recent origin. The time of the Select Committees was valuable, and it ought not to be wasted. Moreover, the witnesses who appeared before them ought not to be kept in London at great expense any longer than was necessary. The Courts of Law did not adjourn on Ascension Day, and he did not see why the Committees should take any notice of the day by adjourning till 2 o'clock.


said, that it had long been the practice for the Committees of the House not to sit till 2 o'clock on Ascension Day; and there was nothing in the arrangement which should give umbrage to Nonconformists. It occasioned no loss of time whatever, because the Committees met at 2 and sat till 6 o'clock, instead of rising, as on other days, at 4 o'clock. Thus no extra expense or inconvenience was caused to witnesses.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 58; Noes 41: Majority 17.—(Div. List, No. 213.)

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