HC Deb 29 February 1888 vol 322 cc1774-87
THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH), (Strand, Westminster)

in rising to propose the following Rule on the Paper, said, it was a proposal which had very frequently been before the House in one shape or another, and its object was to give to hon. Members who had been fortunate enough to bring forward measures and to obtain the approval of the House for the principle of their Bills an opportunity of proceeding with them. It was, however, a question rather for the House than for the Government to decide. The Government had felt themselves, called upon to submit this proposal to the House with a view of assisting private Members.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That after Whitsuntide, Public Bills other than Government Bills be arranged on the Order Book so as to give priority to the Bills most advanced, and that Lords Amendments to Public Bills appointed to be considered, be placed first, to be followed by Third Readings, Considerations of Report, Bills in Progress in Committee, Bills appointed for Committee, and Second Readings."—(Mr. W.H. Smith.)

MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.),

in rising to move an Amendment, said, that he had put it upon the Paper in compliance with an intimation conveyed to him by the right hon. Gentlemen the First Lord of the Treasury and the Postmaster General, when he brought the question of private Members' Bills before the House on Friday last. Since then the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House had given assurances that the Government were alive to the inconvenience private Members now suffered, and would suffer under the new Rules, and were willing to give them better facilities than they now possessed. It could not be denied that at the present moment the opportunities, which private Members had of for warding legislation, were extremely scant. Under the system of balloting the chance of a private Member of getting a Bill, however important, before the House for the second reading was very slight indeed. That had not been always so. Twenty years ago, before the half-past 12 o'clock Rule came in force many measures were passed by private Members, and hon. Members would be surprised to find how many valuable measures for the improvement of the law, and in promotion of social and philanthropic reforms, had been carried by private Members. That had now become impossible, and the House were driven to consider in what way they could restore to private Members the opportunities they formerly had. This year there had been brought in something like 200 Bills; but there were probably not more than 30 or 40 in which any considerable number of Members would take an interest. The greater proportion of these measures related to trivial matters, and would have very small support in their favour. Why, then, should the time of the House be taken up in discussing them? On the other hand, there were useful and much-needed Bills which many Members cared for, and yet which, because they were unlucky in the balloting at the beginning of the Session, never came on for second reading at all. For instance, a Bill for the Amendment of the Commons and Inclosure Acts had been brought into the House in six Sessions between 1880 to 1887, and having always failed to secure a good place in the ballot, had never come on for second reading, nor even been discussed. He was confident that if that Bill once came before the House and was read a second time, and sent to a Select Committee, the Com- mittee would be able to go through it fairly, making such improvements as were needed, and the Bill would be passed, to the great benefit of the agricultural population and of all who valued common lands and opportunities of healthful recreation. That was only one of the instances he might mention to the House of the evils they now suffered, and of the evils suffered by the community at large, from the practical stoppage of private Members' legislation. Then what was the remedy they ought to apply? He believed it would be found in getting rid of the system of balloting, and by proceeding only with those Bills in which the largest number of Members were interested. In the first place, it would be necessary for the House to exercise its will and choice by taking to itself the disposal of its own time and saying what Bill should be discussed and what not, instead of leaving the matter to the blind chance of the ballot-box. He would explain the way in which the Amendment proposed to deal with the matter. The Amendment itself was not inconsistent with the Rule of the Government. On the contrary, it was intended to supplement and carry out the principle by which the Treasury Bench was animated in proposing their Rule. Last Friday he had pointed out three methods by which the House might make better provision for useful application of the time allotted to private Members, and he had since found that there was a strong preponderance of opinion in favour of the particular method indicated in the Amendment—namely, that at the beginning of every Session an opportunity should be given to Members of indicating their preference for certain Bills. He proposed that after the meeting of the House three days should be allowed to hon. Members for bringing in their Bills. That was really the present practice. At present most of the private Members' Bills were brought in on the second day of the Session, and almost all of them within the first three days. He then proposed that the Bills thus brought in should be exhibited, and that every Member should have an opportunity of appending his name to the three Bills he was most interested in. At the end of the three days, the Clerk would take possession of these lists, and ascertain, by going through them, which Bills had received the largest amount of support, and in that way their precedence would be determined. If it were found that an equal number of names were appended to two or more Bills, in that case the precedence might be determined by ballot, but the clerks should go through them, arrange the Bills in their order, and put them down for second reading, placing first those Bills to which the largest number of signatures were attached. That list would be made up once for all down to Whitsuntide, and after Whitsuntide the provisions of the new Rule proposed by the Government would come into operation. If a Bill were not taken on the Wednesday for which it was set down it would be placed at the top of the list for the next Wednesday, and there would be no longer any motive for trying to talk out a Bill on a Wednesday, or endeavouring to talk on one Bill, in order to prevent another from coming on. That inconvenience would be obviated; because if a Bill were not reached one day, it would retain its place on the Order Book. Bills brought in after the first three days of the Session could be put down for second reading on a Tuesday, or any other evening, just as they were now. They would be no worse off than at present, because by the present practice all the available Wednesdays were taken up now on the first day of the Session. Next came the question—What number of Bills should hon. Members be allowed to subscribe their names to? It had been pointed out that if Members were allowed to subscribe to all Bills it would be in the power of the majority to get all their own Bills put down, while the minority would have no chance. Therefore, in order to protect the rights of minorities, it would be necessary to limit the number of Bills to which each Member could subscribe. It was for the House to consider whether a Member should only subscribe to one Bill or two or three; but some limitation of that kind was necessary, because it was desirable that all Bills should get a fair chance in that House in proportion to the number of Members who supported them. It would always be in the power of any group of Members representing a particular part of the country, or coming from Ireland or Scotland, to secure consideration for a certain number of measures, and they would be able with perfect certainty to rely upon a certain number of their Bills being taken. The process would be exactly the same as if some impartial authority were appointed to go through the Order Book in order to consider the character of the different measures standing for a second reading, and put them down for discussion according to their importance. He foresaw an objection, which would be taken to this plan, and he would endeavour to meet that objection. It was said that it would lead to lobbying and soliciting Members to subscribe their names to particular Bills; but even if that should be so he could see no harm in it. It was a perfectly legitimate thing to ask a Member to aid in bringing on a particular measure, and every Member who did it would be acting under a sense of responsibility. Every Member who had recourse to that method would exercise his right in a perfectly open way, and would indicate that he was promoting a Bill in which he was much interested, and which he thought the House ought to have a fair chance of debating. The objection to lobbying was that it was private, and done for personal and possibly unworthy motives. Here a Member's action would be open, and his grounds of action public grounds, just like his vote in the House, for which he would be held responsible. It did not follow that if a Member subscribed his name to a Bill, he would be prepared to vote for it. His signature would only indicate that he thought it was a question that ought to come before the House for discussion. The plan also would have this incidental advantage—it would be a means of conveying to the Government in a distinct way the amount of interest which the Bills introduced respectively excited among Members, and therefore among their constituents. If they saw appended to a Bill some 40 or 50 signatures, they would know that it was a Bill which had general support, and that a considerable number of Members took a serious interest in a particular question. A Bill signed by that number would be sure of coming up for its second reading, being debated and divided on before Whitsuntide. They would, by that means, get rid of the difficulty, which now arose, of having measures brought on for second reading, which nobody cared anything about, and precious time wasted which ought to be applied to really important Bills in which the interests of the people were involved. The time of the House was its capital: this capital was now (so far as private Members' Bills went) practically squandered, since it was allotted with little or no regard to the relative importance of the topics debated.

Amendment proposed,

In line 1, after the word "That," to insert the words "all Public Bills (other than Government Bills) introduced on or before the first Monday of the Session shall be set down in the Order Book for Second Reading in a list to be called 'The Second Reading List for Wednesdays up to Whitsuntide,' in an order to be determined by the number of signatures which shall have been subscribed to each such Bill at the close of the Sitting on the following Tuesday, each Member being entitled to subscribe his own name to three such Bills and no more; those Bills which have received most signatures being placed first, and the priority in the case of Bills which have received an equal number of signatures, being determined by lot, in a manner to be prescribed by Mr. Speaker; and that."—(Mr. Bryce.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."

MR. HOWORTH (Salford, S.)

said, there was a tacit understanding in the House that only one paper should be put into the ballot box as a balloting paper for any particular Motion; but it had long been the case, owing to concert, of those interested in particular measures that a large number of those papers found their way into the box, and consequently those who had not a large number of friends to act with them in concert found themselves in a very unsatisfactory position. They wanted, if possible, to manage the system so that Bills of a frivolous character which were not likely to receive support, but to waste the time of the House, should be put aside in favour of Bills which were likely to reach a fruitful termination in legislation. The only objection which he saw to the proposal of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Bryce) was that hon. Members might possibly be urged very inconveniently to support what other hon. Members had in charge; and that it might bring into that House methods which were found in other Legislative Assemblies to be very unpopular. But, under the proposed arrangement, they would have the advantage of their Business being arranged in such a way that Bills in which a large number of hon. Members were interested would have some chance of passing into law, and he said that the enormous advantage of that would counter-balance the inconvenience he had referred to. He would like to see an arrangement made which would limit the power of blocking Bills, which had led largely to the curtailment of the rights of private Members. The reason for the Rule had now disappeared since Opposed Business could not be taken after 12 o'clock, and facilities might well be given to private Members to push their measures between that hour and the adjournment of the House. For these reasons he had the greatest pleasure in supporting the Amendment before the House.


said, he had listened attentively to a considerable portion of the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced this proposal (Mr. Bryce), and he thought that, notwithstanding the clearness with which the case had been placed before the House, the hon. and learned Member had failed to show that his proposal had any attraction whatever for minorities. The only result of the Amendment would be to give the majority greater powers than they already possessed for advancing their measures. Undoubtedly, measures in favour with many of those composing the majority were brought forward by the Government, and put forward in Government time; but if the Amendment were agreed to, the very small facilities, which private Members now possessed, would be handed over to the majority. He had always understood that the allocation of certain days in the week was for the purpose of enabling the minority to bring forward their questions and have them discussed, and that facility which the minority had would, if the proposal of the hon. Member were adopted, be entirely lost. He was, therefore, entirely opposed to the suggestion of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and he hoped the Government would not allow themselves to be over-persuaded to accept it. If all the suggestions and additions that might come from private Members with regard to these Rules were to be considered, he feared it would be long after Easter that they would be passed. He thought the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House had met them very fairly with regard to modifications of Rule 9; and that they ought not, as private Members, to press upon him their own particular "fads" and ideas. For the reason just given, he trusted that the Government would not give in to these large suggestions, but confine themselves to those which were on the Paper, so as to bring the discussion of the Rules to an early close.


said, the speech of the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Parnell)—who was distinguished for his knowledge of the forms of Business and the clearness of his reasoning—appeared to him to be permeated by a fallacy. He was quite unable to understand how the hon. Member reconciled the beginning with the end of his speech. The object of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Aberdeen (Mr. Bryce) was to secure to every section of the House the rights to which its numbers entitled it. He dissented, however, from one small item in his hon. and learned Friend's proposal, which was that one Member should have the right to subscribe his name to three Bills; and he thought it would be better to limit the number to one. There would, no doubt, be a good deal of application to hon. Members to support this or that measure; and it would be a considerable defence for a Member to be able to say that he could only subscribe to one. By adopting the Amendment the House would get rid of chance in the arrangement of Business for Wednesdays, and would secure the power of putting forward Bills, which the majority desired to see progress. If such an arrangement were not adopted now, he ventured to think that the time would come when something of the kind would be found to be absolutely necessary. The effect of the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House would be that all Wednesdays after Whitsuntide would be appropriated to the Bills which had already secured places, and it was only the Wednesdays before Whitsuntide that would be really open to private Members. It was surely not desirable that such a Bill as, say, the Pure Beer Bill, should secure precedence, and that such Bills as affected the relations of landlord and tenant, the Poor Law Guardians, and the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill, which interested a large section in and outside the House, should have no chance whatever. He felt that the mere mention of those Bills, and the fact that they would under his hon. Friend's proposal have some chance, would provoke some hon. Members against a measure which would bring them, perhaps, to a successful issue. He was not sanguine that his hon. and learned Friend's proposal would be adopted now; but he believed the more closely it was examined the less terrible would its effects be seen to be to the hon. Member for Cork. By this proposal all measures connected with social order, and others, would get their proper share of the attention of the House. The plan would give an advantage to any section of the House which numbered as many as 40 Members, and sections smaller than that might at least be reminded that they had little chance now of securing a good place for a Bill in which they were interested. If this principle were adopted, he should suggest that something should be done to secure to a small section in its turn a complete interest in this machinery, so that it should have its full share in private legislation. As he had said, he could not think the Amendment would be adopted now, nor could he flatter himself that he had been able to make it perfectly intelligible to the House; but when the subject had been fully thought out, as it required to be, he felt that the advantages of the proposal of his hon. and learned Friend would be recognized.


said, the hon. Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall (Mr. Courtney) had commenced his remarks by saying that the speech of the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Parnell) was permeated by a fallacy, and that he could not understand that hon. Member's meaning. He (Lord Randolph Churchill) traversed that statement entirely, and said that the argument of the hon. Member for Cork was as keen as it always as. But he would point out that the speech of the hon. Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall was pervaded by the fundamental fallacy of applying mathematics and logic to the proceedings of the House of Commons. He wondered that the hon. Gentleman, with all his experience, did not perceive that the defect of the scheme of the Amendment was that it must be worked by Whips. The beauty of the ballot was that it was absolutely protected from anything like Party machinery. He thought the hon. Gentleman had made a great error in saying that the ballot could at the present time be influenced by chance according to the numerical strength of Parties. But that was not so; for a Bill promoted by one Member had just as great a chance of getting a day as if it were supported by 100. It was against the etiquette of the House for more than one Member to ballot for the same Bill. He could not say what tricks were resorted to by the Party opposite; but he did know with regard to the Conservative Party, and to some extent the Party of Ireland in 1885, that there was a considerable amount of scruple in transgressing what would be an honourable interpretation of the spirit of the Rules of the House. But undoubtedly the ballot was impregnable as against Party organization, and under it every Member had a real chance; whereas under the Amendment the 315 Members of the Conservative Party would easily determine the precedence of the Bills in the order of their own preferences. [Mr. COURTNEY dissented.] The hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees shook his head; but the House of Commons consisted of human beings, and was not a mathematical machine. If this Amendment were adopted Members would substitute for the English practice of lobbying the practice in America, which was called logging. For these reasons he greatly preferred the Rule of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury. It would be dangerous, without the rough examination, to adopt the plausible and, what appeared to him, to be the illogical suggestion of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite, which would undoubtedly operate unjustly against the chance of minorities in that House.


said, this was really a question whether the House was prepared to sacrifice its Wednesdays, leaving them to chance, or whether they should be devoted to Private Bills, which were considered to be most worthy of occupying the attention of the House. He would remind the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington that the Amendment was an addition to, and not a substitution for, the Rule, and he would like the noble Lord to show how the Amendment could be used so as to prevent the hon. Member for Cork securing every Wednesday. He hardly expected the Amendment to be accepted; but still he thought it aimed at an object worthy of consideration—namely, the use of Wednesdays more profitably for the country, and more satisfactorily for Members of the House.

THE POSTMASTER GENERAL (Mr. RAIKES) (Cambridge University)

said, he was glad that the hon. and learned Member for South Aberdeen (Mr. Bryce) had accepted the challenge that was made to him the other evening to propound a scheme for carrying out the suggestion he made in his speech. The scheme was ingenious; but he hardly thought, with such discussion as could be given to it at this time, it was likely to be accepted at present. He (Mr. Raikes) did not ask the House to decide upon the principle of this Amendment, but its details were such as he did not think the House should agree to. The means whereby the hon. and learned Member proposed to carry out his object appeared to be defective, and required a great deal more consideration. The proposal of the hon. and learned Member was that each Member should have three votes on this matter. Suppose that the Conservative Party of 300 Members divided itself into three bodies of 100 Members each, and that each Member voted for three Bills, there would then be nine Bills with 100 Members supporting each of their claims to precedence. Those nine Bills, at any rate, would secure precedence over any Bill which obtained even the unanimous support of the Party led by the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Parnell), consisting of only 85 Members. If the official Opposition of 200 Members similarly divided itself into two bodies of 100 Members each, they would secure six Bills with 100 votes each in favour of their precedence. Thus there would be 15 Bills with priority over any Bills supported by the whole Irish Party opposite. The Scotch Members opposite would fare still worse, for they only numbered 45. The effect, therefore, of the proposed Rule would be to give the Government of the day and the regular Opposition the absolute control of all the Wednesdays of the Session, and enable them to decide what Bills should be taken on Wednesdays. The Rule would prove destructive to the rights of minorities. It would prevent new questions being brought forward, for the assistance of the Whips would be confined to old stock measures, which had secured the support of each Party. The hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees had suggested an alteration of the hon. and learned Member for South Aberdeen's proposed Rule by limiting each Member to one vote. But this would not remove the objections to the vote. It would lead to practices very similar to the scandalous proceedings at a charity election, where the supporters of one candidate came down and obtained votes in return for promises of their own votes at subsequent or other elections. It would lead to the system of purchase and exchange of votes, and a Member when asked to put his name down in support of a Bill would ask for the promise of a vote in return for some other Bill in which he himself was interested. There were certain political clubs, the election to which was conducted in the following manner. There were, say, 36 members of the committee, and a candidate to succeed must obtain 24 votes. All the members of the committee could vote whether present or not, and those who were present gave their proxies to the managers of the party. The consequence was that frequently, if all the members present were to vote for a candidate, he would not get in unless he received the support of the managers of the Party. Similarly, if this Rule were to be adopted, a private Member's Bill would probably not get the requisite number of votes to secure a Wednesday unless it obtained the support of the Government Whip or of the Opposition Whip, and independent Members would be at a very great disadvantage. The hon. and learned Member for South Aberdeen had raised a very important point, and he hoped he would be satisfied with the platonic support that his proposal had met with from the Chairman of Ways and Means. The subject was one that deserved further consideration, and it could well wait till next Session. Neither the proposal of the hon. and learned Member in its original form nor as altered by the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means could be accepted by the Government, and he hoped the hon. and learned Member for South Aberdeen would withdraw it.

MR. CHILDERS (Edinburgh, S.)

said, the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General had described the arrangement proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for South Aberdeen (Mr. Bryce) as unnatural and accidental; but he (Mr. Childers) should say that if there was anything unnatural and accidental in the matter it was the present system of the ballot, on the chance of which measures of the utmost importance now depended. The proposal of his hon. and learned Friend was an attempt to see whether the present waste of public time could not in some way be avoided. The noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord Randolph Churchill) had referred to the practice of foreign Assemblies, more especially to those of France and Germany. He (Mr. Childers) had sat in the Assemblies in Paris and elsewhere abroad for days together watching the debates, and on one occasion a very distinguished friend had asked him how it was that the custom existed in the English Parliament of leaving the consideration of matters of the greatest importance to chance. The question was a difficult one to answer; and he was obliged to reply that we were very Conservative in our forms of procedure, and that there were practical difficulties in the way. There could, he thought, be no doubt that as between our way of legislation and that of foreign countries the practical advantage lay entirely with the latter. There were, no doubt, difficulties in the way of the acceptance of his hon. and learned Friend's proposal, and he should himself prefer that Members should only subscribe to one Bill in the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees (Mr. Courtney), because he thought that would be fairer to minorities in the House. That this question should remain untouched, and that several Wednesdays should be practically wasted, was what he was convinced the House would not long tolerate. Therefore, while he hoped his hon. and learned Friend would be satisfied with the discussion that had been raised, he trusted, on the other hand, that the Government would give their attention to this question during the course of the Session.


said, he was encouraged by the discussion which had taken place, and that not only on account of the support his Amendment had received from high authorities in the House, but because of the suggestions made in the course of the discussion which were germane to the question. The objections to his proposals seemed to be founded almost entirely on a misconception of its nature and probable operation, and he thought it probable that if the proposal were fully considered by the House, either in its present or in an altered form, it would be hereafter accepted. He did not wish to put the House to the trouble of dividing, but he pressed on the Government the necessity of taking the matter into consideration, and, if possible, of making some proposal regarding it before the close of the present Session.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put.

Resolved, That after Whitsuntide, Public Bills other than Government Bills he arranged on the Order Book so as to give priority to the Bills most advanced, and that Lords Amendments to Public Bills appointed to be considered, be placed first, to be followed by Third Readings, Considerations of Report, Bills in Progress in Committee, Bills appointed for Committee, and Second Readings.