HC Deb 06 December 1888 vol 331 cc1263-75

, Member for the Borough of Northampton, rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz, the unsatisfactory position of Public Business.

The pleasure of the House not having been signified,


called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than 40 Members having accordingly risen.


said, the object of his Motion was really to expedite Public Business. The House had a right to complain of the First Lord of the Treasury getting Business into the present mess, and for not taking the Opposition into his councils as to the best mode of getting out of it. It was also a matter of great public importance that they should have some specific understanding from the First Lord that he would not in subsequent Sessions do what he had done in the present Session—that was to say, that he would not put off the Estimates until the last moment, taking Votes on Account, and then, in order to push through the Estimates, take time which it was agreed should not be taken. There was, he contended, absolutely no excuse for the Business having got into the mess it was in. Liberal Governments in recent years had carried out during each Session as much legislation as the present Government had, and yet Liberal Governments were not obliged to come to the House for an Autumn Session, nor yet to take time properly belonging to private Members. The case was really stronger against the right hon. Gentleman than he had stated, for in this Session the application of the clôture was made far more easy. He denied thet there had been obstruction, but if there had been, with closure made so easy, it was the right hon. Gentleman's own fault. Again, when the hours of sitting of the House were altered there was a specific pledge by the right hon. Gentleman that he would not abrogate the Rule by which the Parliamentary day was to cease at 12 o'clock at night unless on the occasion of some great debate; but, notwithstanding that pledge, the right hon. Gentleman had moved day after day that the Rule be suspended when there had been no great debate, and he had further announced that until the end of the Session he intended to make the Motion twice a week. One would suppose the Government had not a sufficient amount of time. Almost from the beginning of the Session nearly every day had been taken by the Government, and yet what had they done? Nothing very wonderful. It was true they had passed a Local Government Bill, but—


Order, order! The hon. Member has moved the Adjournment for the sake of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance. I do not think that under leave so given it is competent to the hon. Gentleman to take a general retrospect of the Session.


said, he begged pardon; he would only, then, refer to existing arrangements. On July 16 the First Lord of the Treasury first shadowed it forth that there was to be an Autumn Session, and the understanding then was that all legislation should be thrown upon the Autumn Session with the exception of the Local Government Bill, and that the time before the Adjournment should be given up to the Estimates. On July 26, however, this arrangement was precisely reversed. The right hon. Gentleman then proposed that all legislation, except one or two Bills which he mentioned, should take place before the Adjournment, and that the rest of the time of the Session should be devoted almost exclusively to the Estimates. The right hon. Member for the Bridgeton Division of Glasgow (Sir George Trevelyan) at that time asked what the right hon. Gentleman intended to do with the Land Purchase Bill, and he said he intended to take it during the present Sitting.

THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)

I beg pardon; No.


This is what the right hon. Gentleman said—"A Bill to continue Lord Ashbourne's Act would be proceeded with during the present Sitting."




No; the word is "Sitting."


Then I was mis-reported. The hon. Member will see that on July 12 I stated that the Bill would be taken during the Autumn Session.


Perfectly, and that was precisely the point. It was after the arrangement of July 12 was reversed that he found the words he had quoted in Mr. Walter's report in The Times, which he should have thought was entirely above suspicion in the estimation of the right hon. Gentleman. The Vote on Account was agreed to on the understanding that all the time of the Autumn Session would be given to the Estimates, and that no new legislation would be brought forward. There was now a large portion of the Irish Estimates to be taken; the Scotch Estimates, on which Scotch Members had generally a good deal to say; the Army and Navy Estimates, on which there was a good deal to be said; and a considerable number of Civil Service Estimates. He submitted it was reasonable they should know what the right hon. Gentleman contemplated doing. The only chance he saw of finishing the Estimates next week, as the right hon. Gentleman hoped, would be that he should move that the Estimates be reported on a specific day to the House. Of course, the Opposition would regret that very much, because they were always ready to remain in London as long as might be in order to fulfil their duties. He objected to the system on the part of the organs of the right hon. Gentleman—and very often, by implication, on the part of the right hon. Gentleman himself—of throwing upon the Opposition the fault of the present condition of public affairs. He asserted that it was entirely and absolutely the fault of the right hon. Gentleman, who, as Leader of the House, was responsible for the Public Business. He wanted some clear understanding that in future Sessions the Estimates would be brought in and discussed at an early period of the Session, and that they might not get into the present mess. He also wanted to know what was the arrangement for the last of the Session? He thought the Estimates must be scamped. He begged to move the Adjournment of the House.

MR. HERBERT GARDNER (Essex, Saffron Walden)

said, he rose to second the Motion. In his humble opinion the present condition of Public Business was not only a shame, but a positive disgrace to the House. He considered that this was due entirely to the way in which the Business had been conducted. Never had a Government so free a hand. It had practically perfect command of the time of the House. It had a stringent closure, and it had the support of a loyal majority, ready at all times to follow them with a touching unanimity; and yet during the two Sessions the condition of Supply had been absolutely disgraceful. He thought more progress would have been made if more regard had been had to the rights of the minority, and more respect shown to Amendments brought forward on his side of the House. The First Lord of the Treasury now proposed that the House should revert to the old, slovenly practice of yawning away the millions of the taxpayers' money in the small hours of the morning. He emphatically entered his protest against such a proposal, and begged to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Labouchere.)

MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)

said, the hon. Member who had made this Motion attributed the blame entirely to the unfortunate conduct of the Leader of the House. He begged leave to differ from him altogether. He did not think any Member of that House would for a moment attribute to the right hon. Gentleman a want of tact or perfect temper under trying circumstances as they arose. He thought the real reason of the delay was exceedingly simple. Since he had heard of the Motion he had looked into the facts, and he thought they would supply food for reflection. He found that there had been 23 working days in this Session between November 6 and December 6, and during that time, as far as he had been able hurriedly to ascertain, five Gentlemen sitting opposite had made between them 158 speeches, at the lowest computation, and 183 at the highest. The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) himself had made 43 speeches since the House assembled on the 6th of November. He had observed that during the present Session the hon. Member frequently divided the Leadership of the majority of Gentlemen opposite with the Leaders on the Front Opposition Bench, and therefore it was not unnatural, perhaps, that he should feel called upon to address the House so frequently. He came to three hon. Members who occupied a very different position. The hon. Member for Camborne (Mr. Conybeare) had spoken 30 times, the hon. Memberfor Caithness (Dr. Clark) 36 times, and the hon. Member for Mid Cork (Dr. Tanner) 38 times. Those three hon. Members had not been a very long time in the House, and, while frankly acknowledging their perfect right to address the House on every available opportunity, yet what he wanted to point out was that if all the Members of the House, nine out of 10 of whom had quite as much right as those to whom he referred to express their opinions on every subject debated, were to take that course, it was clear that the conduct of Public Business in Parliament would become absolutely impossible. He mentioned this to show, both inside and outside the House, what was the real cause of the deadlock. The most Heaven-born Minister that ever led the House of Commons within the memory of man would be absolutely unable to manage the Business on this principle. Everyone must have observed that by far the larger part of the time of the House had been occupied by men far removed from those best qualified to give guidance or instruction to the House. He hoped the House would recognize the absolute necessity for some further reform in the Rules of the House in the direction of an individual closure. Until there was power to suppress speeches evidently made for the purpose of Obstruction, and made against the general and unmistakable sense of the House, it would be absolutely impossible to conduct the Business of the House in a satisfactory manner. He hoped hon. Members who were desirous to promote Public Business would refuse to gratify the hon. Member by following his Leadership, but would proceed at once to the Business before them.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

said, no complaint could be made of the conduct of the Leader of the House. All recognized the courtesy and tact with which he carried out his duties. Without going into the question of who was to blame for the existing state of things, he wished to protest against the great abuse of the Rules of the House under which the Government had been allowing themselves during the past few weeks to repeatedly suspend the 12 o'clock Rule. When that Rule had been passed strong powers had been given to the Government of closing protracted debates; and he thought that the Government might have used the closure more freely than they had done. Not only ought the Government to exercise the closure if they thought fit to do so, but free means of individual closure should be given to be used if any hon. Member were unduly trespassing on the time of the House. He believed that the Business of the House had been carried on better than it had during any previous Session of which he had had experience—with far less personal irritation and more business-like attention. Any gradual suspension of the 12 o'clock Rule would lead back to all the evils under which the House had before suffered.


said, that he was anxious, if possible, to bring the discussion to a close. It did not seem to him to be a method of advancing Public Business to consider at great length the existing circumstances. The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) had charged him with having broken a pledge. He was not conscious that he had done so. He would not go into a full explanation of the circumstances under which he had made the statement referred to, but the House must be perfectly well aware that there was all the difference in the world between debates as carried on upon Bills in the House and the consideration of Supply at the end of the Session under circumstances of very great pressure. He had stated to the House some days previously that the condition in which the House found itself seemed to render it necessary that he should make proposals to the House; and taking steps to inquire, he found that they were, as he thought, on the whole, satisfactory to the House. Those in the position he occupied must from time to time make a fresh departure under circumstances which were exceed- ingly difficult. Reference had been made to the danger of rushing Supply through the House, and of depriving the taxpayers of the protection they ought to have. But if the hon. Gentleman sat through the debates in the House on Supply he would find that very rarely indeed were such valuable speeches given as those from the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Henry H. Fowler) and the noble Lord behind the Treasury Bench (Lord Randolph Churchill). The speeches were generally made for the purpose of airing some grievance, and were not directed to effecting economy and advancing the Public Service. The hon. Member for the Saffron Walden Division of Essex was animated by a strong desire to respect the rights of private Members. If private Members would only be so good as to respect Public Business! An observation had been made as to the large amount of work remaining to be done; he admitted that; but how many days had they given to Supply in the course of the present year? Thirty-two days; and on an average of 12 years up to 1886, under successive Governments, 26 days were found sufficient for the purpose of considering Supply, including several very lengthened debates on Votes of Credit for large sums of public money. He only stated these facts in order that it might be realized that the time now occupied by hon. Members in discussing Supply was altogether out of proportion to that occupied in any former Parliament. It rendered necessary some reconsideration of the position which Supply should take in the Business of the year. He had been asked what course he intended to take next year. It was early to speak of that; but he thought he had stated clearly enough that the view of the Government was that new arrangements must be made with regard to Supply, so that the Civil Service Estimates should be taken at a very early period in the Session and considered without the pressure from which the House had latterly suffered. It was the intention of the Government to make proposals to the House to secure that result at the commencement of next Session. He had further been asked by an hon. Gentleman opposite what he proposed to do this year. He would reply by asking the hon. Gentleman what he himself and his Friends proposed to do—[Mr. LABOUCHERE: Our duty]—how many days they proposed to add to the 32 which they had already devoted to the consideration of Supply? It was the duty of the Government to ask the House to consider the Votes still remaining for consideration as quickly as was consistent with such due deliberation in the discharge of their obligations to the country. But he could give no forecast or promise—as he had never placed the convenience of hon. Members before the obligations due to the country—as to the time in which hon. Members might hope for a termination of the Session.


said, he was not fond of Motions for Adjournment, and he did not think he ever stood up for one in his life. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury had addressed the House in a fair and conciliatory spirit, and he hoped that the speech had deterred hon. Members from accepting the challenge of the right hon. Member for the Sleaford Division of Lincolnshire (Mr. Chaplin) to enter into acrimonious personal attack. He was justified in saying that when the right hon. Member had attacked hon. Gentlemen by name and had called upon the House to alter the Rules of the House so as to apply a personal gag. The hon. Member below the Gangway had made this Motion for Adjournment merely for the purpose of asking explanations of the Government which could not be made upon the Motion for the suspension of the 12 o'clock Rule. The hon. Member wished to come to an understanding as to how the remainder of the Session was to be disposed of. He thought it was a little imprudent of the Leader of the House to answer that appeal by addressing a question to the hon. Member as to what he was going to do. That might lead to a rather protracted discussion and rather discordant suggestions. He would not enter into any recrimination as to whom to lay the blame of the present state of Public Business; but he could not accept the blame which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Sleaford Division had attempted to cast on the Opposition side of the House. The right hon. Gentleman had spoken of a Heaven-born Minister. Perhaps they might live to see, some of these days, a Heaven- born Minister, and then they would know how the Business of the House ought to be conducted. But in the meanwhile they must do the best they could with what they had. The Government had during the past two Sessions been placed in an especially favourable position—having had nearly all the time of the House. Nor could they say that their two great measures of the present Session—the Local Government Bill and the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Conversion Scheme—had been met with any factious opposition. The Estimates had not this Session been in any degree unduly discussed. Important questions had been raised with regard to the Naval and Military Estimates, but the discussions had not been carried on in any factious spirit, or exclusively from the Opposition side of the House. Certain of the supporters of the Government had very properly taken part in these discussions on military and naval subjects. As to the Irish Estimates, he could not say that he had found any Vote discussed at excessive length. It ought to be borne in mind that Ireland was being governed under an exceptional law, and the conduct of the Executive must therefore naturally be largely discussed. This was a sound principle which the Government could not deny. A few days ago, in a moment of frankness, the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury pointed to a remedy when he spoke of there being "several Parliaments instead of one." He could not agree with the suggestions of the right hon. Member for the Sleaford Division, who seemed to think that not only should the Government alone introduce legislation, but that only Members on the Treasury Bench should address the House. Nor could he agree with his hon. Friend's (Mr. S. Buxton) views as to the more frequent use of the closure. The fact was that if the Government took for themselves the whole time of the House, and deprived private Members of those opportunities which, under ordinary circumstances, they possessed of bringing matters in which they were interested before the House, the discussions on the Estimates must necessarily be prolonged, for these Estimates and Motions for Adjournment afforded them the only opportunities of laying their views before the House. The Government was there not only for purposes of legislation and administration, but to look into grievances. A good deal of value lay in the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman that the Estimates should be taken earlier in the Session. With regard to the 12 o'clock Rule, he did not desire to make any charge against the First Lord of the Treasury; he was sure he had not intended to break any promise he had made, but if he made a Motion for the general suspension of the Rule this would afford an opportunity for discussion, whereas these daily Motions for its suspension did not. Therefore it was that his hon. Friend had made this Motion for the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of eliciting explanations from Her Majesty's Government. Having attained his object he hoped his hon. Friend would withdraw the Motion, so that the House might, without further delay, proceed with its regular Business.

DR. CLARK (Caithness)

said, that as the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Chaplin) had called attention to him, he wished to explain that, having found from the Estimate that Scottish officials were only paid one-half the rates paid to English officials, and that in Scotland the localities paid for many things which in England were largely paid out of the Imperial Funds, he desired to bring this injustice to Scotland before the House and country. As he could not do so in the ordinary way, the Government having taken all the nights possible for discussion of such matters, he had been compelled to raise these matters on the Estimates, and would very likely have to do so again.


said, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Sir William Harcourt) would not suppose he was slighting his advice—in the spirit of which he entirely concurred—if he made a few observations on one portion of this subject which had not been discussed before. Whatever opinions might be formed as to the state of Business generally in the House, it must be agreed that the state of Scotch Business in particular was, in the highest degree, scandalous and deplorable. He would not speak of that monstrous, but now, happily, dead Bill which the right hon. Gentleman tried to induce them to discuss in the few half-hours of a Wednesday afternoon in the summer; but he would call attention to the fact that there was on the Order Book for that very night the most important measure which had been proposed for Scotland since the Government came into Office—the Universities (Scotland) Bill—and Members were brought down there on the possibility that that measure might be brought forward, without knowing in the least whether it was the intention of the Government or not to press that Bill. It was an insult to the Scotch Members that the Government, having wasted the whole of the summer without giving them the slightest opportunity of discussing Scotch Business, should call upon them at the eleventh hour to deal with a measure of this great importance. He had another grievance with regard to the position of the Scotch Estimates. It added a serious injury to the insults Scotch Members had already suffered that they should postpone the Scotch Estimates to the very last hours of the Session. Surely Ireland had had sufficient precedence to have entitled the Scotch Members, at all events, to have had their Estimates taken before the Irish. He held in his hand a copy of Her Majesty's Gracious Speech from the Throne with which this Session—


The hon. and learned Gentleman is deviating from the strict limit of the matter of urgent importance.


said, what he wanted to point out was that the Government could not be relieved from the charge of having contributed to the present position by their vacillation; because of all the long list of measures which they stated they were going to ask the House to deal with this year hardly one had been proceeded with. Of the three measures over which the time of the Session had been mostly wasted, only one was alluded to in the Queen's Speech, and that only faintly. Bearing that fact in mind, and also remembering that the Scotch Members had not received anything like fair treatment from the Government—their interests being unjustly postponed to every other interest in the Empire—he would have no hesitation in voting for the Motion.

MR. MARJORIBANKS (Berwickshire)

said, he desired to add a few words to insist upon and underline the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Dundee. There had been no atten- tion whatever paid to Scottish Members, Scottish interests, or Scottish measures during the past Session, and during the remnant of the Session they got nothing from the Government but a joke from the Leader of the House that somebody must take the last place, and so, forsooth, the Scottish Members were to do so. [Mr. W. H. SMITH: That is most unfair.] The right hon. Gentleman had spoken more than once of having regard to what he called the wishes of the Scotch Members. He (Mr. Marjoribanks) would like to know from whom the right hon. Gentleman had got any expression of opinion as coming from Scotch Members? He, at any rate, as one of the Seotch Members, had not been consulted by any Member of the Government. If the wishes of the Scotch Members had been gathered from the hon. Member for Wigtonshire (Sir Herbert Maxwell) and the hon. Member for the St. Andrew's Burghs (Mr. Anstruther), they no more represented the majority of the Scotch Members than their Party represented the opinion of the majority in Scotland. He knew that the Scotch were considered to be patient people, but there was a limit to all patience, and even the worm would turn. The Scotch people would not consider speeches such as those of the Prime Minister at Edinburgh, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer when in Scotland, as a sufficient set-off for the entire neglect of Scotch Business in Parliament. He thought they were entitled to have some day fixed for the Scotch Estimates, and the least they could expect was that some Member of the Government would say that an early day next week would be given for the discussion of the Scotch Estimates. They were also entitled to have a definite expression of opinion from the Government as to what they intended to do with the Scotch Universities Bill. It was all very well to say that the Bill would be taken pari passu with the Appropriation Bill when it seemed likely that the Appropriation Bill would be proceeded with during the last week of December, but if the Appropriation Bill was to be taken in Christmas week it was rather hard to expect the Scotch Members to remain to discuss the Universities Bill then. Though they did not offer any opposition to the main principle of the Bill, there were questions of considerable importance raised by which it could not be expected hon. Members would begin to discuss at that period of the year.


said, he could only speak by the indulgence of the House, but he would to-morrow name an early day next week for the consideration of the Scotch Estimates, and he would also make the intentions of the Government known with regard to the Scotch University Bill. He hoped the House would not unnecessarily prolong the discussion.


said, that as his Motion had secured the object he had in view he would ask leave to withdraw it.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.