HC Deb 30 March 1885 vol 296 cc999-1008

in rising to call attention to the condition of the Ladies' Gallery; and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is advisable to substitute for the present grating (or some portion of it) a railing so constructed as not largely to exclude sound, light, and air; and generally, that the accommodation of the gallery should be improved, said, this question was invariably received in that House, like the toast of the ladies at public dinners, with what the reporters described as "cheers and laughter." Ancient precedent was all in favour of reform. He reminded the House that 100 years ago ladies were allowed access to any part of the House of Commons; but these privileges had been gradually curtailed until the ladies were confined to the grated Gallery which they now occupied. Only a few years ago the First Commissioner of Works compared the Ladies' Gallery to the Chamber of Horrors; but he presumed that he addressed that description not to the figures inside, but only to the cage which contained them. He thought everyone would allow that the Ladies' Gallery as at present constructed was very inconvenient. The atmosphere was bad, and even those ladies who were able to obtain the most favoured places could see only very imperfectly, whilst to hear required a great strain on their attention; in fact, those who were in the back seats saw and heard as little of what was going on in the House of Commons as Mr. Sam Weller saw and heard of Mr. Pickwick's proposal. The farce was gone through every day of balloting for 40 seats in this Gallery, although practically there were only 15 or 16 seats from which ladies could really see and hear. Moreover, on any occasion when there was a great demand for seats the ladies had to come before the door was open, and had to stand outside, and physical strength was a great means of obtaining a good seat in the Gallery. Even those who formed the front row could see little more than one-half of the House, and those in the back row could not see as much as one-half. This was a serious disadvantage, because ladies were thereby forced to judge of the composition and demeanour of the whole of the House by the composition and demeanour of the Members who sat below the Gangway on either side. Their vision was confined to the Radicals below the Gangway, the Irish Members, and such remnants of the Fourth Party as still hovered around their old position. They never by any chance caught a glimpse of the Whig Members except on the occasions of critical divisions, when they might see one standing below the Bar preparatory to walking out of the House or into the Opposition Lobby. With very slight alteration the Gallery might be made more convenient for seeing and hearing, and available for a larger number of ladies. A great deal might be done by removing the upper part of the grating of the Gallery. Some persons perhaps thought that injurious consequences might result if the ladies in the Gallery could be seen from the body of the House. But he did not believe they would be seen, and even if they were it was not found that the debates in the other House of Parliament were made much more exciting by the visible presence of ladies. They were told that if they were to make such an alteration as he had proposed in the Ladies' Gallery, whispering and conversation would no longer be possible. He believed that, at all events, the reporters, and probably the majority of those who came to the Ladies' Gallery, would be glad if that was to be the ease. He thought this was a matter which should be decided primarily by the ladies themselves, and the question arose how they were really to ascertain the desire of the majority of the ladies who frequented the Gallery. He believed himself that a large majority of them were in favour of considerable reforms in the present state of things. He would suggest that a practical experiment should be made in the matter by making an alteration in the central portion of the Gallery, so that it might be left to the ladies themselves to prove whether they preferred the improvement. He hoped that the Government would look into the matter and see whether they could do anything to improve the present condition of the Gallery. If they would promise to turn their attention to the matter he would gladly withdraw his Motion, having once called attention to the subject. There were, besides the questions of hearing and seeing, many minor matters connected with the Ladies' Gallery, which had not been looked into for some time, such as that of the ventilation. The front seats also might be lowered, and the back ones raised. He believed that every Member of the House would be greatly obliged to the First Commissioner of Works if he could see his way to placing a telephone by means of which they could communicate from the Lobby with the room of the officials up in the Gallery. Another matter which might with advantage be considered was the present system of balloting. In conclusion, he begged to move the Resolution which stood in his name.


in seconding the Resolution, said, that nothing connected with the House excited so much astonishment in the minds of a new Member as the condition of the Ladies' Gallery. There was no reason whatever why some change should not be made in it. The present Postmaster General had unquestionably made great improvements; but the grating still remained. It was said as one reason for allowing the grating to remain that the ladies themselves, as a general rule, were against its removal. He hoped he should not be wanting in gallantry if he suggested that that opinion was confined to those who were the more constant frequenters of the Gallery, and who knew how to secure the few front seats. As a matter of fact, only some seven or eight ladies in the Gallery were able to see and hoar what was going on, those who sat at the back finding it impossible to understand what occurred in the House. He considered that if the grating were partially removed it would not really intefere with the privacy of the Ladies' Gallery. There was no reason, again, why the Gallery should not be extended on each side of the House wholly or partially. This could be done without interfering with the privacy of that part of the Gallery which belonged to Mr. Speaker. The accommodation for ladies in the House of Lords had been improved; and, so far as he knew, no inconvenience resulted from the ladies sitting in the open Galleries round the sides of the House. He thought that nothing was more annoying to hon. Members than the necessity under the present system of constantly trying to get seats for the Ladies' Gallery, and he thought that most Members would prefer not having the privilege of giving tickets at all. The House of Commons was the only Assembly in the world in which ladies were caged behind a grating. They did not wish to divide the House upon this question, if his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds (Mr. Herbert Gladstone) would not disregard the request they had made. In his (Mr. Puleston's) opinion, if his hon. Friend gave this question his serious consideration, he would add to his already deserved popularity. He had much pleasure in seconding the Motion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is advisable to substitute for the present grating of the Ladies' Gallery (or some portion of it) a railing so constructed as not largely to exclude sound, light, and air; and generally, that the accommodation of the gallery should be improved,"—[Mr. Sydney Buxton,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, the hon. Member for Devonport, in taking upon himself the championship of the ladies, had put him in a very difficult and awkward position, because, of course, he could not hope to speak with the experience possessed by the hon. Member, or by his hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. It was the duty of the Department which he had the honour to represent to carry out the wishes of the House; but it was also his duty, before making any change or alteration in the structure of the building, to ascertain as exactly as possible what really were the wishes of the House. Of course, it was their object to study so far as was reasonable the convenience of the ladies who used the Gallery, and he might say at once that the First Commissioner of Works would be most happy to consider any practical suggestions for the improvement of that Gallery, especially, for instance, in such a matter as the position of the benches. Several improvements had been made of late, and he might say that orders had been given to put up a speaking tube, which would connect the attendant of the Ladies' Gallery with the doorkeepers behind the Chair, so that Members would not be put to the trouble and inconvenience of going up to the Gallery when they brought ladies down to the House to find out whether there was or was not room. This, he thought, would meet one of the points raised by his hon. Friend. But the main point before them was the question of what was known as the grille, which, it was contended, prevented ladies from seeing. If hon. Members would look at the Gallery, they would see that the inconvenience was not so much caused by the grille, as by the stonework of the mullions. His hon. Friend implied in his Motion that the grille excluded sound, light, and air-He doubted whether it really did exclude sound, and he thought it was quite conceivable that the grille might even improve hearing by breaking the waves of sound. Then ladies did not want light. Of course, they had sufficient light themselves, and they did not want additional light to read documents and papers in the Gallery. Ladies came to the Gallery to hear and see what was going on in the House, and he did not think that the question of light applied in the matter. Lastly, they came to the question of air. Undoubtedly, the ventilation of the Ladies' Gallery might be improved. At the same time, he would point out that the position occupied by the Gallery made it very dif-cult to ventilate effectively. He did not think that the bars interfered in any appreciable degree with the ventilation, or that if they removed the grating there would be the slightest improvement. This question must be decided by the House, and he thought that the fact that no division had ever been taken on the subject seemed to argue that the general opinion of Members was against any change. There was no proof whatever that the majority of ladies who visited the Gallery desired the change. He knew a great number of ladies who did not, and he did not think that he was less an authority on that point than his hon. Friend. He did not know that the general opinion of hon. Members or of the ladies was in favour of the change, and he had taken the opportunity to consult many Members of the greatest authority and longest standing, and he might say that they were hardly without exception very much opposed to the change suggested. Under these circumstances, and until it was ascertained that the wish of the House generally was to make the change, it was not desirable to carry out the proposed alterations.


said, he thought that the removal of the grating altogether was the reasonable view which would be taken by a large number of the Members of the House, and he believed it would be very much supported by the ladies who visited the Gallery. The hon. Member for Leeds could not have informed himself of the opinion of many of the ladies if he contended that there was not the greatest was to come before the House that dissatisfaction with the present condition of the Gallery. He submitted that the Gallery was badly ventilated, stuffy, warm, dark, and badly arranged for sound. He did not know whether the removal of the gratings would improve the sound. That was an architectural question. But he thought that if the spaces were made larger and some of the centre mullions removed sound would be very much improved. He was sure that it was the opinion of most Members that some improvement should be made. He would suggest that there should be a new Ladies' Gallery altogether in the Gallery at the back of the Opposition. On important nights the Gallery at the back of the Ministerial Benches was generally full; but this was not so in the case of the Gallery behind the Opposition Benches, where there was always a great deal of room to spare. He thought that 24 seats might very well be set apart for ladies in the Opposition Gallery, which would be infinitely superior to the accommodation now given in the Ladies' Gallery. If this suggestion were adopted they would have plenty of light and air, and as they would be directly opposite the supporters of Her Majesty's Government, they would be able to hear all the oratory of the debate. He hoped that that point would be taken into consideration.


said, that, some years ago, when this question was brought before the House by his hon. and learned Colleague, the late Serjeant Sherlock'—now, he was sorry to say, no more—it was ascertained that the removal of the grille would be in opposition to the wishes of the larger number of the ladies who frequented the Gallery. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Eye to appropriate for the ladies part of the Gallery over the Opposition Benches was all very well, on the supposition that only the Ministerial Gallery was ever crowded; but that seemed to imply that there was more eagerness to see and hear the hon. Member for Eye than to listen to the Prime Minister. While some might be charmed with the oratory of the hon. Member for Eye, there were others who might wish as a happy change not to hear it.


said, he could not but think that it was an extraordinary satire on the way in which Public Business was conducted in this country that, in a grave and important crisis like the present, that House should be kept from serious and important Business by a Motion of this kind, which occupied a couple of the most important hours. This matter came before the House in July, 18G9, when Mr. Layard was First Commissioner of Works. Mr. Layard was a very wise man, and, instead of making a speech, he read a letter from a lady on the subject, which was to the following effect:— The removal of the grating would be no remedy: on the contrary, the protection we derive from it enables us to sit as we like, to talk together, to hang up our shawls and bonnets, and dress as we please. These are many advantages, for you know we are compelled to sit quiet not to lose our places while bores are addressing the House. You will not take it amiss, dear Mr. Layard, if I say that there are some bores in the House of Commons. You cannot feel for us, because on these occasions you can go and talk to your friends, and write letters in the Library. The grating besides enables us to leave the Gallery in the middle of dull speeches, which we would otherwise be compelled to sit out patiently, especially if the orator were an acquaintance, and had obtained our seat for us. And, then, the grating is of enormous advantage to hon. Members themselves, who could not come and stretch, and sleep, and snore as they do immediately below us in the Galleries if they saw that we saw them."—(3 Mansard, [197] 1587.) Any Member who had the temerity to think that he could add to that reasoning by any words of his own would, he thought, be a Member who was not alive to the importance and dignity of this discussion.


said, he wished to protest against the speech of his right hon. and learned Friend. The House would observe that his right hon. and learned Friend, who he presumed was in favour of the ladies' suffrage, and he believed had voted for it—[Mr. GIBSON: NO.]—then that made the case worse.


I do not want my "No" to be taken in a wider sense. I have not voted.


observed that, at all events, his right hon. and learned Friend had raised a very narrow and barren issue when he pointed to the waste of time at a moment of great crisis in discussing a futile question of this nature, instead of proceeding with the Business of the country. Now, what was the important Business which evening? The next Business after the present was with respect to the miscarriage of justice in the conviction of innocent men. He should like to know if the Government of this country cared one pin about the miscarriage of justice? Then there was a Motion praying Her Majesty to endeavour to induce the German Government to take charge of one of the Possessions of the Crown. To say, in view of these matters, that the time of the House was being wasted in the discussion of what he (Sir Robert Peel) considered a very momentous question, instead of discussing whether Heligoland should be handed over to the German Government, which, he was certain, no one would endorse, was, he thought, an unjust accusation against the hon. Member for Peterborough. The ladies of this country were almost universally Conservative. ["No!"] At all events, a very great many of them were Conservatives; and he should be glad to see the accommodation for them, which was now totally inadequate, enlarged and improved. He hoped the hon. Gentleman who represented the Department of Works in that House would not follow the advice of the lady who wrote to Mr. Layard in 1869. He remembered that letter being read in the House, and the universal opinion was that it was a case of the wolf in sheep's clothing—that it had not been written by a lady at all, but had been concocted for the occasion. It was ridiculous to suppose that the ladies were satisfied with the present cage, and, as he had said, the questions to come afterwards were insignificant compared with the due accommodation of ladies in that-deliberative Assembly.


said, that, although the question might have occupied sufficient time, it was his duty to add that it was raised last year on the Estimates. He then stated that his own opinion was rather favourable to some change, but he did not think that any should be made, except with the general assent of the House. He then undertook to make inquiries among Members of the House, and also, as far as he could, of ladies who frequented the Gallery; and, so far as he could ascertain, the feeling of the majority both of Members and of ladies was adverse to the proposed change. It was represented to him that the removal of the grille would destroy the freedom that ladies now enjoyed. No doubt, there were some who would like a change; but unless there were a general concurrence of opinion in its favour, it would be unwise to make it.


said, he had never yet met a lady who was in favour of the Gallery as at present arranged. Indeed, the ladies had always said to him—"It is impossible to see or hear anything with that horrible thing in front of us." He thought it would be a great convenience to the ladies who frequented the Gallery if the Authorities would remove the grating.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 121; Noes 75: Majority 46.—(Div. List, No. 86.)

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," again proposed.