HC Deb 28 February 1888 vol 322 cc1705-12
THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH), (Strand, Westminster)

in rising to move the next Rule, said, he thought the experience of last Session and of previous Sessions showed that the proposed Rule was necessary, for much obstruction had been caused by hon. Members repeating over and over again the precise words and arguments of "the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down." It was for the House itself to consider whether some check ought not, for its own credit and honour, to be put on this practice, which involved considerable delay to Public Business. The chairmen of all public meetings and the Presidents of every great Assembly had similar power to that contained in this Rule, and the House of Commons was the only great Assembly in the world whose Speaker or Chairman of Committees did not possess that power. He proposed the Rule in order that the House of Commons might no longer be an exception to the ordinary practice.

Motion made, and Question proposed; That Mr. Speaker or the Chairman, after having called the attention of the House or of the Committee to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition either of his own arguments, or of the arguments used by other Members in Debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech."—(Mr. William Henry Smith.)

MR. JOHN MORLEY (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

said, he thought the House could scarcely view with composure and self-control the extraordinary introduction of the First Lord of the Treasury to these words. It was perfectly certain that all Members, even those sitting on the Front Benches, constantly repeated, and even tediously repeated, the arguments used by their Colleagues. he could not suppose that the right hon. Gentleman really meant to take away the power of repeating an argument. No doubt, it was right and proper to prohibit a Member from repeating himself over and over again; but it seemed that the Rule, as at present worded, opened the way to an abuse of the power of the majority and of the power of the Chair. It was necessary, for the purpose of debate, for a Member to have power to repeat arguments used by others, as well as his own, even to the point of tedium; therefore he hoped that the Government would not press for the insertion of these words. If they did, he should certainly vote against them.

MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)

said, he hoped the House would not consider him guilty of great presumption if he asked them to consider the Amendment which stood in his name, and which was really an alternative to the Rule proposed by the right hon. Gentleman. He might be asked why he wished to substitute that Amendment for the Rule which stood on the Paper in the name of the right hon. Gentleman? He wished to do so for two reasons—first, because the Rule proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, with the exception of the addition at the end, was the same as the existing Rule, which was never really effective; and, in the second place, because his Amend- ment would relieve the Speaker or the Chairman of Committees of what must be considered, under any circumstances of the case, a very painful and disagreeable duty. He said the Rule had been ineffective in the past, and that was undoubtedly the case, because it must be in the memory of everyone that, except on two or three occasions, it had been inoperative altogether. This was one of the points in their Procedure which required more amendment than anything else, and with regard to which, whilst they were dealing with the Rules of Procedure, they should pass something which would be absolutely effective in the future. The House would agree with him that it would be greatly to be regretted if the relations between the Speaker and the Members of the House became relations of a penal character more than could be helped. It was to the Speaker, and to his counsel and advice, that every one of them, no matter in what quarter he might sit, always resorted when he felt himself in a difficulty of any sort; and he was certain Mr. Speaker was the last person in the world who would wish, by any duty imposed upon him, to see that courteous and kindly feeling which he had always shown towards hon. Members infringed or endangered by any Rule of the House. What was the evil hon. Members complained of? Everyone who sat in the House during the past two or three Sessions must know perfectly what it was. Over and over again, they had heard Members—he would not say in what particular part of the House— get up and, for one reason or other, spend hours and hours repeating the same thing, in almost the very same words, which had been used before by other Members, boring the House to such a degree that it became painful to sit on those Benches and witness the waste of time which went on. Everyone knew that state of things, and recognized it as an evil; and he was quite sure everyone was desirous to pass a Rule which would effectually deal with it in the future. He maintained that the Rule they had had in the past had failed to put a stop to this sort of thing, and it seemed to him that the Rule now proposed, even with the addition suggested, would be of no more use than the Rule already existing. He, therefore, asked the House, with the greatest deference and respect, to consider the Amendment which he would now venture to move. If his proposal were acceptable to the House, he should move an Amendment to it, to provide that the Speaker, before putting the Rule in motion to silence a Member, should caution him. They had seen, over and over again, in that House what little attention Members paid to cautions of this kind; but if in the future no attention was paid to a caution, Mr. Speaker would immediately proceed to inform the House that a Member had been guilty of this offence, and, the House having been informed of what had taken place, any Member could at once rise in his place and claim to move that the hon. Member addressing the House be no longer heard. That would simply be reviving a very old practice in the House which had been disused now for many years. The object of his Amendment was to give the House itself some real control over speeches which were of a tedious and irrelevant character, and which were made for the purpose of wasting, the time of the House and arresting the progress of Public Business. He would point out that no abuse of the Rule would be possible under any circumstances, for the reason that it could only operate after the intervention of Mr. Speaker. Its effect would be, in his opinion, to compel immediate attention on all occasions to the cautions addressed to hon. Members from the Chair —cautions which, in the past, as he had said, had been disregarded in a manner which had caused them all to regret the change which had taken place in the House of Commons during the past few years. He certainly believed that if his proposal were thought worthy of the serious consideration of the House it would go a long way towards meeting the evil which was universally acknowledged. The House would observe that he had made it obligatory on the Speaker formally to inform the House of this misconduct on the part of a particular Member; but, so far as he himself was concerned, he should be perfectly satisfied if the Rule provided that, upon Mr. Speaker having been compelled to caution a Member for the second time, it should be competent for any hon. Member to move that he be no longer heard. He had no desire to press the Amendment on the House in the form, in which it now stood, if it were objectionable to the House; but, inasmuch as the Rule at present in force had been of no use, he had framed this Amendment, which he thought would have the desired effect, and he now ventured to leave it in the hands of the House.

Amendment proposed, In line 1, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "if it shall appear to Mr. Speaker, or the Chairman of Committees, that a Member is addressing the House with continued irrelevance, or tedious repetition, or that he is unduly and unnecessarily prolonging Debate and arresting the Progress of Public Business, Mr. Speaker, or the Chairman of Committees, may so inform the House or the Committee. Thereupon any Member, rising in his place, may claim to move, That the Member in possession of the House be no longer heard. Such Motion shall be put forthwith without Amendment or Debate, unless the Member in possession of the House elects to discontinue his speech, in which case he may so inform the Speaker, or Chairman of Committees, and the Question shall not be put. A Member who is put to silence under this Rule by order of the House or the Committee is thereby prevented, on the first occasion, from taking part in any Debate during the remainder of that sitting; on the second occasion during a week; and on the third, or any subsequent occasion, during a month from the time when such order of the House, or of the Committee, has been made." —(Mr. Chaplin.)

Question proposed, That the words 'That Mr. Speaker or the Chairman, after having called the attention of the House or of the Committee to the conduc of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition,' stand part of the Question.


said, he did not agree with the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Chaplin) that the existing Rule had not worked well On the contrary, he had never seen it disputed. No Speaker or Chairman would interfere, unless it were obvious that the irrelevancy or tedious repetition of a Member was indulged in for the pure purpose of obstruction. When Mr. Speaker had interfered the whole House agreed with him, and the ruling had been effective. The object of the Amendment was to stop the mouth of a Member for a week or a month, according to the irrelevancy he had shown. Where had the right hon. Member got precedent for such a proposal? The only one he knew was the practice of Kirk Sessions in Scotland, in ancient times. Such a record as—" Betty Macdonald's mouth was this day closit;" and a month afterwards—" Betty Macdonald's mouth was this day open it "—seemed to be the same process which the right hon. Gentleman wished to introduce into the Procedure of the House. The present Rule respecting irrelevancy was quite clear, and had been used effectively; whereas the addition proposed by the right hon. Member would be almost impossible of application.


said, he must point out that the Rule under discussion was entirely directed against a Member who persisted in irrelevance or tedious repetition. It had been wrongly assumed that Mr. Speaker would call to Order Members who were simply repeating arguments which had been advanced by previous speakers; but the fact was that the Rule was aimed at a totally different practice—namely, that of the constant repetition of the same arguments over and over again by Members sitting on the same side of the House, after the substance of the argument had been exhausted. That was a matter which was submitted to the discretion of Mr. Speaker, who would observe not only whether hon. Members were irrelevant or tedious, but whether, after his having called their attention to the point, they persisted in being irrelevant or tedious. He considered that his right hon. Friend (Mr. Chaplin) proposed to go rather too far, and impose a penalty which was rather disproportionate to the offence.


said, he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. John Morley) that it was impossible to avoid repetitions in the course of debate. He objected to its being made a crime to do such a thing. In some cases he could not conceive it possible for a Member to speak after a debate had been opened and replied to without repeating the arguments already used on one side or the other.


said, it seemed to be overlooked that the Rule was to be enforced by the Speaker or the Chairman. There would be no interference with the eloquence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. John Morley), who would never repeat the arguments of his Colleagues, but what was aimed at was the prevention of such tedious debates as took place in 1881, when the House sat for 44 hours without intermission. If the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Leeds (Sir Lyon Playfair) were in his place he would agree—for he was Chairman of Committees at the time—that in 1881 Members rose one after another and repeated the same arguments hour after hour and night after night. It was against such a condition of things that this Rule was framed.

MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)

said, there was one point which seemed to have escaped notice. It had been assumed that the Question would be put from the Chair without debate, and that it would be at once agreed to. But, supposing the House thought that the punishment was being inflicted for a comparatively slight offence, it was conceivable that the House would not agree to the Resolution that the Member be not heard. In that case the position of the Chair would not be at all satisfactory, for the Chair would not be supported by the House. Such an event would be most damaging to the position of the Speaker or the Chairman. The proposal of the Government was more easily manageable than that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Sleaford Division of Lincolnshire, and therefore was the preferable of the two.

Question put, and agreed to.

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

moved, as an Amendment, the omission of the word "either" in line 3 of the proposed Rule. If the House were with him in regard to this omission he should move to omit the words "or of the arguments used by other Members in debate." The Rule would then be perfectly effective, because it would read— The conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition of his own arguments. If a Member were tedious in the repetition of his own arguments he would bring himself within the scope of the Rule. If the Rule remained unaltered and an intricate argument had been addressed to the House by one Gentleman, the Gentleman who replied might very easily bring himself within the scope of the Rule. Such a contingency ought to be avoided if possible.

Amendment proposed, in line 3, to leave out the word "either."—(Mr. Bradlaugh.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'either' stand part of the Question."


said, he was afraid he would be obliged to oppose the Amendment of the hon. Gentleman. It appeared to him that it was practically certain that the discretion which was vested in the Chair would not be abused. No one would accuse the hon. Member of irrelevance, or of tedious repetition of his own arguments or of the arguments of others; but hon. Members who had attended the House constantly for some years past must be aware that there had been occasions when speech after speech had been made which consisted of nothing else but irrelevance, and of tedious repetitions of arguments which had been used previously. He understood quite well the objection of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. John Morley), but it must be remembered that everything depended upon the judgment with which the Rule was exercised; and unless the Speaker or Chairman of Committees were capable of exercising the discretion vested in them wisely, they were scarcely fitted for the responsible offices they held in the House.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 170; Noes 94: Majority 76.—(Div. List, No. 21.)

Main Question put.

Resolved, That Mr. Speaker or the Chairman, after having called the attention of the House or of the Committee to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition either of his own arguments, or of the arguments used by other Members in Debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech.