HC Deb 07 July 1893 vol 14 cc1121-8

*MR. J. E. ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe) rose To call attention to the inconvenience arising from the power given by the present form of Standing Order No. 1 to a single Member of preventing the transaction of business when it is the evident sense and general desire of the House to proceed with it; and to move—"That, whereas, when it is the evident sense and general desire of the House to proceed with any particular business, it is inexpedient that a single Member should have the power of preventing this, it is resolved—That Standing Order 1 (Sittings of the House) be amended, as follows—namely, page 2, line 2, leave out the word 'opposed,' and insert after the word .'business' the words 'to which, on its being called, Ten Members object by rising in their places.' Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


said, the Motion which he had the honour of laying before the House was limited in its scope, and would be found, if carried, to be simple and effective in its operation. He should have had some hesitation, as an unofficia Member, in proposing any alteration in the Standing Orders did he not know that with respect to the matter dealt with in his proposal precedent was all in favour of its being left in the hands of unofficial Members. Standing Order No. 1 was so far as his Motion touched it, really the child of the old Half-past Twelve o'Clock Rule of the Standing Order 41, under what he might call the old dispensation, before the alteration of the Rules in the month of February, 1888. He found that seven-eighths of the old Half-past Twelve o'Clock Rule had been inserted on the Motion of unofficial Members, and that only one-eighth of it came from official sources. He regretted the absence of the right hon. Baronet the Member for London University, who was in hearty sympathy with the Motion, and who had intended to second it. It was only within a few hours past that the hon. Baronet, who was suffering from an accident which they all deplored, found himself unable to come down to the House. With regard to his proposal, it was impossible to form a judgment upon it, or upon Standing Order 1, without dealing with the history and origin of the old 12.30 o'Clock Rule. That Rule was first made a Sessional Order in 1871, on the Motion of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Oxford University, and it continued to be a Sessional Order till 1879, when the right hon. Baronet moved that it be made a Standing Order. Considerable protest was made against that proposal by various Members of great experience, some of whom were now in the Cabinet. The object of it was, of course, one with which everyone sympathised—namely, to curtail the Sittings of the House within reasonable hours. But the practical effect of the Rule was not of that character. No less a person than Mr. Speaker Brand went before a Committee of the House in 1878 and gave unimpeachable testimony that the Half-past Twelve o'Clock Rule had not operated in shortening the hours of the House, but, on the contrary, had, in some respects, the tendency to prolong them. In fact, the Rule was too severe against the progress of business. It placed in the hands of individual Members a power which the House soon found out ought not to be left to individual Members. The Rule was consequently amended in 1882 in two serious respects. On the Motion of Lord Knutsford—then Sir Henry Holland—the nominations and appointments to Committees were exempted from the Rule, and on the Motion of the right hon. Baronet the Member for London University proceedings under Standing Orders and Acts of Parliament were also exempted from its operations. In November of the same year, 1882, Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Bills passing through Committee were exempted from the Rule on the Motion of the Prime Minister of the day; and on the Motion of Sir Henry Holland blocks were made to lapse at the end of the week in which they were placed on the Paper. That was the history of the origin and development of the Half-past Twelve o'Clock Rule, and he ventured to think that for the present purposes of the House it was full of instruction. The present Rule was enacted on February 24, 1888. It was part of the great revolution in their procedure, the effects of which he believed were not yet fully appreciated by the House. One of its effects undoubtedly was to render it almost impossible for an unofficial Member to pass a Bill through the House, however good it might be, and however urgently it might be desired. The vital point of the present Standing Order I., so far as his Motion was concerned, lay in the word "opposed." During the discussion which took place on the present Rule in February 1888, the late Mr. W. H. Smith was pressed as to the meaning which he put on "opposed business," which under the Rule it was impracticable to bring on after half-past 5 on Wednesdays and after 12 on other days. His right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board, with that acuteness which was one of his characteristics, thus described what would be the effect of passing such a Rule— Was he correct in understanding the First Lord of the Treasury that after 12 o'clock it would be in the power of any individual Member of the House, by saying 'I object,' to put a stop to all Business upon the Paper, because, if so, he did not hesitate to say that the business of the House would be brought to a standstill. There was no doubt that, so far as unofficial Members were concerned, the result had been precisely what his right hon. Friend had foreseen. The experience of the Rule during five years had been to show that, as had been the case with the half-past Twelve o'Clock Rule, it was also too severe. If unofficial Members had been chastised with whips under the old Half-past Twelve Rule, they had been chastised with scorpions under Standing Order I. The unfortunate result of that Standing Order was that after 12 o'clock the Orders of the Day were gone through without, as a rule, any business being done. Not only had the progress of business to be considered, but some consideration was due to the dignity and decorum of the House itself. The scenes which were constantly being witnessed after midnight with reference to objections to Bills, to the withdrawing of objections, to the appeals made by promoters of Bills to hon. Members who objected did not conduce to the decorum and dignity of Parliamentary proceedings. He ventured to say that the Speaker never illustrated more truly the old meaning of the word Speaker than when, in June last, he said, in reference to this subject— It is my duty to observe that the power of objecting after 12 o'clock ought to be used with some discrimination and discretion, because I foresee that the time is coming when some change will have to be made to prevent objections which are made indiscriminately. He believed that it was the general feeling of the House that this power of individual objection was one which had been abused, and which ought to be put an end to. So far there was substantial agreement between all sections of the House. But then came the difficulty which always arose when they passed from criticism to construction. He did not, however, admit for a single moment that they were incapable of getting over the difficulty. The Motion he had the honour of submitting to the House was a very simple one indeed. As "opposed" business had come to mean business objected to by a single Member, he proposed to strike the word "opposed" out of the Standing Order, and to require that business to be stopped should be objected to by 10 Members. As to the particular number of Members mentioned in his Motion, he was not wedded to that number. There was a great variety of opinion as to what should be the number. He had been strongly urged that 10 was too small a number, and that it ought to be 20, while others said that five would be sufficient. However, that was a matter on which the House would be able to arrive at some common agreement. There were some needless fears entertained with regard to his Motion. It was believed in some quarters that it would lead to a great prolongation of the Sitting. He did not share in those fears. Under the Standing Order, the House would, of course, rise at 1 o'clock, and he proposed that the 40 or 50 minutes after 12 o'clock should be devoted to some useful legislation promoted by unofficial Members. The pressure upon unofficial Members to promote legislation was greater than ever. That was shown in the great increase in the number of Bills introduced by unofficial Members, few of which ever passed into law, owing to the abuse which he sought to remedy. He now placed the matter in the hands of the House for its judgment, recognising fully the difficulty of the matter, and feeling it was not one to be carried by a narrow majority. He urged his Motion as a simple and effective mode of remedying that abuse, and of facilitating the general and evident sense of the House to advance business which they believed to be for the good of the nation. He begged to move the Motion.

MR. H. J. WILSON (York, W.R., Holmfirth)

I beg to second the Motion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "Standing Order I. be read and amended, by leaving out, in page 2, line 2, the word 'opposed,' and inserting after the next word 'business,' the words 'to which, on this being called, Ten Members object by rising in their places,"—(Mr. John Ellis,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


I do not rise to speak on this occasion on behalf of the Government. Though not now what is called an unofficial Member, I desire, as far as possible, to speak on the Motion in that capacity. In dealing with matters relating to the Standing Orders, I perfectly agree that it is not the concern merely of the two Front Benches. The fact is that in these matters it is altogether for the House to judge. But, being for many years a Member of this House, perhaps I may venture to offer my individual opinion on this Motion. There is one thing I will say first of all, and that is that experience has led me to believe that it is a risky thing to meddle with Standing Orders, and that in stopping one hole you are likely to open another. Some years ago we determined to put an end to the very late Sittings of this House. I think everybody will agree that that was a very wise decision, and that the business of the House has been more efficient and more creditably done under a sort of Eight Hours Bill. It has been said that work generally is better done when the hours are short. That is my experience as the result of this Rule. I believe that when the Rule was passed that opposed business should cease at midnight the House desired, and I think it continues to desire, to go to bed nearer 12 o'clock than 1 o'clock; but under the proposal now made we would go to bed nearer 1 o'clock than 12. I admit that there is an abuse of this power of objection, and that Bills—useful measures—are stopped which might be allowed to pass a stage in five minutes. Last night here was an example of a sort of Bill to which objection ought not to be taken. It was the Savings Banks Bill. But I am afraid if it came on the conversation would have lasted till 1 o'clock. If one Bill were disposed of in a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes there might be a second and a third that would take as long, and substantially the Midnight Rule would become a 1 o'clock Rule. I am bound to say that in many cases, as the Rule at present works, it is abused, and the Speaker has expressed the opinion that if that abuse continues a change must be made. But we are now in July, and there is a good deal of heat in the atmosphere—there is a good of heat in this House, both political and atmospherical—and this time is not particularly opportune for making any change which would enlarge in any degree the labours of the House. Those labours are exceptional this year, and it is to be hoped that there will be a time when Members will not be worked so hard. I would suggest that it would be more opportune to consider this question and other similar matters capable of amendment in calmer moments and in a calmer spirit than can be done at this particular juncture. [Mr. J. ELLIS: By a Committee?] That I will not say beforehand. I am only expressing an opinion that there would be a more favourable time for considering the question at the commencement of a Session of normal character. With regard to the Amendment on the Paper of the hon. Member for Somerset, which speaks of— A notice of opposition or Amendment, dated not more than seven clays previously, and signed either by one Member of the Government or by not less than six unofficial Members of the House, I wish first to say that I cannot accept a principle that makes any distinction between Members of the Government and private Members in the Standing Orders. If hon. Members accept the views I have expressed, I think we might come to a conclusion that, though it is admitted there is an evil to be remedied, the present is not the most opportune time for dealing with the subject and coming to a decision upon it. In the next Session there may be a more favourable opportunity for considering the question.


said, he remembered when the Half-past Twelve Rule was suggested by two Members, of whom he was one. When the House had tried that Rule it began to desire an extension of it—the Rule which now prevailed—namely, that no opposed business should be taken after 12 o'clock. When he remembered that most of the Committees when sitting commenced business at half-past 11 or 12 o'clock in the day, he thought it very hard upon any Member who attended regularly to business that he should be asked to sit there night after night after 12 o'clock. All Members had fads, and put those fads into Bills. There was one Bill which had been upon the list nearly every day this Session, and he desired here to point out another abuse in that respect, which he thought was as great as that to which the hon. Member had referred. When Bills were objected to they were put down day after day, thus necessitating the attendance of Members who did not approve of the Bills night after night in order to object. When the House remembered that over 250 Bills were brought in upon the first day of the Session, they could easily imagine how many of them contained fads of no general interest to the House. Consequently, he said that if they had any new Rule of the sort suggested, they must also have a Rule that a Bill should not be placed on the Paper more than once a fortnight when objection had been taken, because otherwise they would compel large numbers of Members to attend when they had no desire to do so. The proposal of the hon. Member would impose a difficult task on the Speaker in deciding when it was "the evident sense and general desire of the House" that a Bill should be passed. Standing Orders should be clear and precise, and to put such words into them would only create great confusion, which would be most undesirable. The hon. Baronet was continuing his observations when—

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present—

House adjourned at a quarter before Ten o'clock till Monday next.