HC Deb 13 April 1888 vol 324 cc1199-210

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Standing Order No. 11, appointing the Committee of Supply to be the first Order of the Day on Fridays, be read and suspended, and that the Orders of the Day for the Second Reading of the Local Government (England and Wales) Bill and the Local Government (England and Wales) Electors Bill have precedence of the Committee of Supply."—(Mr. William Henry Smith.)

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

said, that the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury had not condescended to allege any reason for making that Motion. He (Mr. Labouchere) could easily understand that, because the right hon. Gentleman had not got any to allege. They were still at an early period of the Session, with almost four months before them, and there was really no ground for making that demand upon the House nor any precedent for it. The Business of the Government was, moreover, now in an exceptionally forward state. It might be said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had got to move the Budget Bill, but if that was necessary, surely he might have moved it before the Local Government Bill was taken up. The ordinary usage was that private Members' days were only taken for the second reading of opposed Bills which involved the fate of the Government, and that was not the case at present. In 1882, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) moved his Procedure Rules, he did not take the days of private Members, but took the Rules only on Government days. With the clôture the Government had the time of the House much more in their hands than at any previous period, and he would ask the right hon. Gentleman, if they gave the Government that day, whether he would agree not to move the closure on the Local Government Bill? No; he did not think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree to that. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that two nights were almost too much for the debate on the second reading of that Bill. But when hon. Gentlemen on the Ministerial side were themselves in Opposition, and the right hon. Member for Mid Lothian brought in a Bill for the Local Government of Ireland, the debate on the second reading took three weeks. There were 5,000,000 inhabitants in Ireland, while there were 28,000,000 in England who would be affected by this Bill. Let them work their own sum as to the number of days that the Conservatives would have demanded, if in Opposition, for the discussion of a Local Government Bill that had been brought in by a Liberal Ministry. Again, the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. W. H. Smith) always arranged the Business of the House in such a manner as that he might put in a claim for taking away the nights of private Members. It was simply like a gentleman who had arranged to pay his debts, and was under the absolute necessity of robbing his neighbour in order to do so. Last Session the Government took almost every day belonging to private Members, and used as an argument to induce Members to vote for the new Rules of Procedure, that they would obviate the necessity of taking so many private Members' night. But no sooner were the Rules passed than the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury came down and took away the privileges of private Members. The mode in which they proposed to take them this Session was as outrageous as the demand itself. Before Easter the right hon. Gentleman incidentally dropped an observation to the effect that he would have the Local Government Bill brought on on Thursday and that a Division would be taken on Friday. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) pointed out yesterday, there was no agreement with the House to that effect; the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury had simply given that as his opinion, and had given his own assent to it. On Wednesday last the right hon. Gentleman, in reply to a Question, said that he should certainly take Friday, because the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Jennings) had agreed to waive his claim to that day. He (Mr. Labouchere) would point out that the day did not belong to the hon. Member for Stockport; it was the property of private Members generally. There were not many Gentlemen of very independent character—if they would allow him to say so—on the Ministerial side of the House, but the hon. Member for Stockport was one of the three or four Members on that side who had dared to oppose the Government. He should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman was told that he must give up the night, or whether it was of his own free will that he gave it up. He did not think that the hon. Member gave it up freely. He objected to the day being taken on general grounds. The House did not meet to discuss Government measures only. Hon. Members should have some sort of initiative, and should be able to propose reforms and protest against grievances. If Fridays did not belong to private Members they would never have had the present Local Government Bill from a Conservative Government. There were hundreds of grievances which Members were anxious to urge, but what opportunity would they have if Fridays were taken away? There were special reasons for not assenting to the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman. The Local Government Bill was one of an important character, as it concerned great local bodies. They wanted time to investigate matters and to allow their constituents to examine the Bill thoroughly. The discussion should take place at intervals in order that the country might be able to understand the points raised on each particular day, reflect upon them and communicate their views to their Representatives. On the Opposition side of the House they agreed to the principle of the Bill—that was to say, they agreed that Local Government should be in the hands of the inhabitants of the localities. But they must have a full opportunity of considering whether the details did not vitiate the principle. He did not think hon. Members on that side would arrive at the conclusion that they did, but time should be given so that the Bill might be fully discussed. Simply because the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian had expressed a general agreement with the principle of the Bill, the First Lord of the Treasury imagined that they were to swallow the Bill as a whole without any discussion. The right hon. Gentleman was very courteous and was eminently respectable, but they must not lose sight of the fact that under this veil of respectability he concealed a great deal of astuteness. The right hon. Gentleman might not be as old a Parliamentary hand as some people, but he knew the Parliamentary game exceedingly well, and he (Mr. Labouchere) and others of the Opposition side of the House had felt it their duty to keep their eyes on him. What the right hon. Gentleman wanted was really a tactical advantage. Undoubtedly it would be a tactical advantage if they were not given time to look into the merits of the Bill. If the right hon. Gentleman, however, wanted this advantage, hon. Members had a right to claim that the Rule should not be altered in order that the Government might secure it. On legitimate Party grounds, and in the interests of the country, he asked that Friday should be retained for private Members, and that the Bill should not be rushed through in an indecent fashion. Private Members on both sides were somewhat inclined to hang together in these matters. He hoped that on the present occasion every private Member on the Government side who owned a private judgment would vote against the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House. The Motion would establish a precedent, and an evil precedent, and if the House agreed to it, private Members would have no rights left, or, at any rate, they would resemble sheep, whose only rights were to bleat and have their throats cut. The crushed worm was sure to turn, but if they did not speedily turn and protest, they would be crushed and pulverized altogether by the right hon. Gentleman.

MR. JENNINGS (Stockport)

said, he wished to ask the House to allow him to explain his position. Perhaps no one was more unwilling to waive his right to move the Motion which stood on the Paper in his name relating to the Accountant General's and Secretary's Department of the Admiralty for that evening than he was. He considered it a great hardship that he should be deprived of the opportunity of bringing before the House a question of con- siderable importance to the taxpayers, and one which they were not likely to hear much of from official sources. It was a double hardship, because the whole of last Session private Members had no opportunity of bringing forward questions in which they and their constituents were interested. A great many Members were elected especially to present to the House particular questions in which the constituencies were concerned. Those questions were very likely of no moment to a great and powerful Government, but they were of great importance to the constituencies which sent the Members to Parliament. In his own case he felt it the more, because he understood that Tuesdays and Fridays were practically to be taken from private Members throughout the rest of the Session. [Mr. W. H. SMITH: No, no!] Private Members were to be remitted to a night Session, when they would come down and be treated to the exciting entertainment of seeing the House counted out. This arrangement was very disadvantageous to the Government and to the Party to which he himself belonged. The Motion which he had on the Paper concerned great abuses of the Public Service, and he thought he could show that these abuses were very serious, involving the expenditure of large sums of money under a system which was still in existence. That the House should be deprived of the opportunity of discussing such a matter was a great wrong. When the question of giving up his right to the day was put to him, he understood that he had no choice. If he had any, he should have declined to give way; but the matter was put to him in a way which led him to suppose that it was a case of Hobson's choice, and that whether he agreed or not, the night would be taken just the same. Under these circumstances he declined to take any credit for having given up the night, and he should vote for the Motion of the hon. Member for Northampton.

SIR JOSEPH PEASE (Durham, Barnard Castle)

said, that his sympathies went with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stockport (Mr. Jennings). Hon. Members who wished to bring subjects before the House had been deprived of opportunities of doing so for many Sessions past. What was the hurry in pushing forward the Local Government Bill? He presumed that, there were very few Members who would vote against the second reading. In the great principle of the Bill most of them were agreed, but the local governing bodies of the country ought to have the opportunity of thoroughly understanding the details of the Bill. There were two or three speeches delivered on Thursday night that deserved to be considered in the Provinces by those who as yet had not had the opportunity of reading them; and he desired on their behalf that they should have the opportunity of learning from the discussions on the second reading what the clauses of the Bill really meant. This would be most easily secured by giving private Members their usual nights during the ensuing week.


said, he had on the Paper a Motion for that evening relating to the constitution of the Boards of Customs and Inland Revenue. He opposed the Motion as interfering unduly with the rights of private Members, and hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not go to a Division.

MR. H. GARDNER (Essex, Saffron Walden)

said, he feared the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury had clôture on the brain. He (Mr. H. Gardner) agreed upon the necessity of the country being afforded time to thoroughly digest the arguments and criticisms which would be made on the scheme of Local Government. The Bill had been described as a revolution; he was certain the House did not wish it turned into a coup d'état. If the Government would promise that in return a proper number of Government nights would be given for the discussion of the measures of private Members, he should not oppose the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury on the present occasion.

MR. DILLWYN (Swansea, Town)

said, he should cordially support his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) in opposing the Motion, on the ground that he desired to retain some remnant of private Members' rights which year by year were being gradually and steadily taken away. The condition of Public Business was so far advanced that the Government could not possibly claim urgency for the Local Government Bill, but they, having obtained their closure, seemed to desire to use it most unscrupulously and in a manner opposed to the interests of the House as well as to the interests of the country.

MR. SETON-KARR (St. Helen's)

said, he desired to support the general protest against taking the nights of private Members, but he did not altogether support the proposed application of it, for he must say he thought Northampton had a good deal of the time of private Members this Session. What was the position? Only two months of the Session had passed, and for those two months the Government had had it all their own way, and had practically monopolized all the time of the House. If they desired to "beat the record," he submitted that they had already done so, for they had got very far forward with a most important Bill, while they had revolutionized the National Debt and brought in a most portentous Budget. He suggested that the House wanted time to consider the provisions of the Local Government Bill. They had not all got the great intellects of the Gentlemen who sat on the two Front Benches, and they required time for consideration. What good would result from such a headlong and indecent rushing of the measure through the House? At the end of the Session the Government would be in the position of Alexander the Great, when he sat down and wept because there were no other worlds for him to conquer. He had a Motion down for Tuesday; it was nothing whatever to do with the general question of the infraction of Members' rights, but the Motion was one in which he believed a great many hon. Members took a great interest, and he knew if he did not get a chance of bringing it on next Tuesday, the House would very soon get into Committee on the Local Government Bill, and then his chance would be very small indeed.


said, that the feeling in opposition to the Motion on his side of the House was general. The right hon. Gentleman had no cause to complain of the manner in which the Local Government Bill had been received, and he personally should be very sorry to do anything to wreck a Bill the leading features of which were of so much value and importance. If they parted with the Bill now, before having an exhaustive discussion, they would in Committee be compelled to proceed from clause to clause without knowing really the bearing of one part of the Bill upon another. The House wanted to understand the Bill, and the present stage was the only opportunity they had for general discussion, and for clearing up certain points upon which they desired information. He could assure the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Ritchie) that an exhaustive discussion at the present time would greatly facilitate the passing of the Bill. The House had heard very little in the way of a financial statement, and it was extremely difficult to ascertain how the question between boroughs and counties would be affected. If the Government forced the House into Committee, the certain effect would be that in discussing one clause they should be obliged to do so without any reference to concessions that might be made upon another. All the Government nights next week might well be occupied by the discussion on the second reading, and if the private Members' night could be added, so much the better.


said, that he could not but express great regret that he should appear to be in conflict with any considerable number of Members of the House. Before the holidays, when he first made the proposal contained in his Resolution, he was quite under the impression that it was generally accepted by the House. He wished the House to understand that he never intended or desired to cut short the discussion on the second reading of the Bill, but rather to accommodate himself to the reasonable demands and general wishes of both sides. The hon. Gentleman who had just spoken said that full opportunity ought to be given for discussing the second reading of the Bill. He (Mr. W. H. Smith) desired to afford that opportunity, and the Motion he had put on the Paper was the very method by which that end might be attained. [Cries of "No, no!"] He was exceedingly sorry that any hon. Gentlemen, whether supporters or opponents of the Government, should feel that an undue amount of pressure was being put upon them in the request preferred to him. He could assure the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Jennings) that he would have ample opportunities of raising the important ques- tion contained in his Motion in Committee upon Vote 13 in the Navy Estimates.


said, that the subject of his Motion went back over 20 years, and it would not be possible for him to refer largely to previous years in Committee on the Estimates.


said, he believed the hon. Gentleman would find the opportunity he desired. He (Mr. W. H. Smith) was, however, in the hands of the House. He desired to consult the feelings of the House, so as to forward the Business of the country. The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) had spoken of himself as a "crushed worm." He deeply regretted that his conduct should have produced that sensation in the hon. Member; but the result of the Session so far showed that there was no want of vitality or critical power in the hon. Gentleman. In the course of his speech, the hon. Member said the second reading of the Bill relating to Ireland occupied three weeks, and having regard to the fact that that Bill affected only 5,000,000 of inhabitants, and that the present Bill referred to 28,000,000, it would be reasonable that the time allotted for the second reading of this Bill—


said, he did not say it would be reasonable. He said that the Conservatives took that time when they were in Opposition.


said, that if the hon. Member's suggestions were carried into effect, it would result in the appropriation of 17 Parliamentary weeks for the second reading of the Bill; and in that case it was obvious that it would be impossible to pass the Bill this Session. When regard was had to the fact that the Bill contained a number of clauses, many of which were almost a Bill in themselves, he thought hon. Gentlemen opposite and those below the Gangway on the Ministerial side would recognize the fact that, although Public Business was in a forward state as compared with last Session, yet the magnitude of the work which the Government had in hand was such that they would not be doing their duty if they failed to avail themselves of every opportunity of pressing forward a measure the principal discussion of which must take place in Committee. The Government were anxious to obtain an opinion on the Budget Bill without delay, and to take the Employers' Liability Bill and the Railway Rates Bill on Government nights; and, under those circumstances, it did appear to him that, although it might be necessary to trench for a little upon the time of private Members, yet the House would do well to give them the time asked for by the Government. Reference had been made to the number of times that private Members' days had been taken during the present Session; but, in his opinion, there had been less interference in that respect than in many past Sessions. This was the first occasion upon which private Members had been asked to surrender their rights. [Cries of "Procedure!"] Oh, yes; he believed that two or three nights were taken on the Rules of Procedure. However, he trusted that the House would consent to the Motion that he had made.

MR. W. E. GLADSTONE (Edinburgh, Mid Lothian)

said, he was sorry to hear the closing remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury, because he thought they were not quite warranted in point of fact, and marred the effect of the conciliatory spirit of the preceding portion of his speech. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to assume that there was no way of interfering with the rights of private Members except the appropriation of entire Sittings. There was another mode of abridging very greatly the time that private Members had at their disposal—namely, by means of Morning Sittings. As a matter of fact, upon strong and special grounds while Procedure was before the House the rights of private Members were taken away altogether, and even the proposals of private Members on Procedure were entirely excluded from the benefit of that arrangement, and the discussion was limited to the proposals brought forward by Her Majesty's Government. He did not say whether that was right or wrong; but that course was followed with respect to Procedure, and also through the whole of the very important question—and, he rejoiced to think, the very successful measure of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—with respect to the conversion of the Debt. The whole of that measure was virtually put through its stages at Morning Sittings of the House. However, he did not wish to discuss that matter further than to say that he thought that the arrangement of the Business of the House with regard to its division between the Government and private Members was a matter which had reached a point—after the experience of last year and the initial experience of this—which made it very necessary that it should in a very short time be made the subject of general consideration. He was not prepared to say that they ought to exclude from view some limited further interference at the present moment with the rights of private Members, and he sympathized very much with those Members who were deprived of their opportunities. The course which he should feel it to be his duty to take would depend upon the intention of the Government as to the second reading of the Bill. He did not blame the right hon. Gentleman opposite in any degree for the limited space he was disposed to assign in the first instance to the second reading of the Bill, because, if he had Loan in any degree drawn into a snare in respect of the feelings and impressions of the House, he (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) might himself—in his anxiety to expedite the practical discussion of the measure—have contributed in producing upon the right hon. Gentleman's mind an impression that was not adequate to the occasion. While he (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) thought it was of the utmost importance to have an affirmation of the general principle of the Bill, yet manifestly they had learned that an enormous amount of interest and very considerable difficulty arose in respect of the adjustment of the measure. It was not possible for them to regard the great number of subjects and their diversity and complexity without seeing that Members of the House who had constituents to represent felt it to be necessary for them to have a larger discussion on the second reading of the Bill, and it was impossible in equity to resist that claim. Take, for example, the question of whether the parish was to be regarded as the unit, and whether the structure which they were about to erect was to be built from the parish or was to include the parish—that was a question of the utmost importance. It was a question of the utmost importance to the class which of all classes affected by the Bill was most in need of time and assistance in the consideration of the question—he meant the agricultural labourers. He understood the right hon. Gentleman to renounce any attempt to impose an arbitrary limit upon the discussion of the Bill on the second reading, for it was impossible to exclude from view the necessity of informing the country of the scope of the measure through the mediums of their debates and through a bonâ fide discussion in the House. He was sure it was not intended to prolong the discussion beyond the necessary consideration of the merits of the Bill, and the discussion would have no Party aspect. Under those circumstances he was not prepared, though reluctantly, to join in refusing the Government the use of the time of the House to-night for the discussion of the Bill, provided they knew that anything that had been said before on the subject had been said without full information as to the desire of the House, in the interests of the country, for a full discussion on the second reading, and he hoped there would be no further misapprehension on the point.


said, he could only say, with respect to the period to which the debate should extend, that he should endeavour to take the course that was usual in matters of that kind—that was, to arrive at some reasonable understanding as to the period at which the debate should close.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 243; Noes 143: Majority 100.—(Div. List, No. 69.)