HC Deb 20 February 1885 vol 294 cc933-43

in rising to move— That the several stages of the Parliamentary Elections (Redistribution) Bill, up to, and including the Consideration of the Bill, as amended, have precedence of all Orders of the Day, and Notices of Motions, on every day on which it shall be set down, by the Government, as the first business of the day, said, he wished it to be clearly understood that this was not a Motion which the Government desired to carry by any pressure or authority on their part; but it was made in the strong belief that it would be agreeable to the general sense and convenience of the House. He was sorry to make a Motion which appeared to involve a negation of the appeal made yesterday by his hon. Friend the Member for Liskeard (Mr. Courtney); but his hon. Friend knew very well that his duty was to consult the general convenience of the House and the prospects of Public Business. He rather thought that he was correct in saying that, even before the adjournment of the House in December, reference was made to the great importance of proceeding with the Seats Bill, and to the probability that the House might be disposed to give it, under the peculiar circumstances, exceptional facilities. From what he learnt yesterday he had reason to believe that it was the desire of the House that the precedence asked for should be given. If there was reason to entertain such an idea in the month of December, that reason had been greatly strengthened by circumstances which had since occurred, and which had created in the mind of the House a necessity for discussions relating to Egypt and the Soudan, which, perhaps, might not have been felt to be of equal urgency in the state of their prospects as they then stood. It was often said that private Members suffered from the adoption of a Motion of this kind; but, at the same time, what private Member was there to whom it was not of importance that this great and complex measure should be promptly disposed of? With the prospect of the natural termination of the present Parliament before them, with the certainty of a great amount of labour to be performed with regard to the varied provisions of the Seats Bill, which it was quite conceivable might lead to very lengthened discussion, and with the desire they had to deal with the question of registration, they were anxious that the period which preceded Dissolution—that which was so inconvenient to the whole country—should not be unnecessarily prolonged. On these grounds he believed that this was a case in which the House would be disposed to grant exceptional facilities for discussing the Bill. He, therefore, hoped the House would allow the Question to be put without much delay, and that the judgment of the House would be found to sustain the view he had ventured to form with regard to what he believed to be the state of opinion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the several stages of the Parliamentary Elections (Redistribution) Bill, up to, and including the Consideration of the Bill, as amended, have precedence of all Orders of the Day, and Notices of Motions, on every day on which it shall be set down, by the Government, as the first business of the day."—(Mr. Gladstone.)


said, that in ordinary circumstances he should certainly have felt it his duty to oppose this fresh invasion of the rights of private Members, more especially as the views he had expressed with regard to the measure itself for which this invasion was to be made had not been modified by further consideration. But the circumstances under which Parliament had assembled on the present occasion appeared to be so exceedingly critical, and the prolonged existence of Her Majesty's Government throughout the course of an ordinary Session—and even, it might be, of the present Parliament—appeared to him so problematical that he thought it was desirable that the settlement of this question should be arrived at as speedily as possible. Under these circumstances, he should not take the course which otherwise he should have felt it his duty to take.


asked whether it was proposed to take the Fridays and also the Wednesdays? He particularly wanted to know whether private Members who might have the first place on Fridays would be deprived of bringing forward Questions in which a large number of Members might take an interest?


said, that they must all be prepared to make sacrifices. He had usually opposed Motions for the appropriation of private Members' nights; but he thought, in the case of the Seats Bill, it should be proceeded with without any unavoidable delay. The public would not be satisfied if this great Bill, which was in itself a revolution, should be delayed. He should, therefore, very cordially support the Resolution of the Government.


said, he agreed that it was desirable that the Seats Bill should be carried through as soon as possible; but he would ask that the Navy Estimates should be laid upon the Table with the least possible delay, and that the Prime Minister should give an early opportunity of discussing questions affecting the Navy, so that it might be seen how the Government had performed their promises for its improvement?


said, he wished to ask a question on a subject of the deepest interest to himself and many other hon. Members—he meant the subject of extending and improving our harbour accommodation. The Government, in 1883, thoroughly recognized the importance of the matter, and granted a Committee, which sat in 1883, and also in 1884, and reported in both years. Under this Resolution he would lose the opportunity of bringing the Report of the Committee before the House. He wished to ask what was the intention of the Government with respect to that Report?


asked whether it was intended to take an early opportunity of introducing a Registration Bill with a view to a Dissolution in the autumn?


said, the subject referred to by the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett) was, undoubtedly, one of great importance; but the probability was that by the date mentioned by the hon. Member the House would hardly be in a position to discuss the matter fairly, inasmuch as the hon. Member's Motion referred to questions upon which negotiations were still pending. With regard to the position of private Members generally, it would be very difficult for the Government to pick and choose among private Members' Motions; but he would observe that if any question of commanding importance should arise an opportunity would be given of bringing it before the House. There could be no doubt whatever that in the course of the early months of the Session some opportunity would be found, if it did not make itself, for discussing the Colonial defences. With regard to the Supplementary Navy Estimates, as the money must be obtained pretty soon, it was intended to submit a Motion on the subject before the Army Supplementary Votes were brought forward; and the rig-lit hon. and gallant Gentleman would, before many days, have an opportunity of discussing it. As to the subject referred to by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Marjoribanks), he did not find on the Paper any Notice with regard to it. He had very little to say in reply to the hon. and learned Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Serjeant Simon) in addition to what had been stated by the Prime Minister. It was impossible for the Government at this moment to pledge themselves with regard to the proper or the best date for a General Election, or when an Election might occur under the Seats Bill. His hon. and learned Friend thought there might be great inconvenience in delay, and that it would be desirable to shorten the time. But there was very great difficulty in what was known as "shortening the dates," as it threw upon the overseers, many of whom were unpaid persons, very heavy duties. But there was a precedent in 1868, when the Govern- ment of that day rejected the proposal for shortening the dates, and only hastened the final printing of the Registers. They were by that means able to secure an Election in November, and that was a precedent which possibly the House might follow. It would, however, be premature, in the meantime, for the Government to pledge themselves to any particular course. It was the general desire of the House to get the Seats Bill through as fast as possible, not only for the weighty reasons alleged that night, but also that the various overseers might be instructed in their heavy duties, and able to discharge them. The Motion of the Prime Minister, he might add, was a general Motion, and would apply to Wednesdays and Fridays.


said, he was afraid, after the collapse of the champion of private Members' rights (Mr. Rylands), that his protest would be unavailing. Still, he did protest against the Government having the privilege of dropping down upon any private Member's Motion, and quashing anything which might be inconvenient. On the 13th of next month, he had the first place for a debate with regard to our relations with Germany. No question of greater importance could be brought to the attention of the public; and he hoped the Government would see their way to relaxing the Rule.


said, he was desirous of giving the Government an opportunity of passing the Bill quickly; but he rose for the purpose of expressing a hope that they would not abuse their power. His right hon. and gallant Friend did not refer to the Supplementary Estimates, but to the Navy Estimates of the present year, about which great interest was felt. A Vote must be obtained for those Estimates before the 31st of March; and as it was usual to have two nights for discussing them, one on the introduction of the Estimates and another when the Votes were taken, he hoped that the Government would not take advantage of their powers to curtail the discussion.


said, that the hon. and learned Gentleman was quite aware that he had security in this matter— namely, the provision of the law requiring absolutely that the Naval Votes should be obtained, and likewise the power of the House to govern the time when it should allow an important debate on a particular subject to be brought to a close. He did not think it would be expedient, at the present moment, that they should fix the precise length of the debate they were to have on any given subject. What the Government wished was that the great urgency of proceeding with the Seats Bill should receive every consideration that could fairly be given to it; but that this should be so employed as not to curtail legitimate opportunities of dealing with those other important and pressing questions' to which Her Majesty's Ministers had referred.


said, that considering the time of the Session in which this Motion was made, and the circumstances in which it was brought forward, it was impossible not to view it as a Motion of an exceedingly objectionable character, and one the necessity for which he did not at all acknowledge. He was not aware that a similar Motion had been made on any previous occasion at the opening of a Session. It was quite true that in the course of the present Parliament, on one or two occasions after the Government had for some weeks encountered resistance to Bills of great importance, and were sternly and persistently contested by various Parties in that House, they had at last resorted to this mode of procedure. Such persistent opposition, however, did not in the least apply to the Seats Bill, and the stages of the measure up to the present had passed almost without dispute; not only so, but there was no reason to anticipate that there would be any very prolonged opposition to the future progress of the Bill. He was, therefore, at a loss to know why, on the 20th of February, with six solid months of the Parliamentary Session before them, the Government asked the House to place a blank cheque in their hands. Before the President of the Local Government Board addressed the House, he had at least imagined that the sanctuary of Committee of Supply would be held sacred by the Government; but it now appeared that not only were the Government going to take their own days— Mondays and Thursdays—but that they claimed Wednesdays, which belonged to private Members, and cancelled the precedence of Notices of Motion on Tuesdays and Fridays. What was the breathless urgency about this Bill? The Government, he presumed, were not going out of Office and the Opposition coming in—in fact, everything tended to the conviction that the present Session would run out its natural and ordinary course. The President of the Local Government Board said the delay would prevent the overseers completing their necessary work. The Local Government Board could easily issue a Circular instructing them, and all the necessary work could go on. The overseers could safely proceed on the assumption that the Schedules of the Bill would remain substantially as they were at present, for there was no prospect of any attempt being made to alter them, except in one or two cases. Persistence in the present Motion meant a complete overthrow of the rights of private Members, and especially the silencing of Members from Ireland. Those Gentlemen would now be hindered in bringing forward various questions of public importance, which it was their imperative duty to raise. Irish Members had been successful in the ballot in obtaining the Tuesdays of the next four weeks. They had obtained the first place for the Motion for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the administration of the Prevention of Crime Act, respecting which the Prime Minister had already stated—and he thought very properly—that he could not at present bind himself to any declaration as to whether his Government proposed to renew the Act, or to allow it to lapse. It was very desirable, before the time arrived when the Government would be forced by circumstances to come to a decision one way or another, that they should have an opportunity of considering the evidence as to the necessity or superfluity of the Act. If Irish Members were allowed to bring forward the Motion, they hoped to be able to convince the Government and the House that it was just and expedient, wise and safe, that the Crimes Act should lapse; and he stigmatized it as a grievance of the very first magnitude that, by a Motion of this kind, all their chances of discussing a question of such vital importance to their country were in a moment taken away. Unless the Government would at least yield Fridays to private Members, it would be the duty of the Irish Members to meet the Motion by a division.


pointed out that, while the President of the Local Government Board pressed the Motion on the ground that it was necessary, in the interests of registration in Ireland, the authorities had not availed themselves of the time that had been at their disposal for proceeding with the work. The whole of the work in Ireland was to be done by the clerks to the Unions, or the corresponding officers in the towns; and yet, up to a fortnight ago, the clerk of his own Union had received no intimation from the Local Government Board on the subject. Why, then, was such extraordinary expedition to be used? Before the Parliamentary machine was stopped and the rights of private Members taken away, he urged that it was incumbent upon the Government to take every possible measure out-of-doors to expedite registration. With the Seats Bill and the Soudan there appeared little chance of discussing matters of great importance to Ireland. There was one Irish subject that had special claims upon the attention of the Premier relating to the appointment of a Select Committee on improvements in towns. A Bill on the same subject was defeated by a very narrow majority of eight last Session; and that, therefore, afforded a very fair case for inquiry. He had secured the first place on the 3rd of March, and should decline to give way unless the Government expressed themselves favourably disposed to his proposal.


expressed a hope that if the Motion was passed, the Government would exercise the power conferred with as lenient a hand as possible, and that they would take into account, not only particular measures affecting Ireland, but also those in which English and Scottish Members were interested.


said, he hoped some Member of the Government would deign to reply to the hon. Member for Sligo (Mr. Sexton). This was not an ordinary occasion, when a measure had to be pressed on. The measure was already arranged for in most of its details. Its outlines had been shaped on the plan adopted by a Committee of both sides of the House. There was, therefore, no occasion for the expendi- ture of much time on the settlement of detail, and the measure ought to be gone through in a very short space of time. The Irish Members had early in the Session secured places for a great number of highly important Irish Bills, some of them of momentous importance to the country; and yet all their chances were to be swept away from them for the sake of the Seats Bill. He strongly protested against this, believing there was no need for this extraordinary speed. There was plenty of time to go through the Bill in the ordinary way, as there was hardly any other measure of importance coming from the Government; and he considered their demand most unreasonable.


said, he thought there had never been a Bill presented to the House under more favourable circumstances, or with a greater promise of an early termination of the debate upon its provisions, than the Seats Bill. The Bill was practically settled, for he understood that the Opposition were as much pledged to it as Her Majesty's Government. Under these circumstances, he was at a loss to see what risk the Government would run by departing from the usual practice; and he trusted that a Motion that usually met with strenuous opposition in June or July would be as vigorously opposed now. Irish Members had a particular claim on the Government. The Crimes Act and other legislation in Ireland practically made the Lord Lieutenant the autocrat of the country; and the only check they had on the exercise of his despotic powers was discussion in the House of Commons. During the Recess events had occurred to which they desired to call attention; and as those events raised the whole question of the administration of Ireland by the present authorities of Dublin Castle, the Irish Members would give the Motion their steady opposition.


I may assure hon. Members that my Motion is one dictated not only by a general regard to the convenience of the House, but by sympathy with all those who are desirous that the time now before us, which has been described by hon. Gentlemen opposite as six solid months, should be applied in the most effective way, not merely to the Seats Bill, not merely to the necessary Business of the year, but likewise to useful legislation, and, among other subjects, to useful Irish legislation; and the object of this Motion, Sir, over and above the particular circumstances that belong to it, is, I think, to be justified in this way. This is one of those Bills involving a great multitude of details, the discussion of which must necessarily drag over a great length of time, if the Government is placed in the position of only being able to deal with it upon such Mondays and Thursdays as it can spare from the demands of Supply and other necessary Business. For example, if it were dependent on Mondays and Thursdays alone, clearly Mondays and Thursdays will be taken up before Easter by Estimates and Supplementary Estimates for the Army and Navy. We should be unable to make any effective dealing with the Seats Bill before Easter. Well, what would happen? We should have the Seats Bill on the Monday. Of course, we have the adjourned debate before going into Committee on the Seats Bill, in regard to which the most perfect liberty will be given. That debate would go on for a Monday and Thursday, and Monday and Thursday, and so forth; and in the same way, when we came to Committee, the details of this Bill, so handled, would be handled necessarily with the greatest disadvantage and the greatest waste of time. Now, what has happened before? The House has never but once, always be it recollected, had a large Seats Bill before it— never but once. That was in 1831; and what happened on that occasion? It is perfectly true that no Motion was made of the character of that which I have made; but why? Because, with the rarest exception, all other Business was put aside, and the Seats Bill was proceeded with. The mode of proceeding was different then, but the object was exactly the same. It is perfectly well known that if the Bill of 1831 had not been taken upon other nights than Government nights, the Government might as well have thrown over the Bill altogether. I rejoice to agree with the hon. Gentleman in this—that there is agreater prospect of accord between the great Parties in this House with regard to this Bill than there was then. But do they not see that, if that is so, the effect of that accord and of the gain in the immense economy of time which we shall obtain by compression will be that this Motion will cease to operate in a very moderate time, and we will then, if we only obtain these facilities, be in a condition to promise valuable and important legislation in this Session of Parliament?


said, several Irish Members had secured the first place on private Members' nights during the next four weeks.


That may be so; but a number of Gentlemen had refrained from balloting because they knew that this Motion would be made. Our desire is to economize the time of the House, because we are certain that a great waste of time, detrimental to the House, will take place unless we deal expeditiously with the Seats Bill, and there is no way of dealing expeditiously with it except by continuous action. It is in no desire to encroach upon the time of the House that I press this Motion, and ask that you should concur in allowing it to pass.


said, he must deny that the ballot for places was confined principally to Irish Members; but, even if it had been so, that was no reason why Irish Members should be robbed of their privileges. He suggested that Fridays should be excepted. A Motion for a Select Committee to inquire into the administration of the Crimes Act was to be made on Friday next.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 223; Noes 15: Majority 208.—(Div. List, No. 24.)