Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question,
That, at any time after a Question has been proposed, a Motion may be made, if the consent of the Chair has been previously obtained, 'That the Question be now put.' Such Motion shall be put forthwith, and decided without Amendment or Debate.
When the Motion 'That the Question be now put,' has been carried, and the Question consequent thereon has been decided, any further Motion may be made (the consent of the Chair having been previously obtained) which may be requisite to bring to a decision any Question already proposed from the Chair; and also if a Clause be then under consideration, a Motion may be made (with the consent of the Chair as aforesaid) That the Question, That the Clause stand part, or be added to the Bill, be now put. Such Motions shall be put forthwith, and decided without Amendment or Debate.
Provided always, That Questions for the Closure of Debate shall not be decided in the affirmative, if a Division be taken, unless it shall appear by the numbers declared from the Chair, that such Motion was supported by more than Two Hundred Members, or was opposed by less than Forty Members, and supported by more than One Hundred Members."—(Mr, William Henry Smith.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ MR. FLYNN (Cork, N.)
I cannot hope to speak upon this question with the same authority as the hon. Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall (Mr. Courtney) who, as a Parliamentary mechanic, addressed the House last night. My experience has not been sufficiently long to constitute me an authority in any respect, and I venture to say that I only approach the consideration of these Rules of Procedure as a Parliamentary apprentice who has watched the work done in this House carefully and closely since I had the honour of becoming a Member. It may be considered something presumptuous for a comparatively young Member— speaking on a subject so technical as this—to preface his observations by the statement that he intends to take an 390 entirely different line from that which has been taken by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who have spoken from the Front Benches. I conceive, Sir, that in this important matter—the question of erforming the Procedure of this House —Her Majesty's Government are altogether pursuing a wrong tack; that they have, so to speak, failed to diagnose correctly the case that has been laid before them, and, therefore, that the remedies which they prescribe will be utterly ineffectual to bring about anything like a restoration to a healthy state. Taking the plans of the Government as a whole, I think they not unnaturally divide themselves into different heads. I will not take them in the same order as the Government, who commenced with closure. I will take first the arrangement of our working hours, and the working time of the House; then the important question of the devolution of Business, and, thirdly, the closure, or the restriction of debate. The Government have put the last and the least essential of these questions at the forefront of their propositions. They have looked upon the least as the greatest, and they have altogether failed to estimate accurately the gravity of the position with which they have to deal. Consequently, the remedies they propose fail to carry out their intentions. Taking first the Rules of Procedure, as they relate to the working hours of the House, I maintain that the House should set itself earnestly to consider by what means it can improve the arrangement of the working hours—by what means it can reform the present system under which such a continuous waste of time goes on. If, in addition to that, the House can make a large, and, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) stated, a frank and full system of devolution, I believe there would be no necessity whatever for the third part of the programme which the Government have put first, and no necessity whatever for the Rule which refers to closure. I think they would have been better engaged at the present moment in repealing the Standing Order of 1882 in regard to closure than in endeavouring at the present time to make it more stringent. With regard to the important question of the arrangement of the working hours of the House, 391 I find that, practically speaking, under present arrangements, this House works on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for about four-and-a-half hours on each day. It is possible, by a slight alteration of the Rules which the Government propose to introduce, to make a working day of eight hours. At present the House meets at a quarter to 4; then we have prayers, followed by the consideration of Private Bills, and Questions and Notices of Motion; and finally we reach the debate on whatever subject of magnitude or importance that is before the House. But, Sir, for all practical purposes—for the consideration of all great questions of legislation—I maintain that this House sits for only four-and-a-half hours a-day; and it is perfectly impossible, without throwing an undue amount of labour on hon. Members of the House, to make secure a working day of eight hours. In regard to my contention that this House works for only four-and-a-half hours a-day, I should like to ask the attention of the House to the statement which I am about to make. This House meets at a quarter to 4, and after you have taken the Chair, Sir, whatever Private Business is on the Paper is disposed of. Under any well ordered system of devolution, a large amount of that Private Business could be delegated to Committees, or done elsewhere. I will not venture to suggest how it is to be done; but we are all agreed that it could be done. By the time Notices of Motion and Questions have been disposed of, half-past 5 has been reached. The debate then commences, and practically ceases at half-past 7. I know that the House continues sitting; but what I maintain is that practically it does no work. A great deal of stress has been laid on the fact that our debates are long. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of this House (Mr. W H. Smith) said in regard to this important question, that on the very last debate of any importance we had—namely, the debate upon the Address—we spent 16 or 17 days. Why is that? It is because none of the big guns on the Front Benches will speak while the House is empty. If you had a proper businesslike system—the House meeting at a certain hour, having a proper and a definite dinner hour—it might be made to work continuously from 3 o'clock to 392 half-past 7, then adjourn for an hour for dinner, and resuming at half-past 8, carry on the debate until half-past 12, so that you would really have eight-and-a-half business hours. If the House sat for a shorter time, but not continuously, we might not have so many subjects; but we should nevertheless get through a far larger amount of work, and no body of hon. Members would lay themselves open to the charge of obstruction. I would ask, in connection with this subject, the attention of the House to this fact—that after commencing a debate of any importance, after the big guns have led off, some leading Member moves the adjournment. The next day a right hon. Gentleman opens the debate, and he is followed by some of the many conspicuous and able right hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House. Then what occurs? After he has delivered his speech, there is a general exodus from the House, and practically from 7 or half-past 7 up to 9 or 10 o'clock the time is occupied, perforce, by hon. Members who must keep the debate going until other big guns come in and take up the debate in a leisurely and often in a languid fashion. The debate is then adjourned at half-past 12 without any considerable amount of work having been done. Her Majesty's Government have made some proposals in regard to the dinner hour. I contend that if they went further and made a radical change in the working hours of the House, and the arrangement of Business during those working hours, they would have a real system of devolution and there would be no necessity for placing this first Rule before us for consideration. I should like to look upon this House as an ideal Parliament, or a Parliament at any rate doing practical work as a working Legislative Assembly. This House has been called, and not incorrectly, the first Assembly of Gentlemen in the World. I believe it has deserved that reputation, and I hope it will always continue to deserve and enjoy it; but it should also strive to obtain the reputation in addition of being something more than an Assembly of gentlemen of pleasure. It should be an Assembly of working Members, and instead of gentlemen coming in in full dress at 10 or 11 o'clock at night when all sensible men have finished the Business of the day—if, instead of coming 393 here in full dress at those most unreasonable hours, they had remained in their places to discuss the Business of the House; we should have a real working day of 8 hours, and there would be no necessity for these proposals to enable the Government to grapple with the difficulty created to a large extent by themselves, and the system to which they have given their sanction and approval. With regard to the important question of devolution, I have already stated that my experience would not justify me in making any extended suggestions on the point. I have said that in my opinion Private Bills could be relegated to Committees. The greater portion of such Private Bill legislation could be done altogether outside this House, being brought up here for ultimate sanction. A great deal has been said upon the appointment of Committees to consider that matter. The proposals in reference to this question either go too far or they do not go far enough. Either this House is able to deal with the Business which comes before it, or it is utterly unable to do so. I think the experience of the last two Sessions will convince all the reflective Members of this Assembly that the Government proposals do not go far enough. I listened with pleasure to the statements of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian on this important question. He is in favour of a large devolution, and he considers the proposals of the Government totally inadequate to meet the exigencies of the case. If a Government have the courage of their opinions and if they have in their minds large and drastic proposals, why not come forward with them? They neither do one thing nor the other, but they stand shivering on the brink of the stream afraid to take the plunge. Trembling with timidity they have borrowed the proposals which have been suggested from time to time in the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian and those who act with him. I have contended that if those portions of Procedure which relate to the better arrangement of the working hours of this House, and the proper employment of its time in all its details, were carried out, together with a well-considered and well-arranged plan of devolution, there would be no necessity for the system of clôture which, in the opinion of the Government, ought to 394 stand first. It seems to me a very remarkable fact that the Government, in putting this clôture of debate in the very forefront of their proposals, have made no reference to the proposal in regard to closure contained in the recommendations of the Select Committee which reported in June last. I have looked through the Reports prepared by the Chief Secretary and by the right hon. Member for Derby (Sir William Harcourt), and in neither of them, and certainly, not in the Report of the Select Committee, is there any mention of these sweeping and comprehensive proposals. I do not know whether the Government intend to spring a surprise upon the House, but it certainly looks very like it. This proposal of the closure is one which means restriction of debate and diminution of the liberty of the hon. Members of this House. I oppose it because it is vexatious and oppressive, and, I believe, when it comes to be discussed in this House, the various Amendments which have been placed against it will receive full, free, and fair consideration; and that the supporters of the Government will not be led, in a spirit of blind obedience, to swallow every proposal the Government may make simply because it may meet, in their eyes, the present necessities of the times. I have spoken on this subject as a private Member, and it seems to me that if this proposal of the closure of debate becomes one of the Standing Orders of the House, private Members will have no guarantee whatever that to them will be accorded their undoubted right to be Representatives of the House. Every hon. Member of this House claims, or ought to claim, to have an equal voice before the Chair on any subject that may come up for discussion. I do not, by that, mean to convey the idea that I am in favour of prolixity of debate; but I maintain, as the very first principle of a Representative Assembly, that every private Member, no matter in what part of the House he may sit, has an equal right with the First Lord of the Treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Leader of the Opposition, or any hon. Member who has been, or is, in the Government, to give his opinion on any proposal that may be brought before the Chair, and take an adequate part in the discussions and deliberations of this House. It was pointed out, with great force, by the hon.
395 Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall, last night, that, in this proposal of closure, there is an element of very great danger, and it is this—any constituency sending a Member here expects him to represent their ideas upon the great political questions of the day. Those ideas may be outvoted in the House time after time; but, at any rate, the Representative of that constituency will have expressed his ideas and those of his constituents, and they cannot complain if, after full discussion, their Representative is outvoted. But, in this proposal of the clôture, Her Majesty's Government go much further, because they say to the Representatives of the people that, in certain circumstances, and under certain conditions— perhaps by a sudden whim of the Government— such Representatives shall not have the right of expressing their opinion on any subject before the House; and if this proposal becomes a Standing Order of the House the constituencies will find that it will very greatly affect their liberties. It also trenches very dangerously on the rights of the minority in this House. Of course, we know that in the plenitude of their power, and out of the abundance and generosity of their hearts, the hon. Members who speak for the Government will tell us that the rights of minorities will be fully protected in this House in future, and that there is no necessity to fear that the proposal to summarily close a debate will often be exercised by the Government. These things may be said when we are calmly discussing the technicalities of the Procedure of the House; but, when the heat of debate comes on; when the storm and fury of contending political factions are aroused; when subjects of great importance come before the House for consideration, who can guarantee that a Government with a strong majority at their back will be tender of the rights of minorities whom they believe to be in the wrong, and whom, up to a certain point, they believe to be obstructive? So far as Obstruction is concerned, I am of opinion that the common sense of this or any other Assembly will always decide whether a debate has lasted long enough. Obstruction only becomes necessary when other opportunities are denied to hon. Members for bringing their views under the consideration of 396 the House. I offer my most strenuous opposition to the first Rule put forward by the Government, because it throws an onerous duty upon the Chair. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. W. H. Smith) acknowledged this in the opening remarks of his speech he made on Monday night. In whatever quarter of the House hon. Members sit, all respect and desire to uphold the honour and dignity of the Chair; notwithstanding all that has been said about the question of the closure of debate, whether initiated by a private Member or not, it will undoubtedly have the effect of largely interfering with that honour and dignity. The honour and dignity of the Chair depend on its acknowledged impartiality, and there should be no suspicion of that impartiality. There has been none in the past, and there should be none in the future. But it should be placed beyond the reach of accident, and no Government, no matter how powerful, no matter how large the majority at its back, should have it in its power to encourage the faintest murmur of dissatisfaction in this direction. The Speaker of this House has always defended the rights of minorities. I believe, Sir, that you and your successors will continue to do so. I believe that the traditions of the Chair in that respect will always be upheld, but I maintain that it would not be right to place power in the hands of even the wisest of us, and facilities, to which we may add temptations, to use that power on the part of the Government in Office. The First Lord of the Treasury said, on Monday, with regard to the Chair—You are also to secure the duration of debate necessary for the conduct of Business.… That is a step in the right direction.Aye; but who is to decide that? Undoubtedly the initiative lies with some hon. Member of the Government, and if this proposal becomes a Rule of the House, and we can assume, Sir, that in your place some Speaker of less firmness and wisdom should sit; who can tell that, with a powerful Government, and with such an individual in the Chair, the Speaker might not become the mere registrar of the will of the majority of this House? Turning now, for a few moments, to the question of devolution, I think it is a question which will excite 397 far more interest than any other proposal of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian has pointed out its importance; but you may have a devolution relating to Private Business, and referring larger matters to Standing Committees or to Grand Committees; but until you go the length of a devolution of Business on matters of great importance relating to Ireland, all your systems of devolution, I believe, will end in a most unsatisfactory manner, and will produce no permanent result whatever. In whatever way we may settle the question— in whatever way we may tinker at the matter and introduce these small questions of Procedure—if you are in earnest in desiring to restore the efficiency of this House, you must withdraw the most difficult, and dangerous, and burning of domestic questions, and apply yourselves to the systematic arrangement of your own Business; when you shall have given over to another country a large portion of the Business which now vexes and disturbs the soul of this House, you will have rendered it possible for the House to do its Business efficiently and satisfactorily for the benefit of all classes, and for the preservation of the unity of the Empire; but not till then.
MR. DELISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)
Sir, I think the Rules proposed by the Government deserve the support of all those who wish to see the Business of the country expeditiously carried on. I am pledged to my constituents to oppose closure by a bare or simple majority: but if I understand aright the Rules proposed, although it is intended to give this power to a bare majority, yet it seems to me that the exercise of that power will always be subject to the approval of the Speaker; and with that limitation I hold that the closure by a simple majority is certainly the best and most effectual way of dealing with unduly prolonged debates. The necessity for securing the approval of the Speaker will, in my opinion, sufficiently guard the rights of hon. Members, and I am certain that the rights of minorities could not be entrusted to safer hands than those of you, Sir, who have so worthily maintained the traditions of this Office. With regard to the subject of devolution, which has been touched upon by one or two hon. Members in 398 the course of the debate, I have no fear that the Government will hesitate at some future date to deal with it, and when the Local Government Bill is produced the congestion of Business will be dealt with in a way which will probably enable us to leave the details of many questions to other bodies. I think, Sir, that the amount of latitude given to discussion since I have been in this House is abnormally large, and I should rejoice to see it very considerably curtailed. I observe on the Paper an Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Heneage), and that Amendment I shall do all in my power to support, inasmuch as it proposes that the period of discussion on the Address shall be limited to three days. This appears to me to be, under ordinary circumstances, sufficient for the purpose.
§ MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member is now discussing an Amendment on the Paper which it will be only in Order for him to discuss when that Amendment is arrived at in due course.
§ MR. DE LISLE
I regret that my inexperience of the Rules of the House has led me to refer to the Amendment of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. I should like to add that I am in favour of this qualification—that the debate on the Address should not exceed three days without the consent of the House —shall be a general rule, applicable to any and every debate. Another regulation that I should like to see receive the sanction of the House is that the speeches of hon. Members not proposing a Resolution or Motion, and not Privy Councillors, nor Members of the Government, should at all times be confined within a period of 20 minutes' duration, which would have the effect of adding to the force of their remarks and also allowing the attention of the House to be more concentrated upon them. I should also like to see a restriction of the practice of blocking Bills; my views on this subject being that each hon. Member should have the power of blocking one Bill. There are 670 hon. Members of the House, and my proposal would certainly meet the requirements of the case; whereas it seems to be a great anomaly that one hon. Member should have it in his power to block all the Bills on the Paper at once. Finally, I consider that the alteration in the hours 399 of Business, which have been proposed, are in the interest of those who have other duties besides those of this House to attend to. It will, however, be always advantageous to the commonwealth that the bulk of the Representatives of the people shall be drawn from the more cultured and leisured classes. We are the Representatives of the people, and we are proud of it; but in their normal condition the people will always prefer to see themselves represented by those who have been aptly termed "their natural leaders "—that is, the more public spirited of the cultured and leisured classes. And having now nearly occupied the time I have myself named for the limitation of hon. Members' speeches, as a junior Member of the House I will conclude by expressing a hope that the proposed Rules will, without undue delay, be carried into effect.
§ MR. BUCHANAN (Edinburgh, W.)
Last night the hon. Member for South Aberdeen (Mr. Bryce) and the hon. Member for King's County (Mr. Molloy) alluded to the Rules in force in the Congress of America, and a consideration of them will enable us to form some opinion on the subject before us. The principal evil which we have to deal with is that of too much speaking or prolixity of debate. Now, the procedure in the American Congress, analogous to the 1st Resolution, is meant to deal with that evil. The three noticeable points of the American system of moving the Previous Question, are—first, that it is very frequently resorted to; secondly, that it is common to all the Houses of Representatives in the United States; and, thirdly, that the Speaker is entirely kept out of the matter altogether. I look with particular jealousy upon the power given to the Speaker in the Rule proposed by Her Majesty's Government, when I think how it may be extended; and I see there are already proposals put down to extend this new function to determine whether, on a Motion for Adjournment, a certain matter is of urgent public importance or not; he is to determine, according to a suggested Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir Robert Fowler), what Questions may be put to Ministers; and, according to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt), he is to fix the duration of the debate on the Address. Now, all these points 400 seem to require not the extension, but the creation of a new power in the Speaker which, I think, is foreign altogether to the position which he occupies in this Assembly. In America the Previous Question can be moved by any Member without Notice; but in practice it is almost invariably moved, after Notice, by the Member in charge of the Bill or Motion under discussion, or by a Member of the Government. Taking, casually, a number of Congressional Records, I find a single reference will make this practice plain to the House. On the 10th December last, there was a very important Bill before Congress on Presidential Elections; the discussion had lasted two days, and the Member in charge of it had given Notice that upon the following day, at a certain time, he would ask the House to order the Previous Question. Notice was given on the 9th December that the Division would be taken on the 10th December, 20 minutes after the debate had opened. When the House met, the Member in charge rose and repeated his Notice; the debate went on for the 20 minutes; the Previous Question was then proposed; a question arose as to an Amendment which a Member wished to be inserted in the Bill; but the Question was put and agreed to without any Division at all. Well, Sir, I think it would be well if we could adopt some arrangement that fair Notice should be given to all the Members of this House, so that we might know distinctly whether a discussion is to last for several days or for a few hours only, and for how long. Hon. Members will have noticed that great debates have a tendency to flag on the second or third night's discussion; and when it thus becomes manifest that the interest in the proceedings is diminishing, I think Ministers, or Members in charge of a Motion, might well give Notice of their intention to move that, at the next Sitting or at a specified time, the debate should be terminated. Then, Sir, I think procedure analogous to the American system of moving the Previous Question might be adopted with great advantage for application to private Members' Motions on Tuesday nights. Were it adopted, each Member who had a Motion on the Paper would, on moving it, state that after the lapse of a certain time he would ask the House to adopt 401 the Previous Question, and bring the debate to an end. In that way we could have a number of Motions discussed in a single night, and at fixed hours. Taking the Paper of last night, there are four or five Motions of Private Members, the first being the important one of the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) on Welsh Disestablishment. Each Member, in introducing his Motion, would give Notice that in a specified time he would ask the debate to be terminated and a division taken. As to the amount of time for each Motion, it would not be giving too little or too much time to a Motion, such as that of the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), if the Previous Question were moved after four hours' discussion. That is a Motion of special interest, and for such the time I have suggested would be reasonable; but for less important Resolutions, if you allocated an hour and a-half or two hours to them, the Members interested would endeavour to come down to the House in order to make their Motions, four or five of which could then be discussed on private Members' nights, and hon. Members would have the advantage of knowing with certainty when the discussions in which they desired to take part would begin. The hon. Member for Aberdeen (Mr. Bryce) last night assured the House that there was no point with relation to the Procedure of the House more urgent, and with regard to which greater interest was felt in the country, than the fact that private Members cannot get a fair and adequate opportunity of ventilating questions which are of interest and importance to their constituents. It is deplorable that a Member should have letters, and letters continually sent to him, pointing out some grievance or some small flaw in administration for which, if the attention of the House were directed to it, a remedy could be found; and that he should always have to reply that he believed in the reality of the grievance, and that, so far as his ability went, he would endeavour to remedy it; that he would put a Notice with regard to it on the Paper; but that he was obliged to add that the Notice would, in all probability, remain there during the Session, because, under the existing Rules, no opportunity would present itself for obtaining discussion upon it. I 402 therefore venture to hope that the House will look at the 1st Resolution not merely as one tending to put down Obstruction, but also as one which they should, if possible, modify in such a way as will make it an effective means by which the majority of the House, and those interested in Public Business, may be able to acquire control over its time for the purpose of the adequate discussion both of large questions of importance to the nation and those of great interest to the different sections of the community.
MR. R. T. REID&c.) (Dumfries,
Sir, I desire to say that I am somewhat disappointed at the nature of the reforms of the Procedure suggested by Her Majesty's Government. I think that no closure can place us in a position to meet the exigencies of the case. I think it would be well if from the Front Opposition Bench there should be some attempt made to grapple with the real causes of the break down in this House. These causes are not merely the fact that many hon. Members are endowed with eloquence, and like to hear themselves speak; it maybe a cause, but not the principal cause. One of the chief causes is the great number of stages through which a Bill has to pass—the First and Second Readings, the Committee stage, the Report and Third Reading. I ask how can any private Member, under these regulations, expect to get a Bill through the House? There is then the cause of delay due to the manner in which the Estimates are discussed. A great number of nights are spent in this way, and I say that, in Committee of the Whole House, we cannot do justice to the Estimates. We cannot call upon a Minister for further information to assist us than what he may have ready at hand; and the discussion itself is of such a loose and unsatisfactory character, that I believe we owe to this cause an enormous waste of time. Another cause of the waste of time is the practice of talking out a Bill. Let the House, for one moment, consider the position of a Member whose whole labour is thrown away by having his Bill talked out, and whose chance cannot come again. Again, Bills are often brought to a Second Reading; but, before they get into Committee, then comes the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, and the whole work has to 403 be done over again. It would seem that the House has done everything that it could possibly do to cripple itself, and prevent it dealing with the enormous mass of Business that has to be got through. Some private Members take an interest, and find occupation in the debates of the House, but they are a rapidly decreasing quantity; there are others who do not wish to occupy the time of the House, but who are really anxious that some Bills should have a chance of getting through, and they may have come to this House for the purpose of advancing a particular question, but yet they never have an opportunity of getting any measure through the House. As an instance of this, I may mention the case of the hon. Baronet the Member for Cumberland (Sir Wilfrid Lawson), who made in this House a Motion with reference to Local Option. The House pronounced in favour of the principle, and what was the consequence? The hon. Baronet has tried to get two Bills through the House, but found it impossible to do so. The same may be said with reference to the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill; almost everyone was in favour of the principle, but the House did not have an opportunity of expressing its opinion upon the Question until the sixth year of its existence. It is perfectly intolerable that this state of things should be continued, and I say it is impossible that we can retain the good opinion of the country if we permit these delays. I may be asked what I propose as a remedy. I should propose, in the first instance, that, as has already been suggested by the Solicitor General, Bills should be continued from Session to Session. This has been proposed by the present Prime Minister, and by others, and I trust the Government will see their way also to introduce something of the kind. Then there is another thing which might be done—the House I think might be satisfied with one opportunity of considering the principle, and one opportunity of considering the details of a Bill. The First Reading might be taken or negatived without discussion, and the Second Reading and Committee Stage referred to the Grand Committee, and then on the Third Reading. On Report, the House would be able to decide both on the principle and details of the measure.
404 This would undoubtedly give us more chance of getting through work than we have at present. I remember a Bill of my own that, after it had been with great trouble carried to a Third Reading, was defeated by three votes. One more proposal is that you should refer the Estimates to a really strong Committee of a non-Party character, who shall be thoroughly impressed with the desire for economy, and until that is done I am satisfied we shall do very little in saving time. With reference to the proposal I have placed on the paper—namely, that Scotch Bills should, at all events, be referred to a Grand Committee, I do not wish to claim for Scotland any exception or favour over England; but if English Members are not prepared to adopt this simple method for themselves, I do trust they will concede that we, who are somewhat more advanced in politics, may be allowed to make an effort to manage our affairs. I regret to say that in the proposals of the Government I do not see anything that will really facilitate the Business of the House. I do not want to impute to right hon. Gentlemen opposite that they do not want to effect this; I believe that they do wish it, and I believe that if they had very much extended their proposals in the direction of devolution to Grand Committees, they would have secured the support, not only of Members opposite, but of those on this side of the House. Finally, Sir, I may say that the proposals of the Government, so far as they go, are excellent and prudent, but they do not, in my opinion, go far enough, and as we are probably about to spend some weeks in considering them, I wish the Government had made an effort to deal with the Question in a way commensurate with its importance.
SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL&c.) (Kirkcaldy,
If I had the idea that these Rules of Procedure would cure the evil they are intended to meet, I should be only too ready to express my approval of them. But I believe that evil will never be cured until we adopt some more radical measures than are here offered to us. With regard to the first Rule, it seems to me that the difference between it and the existing Rule is so slight that I very much question the prudence of the Government in putting it forward, seeing also that in the midst 405 of the great pressure of Business its discussion is likely to occupy a large portion of the time of the House. I cannot but think that it is imprudent for the Government to press for so slight a change at a time when they have just submitted to the House Estimates involving large Supplementary Votes, which must be got through before the end of the financial year. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that they would have done better to have kept back the Rule relating to closure, and gone forward with the others. I should like to know how it is intended to reconcile the proposed hours for the sitting of the House with the system of the Committees upstairs. The Committee work is the most important part of the Business of the House; and I cannot suppose that the Government intend that the Committees should meet at 10 o'clock in the morning. This would be too great a tax upon the energies of Members; and, therefore, if you change the hours of sitting of the House, I do not think you will get very much work done. We shall certainly want some time for our meals, to salute our families, and to get through other exterior duties. It seems to me that to carry out the proposed system is an impossibility under present circumstances; and, if that is so now, how much more impossible would it be when you come to deal with that further extension of the principle of the Grand Committee which the Government propose? It seems to me that we must have some explanation from the Government with regard to the position of Committees. I cannot suppose that it is intended that Grand Committees should sit when the House is in Session; that, I believe, would be impossible, for the simple reason that a man cannot be in two places at the same time. You propose that you should abandon your very late sittings, and I am very glad of it; but, again, I ask how are you going to manage with regard to the Grand Committees? I am distinctly in favour of the voluntary dinner system myself; and if you bind us down to a particular hour, I am of opinion that the whole system founded on it will collapse.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)
Sir, I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Leicestershire (Mr. De Lisle), and, so far as I could gather from it, I understand that he has 406 pledged himself against clôture by a simple majority; but that he intended to vote for it because, when you interfere with debate in this House, you do so with "musical harmony." I venture to doubt whether these Rules will shorten our debates; to be brief, I may say that, as a matter of fact, it is impossible to put a quart of liquor into a pint pot; and so long as the House has to get through so much work, we may be perfectly certain that the work will be badly done, whatever Rules are proposed. With regard to the length of our debates, I think that the chief offenders in this respect are the Gentlemen who sit on the Treasury and Front Opposition Benches. Whenever a Minister has introduced Business, some Gentleman on the Front Opposition Bench is sure to rise, and so high and mighty are they that they always consider it necessary to speak at exceeding length. I could never understand why half-a-dozen Ministers, or subordinate Ministers, should speak on every measure, because I say—without intending any offence to them—that they are precisely the Members whom the House does not want to hear. If a private Member speaks we hear an independent opinion on the matter; but that is not so with those who speak from the Treasury Bench, for then one does not know whether they are uttering their own opinions or only speaking to a brief. Hour after hour is thus consumed by the two Front Benches. If I may venture to say so, there is a nagging spirit on both those Benches. An hon. or right hon. Gentleman gets up and endeavours to show that a Gentleman opposite has contradicted himself, and this is repeated on the other side. I do not like to use the term fish-wife; but the discussion is somewhat like that between two washerwomen. But, Sir, I must say that independent Members are not free from blame in this matter—they might certainly be briefer than they now are. The House constantly hears long speeches by private Members, just as if nothing had been said upon the subject before. Why is this? It is because they are unable to speak briefly, or because they are anxious that their constituencies should feel that their Member is doing his duty by them. Those speeches are reported fully in the local papers, which are really the bane of the proceedings in this House. A column 407 of The Times means about 20 minutes' speaking, and I do not see why any hon. Member should not consider that in that space he could do his duty to his country and his constituency. For my part, I should greatly prefer a ten minutes' rule to the Rule of the closure. After a debate has been commenced by the Minister in charge of the Resolution and a reply made, let any Member be allowed to make the Motion that no one be allowed to speak for more than ten minutes on the question. I wish to know from Her Majesty's Government what is the nature of the proposed clôture? The Vice President of the Council, at a meeting last night, said that the power of closing the debate is to be vested in the Minister of the day. I should like to know whether that is so, because I understand here that it is to be left entirely to the House and to any Member of it, with the concurrence of the Speaker. In my opinion, Sir, nothing can be more objectionable than that this power should be left to the Leader of the House, because, to some extent, the Leader of the House is necessarily in the position of a partizan; and one of these days we shall find a Leader of the House preventing any opposition being offered to his proposals. Then we are told that the consent of the Chair is to be obtained. But how is it to be obtained? Is the Member to rise in his place and ask for it, or is he to go privately to the Chair and ask the consent of the Speaker? I think, however, that the words, "with the consent of the Speaker," are altogether objectionable, because the Speaker will not be acting as the interpreter of the voice of the House, but upon his own judgment. Then there is the objection that the Speaker would thus become the protector of the majority instead of the minority. Well, Sir, I think it would be better to substitute some such words as "unless the Speaker expresses his disapproval." Then we are told that the Rule may be put in force as soon as it is passed. I think that is altogether wrong, because the closure is merely one brick, as it were, of a large building, and I do not think that advantage ought to be taken of the fact that it happens to be placed before the other Rules in order to apply it to the closure of discussion upon any of the other Rules. For that reason I trust that the first Rule 408 will not be applied, if it be passed by the House, until the other Rules have received the sanction of this House.
§ MR. HENRY H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)
Mr. Speaker, I remember a speech which was delivered in 1882 on the closure by my hon. Friend (Mr. Labouchere). He had then a very different scheme to that he proposes today. He suggested, in 1882, that all Questions should be debated for half-an-hour, and that, when the half-hour had elapsed, the vote of the House should be taken. I am glad to find that now he is disposed to amplify somewhat the facilities for debate. But I do not propose to follow my hon. Friend upon the question of the clôture. I think that the general question has been fully discussed today and at the two previous sittings. The main point of difference seems to be the interference of the Chair. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Whitbread) has an Amendment on the Paper which will raise that question distinctly by itself. I will, therefore, leave the question of the closure of debate, and say a few words more by way of suggestion than criticism, in reference to the two other branches of this reform, which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leeds (Sir Lyon Playfair) described as the devolution upon Committees, and the limiting of the hours of sitting. I take it, that whatever difference of opinion may exist as to the best mode of devolution, we must accept the decision of the Government to revive the system of Grand Committees. That system was never fully tried. We had two Committees, and of all the valuable measures passed by the Parliament of 1880, and there were many, I do not think any two were in their general effects on the community more valuable than the Bankruptcy Act and the Patent Act, both of which were passed by a Grand Committee. It has been said there would be obstruction in Grand Committees. I had the honour to sit upon the Grand Committee presided over by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goschen), and, though it was said that one Member— neither a lawyer nor an Irishman— addressed the Committee upwards of 900 times, 99 out of every 100 speeches made in the Committee did not exceed five minutes. The Committee met as business men to do real work, 409 and I think the work they turned out will bear comparison with a great many measures passed by Parliament. There was another Grand Committee, called the Law Committee. The legal element was very predominant on that Committee. The legal element is a very good element; but it is like many other good things, you must not have too much of it. It wants qualification and restriction, and I am not quite sure that a body in which the legal element predominates is the best body for the reform of the law. If the Law Committee had received a greater infusion of the commercial element, perhaps it would have done its work better. The friction which arose in the Committee was owing to the fact that the House did not settle the main principle on the second reading of the Bill. The question about which the dispute arose was the constitution of the Court of Criminal Appeal, and it was raised immediately the Committee sat. The House was in favour of a Court of Criminal Appeal; but when the Committee came to deal with the Bill the question arose whether the appeal was to extend to sentences as well as to verdicts, and there the Government came into collision with the majority of the Committee. I do not think that, under such circumstances, the failure of the Grand Committee system in that case is at all surprising. What I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House (Mr. W. H. Smith) to consider is this, whether it would not be desirable to do away with the distinctions of Law and Justice, Trade, Commerce, and Agriculture? It is a very difficult thing to classify Bills, and to say one is a Law Bill, and another is a Trade Bill, and another is an Agricultural Bill. The Bankruptcy Bill was as much a Law Bill as a Trade Bill. The Government propose to effect a reform in the ceremonies connected with the marriage of Nonconformists. There will be a general consensus of opinion that such a reform is needed, but it cannot be classified as one either of Law, Trade, Commerce, or Shipping; and yet it could not be discussed with so great advantage in the House as in one of the Grand Committees, in which you will bring to bear the experience of the men best competent to form an opinion. There are many Bills, the details of which would 410 be far better settled in a Grand Committee, but which you cannot classify as Law, or as Commercial Bills. There is also another objection to the present system. If you call a Committee, a Committee of Law, all lawyers expect to be put on it. If you call a Committee, a Committee of Shipping, you will have Members telling you that they are authorities on shipping and commerce, and claiming to be appointed on the Committee. Let us appoint two or three Standing or Grand Committees, and refer to them, any Bill which the House thinks proper. In that way, we should very much tend to promote the efficiency of the Grand Committees. I strongly advocated the appointment of these Committees in 1882. I had faith in them then, and I am not prepared to abandon them until we have seen them fairly tested. In this way we shall do a great deal in the way of devolution. Now, I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House a very practical question. If the hours of the House are to be limited as proposed—I am not objecting to the limitation of the hours—how is the ordinary Business of the Government to be carried on? How, where, and when is the second class Departmental legislation, which is needed every Session, and which must be carried on in the interest of the country, to pass? The full-dress debate upon first class Government measures will invariably last until 12 o'clock, when there is to be an automatic cessation of the discussion. You will then have only half-an-hour, and without imputing to anyone any desire to obstruct, if a Member knows that he may wreck a little Bill by prolonging the debate half-an-hour, he may be very much tempted to do so. Then comes the question of Supply. Is it possible to get the Votes under the proposed circumstances? The chances are that, instead of the discussion of the Estimates becoming contracted, it will become enlarged. It is not for me to make suggestions; but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. W. H. Smith) to consider whether if he adheres, as I presume he will, to the principle of some fixed hour for the House rising, he will not allow a wider margin than half-an-hour between the contentious Business of the day and the Business which is non-contentious, and in which only a limited number of Members take part.
411 I very much doubt also the wisdom of commencing the sittings of the House as early as 2 o'clock. We have not yet got rid of the Private Bill Committees. We shall not get rid under any circumstances of Select Committees, indeed, the probability is that a larger number of Select Committees will sit in the future than in the past. Two o'clock is certainly too early an hour to commence the Business of the House. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite know the Ministerial difficulty in the way of a commencement being made at 2 o'clock. There is also the difficulty with reference to the occupation of many hon. Members. It would be a pity if this House was composed exclusively of any one class, either of the rich or poor, or of the leisured or the busy class. If you are to have the advantage of the assistance in the Business of the House of men of commercial experience, you cannot expect them to be down here so early as 2 o'clock. Could we not make the hour of meeting 3 o'clock and save the waste of time which now takes place—nearly half-an-hour— each day before the Public Business begins? Surely there could be an understanding that Public Business should begin directly Private Business closes. I also doubt the wisdom of the adjournment at the dinner hour. If an arbitrary time is fixed for the adjournment for dinner there will be a tendency to prolong Business until that hour, and there will be great difficulty in gathering up the threads of the debate at nine o'clock. There will be a great temptation to count the House, and generally we shall lose a great deal of valuable time. There is another point which ought to be taken into consideration, and that is that a very considerable number of Members commence to take part in the discussions of the House during the dinner hour. Many wise speeches are delivered in the dinner hour, speeches which tend to form and enlighten public opinion. There is difficulty, I know, in keeping a House during the dinner hour, but I think we should do much to economize time if, without any Rule, there was an understanding between the Speaker and the House that as near as possible, say to 8 o'clock, or to any other time the Speaker may fix, the Chair should suspend the sitting, and that the sitting should in every case be suspended for 412 a fixed period, say half-an-hour. At present, the time of the suspension is uncertain and its duration is uncertain. I think we might help to solve this dinner difficulty without proceeding to the extreme measure of suspending the sitting of the House; especially when that suspension is to be followed shortly afterwards by the automatic closure of the House at half-past 12 o'clock. Mr. Speaker, I have endeavoured to make these suggestions in the spirit in which the Leader of the House (Mr. W. H. Smith) has always received suggestions from this side. I am most anxious to support the Government in carrying out this scheme of reform. It ought not to be taken up as a Party question. However, we may differ amongst ourselves, we ought all to have a supreme and overpowering desire for the freedom and efficiency of the House of Commons. I hope all Members will support this Government, or any Government, in endeavouring to restore to the House of Commons the position it formerly held.
§ SIR RAINALD KNIGHTLEY (Northamptonshire, S.)
I do not believe that the present Leader of the House will be likely to abuse the privilege of asking the Speaker to set the closure in motion, but on some future occasion we may find an arrogant and unscrupulous Minister attempting to override the privileges of Members. The protection of the rights of minorities has been, and may again be, useful. I believe that if the Rules are agreed to without some change being made with regard to counts-out the rights of private Members will be prejudiced, as the House will generally be counted out at half-past 9, unless some matter of great importance is under consideration, on those days which are not allotted to Government Business.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. RITCHIE) (Tower Hamlets, St. George's)
The Government has every reason to be satisfied with the course and tone of the debate. There is an evident desire in all quarters to facilitate the discussion of the proposed Rules, and to criticize them in such a way as to indicate an anxiety to assist the Government in laying down, and the House in adopting, such proposals as will effect the objects which the great majority of 413 Members desire to attain, which is that the Business of the House shall be facilitated with due regard to the privileges of minorities and of individuals. No speech has been more replete with friendly advice and suggestions worthy of consideration than that of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. H. H. Fowler). The Government feel that it was a good augury for the future discussion of the details of the proposals as well as for the future conduct of Business generally, that Members have applied themselves to the discussion of the proposed Rules in a friendly spirit, and with an evident desire to forward, and not to impede, the Business of the House. I can assure the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton that the Government have no desire to force upon the House the New Rules in the exact form in which they are proposed; on the contrary, we would welcome the criticism of the House, and we would be glad if the Rules should be passed not by any Party majority, but by the general consent of the House, because then they would be much more likely to be effective than any Rules would be that were forced upon the House. As to the constitution of Grand Committees, no doubt there is a certain amount of inconvenience in giving them a special character, and there will be Bills as to which it would be doubtful to what Committee they ought to be referred. The Grand Committees have consisted largely of Gentlemen who have special knowledge of the subjects to be referred to them; and such special constitution of Grand Committees will hardly be possible unless it were understood that certain Bills are to be referred to certain Committees. The experiment made in referring the Bankruptcy Bill to a Grand Committee was a successful experiment; it got through its work in a businesslike manner. It did not consist wholly of mercantile men, but, as was necessary, it included a number of lawyers also. And it should be remembered that it was originally provided that 15 Members of the House might be added to a Grand Committee for a special purpose. I do not allude to these matters in any spirit of controversy, but simply to suggest that the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman not to have specially constituted Committees might be attended with convenience as well as convenience.
414 It is well worthy of consideration whether the time for non-contentious Business should be increased, but much time would in any case be gained if the principle of devolution were carried out to any considerable extent. The question of hours must be taken as a whole, the question of meeting early being coupled with the question of rising early. If Ministers got to bed earlier they could attend to their Office duties earlier. The Government are not wedded to 2 o'clock as the hour of meeting, but will accept the general opinion of the House on the subject, and whether it were made 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock, I believe that both official Members and private Members engaged in business will find themselves able to adopt it if we are able to rise early and secure the rest which all alike require. On the question of closing the debate, the Government place themselves and the House in the hands of the Speaker. When the question was discussed in 1882 the Speaker was asked what he understood by the "evident sense of the House," and he said he should interpret it to mean the "evident sense of the House at large." This was what the right hon. Member for Mid Lothian called a matter of fact. It is quite evident the Speaker is not in a position to fulfil any such obligation as was laid down by Mr. Speaker Brand when he spoke of the "evident sense of the House at large." With Members scattered about the House it is impossible for him to say what is the opinion of the House at large. The only means by which this can be determined is a Division. The Speaker is now asked to decide a question of fact before he can put the machinery in motion to ascertain it. The proposed Rules will place him in a very much better position. The Speaker's only duties are to see that the rights of the minority are respected and that no frivolous Motions are put to the House with a view of putting an end to the debate. The power given to the Speaker will be adequate to effect both these objects. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir George Campbell) asked the Government if the House met at 2 o'clock what was to become of the Committees? So far as the Committees on Private Business are concerned, the Government intend to make proposals to relieve the House 415 from the burden which, rests upon it with reference to Private Bill Committees. With regard to Select Committees, the fact of the House rising at an earlier hour at night will enable the Committees to commence their business at an earlier hour—say at 11 instead of 12 o'clock. Something has been said with reference to the position of private Members, and a suggestion was made that Bills originating with private Members should be referred to a Committee of Selection. I think the duty proposed to be imposed on that Committee would be a difficult if not an invidious one. It would be for them to judge between the merits of one measure and another, and I think that would not be satisfactory to the House. The position of private Members will be infinitely improved by the proposed Rules. At present those Members who are most fortunate in the ballot at the beginning of the Session are, when the first stage of the Bill is passed, often no better off than other less fortunate Members, because the ballot applies only to the first stage. Private Bills, even after having passed a second reading, unless they commend themselves to the almost unanimous approval of the House, have little chance of becoming law. The proposals of the Government are a distinct advantage and it will be for the House to say whether priority should be given to the Bills most advanced. I have referred to the criticisms made upon the proposals of the Government, and I will only say one word as to the attitude of the Conservative Party. So far as we are concerned, there is no change of feeling with respect to this matter. We are just as unwilling as ever to fetter the freedom of debate in the House of Commons; but this question has been decided in 1882, and I think we are in no way inconsistent in endeavouring to make effective the Rules which were passed for the purpose of shortening discussion on the Business of the House. It is a choice of evils—a question of whether the House should in some way or other limit the power of debate, or whether we should acknowledge that we are incapable to do the work we were sent there to perform. We do not like to interfere with the freedom of debate, but we consider this other evil of so supreme a character that we have no longer any choice in the matter. I can conceive 416 nothing more unfortunate than that the people of this country should think Parliament incapable of carrying out the mandates of the constituencies or removing the grievances of which the people complain. The Government will do everything they can to promote the wishes of the House of Commons; they are anxious to carry the House with them, and will seriously consider any suggestions made to them by any Member of the House.
§ MR. ILLINGWORTH (Bradford, W.)
Mr. Speaker, we now approach the end of February, and we have before us the very difficult task of altering our mode of Procedure. I think it will be universally admitted that nothing less than an overwhelming necessity would have justified any Government, in the face of a Session which is very likely to be unusual in the character of the measures to be brought forward, in bringing before us so soon after the recent change such proposals as the Government have laid on the Table. I confess to having had some anxiety during the last three days to ascertain what were really the leading views in the minds of the Government as to the changes proposed. It may be necessary, in the altered circumstances of the time, that we should have a change in the method of enforcing the closure; but I think that in the opinion of any experienced Member of this House that is not the way in which the time of this House will be saved; but that it is by extending the system of devolution of Business on a very much larger scale than has hitherto been tried. I am obliged to confess, from the hesitating and. apologetic way in which the Government have dealt with the question of devolution, that it is obvious that their main concern is to alter the system of closure, and make it more severe than it is at present. If I were in any doubt upon that one point, the fervour of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goschen) would have removed any hesitation of mind. Towards the close of his speech the right hon. Gentleman turned aside to a certain section of this House, and gave the plainest intimation that what he was anxious for was a more effective gag, in order to control a certain minority. Not only have we that testimony of the right hon. Gentleman, but the Prime Minister, 417 in a speech which has appeared in The Times and other papers, has indicated in the plainest manner what the Government intend by stopping the ordinary Business of the House and throwing upon the floor proposals for an entire change in the mode of Procedure. And that is that, having been foiled in its control of Irish Business, it means, by force, to bring about a different state of things. I venture to say that the Government may find that their calculations in this respect have been altogether erroneous. There is no doubt that what is known as the Irish Party has in the past tried the temper of this Assembly, and done many things to militate strongly against the smooth working of our Parliamentary machine. But it has been evident during the last 12 months that a great change has come over the tactics of the Irish people and their Representatives in this House. To them a new prospect has opened; and they now have reason to hope that whatever demands they may make will be listened to by Parliament, and will be Constitutionally redressed. I myself should be very much surprised if it becomes necessary during this Session to apply the clôture on account of any difficulty in the Irish quarter of the House. If that be so, it is quite clear that the valuable time of this House is being wasted, and that we might at this moment be proceeding with the measures which the Government propose to lay before Parliament. No doubt, if the House is to do the work which the Empire demands at its hands, there must be very important changes made in our method of conducting the Business of the House, and beneficial changes can only, in my opinion, be found in the process of devolution. Few Members would wish to reproach gratuitously the Conservative Party for a change of front; but we have had satisfactory assurances from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Ritchie), and also from the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach), that the Government will be prepared, when we come to discuss the Rules seriatim, to take counsel with the House generally, and seek to ascertain what is the general feeling of the House. The Government will act wisely in adopting such a course. I believe that, as time goes on, it would be found infinitely wiser for us that the Speaker should be excluded from the 418 partizanship which it is sought to throw on him. Up to the present, happily, there have been few occasions when the Speaker's interference has been necessary; but if, in the future, the clôture, in its less obnoxious form, is to be applied, the responsibility, it appears to me, will be able to rest with the House generally, and there will be freedom to any individual to take on himself the unwelcome task. The time of this House is of infinite value; and we have had many Members of experience—my right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford (Sir John R. Mowbray), for instance—expressing grave doubt as to whether we are likely to derive much benefit, so far as saving time is concerned, from some of the suggested changes. I am strongly of the same opinion. I doubt whether the proposed closure, or any other that can be projected, will have very much effect. The time of the House may be saved; but the great object, I take it, is to expedite the Business of the House, without entering into slip-shod legislation. Ample time should be given to every section of the House; and, from that point of view, I regret that we should have before us a proposal for dealing with Standing Committees without enlarging those Committees, or enlarging their powers. On the other hand, now that we are engaged upon these important and permanent changes in our Procedure, I think that all sides of the House should be invited to take a share in the responsibility for what is being done. We should endeavour to frame such new Rules as will be acceptable to the House at large. I would remind the Conservative Party that it has not been their lot, nor can it be in the very nature of things, the lot of a Party who do not usually desire progress, that they should be, as a rule, in Office and power. It is to their advantage, therefore, as much as to that of any section of the House, that absolute freedom of discussion should be left to individual Members and Parties in this House. I would remind right hon. Gentlemen opposite that, in all probability, this discussion will run through a long period, and that on them will rest the responsibility if, towards the end of the Session, general embarrassment ensues from this interference with the ordinary work of the House.
§ MR. PICTON (Leicester)
I do not, for one moment, suppose that the ideas of one who has had so little experience as myself of Parliamentary Procedure will be of much value; therefore, I do not intend to offer many remarks; but there is one point touched by these new Rules on which even new Members may be allowed to feel very strongly, and that is our feeling of respect and submission to the Chair. Anything which suggests to our minds a fear that in the future, however remote and uncertain, differences of opinion on this point might be awakened, necessarily creates much uneasiness. Now, Sir, in my limited experience in this House, and so far as I have read anything concerning its history—especially its modern history— it does appear to me that there has always been a very strong and clearly-marked distinction drawn between matters of Rule and the Law of the House on the one hand, and matters of policy or expediency on the other. The occupant of the Chair has always been looked up to as the impersonation and embodiment of the best traditions and regulations of the House. The decisions of the Chair have always very properly been unanimously accepted at once. When the Chair has given a decision, it has always been recognized that it was not merely an individual that was speaking, but the whole House as a corporate body. But, Sir, if we introduce another element—that of policy or expediency— at once a very grave danger arises, because it is precisely on points of policy and expediency that the House differs within itself, and must always differ within itself. Therefore, a decision given on a point of policy or expediency must needs be, not the utterance of the whole House, but only the utterance of a part—that is to say, in fact, a Party decision. Now, it has been said that whatever danger might be incurred in this direction has already been incurred by the present form of the Closure Rule; but we have had it argued on very high authority that the present form of the Closure Rule only requires the Chair to decide upon a matter of fact concerning which there may be differences of opinion without the slightest disrespect to the Chair. We have been assured that the Chair was not required to decide upon any matter of policy. I myself am inclined to think that the present form of closure is 420 defective in this respect—that it may occasionally involve decisions from the Chair upon what ought to be considered points of policy or expediency; and I should like to see the present Rule as to closure improved by putting out of it altogether any appeal to the Chair on such points. But under the New Rules the Chair is brought in again, as I think, in a more dangerous manner, for it is called on to decide whether the proposer of the closure is acting rightly and fairly—is taking the right line of policy—in desiring to close a debate; and on such a point a large part of the House will necessarily differ from the proposal of the closure, and if a large part of the House differs on that point from the proposer, it will also differ from the Speaker, and that on a point of policy or expediency. Now, I do not think that this can happen without feelings being engendered which none of us would like to entertain for one moment towards the Chair of this House. Besides, in the new Procedure Rules, not only is the closure virtually to be decided on the decision of the Speaker, but in regard to the possibility of moving the adjournment of the House at or after Question time, again the Speaker is to be appealed to. Now, in such a case the Speaker may be appealed to twice. First, he is asked whether he will permit the adjournment of the House to be moved, and then, if any Member of the House thinks that this question has been discussed long enough, he asks the Speaker to decide whether the closure may be proposed or not; so that the Chair is brought in both at the beginning and at the end of such debate. If hon. Gentlemen will conceive to themselves any great, pressing, and possibly irritating public question arising on which a Motion for the Adjournment of the House were desired, I think they will acknowledge that in such a case there would be a danger of creating between some section of the House and the Chair feelings of which we ought never, I think, to run the risk. I do, therefore, hope that the Government will give a little more consideration to this point. As I have said, I do not speak as having any experience that makes my observations hardly worthy of any attention at all; but as a Member, perhaps, of in some respects an extreme 421 Party, I desire to say that, so far as I am aware, every Party desires to maintain unbroken the long tradition of absolute submission and respect to the Chair which has made the proceedings in this House in former times a model to the Legislatures of the whole world; and I do beseech, the Government not carelessly to introduce any element whatever which could possibly endanger a break in that tradition.
§ MR W. A. MACDONALD (Queen's County, Ossory)
I was prompted to take part in this discussion by an observation of an hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Bench, who said the Government were anxious that this matter should not be discussed entirely by the Front Benches, but should be discussed by Members at large. I am a new Member of the House, and I should not venture to take part in the discussion at all, but that I have listened with a great deal of attention to the debates which have been taking place in this House with a view to understand the Rules and Orders of the House. When I entered the House I entered it with the determination that, come what might, I would always endeavour, as far as I possibly could and as far as I understood them, to conform to the Rules of the House. Before, however, I say anything upon the Rules, I would make one observation with respect to the remark of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goschen). The right hon. Gentleman said that though our observations grated on hon. Gentlemen opposite, in the same way as he had no doubt their observations grated upon us, we were always listened to by hon. Gentlemen opposite with respect. Now, I desire to give that statement my emphatic contradiction. I do not think even hon. Gentlemen opposite themselves will say that they listened with a great deal of respect to remarks which were made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) the other night, and I myself have had reason to complain of great discourtesy on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite, when I was trying, in Committee of the Whole House last Session, to set forth the case of a number of unfortunate prisoners in Ireland. I believe if those prisoners had been in England, and I had been an English Member, I should have been treated with a great deal more 422 courtesy and consideration by hon. Gentlemen opposite. Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that, in a former Session, we, the Irish Party, had opposed all Business in this House. No; I do not think that is strictly accurate; I do not think the remark is strictly maintainable. It is quite possible that opposition may have been offered to certain measures before the present Irish Party was constituted in 1880; but since that time I maintain that the opposition on the part of the Irish Members has been mainly to matters which concern the freedom and the rights of their country, and that they have not obstructed English Business to any considerable extent. I say, Sir, that the real Obstructionists in the Parliament of 1880 were hon. Gentlemen opposite. They obstructed the Bill for the Extension of the Franchise; they brought forward a number of Motions of an obstructive character, as I thought, in reference to Egypt; they made very long and, as I think, often very meaningless speeches, and this was in the direction of Obstruction; and now they come and complain about us, and speak of us as if we were the only Obstructionists in this House. The truth is that Obstruction came largely from the other side, and hon. Gentlemen opposite, and right hon. Gentlemen too, seem to me to have a very peculiar memory. They recollect things which it is convenient for them to recollect, and they forget things which they desire no longer to remember. They seem to me to resemble very much a character in The New Republic. A lady is there introduced who is described as the London Sappho. A service was improvised on a particular occasion and Prayer Books were handed round, and the lady remarked that it was a long time since she had had a Prayer Book— that she did not think she had had one since she was confirmed. A gentleman remarked—"When you were married, perhaps?" "Oh!" she said; "possibly, but I have forgotten all about that." It seems to me that hon. Gentlemen opposite are just like that lady. They remember what they like to remember, and forget what it is inconvenient to remember. The question we have to ask ourselves with regard to the Rules is, I think, whether hon. Gentlemen opposite, in bringing forward these Rules, have a sincere desire to assist the 423 progress of Business? Now, I venture to entertain considerable doubt on that point, and I will tell the House why I doubt it. If right hon. Gentlemen opposite really desired to facilitate the Business of the House by these Rules, they would have put in the forefront those Resolutions about which there would be likely to be general agreement, leaving for later consideration the question of the closure, respecting which there must be a great deal of difference of opinion. They have, however, adopted exactly opposite tactics. There is one Rule about which we are all anxious— namely, that diminishing the time of our Sittings. That has not been put in the forefront of the Resolutions; but this Resolution regarding the clôture has. In the same way, there is a proposition for facilitating the passing of measures after Whitsunstide, by giving priority to those which are far advanced. That is not a contentious matter at all, so far as I can see. It is a proposal in favour of which there will be a preponderance of opinion. Why, then, was it not put forward first? We have had no opportunity of discussing it given us. And why have the Government not given us a proof of their earnestness by dealing with the less contentious matters? Why is this question of the clôture pressed forward at the present moment? I believe the only reason why it is pressed forward is because right hon. Gentlemen opposite want to pass a Coercion Bill for Ireland. Do right hon. Gentlemen suppose that we want to prevent them from bringing on their Estimates? Why, the sooner we are through the Estimates the sooner we shall understand all about these extravagant proposals of theirs, and the better it will be for us the worse it will be for them. Do they suppose we want to prevent them bringing forward, and having discussed, their proposals for Local Government in England, knowing, as we do, that these proposals, when they are brought forward, now that the Government have lost the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord Randolph Churchill), will be found miserably inadequate, and that it will therefore, be to our interest to have these subjects brought forward as soon as possible? No, Sir; the only proposal which they are afraid they will not easily get is for what is euphemistically 424 called the strengthening of criminal procedure in Ireland. We seem to be, at the present moment, in a kind of transition state as regards the authority of the Chair. We seem to be midway between the time when the voice of the Chair was scarcely heard at all, and the period when his voice will be repeatedly heard, and when his interposition will be repeatedly called for. I am most anxious that the authority and dignity of the Chair should be preserved—I am most anxious that we should always retain, and have reason to retain, respect for the Chair. I want to regard the Chair as the bulwark of the rights of minorities in this House; and while I would not for one moment think of questioning any ruling which the Chair might make, I think it reasonable for us to know when the more frequent interpositions of the Chair in recent periods have been to the interest of the country, and have led to increased respect being entertained for the Chair? I venture to think that it will be found that this has not been the case. The first great innovation was when Mr. Speaker Brand stopped a debate in this House acting entirely on his own Motion, and without those Rules with which you, Sir, have since been furnished. Well, I think that the effects of that have been most disastrous on the subsequent condition of Ireland. I believe that the misery and even assassinations which occurred in that country were indirectly due to the facility which was then given for the passing through, in this House, of a Bill which pressed hardly on the people of Ireland. During the present Session we have had certain decisions which I do not say have shaken the confidence—
§ MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Gentleman is dealing very discursively with this Rule. He is not entitled to pursue the line of argument he has commenced.
§ MR. W. A. MACDONALD
Then, Mr. Speaker, I will now go on to consider the exact proposal of the Rule. This principle of closure proposed is to introduce the Speaker; but to introduce him in a different form from the way he is at present introduced—namely, to bring him in second, as it were, while any Member of the House may come in first. I think that before the House consents to this proposal we ought to have very clearly before us one point— 425 namely, whether the consent of the Chair, which, according to the proposal, is requisite before any Member can move that the debate should cease, shall be given openly in the House— whether the request shall be made openly in the House, and the consent given in the same way, or whether it shall be by private arrangement. There is a great danger here. If you do this thing by means of private arrangement, you will produce a feeling of dissatisfaction amongst a large section of Members in this House; but if the Chair is asked to give its consent publicly and openly, there will be an opportunity given to the House of seeing that the Chair protects the rights of minorities, and this will greatly strengthen the Chair in the estimation of Members. Then a question arises with regard to Members. I was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Leeds (Sir Lyon Playfair) declare that he would like the clôture to be applied by a majority pure and simple. He gave as his reason that in this House we make laws by means of majorities pure and simple, and he asked why we should not also impose this restraint on ourselves in that way? But, Sir, it is not the case that we make laws by means of majorities pure and simple. Surely that was a most inadequate statement of the facts. Suppose a Bill were to pass a second reading in this House by a majority of three, and it was a Bill about which there was very strong Party feeling. Does anybody really suppose that that Bill would become law? Does anyone suppose that that one Division would settle the matter? Why the measure would be thrown out in Committee or on Report, or on Third Reading; therefore, it is not accurate to say that it is by majority pure and simple that we settle the most important questions. But we have had a proposal from the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees (Mr. Courtney) that we should have a proportion introduced. Now, I conceive that to introduce that would be to press very hardly upon the minority in this House, and I conceive that even the proposal as it stands would be fairer to minorities than any system of proportion. In fact, the hon. Gentleman seems to me to have got the subject of proportion rather on the brain, and I never expect to hear a 426 speech from him in which proportion— proportional representation, or proportion in regard to these Rules—will not come out. I am entitled to ask, in conclusion, what will be the probable effect of these Rules, supposing you pass them? It is conceivable that they may produce no effect at all. You have been warned already that it is possible to drive a coach and six through the most important Rules if men are only disposed to do so. But they may have some limited effect. If they have, it is surely worth the while of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and of the House, to consider whether that limited effect is really worth the sacrifice of time and temper which the passing of these Rules will involve. It is conceivable, though I do not suppose even right hon. Gentlemen opposite think it at all likely, that these Rules may have the effect and object those who propose them have in view, and that all difficulties in the way of carrying on the Business of the House may be removed. Irish Members may be gagged, and it may be impossible to bring forward Irish grievances in this House; but if it is, other platforms are open to us, not only in Ireland but in England, from one end of the country to the other; and I am by no means sure that the best thing that could happen to us very shortly would not be that we should be excluded altogether from the proceedings of this House, so that we shall have an opportunity of devoting our whole time to the enlightenment of public opinion in England on the Irish Question, which is going on rapidly, and which hon. Gentlemen opposite are powerless to prevent.
§ MR. AMBROSE (Middlesex, Harrow)
The hon. Member who has just sat down asked what is the object of the proposed New Rules, and I do not think there is much difficulty in answering his question. I think all who have any regard for themselves as Members of this House, as a House of Business capable of managing the affairs of the country, feel an interest in the House having restored to itself the power of managing those affairs. There is a general feeling throughout the country that the House has been paralyzed and rendered incapable of performing its Business, and that some such Rules as these are absolutely necessary if any Business whatever is to be trans- 427 acted. We sit here Session after Session, and matters in which our constituents are deeply interested are left unattended to. Well, the opposition to the New Rules—especially to the first— seems to proceed from two Parties. We have Gentlemen on this side, no doubt the most experienced of Members, having sat in this House for upwards of 30 years, for whose opinions we are bound to have the highest possible regard, who seem to have an almost superstitious regard for the rights of minorities. I have heard a great deal said about the danger of closing debates by a mere majority, even with the assent of the Speaker. Well, I wish we could do without this power of clôture. I should be very glad indeed if we could proceed, as in times past, when there was a consciousness on the part of Members of this House that there was something due to the House when the debate had been sufficiently exhausted. I could wish that there was such a feeling as that pervading the House at the present time; but it is quite clear that that is not so, and I think we may push the superstition of the older Members of the House as to the rights of minorities a great deal too far. I think the majority has its rights. I think it is very hard upon men who are in the majority in this House that they should be bound to sit here night after night listening to speeches that are merely repetitions of speeches already made, and that we should be called upon, as we were last September, to come down to the House, night after night, to hear all sorts of small matters raked up affecting contracts, rights of trial, imprisonment of certain people— matters the discussion of which, if they affected English transactions, would not be tolerated for a moment. I say it is very hard on the majority, who want to get through the Business of the House, that they should be obliged to sit here continually powerless whilst some of the idlest talk which it has ever been my lot to listen to is proceeding. We must have regard to the demand of the country that the Business of the country shall be conducted with something like reasonable despatch. Then it is said there is a desire to gag a certain section of the House, and the hon. Gentleman who last spoke rather threatened us with this—that if the Irish Members are not allowed to ventilate their grievances in this House 428 other platforms would be found. Far be it from me, or any other Member of this House, to endeavour to gag any section, or prevent them from ventilating any real grievance. Let them ventilate their grievances here. This is the proper place; but our point is that these grievances should be ventilated fairly, and that when the case in respect of any particular grievance has been put before the House the debate should be closed, and a Division taken, so that the opinion of the House may be given and other matters may be brought forward, so that grievances from other parts of the Empire may be dealt with. The hon. Member says the remedy of his Party is to go to other platforms, and, in saying that, he has answered one of the arguments urged against the proposed Clôture Rule. It is said this Rule will be a most dangerous thing, and that it may be exercised by the majority harshly, and for the purpose of silencing real debate. Can it? The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has given the answer to that. There are other platforms; and when the majority, with the assistance of the Speaker, attempts to exercise the power of closure, the answer is—"There are platforms outside, on which an unfair attempt may be denounced." You may depend upon it that any attempt to put the clôture into operation unfairly will bring upon those who are responsible a just reward in the condemnation of the general public. As to making the Speaker a party to this proceeding, it must always happen to the President of any Assembly that, at some time or other, he will have to give his opinion in favour of one side or the other. A Judge in a Court of Justice cannot avoid giving a decision in favour of one side or the other; and the answer to that argument is that we select for the Office of the Chair a Gentleman in whose honour and integrity we have entire confidence, and whom we have reason to believe will guard the rights of the minority and will take care that, before he allows the clôture to be put into operation, the matter in hand shall have been fairly and sufficiently discussed. If we cannot entrust a Gentleman with a power like that he would soon cease to be Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Henry H. Fowler) and several others have suggested that the New Rules do 429 not recognize sufficiently the principle of devolution. I understand now that we are only discussing the Rules in general, and, if a certain Rule is not necessary, it will be competent for us to give effect to any Amendment that may be necessary for the purpose of extending the principle of devolution; but I cannot myself see why we are not to have increased time given to us for the purpose of transacting necessary Business. I do not see the slightest difficulty in the way of extending the principle of devolution, and why the House should not have increased time and vigour given to it in that way.
§ MR. JOHN O'CONNOR (Tipperary, S.)
I desire to add a very few words to this discussion. It is, I think, the evident sense of the House that the Rules of Procedure as proposed by the Government will pass with very few Amendments. I trust no Members of the House will have reason to regret the alacrity with which they seem to acquiesce in the proposals of the Government. I have no doubt that if these Rules be passed that, in a short time, you will have very little reason to put them in operation. They will become a dead letter, because the abnormal state of things that has demanded them will have ceased to exist. Unquestionably, these Rules have been proposed in order to deal with what has been termed "Irish Obstruction." But, Sir, that Obstruction was described by the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord Randolph Churchill) as "the safety valve for Irish rebellion." I think that if the spirit of Irish rebellion has escaped in this House in Obstruction, this House and the nation have had ample compensation for the time they have lost owing to that Obstruction. I trust that when a re-adjustment of the condition of things that exists between the two nations will have taken place, and the abnormal state of things that has demanded these Rules has ceased to exist, the Rules will become a dead letter, and the House will resume its old efficiency without any necessity for putting them into operation. Now, Sir, many things have been said within the last few days in reference to the matter of the clôture. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lincolnshire said that when he entered this House—
430 It being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood further adjourned till Tomorrow.
§ House adjourned at ten minutes before Six o'clock.