HC Deb 12 February 1884 vol 284 cc763-74

Sir, in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I rise to make the Motion which stands in his name for the revival of the Resolutions of the House of the 1st of December, 1882, relating to the constitution and proceedings of Standing Committees. The House will remember that at the close of last Session my right hon. Friend did not, as was intended, propose to make the Standing Order a Sessional Order, because, as I think was stated, it would be more convenient that this course should be taken when the Government were in a position to say what Bills would be referred to the Committees if re-appointed. I am, of course, unable to state positively at the present moment what Bills will be so referred, because the stage of second reading had not been reached. I may, however, state that, in the event of the Standing Committees on Law and Trade being re-appointed in the present Session, it would be proposed by the Government to refer to the Committee on Trade a measure dealing with the preservation of Life and Property at Sea, and another measure dealing with the powers of the Railway Commission; and to the Committee on Law it would be proposed to refer a Bill dealing with Corrupt Practices at Municipal Elections, and another Bill relating to the Law on Stolen Goods. It was, I believe, understood last Session that no measures except Government measures should he referred to these Committees. That was an engagement which the Government would be quite willing to renew, if it were desired by the House; but, in the event of any measures introduced by private Members being passed at the second reading, and if it be the general wish of Members that they should be considered by either of the Standing Committees, the Government would not think it necessary to interpose any objection to their being so considered. There are two measures, introduced by private Members, which it might be desirable to refer to the Committee on Law—one of them being a Bill which deals with Copyhold Enfranchisement, and the other, introduced by the hon. and learned Member for Launceston (Sir Hardinge Giffard), and which, I believe, will come on for the second reading tomorrow, dealing with the Registration of Deeds in Middlesex. Those, and any other Bills on similar subjects might, perhaps, in the opinion of the Government, be referred to the Standing Committee on Law; and they would not think it necessary to present any objection to that course being adopted, unless it should be contrary to the desire of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Resolutions of the House of the 1st December, 1882, relating to the constitution and proceedings of Standing Committees, be revived."—(The Marquess of Hartington.)


said, as he had last Session the honour of serving on the Standing Committee on Law, he would like to address to the House some remarks founded upon his experience of that Committee, and he was quite sure his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Raikes) had the same intention. He was bound to say that the results of his experience were by no means as favourable to these Standing Committees as the experience of some hon. Members who served on the Committee on Trade and Commerce appeared to have been; and, therefore, he desired to submit to the House some reasons against the renewal of the Standing Order, as moved by the noble Marquess opposite. But, taken as they were by surprise, he could not but feel that it was impossible adequately to discuss the question at the present moment. There had been no apparent intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government to make the Motion that night. If he remembered aright, it was distinctly stated by the Prime Minister, on a former occasion, that when the Motion was made full opportunity would be afforded for its discussion. But this evening the Notice of the Motion on the Paper had actually been passed over by Mr. Speaker, and subsequent Notices had been called on, before the Motion was moved by the noble Marquess. He protested against the discussion being taken at that Sitting. He did not think it fair to the House to continue the debate in the present circumstances, especially as the noble Marquess had stated that Her Majesty's Government contemplated a distinct addition to the powers of the Standing Committees. The Government, according to the speech of the noble Marquess, contemplated that Bills introduced by private Members, and which it was well known were almost invariably unripe schemes, should be referred to those Committees as well as the Bills of the Government. That appeared to him a question too serious to be settled on that occasion, and he, therefore, begged to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed; "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Sir Michael Hicks-Beach.)


said, he was very much surprised at the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman. He would like to ask for what purpose the Notice Paper was printed that was placed in the hands of hon. Members? Night after night the House was told that Motions deliberately put upon the Notice Paper, and reached in the due course of Business, came upon them as a matter of surprise, and that the debates could not go on. He did not understand that assertion at all. It was not a matter of surprise to anybody that any Motion on the Notice Paper should be brought on before half-past 12 o'clock; the half-past 12 o'clock Rule meant nothing else than that every Motion on the Paper should be dealt with, if there were an opportunity for so doing. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Assheton Cross) said he was taken by surprise last night. Was it 11 or 12 o'clock, or what hour was it, that surprise should be felt that a Motion on the Notice Paper should be taken? They all knew the difficulty there was in getting through the Business of the House, which was not likely to be lessened by hon. Gentlemen making an arbitrary rule for themselves, and then postponing discussion on the ground that they had been taken by surprise; indeed, he did not see how the Government were to get through Business at all, unless hon. Members were prepared to take all Motions on the Paper, if there should be time to make them before half-past 12 o'clock. That was the practice and the rule of the House, and he could not understand the objection to take the Motion of his noble Friend. The House was aware of the pressure now upon the Government. There was the Vote of Censure; and the debate on the Address was unfinished. How, then, could the Government throw away these opportunities of dealing with other matters in their regular order? The right hon. Gentleman opposite had put down a block to the Motion, and then, because in the proper course of Business it was reached before half-past 12 o'clock, the right hon. Baronet (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) said that the House was taken by surprise. To avoid such surprises, hon. Gentlemen need do no more than understand that Business on the Notice Paper, which could be taken before half-past 12 o'clock, would be proceeded with.


said, he thought he could tell the House why the surprise spoken of by right hon. Gentlemen was felt. The Prime Minister, on the first night of the Session, announced that the Business next after the debate on the Address would be the introduction of the Franchise Bill, and that he proposed, in due course, to introduce a Motion for the revival of the Standing Committees. No one after that had any idea that this Motion would be brought forward in the absence of the right hon. Gentleman; indeed, the Prime Minister was so much identified with the Business of the House dealt with in the present Motion, that he thought it natural, on the part of hon. Members, to expect that it would be brought forward by him. He would not go into the question as to the success or otherwise of the Standing Committees appointed last year, but merely say that, in his judgment, the imperfect action of the Standing Committee on Law, in respect of a certain measure which came before it, was due not to the construction or action of that Committee, but to the character of the measure which it had to consider. It was a Bill, the principle of which was strongly objected to by a large proportion of the Committee. That principle had never been really discussed in the House at all, still less by many of the Gentlemen who served on the Committee; and the Bill was, therefore, not in a fit state to go before the Standing Committee. There were, doubtless, many Bills to which that objection would not apply; and he, for one, was not at all clear that they had not arrived at a useful method of dealing with a certain class of measures; but he did not think the Bill which came last year before the Standing Committee on Law was one of that class.


said, he thought it scarcely worthy of the House for right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Opposition Benches to put forward the argument as to time in support of the Motion for the adjournment of the debate, because, as the Secretary of State for the Home Department had pointed out, any Business on the Paper might be reasonably expected to be taken which came forward before half-past 12 o'clock, and although this proceeding on the part of Her Majesty's Government did smack a little of what to some might appear sharp practice, they were not to be surprised at anything which the Government did. The proposal which had just been put before the House was one so important in itself that it seemed to him reasonable to ask that the discussion upon it should be postponed, and the decision of the House postponed until all those Members were in their places who felt an interest in the question. He had certainly understood the Prime Minister to say that it was not his intention to bring forward the Motion on the subject of the Standing Committees until a more advanced period of the Session had been reached, and his own opinion was certainly that the Motion would not be taken at that Sitting. He thought, with regard to the Standing Committees, that there was a good deal to be said against them as well as for them. He was a Member of one of those Committees, every Sitting of which he attended, and his experience was that there was an immense waste of time in connection with it. He believed much more work could have been got through in a Select Committee than in the Committee of which he was a Member, and much less expenditure of the force of the House would have been involved. The end of its labours was that the Bill which was passed through the Committee, and which was very imperfectly understood by the House, was brought down, and was ultimately read a third time without the House having before them the Amendments on the Paper. He would detain the House but a few moments longer in order to urge the desirability of postponing this discussion, on the ground of the great importance of the proposal made by the noble Marquess, the attenuated condition of the House, and the absence of Members who were greatly interested in the question of the Standing Committees, which made demands upon their time and attention that they could very ill afford.


said, he trusted the Government would agree to the adjournment of the debate. He had been a Member of one of the Standing Committees, having attended every Sitting, and he would venture to say that no one who had sat during the day on a Standing Committee, and gone through the work which they had to do, was then in a condition to come down to that House, sit there the whole evening, and discharge his duties efficiently. There were many considerations arising out of this question—namely, as to whether the old Committees had not worked as well as the Standing Committees, and as to whether the duties of the Standing Committees might not be discharged by a less number of Members.


I would point out that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is going beyond the Question before the House.


said, with submission to the ruling of Mr. Speaker, that it was difficult to support the adjournment of the debate without showing the importance of the considerations involved in the Motion for the revival of the Standing Committees. The noble Marquess, however, must see that there were good reasons why the debate should be adjourned. He himself was exceedingly anxious that there should be an opportunity of fully discussing this important question of reappointing these Committees, to which in future very important Bills might be relegated.


said, he wished to remind the noble Marquess that the Prime Minister had stated distinctly that first after the Report of the Address he would ask leave to introduce the Bill dealing with the Franchise, and that he would next make the Motion relating to the Standing Committees. He felt sure that if the Home Secretary had known that, he would have agreed at once to the Motion of his right hon. Friend for the adjournment of the debate. It was all very well to say that Members must expect to be taken by surprise. They knew that. They were taken by surprise last night, and he must suppose that the Government intended to move these important Motions at a time when the House would be taken by surprise. If the debate on the present Motion were allowed to continue there would be a distinct breach of pledge, the responsibility of which would rest not on the Government alone, but particularly on the shoulders of the Prime Minister himself, because, as he had shown, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Motion would come on after the introduction of the important Bill of which he had given Notice. He did not think the noble Marquess was cognizant of this fact when he made the Motion, and they all knew that the Prime Minister had had a very onerous duty to perform in the House that evening; no one supposed for a moment that he would be in his place after the speech he had made in the debate which had taken place. He did not say it was un-Constitutional, or a thing that ought not to be done, for another Member of the Government to make a Motion of which the Prime Minister had given Notice, but it added to the number of surprises they had experienced; and for the reasons stated he trusted the noble Marquess would agree to the Motion for the adjournment of the debate.


said, he rose to corroborate the statement of the hon. Member who had just spoken with regard to the announcement of the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman certainly did say that this Motion would not be brought on before the Report of the Address had been taken; and that fact, in his opinion, bound the Government to agree to the adjournment of the debate. But another point had been raised by the Home Secretary—namely, that because the Motion appeared on the Notice Paper, it was perfectly legitimate and proper to bring it forward. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must have known that it was a regular thing to put Motions on the Paper which it was not intended to bring forward; and that when a matter of great importance was really to be discussed, it was usual to bring it forward early in the evening, not at a quarter past 12 o'clock, as had been the case with the present Motion. The Motion of the noble Marquess stood in a very different position from that of the Bill brought forward last night, because, in the case of the latter, there would be an opportunity for discussing the merits of the measure at a subsequent period; whereas, if the Motion of to-night were carried, there would be no other opportunity for discussing the re-appointment of the Standing Committees. The Prime Minister certainly led the House to believe that he would not bring forward the Motion until after the Report of the Address. For that reason, in view of the importance of the question, and because there was room for much difference of opinion as to whether or not the Standing Committees should be re-appointed, he trusted the noble Marquess would agree to the Motion for the adjournment of the debate.


pointed out that, although the Prime Minister was not present, yet the Motion was made with his cognizance and consent.


protested against the Motion, and earnestly pressed the Government not to persist with it that night. It was in his recollection that it was a matter of dispute last year, in the course of the Session, whether these Grand Committees were to sit during the Sitting of the House. He mentioned that as an illustration of matters of dispute that might arise again with regard to these Committees. He thought the Government would be wise not to press this matter now, because this question necessarily produced a considerable amount of friction, as there was not a unanimous feeling in the House with regard to these Committees. No doubt, the majority of the House had agreed to them; but he thought the Government must feel that on a matter of this kind, which affected the conduct of the House, and naturally became a part of the arrangements of the House, every effort ought to be made to obtain as nearly as possible the general assent of the House. That was not the case at the present time. He had hoped to hear a statement on the subject from the Prime Minister; but the House had not had the advantage of hearing a statement of the right hon. Gentleman's views, and he thought that as that expectation was common to the whole House, it would only be dealing fairly and candidly with the House if the noble Marquess agreed to the adjournment, so that the Prime Minister might fulfil the pledge which hon. Members had understood him to give—namely, that this Motion should be made by himself, when the House was full, and proper attention could be given to the matter. He was sure the Government would consent to the adjournment if they consulted their own interests.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 50; Noes 70: Majority 20.—(Div. List, No. 13.)

Original Question again proposed.


moved the adjournment of the House. No doubt hon. Members on this side would be taunted, because, up to now, they had been credulous enough to suppose that certain well-recognized principles, which would prevent Party warfare degenerating into faction, would still be observed; but if this Resolution was pressed through that night, these Grand Committees, which were passed at the end of that very excited Winter Session in 1882, and which were tried last year wholly experimentally, would again be forced upon the House without a fair discussion, into which all could enter with goodwill, and they would become a Party measure. There was a strong opinion on all sides last Session that this was the one portion of the New Code of 1882 which was to be kept out of the area of Party politics. That night the simple question was, whether the Government majority should, under conditions to which he would not further refer, acting under a strict Party Whip, snatch a purely Party victory over an Opposition totally unprepared. He must endorse everything that had been said as to there having been a general understanding as to when this Motion would be brought on; and he thought there could not be better evidence of that than that his right hon. Friend and Colleague (Mr. Raikes), who was the last man to go to bed when there was anything to fight about in the House, had left the House. Could there be better evidence of the utter surprise that had been sprung upon the House? If the Government did snatch a majority that night they might carry the Grand Committees; but that would make them very unpopular, and would be a very bad beginning indeed.


said, he must recall the recollection of the noble Marquess to the fact that when these Grand Committees were first brought into action, towards the end of that long Session, the noble Marquess himself gave a most solemn pledge that when these Committees were to be proposed again the Motion would be made at a time of the Session when a full House could be expected to be present. When the Prime Minister brought forward, or attempted to bring forward, this matter at the end of a Session, and was reminded of this pledge, he then said he would not press it forward at that time, but would bring it forward early this Session, so that it might be considered by a properly constituted House. Considering that and the statement of the Prime Minister that after the Report of the Address he would bring forward the Franchise Bill, and after that the Standing Committees—words which he himself heard—it was a gross breach of faith to bring forward this Motion now. There was one further matter which he was bound to mention. Through the ordinary channels from one side to the other, he and his hon. Friends had been told that this matter was to be put down as the third Order for tomorrow. His objection would apply just the same in that case; but, that communication having been made, he considered the present proposal as a still further breach of faith. This was a question for the serious consideration and deliberation of the House, and it could not be supposed that hon. Members who had sat on these Committees would be able or willing at that time of the night to state their experience; and if hon. Members found in the morning that these Committees had been struck in their absence, and without their having had an opportunity of discussing the matter, their astonishment would have been very great. Therefore, he put it to the noble Marquess that, considering the opposition which would undoubtedly be persevered in, it would be better, if the House was to have a discussion at all upon these Committees, to bring them forward when Members were in their places. He ventured to say that these Committees would not have been agreed to but for the understanding to which he had referred. Under all these circumstances, he hoped the noble Marquess would not persist in the attempt to force this matter on an unwilling House, otherwise he might rely upon it that there would be a most determined opposition.


said, in regard to the argument as to the application of the Standing Committees to private Members Bills, that the Registration of Deeds Bill was not a private Member's Bill, but a Bill to be introduced in the other House by the Lord Chancellor. There was no wish to press the other private Bill further, if there was any objection on the part of the House. He had, however, something to say with respect to the somewhat excited charge made by the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Assheton Cross). The right hon. Gentleman said there had been a gross breach of faith on the part of the Government. That was a rather awkward charge to make. [Mr. WARTON: It is quite true.] He was not surprised the hon. and learned Member for Bridport agreed with that charge. The right hon. Gentleman stated that the Prime Minister said he would introduce the Franchise Bill on Friday, and after introducing it on Friday he would take this proposition. He (the Attorney General) heard the Prime Minister use those words. It was in reference to Friday that the right hon. Gentleman used them, and he (the Attorney General) knew it was the right hon. Gentleman's intention and wish to make this proposition on every night of the Session since. He (the Attorney General) was sorry the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Assheton Cross) had seen fit to use such strong language, and that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Beresford Hope) should have expressed the belief that there was a desire to push this proposition down the throats of hon. Members. There was no such wish on the part of the Government; indeed, if there was a strong feeling on the part of a considerable minority that the Motion ought not to be pressed on the present occasion, the Government would not further persevere with it. His noble Friend (the Marquess of Hartington) had asked him to make this explanation, and to protest against the violent charge which had been made by the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Assheton Cross). He trusted that the Motion would be withdrawn.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question again proposed.

Debate adjourned till To-morrow.