HC Deb 16 March 1891 vol 351 cc1074-87
*(4.30.) MR. W. H. SMITH

In rising to move the Resolution which stands in my name on the Paper, I may say I have heard that great objection has been raised to the Motion. But may I point out that the Parliamentary Session has already extended five weeks longer than is usual at this period of the year? The Motion is necessary in regard to Public Business, and is, therefore, made in the interests of the House and for the convenience of hon. Members, so as to enable the Government to prorogue Parliament many weeks earlier than usual—in July, in fact. Morning Sittings in April are, I may remind hon. Members, not unusual. There were three Morning Sittings in April, 1889; seven in May of the same year; four in April, 1890; and seven in May of that year. I am asking the House to give the Government seven Morning Sittings in the month of April, and this, I think, the circumstances of the case fully justify. The Government propose to proceed with the Irish Land Purchase Bill as the principal business directly after the Easter holidays, and I shall propose to take it on the first Thursday after the House has re-assembled unless some urgent business intervenes. The Budget will not be taken until some days later. It is important we should proceed with the Land Bill from day to day as, in order to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion on the question, the whole energies of the Government and of the House ought to be devoted to the Bill. I beg to move the Resolution on the Paper.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, unless the House otherwise order, the House do meet at Two of the clock on Tuesday and Friday, and that the provisions of Standing Order LVI. be extended to the Morning Sitting on those days."—(Mr. W. H. Smith.)

(4.33.) MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

There is no doubt that so much business is thrown upon the House that it is very difficult to find time for dealing with it. But it has been pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian that it is possible to overcome this trouble by adopting a system of derogation—a system which has been entirely ignored by the Government. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House is now asking us to give him the time of private Members up to Easter. What for? For a number of small Bills; and yet the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he is very much behindhand in the matter of Supply. Why does he not attempt to put forward Supply? Simply because he is now doing what, with all respect to him, I must say he always does do—he is making a muddle of the business of the House. ["Oh!"] Hon. Gentlemen opposite cry "Oh!" Possibly they have not had the experience of former Sessions. Well, I am content to take the experience of this Session alone. We were told in the Queen's Speech that there was to be a Tithes Bill, a Land Bill for Ireland, a Free Education Bill, and a Small Holdings Bill. I imagine that the Free Education Bill and the Small Holdings Bill have entirely disappeared from the Government programme. Certainly, the right hon. Gentleman said nothing about them. He said he wished to Prorogue the House in July. Up to the present time we have passed the Tithes Bill through its various stages in this House and have sent it to the Lords. The Irish Land Bill has been read a second time, and various other measures have been carried. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman cannot for a moment complain that he has met with any sort of obstruction from this side of the House. Now, if he were to say: I am anxious to Prorogue the House in July, and, therefore, I will give up the Small Holdings Bill, and the Free Education Bill, and will only attempt to pass the Land Bill, and I will devote these Morning Sittings to the discussion of the Estimates, I imagine we should be able to look with favour upon his present proposal. But that is what he has not done. We are told that up to Easter the Government intend to take these Morning Sittings simply for the sake of pushing forward a few small Bills, and the right hon. Gentleman in his speech said it depended upon ourselves—it depended upon whether we passed the Vote on Account to-night—whether we should or should not get the proposed Easter holiday. He told us that it was absolutely necessary that that Vote should be agreed to to-night, and so it is, unless the House of Lords are prepared to do what they have done over and over again—to suspend their Standing Orders, and to pass the necessary Bill in one or two days. The right hon. Gentleman knows there is nothing more easy than for a Government to induce the House of Lords to do this, and, no doubt, if we do continue the Debate on the Vote on Account after to-night, that will be the course which will be adopted. I quite admit that the Government have a right, by long usage, to ask for one Vote on Account every Session; but unfortunately they do not limit themselves to a single Vote. We know they have asked for repeated Votes on Account in past Sessions. We have a right to discuss every shilling of public expenditure on these Votes; but when these claims upon us are made so frequently, it becomes absolutely impossible for us to adequately discuss them. I can only say that if we give this Vote on Account to-night, the right hon. Gentleman must understand that if he asks us for further Votes on Account later in the Session, we shall discuss them as though we were debating the Estimates. I hold that the consideration of the Estimates ought not to be put off until the close of the Session. The right hon. Gentleman tells us that after Easter he is going to take the Land Bill from day to day. But, at the same time, it must be remembered that there is the Budget to bring in and matters connected with it, and I do not see, therefore, how, in the months of May and June, the Government will be able to devote any time to Supply. The fact is Supply will be postponed until July, and then it will not receive the discussion which ought to be devoted to it. Now, personally, I should have no objection to Morning Sittings being generally adopted by the House as part and parcel of the scheme for the management of its business. I never, myself, have complained of counts-out taking place. I have always thought that if an hon. Member wants to bring forward a Motion, he ought to be able to induce 40 of his Colleagues to attend and help him make a House. I never yet understood why the Government were expected to make Houses on private Members' nights. The original idea was that on Friday night the Government might hope by 10 or 11 o'clock to get into Committee of Supply and then would be able to get a considerable number of Votes passed, but when Effective Supply is not put down, I do not see why the Government should be called upon to make a House. It was once said—I think by Lord Palmerston—that the business of a subordinate Member was to make a House, to keep a House, and to cheer Ministers. Well the Government could send down a few subordinate gentlemen to help make a House, and if it sent down 10 it might legitimately be expected that the Opposition would supply the remaining 30 to make up a quorum. Now if from the beginning of the Session the Government would have Morning Sittings on Tuesdays and Fridays, and pledge themselves to devote those sittings to the discussion of Supply, I think it would be a very good plan, because then there would be no inducement for Conservative Members to obstruct the "Estimates, as the ordinary Government business could not possibly be interfered with. They would know perfectly well that in the end the House must sit on Tuesdays and Fridays until the Estimates were all passed. If the right hon. Gentleman would make a proposal of that sort I would support him, but I would object to the right hon. Gentleman always speaking of the Standing Orders of the House as if they were like the laws of the Medes and Persians, and yet interrupting and altering them to make them suit his convenience. I do not think at present that the business of the House is in such a condition as to justify the right hon. Gentleman in asking for these Morning Sittings, and I shall vote against his proposal unless we have an assurance that instead of the small Bills he has said he will take, he will put down the Estimates for discussion on Tuesdays and Fridays up till Easter, and give a reasonable number of days during the months of May and June for the discussion of similar matters.

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

I think the right hon. Gentleman draws rather largely on the pliability of the House, and I was rather amused at the nature of the precedents which the right hon. Gentleman quoted. The right hon. Gentleman did not go back to what took place in earlier years as to morning sittings on Tuesdays and Fridays. All the precedents which the right hon. Gentleman quoted were precedents which he has himself set. In regard to Morning Sittings, as well as in other respects, if the right hon. Gentleman had gone back 10 years he would have found that the Government were then much more moderate in the drafts they made on the patience and the willingness of the House. The strong point in the case of the right hon. Gentleman is that he declares he is animated by a desire to bring about the Prorogation in decent time in the month of July. I hope the month of July does not mean the 31st of July. I am disposed myself to give every reasonable assistance to the right hon. Gentleman. I make the concession to the right hon. Gentleman that I think he was right to a great extent in his contention that the House will derive advantage, in the case of an extensive and complicated measure like the Land Bill, from as much continuity as possible. But there are two things which I missed entirely in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, and upon which I wish seriously to press him. One is that he did not give any assurance that it is the serious intention of the Government to put forward Supply at an early date and—whether the Prorogation be in July or in August—not to allow Supply to drift to the latest weeks of the Session. I think the House is entitled to have an explicit declaration from the right hon. Gentleman on that subject. The right hon. Gentleman slipped, if I may say so, with great facility and adroitness over the whole subject of keeping a House on Fridays. Now there is some misunderstanding on that matter. The obligation of the Government to keep a House on Fridays never did arise altogether or mainly out of the belief that it would be able to get effective Supply on that day. Undoubtedly that point was reported upon by the Committee that recommended the present plan, but the obligation arose in this way—that before the Order was made which required Supply to be taken as the first business on Fridays, it was necessary to make a Motion every Friday, "That this House at its rising do adjourn till Monday next," and on that Motion all the miscellaneous Motions were made by private Members which are now made on the Motion for going into Committee of Supply. The consequence is that it is always an obligation of the Government to keep a House on Friday nights, and when the change was made to the present system, that duty of the Government was recognised explicitly, and it is a total mistake to speak of the Government as being under no necessity to keep a House on Fridays. And over and over again on, I must say, the very rare occasions when the Secretary to the Treasury failed to keep a House on the Friday, the unfortunate Secretary to the Treasury, whoever he was, on coming down on the Monday had to stand before the House morally in a white sheet and make his apologies for having been unable on the occasion to fulfil the duty of the Government. Any attempt to deny or extenuate that duty was never made. It is an extremely difficult thing for private Members to make a House at 9 o'clock, but with the obligation of the Government recognised with regard to Fridays, they have at least one chance in the week, and that is the least to which they ought to be reduced. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not think I have used him unfairly, but on these two points we are entitled to ask for assurances which it is sincerely to be trusted he will be disposed to give.

(4.52.) MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)

The hon. Member for Northampton made a proposition which is worthy of a little more consideration than has been given to it. The hon. Member suggested for the block of business in the House a remedy which is sometimes proposed by Railway Directors when there is a block on the railway. They sometimes proposed a double line, one for goods traffic and the other for passengers. The hon. Member for Northampton suggests that the Government business should go on the ordinary lines, but that a new line in the shape of Morning Sittings on Tuesdays and Fridays should be created in order to enable hon. Members to discuss Supply to their hearts' content. He pointed out that under these circumstances there would be no obstruction, since delay with the Estimates would not affect the ordinary business of the Government. But I think the hon. Gentleman will see that if the plan he suggests were adopted, it would take from the Government a great deal of their present responsibility and control with regard to the Estimates, because to establish the practice of taking Supply at Morning Sittings would be something equivalent to the course of business in Grand Committees. It has been found impossible for the Grand Committees to be conducted on Party lines, and for the Government to be certain of a majority, and consequently, if this were applied to Supply, the Government would have to consider themselves discharged from responsibility for this important business. I should like to know what would happen if, on some occasion when an hon. Member should find himself in a temporary majority in the Committee of Supply on Tuesday or Friday, the hon. Member were to get up and propose to diminish the Army by 30,000 troops? Supposing a proposition of this kind were carried, what would be the position of the Government of the day—unless, indeed, the hon. Member for Northampton accompanies his proposition by a further suggestion that the Government shall have the right to re-introduce any Vote on the occasion of the Report to the House. Let the House consider the position in which we find ourselves. The House, this Session, met at a much earlier date than usual, and it cannot be said that the Government have forced on the attention of the House any undue amount of public business. And, although we have been sitting for a considerable time, up to the present no practical progress has been made with Supply. We have, of course, not yet approached the questions arising out of the Budget, and we have two important Bills before us, one of which has not yet been approached in Committee. That makes it necessary for the Government to make this demand on our time at a confessedly early period of the Session, that not unnaturally leads to the wail that private Members are being robbed of their privileges. I venture to say that what is wanted is not more time. There is, under ordinary circumstances, quite sufficient time to deal with the ordinary business which is introduced by the Government, and also full time for the discussion of any important questions brought forward by private Members. But what is wanted is a better disposal of the time we have. The hon. Member for Northampton says there has been no obstruction during the present Session. Well, of course, one's definition of obstruction varies very much according to the side of the House on which one sits. But it will be the opinion, I imagine, of the great majority of the House that, at all events, much too great space of time has been given to unimportant matters, and that important matters have, consequently, been put aside; and, therefore, I submit to the House, for consideration at the proper time, the possibility, the desirability, of so amending the Orders as to give to the majority some greater control over the disposal, the division, of its time. In the American House of Representatives, where they found themselves face to face with a similar difficulty, they met it by a plan under which a Committee, which was called a Committee on Rules, reported to the House what time, in their opinion, should be allotted to the discussion of particular stages of Bills or particular Resolutions; and when that time was exhausted, then the vote on the Bill or on the Resolution was taken. I am perfectly convinced that a system of that kind would, in the long run, be found to work here, because, knowing exactly what proportion of the whole time of the House is allotted to a particular measure, the Opposition would arrange its discussion, and would take care that its strongest arguments and its best speakers have the opportunity to which they are entitled. Without some such disposal of the time, I am perfectly certain we shall continue to have these Resolutions of the Government in every Session, and probably at an earlier period in every Session, and that private Members will still continue to be without the facilities they desire.

*(4.57.) MR. CAVENDISH BENTINCK (Whitehaven)

I should not have interfered in this Debate but for an observation made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian with regard to the obligation of a Government to keep a House on Friday night. I think the right hon. Gentleman has forgotten altogether what manner of man he was some years ago. I remember in days gone by when he was Leader of the House his contention was always the exact reverse, and now I am only too delighted to welcome him as a convert to my own views. It is perfectly true that when the alteration in the Rules of the House was made, whereby Supply was placed at the head of the Paper on Fridays, and the Motion for an Adjournment until Monday was got rid of, it was stated by Lord Palmerston that that would give Members of the House the full rights that they would have on any occasion when Supply was put at the head of the Paper. That was my contention, but it was resisted by the right hon. Gentleman on a memorable occasion, and when a Motion that "Mr. Speaker leave the Chair" had been agreed to, he refused to make the ordinary Motion from the Ministerial Bench that the House should resolve itself into a Committee of Supply. I fought that question with him before your predecessor (Mr. Denison) in the Chair, and he was good enough to decide in my favour, and declare that it was an obligation of the Government on such an occasion to renew the Motion for Supply. Therefore the right hon. Gentleman on that occasion was defeated. When Mr. Speaker Brand was in the Chair the same question again cropped up, and the right hon. Gentleman again refused to renew the Motion that "the House resolve itself into a Committee of Supply." I myself then put a Motion on the Paper and argued it to the best of my ability. I was opposed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian, and Mr. Brand decided that, though there was no absolute obligation on the part of the Government to renew the Motion, it was, at all events, customary and, as a matter of course, ought to be done. Now we have tonight this position: The right hon. Gentleman, having changed sides in the House, has taken up the position which formerly he resisted. What I contended was that Her Majesty's Government were bound to make a House on Friday; and particularly when the House met again at 9 o'clock. But I never heard it contended that the obligation of the Government was to go further than that. They are only bound to keep a House for a reasonable time, and it cannot be expected that they will sit for two or three hours for the benefit of the speeches of hon. Members below the Gangway. My object in rising was to express my satisfaction that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian has taken the proper view that the Government are bound to make a House, but to add that they are not bound to do more than what is reasonable in this matter. If they keep a House for about an hour after 9 o'clock, I do not think they are called upon to extend their efforts any further.

*(5.3.) MR. H. H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

Sir, there are two distinct questions: the making of a House on Friday, and the keeping of a House for the Motion that the Speaker leave the Chair, and the point raised in the setting up of Supply a second time. The First Lord of the Treasury said that there was no understood obligation on the part of the Government to set up Supply a second time, and the point which we wish to impress upon him is that the Government should make and keep a House until the Question is disposed of, "That the Speaker leave the Chair." As to the present state of business, I think you cannot point, in the last 10 years, to a 16th of March when the business of the Government was advanced up to this point. Three of the principal measures of the Government have been read a second time. One of the measures to which they attach great importance has passed through Committee of this House, and is coming from the other House, and in all probability the Amendments of the Lords will be disposed of before we adjourn for the Easter holidays. With reference to Supply, all the Supplementary Votes have been obtained except one or two. The great Votes for the Army and Navy have been obtained, and I think it would be difficult to find a year in which Supply has made the progress which it has made this year. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman when he proposes that the Speaker shall leave the Chair for the Civil Service Estimates? With all deference, I would suggest that some Votes should be taken before the Easter holidays. Are we to understand that the Irish Land Bill will not be taken until the Thursday, and that Monday and Tuesday will be taken for Supply after the Easter holidays?

(5.9.) MR. STUART RENDEL (Montgomeryshire)

Can the right hon. Gentleman state on what day the House will be asked to consider the Lords Amendments to the Tithes Bill?

*(5.10.) MR. SYDNEY GEDGE (Stockport)

I wish to say a few words on behalf of hon. Members who, like myself, have to attend to other work besides that of this House. When I became a Member of this House it met at 4 o'clock. The hour was then brought down to 3, and it is still more inconvenient when 2 o'clock is fixed as the hour of meeting, though that inconvenience may not be felt by hon. Members who come from a distance and leave their business behind them. It is felt, however, by hon. Members who are at home in London and have their ordinary business to attend to. I think the object of the Government might be attained without inconvenience if they met at 3 o'clock on Tuesdays and took Government Business up to 8; the House might adjourn for half an hour as usual, and the evening sitting would commence at 9 and go on until 12. By this plan the Government will have as much time with private Members, only half an hour less than now, and we shall not be kept here until I. There have been five Counts-out this Session, and the Government have been attacked in the newspapers for not preventing them. I suggest that the Standing Orders should be altered, so that the effect of a count may be not to adjourn the House, but to pass to the next Order of the Day. In this way we shall escape from uninteresting subjects and dull speeches, and take up the next business of interest, or go on to Supply, for which Members will be ready to stop.

(5.13.) DR. CLARK (Caithness)

I would point out that the course pursued by the hon. Members of the Government in counting out the House is one which retards Public Business. For four Friday nights I have put down a Motion regarding the grievances of Scotland. On three occasions the House was counted out. If the opportunity had been allowed me I could have dealt with the grievances of Scotland in one night's Sitting and in one speech; whereas I will now have to seek opportunities in Supply, and perhaps be compelled to make 20 speeches and take 20 Divisions. It is the junior Members of the Government who prevent Members coming in after dinner, when they see that there is no chance of getting Supply; and, of course, Members on this side of the House never think of leaving their dinner, or the Smoke Room, or Reading Room, because they expect the Government to keep a House. When you count out the House you will not prevent dull speakers from making speeches on the different Votes in Supply. The business of Supply is lengthened mainly because the Government allow the House to be counted out. Hon. Members must dine, and the half hour taken by the Chairman or Speaker is not sufficient. I think the course which has been adopted is a very unwise one, and prevents fair discussion.

(5.15.) MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether the Civil Service Estimates will be taken first after Easter? There are several Motions down with regard to the Diplomatic Service of the Foreign Office, and we could hardly have a satisfactory discussion on the first day after the holidays. With regard to the suggestion thrown out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham in reference to the method adopted by the House of Representatives at Washington, I venture to suggest that it would only have the effect of making the majority of this House more tyrannical by putting larger opportunities of oppression into their hands. As to the other argument of my right hon. Friend, there would be no more danger of the Government being caught by a sudden Division in Supply than on a Bill. Why should not the Government keep a majority for Supply on Tuesdays and Fridays just as they will for the Irish Land Bill when it is in Committee?

*(5.17.) MR. W. H. SMITH

With the permission of the House, I will now reply to the questions that have been addressed to me. I have to thank hon. Members for the extremely valuable and varied advice I have received from them. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian that when the Counts-out took place there was such an obvious want of interest in the subjects before the House that the Counts-out were almost inevitable; but I do not see why hon. Members on the other side should have left the House at that particular time. To ask the Government to keep a House in such circumstance would be to increase against the Government the stringency of the existing Rule to an unreasonable extent. It is the duty of the Government to make a House for the first Motion on going into Supply on Fridays, and that they will continue to do. But it is only reasonable that hon. Members who make Motions should have some support from their own friends. The hon. Member for Caithness indicated that Liberal Members could not be expected to keep a House for Liberal Motions. If that be so, it is rather hard to expect his political opponents to do that which his own friends will not do. As to Supply being in a forward state, that is owing to the fact that, as Easter comes at an unusually early period this year, the Government are under the necessity of getting Supply as early as possible. The Government will certainly do what they can to make a House at 9 o'clock on Friday. As to the complaints about Votes on Account, we took two such Votes last year, one on March 21 and the other on May 23. There is no record in the last 20 years when so few Votes on Account were taken by any Government as by the present Government. I hope to be able to take the Lords' Amendments to the Tithe Bill on Friday next, but as the hon. Member is aware, the last stage of that Bill has not as yet been passed by the other House. Therefore I am not able to give any positive assurance, but I may refer to the matter to-morrow. As to the Civil Service Estimates, I hope we shall be able to get the Speaker out of the Chair on Monday next. The Civil Service Estimates will be taken on the Monday after the holidays. The hon. Member for Caithness has complained that he has not been allowed to make one speech instead of many. If the hon. Member would confine himself to one speech full opportunity will be given him to make it in lieu of the many he promised for other occasions. We should be only too glad to purchase the hon. Member's silence for the rest of the Session on these terms, and I hope for that purpose we shall have the cordial support of Members on both sides.

Question put, and agreed to. Resolved, That, unless the House otherwise order, the House do meet at Two of the clock on Tuesday and Friday; and that the provisions of Standing Order LVI be extended to the Morning Sitting on those days.—(Mr. William Henry Smith.)

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