HC Deb 04 May 1893 vol 12 cc120-31
*SIR J. GOLDSMID (St. Pancras, S.)

said, he proposed to say only a very few words in bringing before the House a matter which affected the convenience of private Members. He had intended to propose a Resolution, and had put the following Notice on the Paper:— On Civil Service Estimates, to call attention to the inconvenience caused to Members wishing to find sitting accommodation in the House of Commons, owing to the present arrangements of the House; and to move, That it is desirable that this House should be so re-arranged as to afford every Member a permanent seat. He was, however, now precluded by the Forms of the House from submitting this Motion. He know that his proposal was unpopular with, and unacceptable to, the occupants of the two Front Benches, but he quite understood how that was. There was a tendency in all men to be selfish; and as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the two Front Benches were always sure of their seats, they were unable to sympathise in any way with private Members, who experienced great difficulty in the discharge of their duties owing to insufficiency of accommodation in the House. The principle of Parliamentary representation was this: that every Member should have a seat in the House. Every Member was returned to sit there. He was not returned to fight for his seat in the House after his return by the vote of his constituents. He was not returned to take part in a rowdy scrimmage at the door with the result that one Member might be knocked down and others injured in order that he might have a place to listen to a great speech from the First Lord of the Treasury—and this was what had happened on the occasion of the right hon. Gentleman's introduction of the Home Rule Bill. As they were a new Par- liament, as this was a matter affecting all private Members, and as they were approaching another great occasion—namely, the Committee stage on the Home Rule Bill, it was desirable that something should be said on this question. He found that in all Foreign and Colonial Parliaments every Member had a place assigned to him as of right. In 1867 a Select Committee was appointed to consider this question, and re-appointed in 1868. The Resolution of the House, in 1867, was— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether there should be any alterations in the arrangements of the House of Commons, so as to enable a greater number of Members to hear and take part in its proceedings. In 1868 the Committee reported that there were substantial grounds for the complaint that the House was defective in extent of accommodation. If that was the case in 1868, before the number of Members had been increased by the Reform Bill, and when the attendance in the House was neither so largo nor so regular as it was now, he thought there was abundant reason now to declare the accommodation insufficient. The Committee had further stated that the increased accommodation necessary could be best afforded by the construction of a new Chamber. On the floor of the House only 306 Members could be accommodated with seats, the total number of Members being 670; so that less than half the Members could be accommodated with seats. In the Gallery 124 could be seated, but could take no part in the proceedings. Besides that, 263 strangers could be accommodated. Compare this with the condition of things in Foreign Parliaments. In Italy, for instance, there were 492 Members of the Chamber, and on the floor there were 492 seats, and, besides that, there were seats also for 452 strangers. Strangers in this House included the Press, and they all knew that there had been frequent and most justifiable complaints from the Press with regard to insufficient accommodation. He had been asked by one or two hon. Members how he would allot seats, and his reply was that that was a small question, which it would be perfectly easy to deal with when the proper time came. It was not necessary to settle it, now the only question they had to consider being—"Has a. Member a right to a seat, and is it desirable that he should take part in a scrimmage to secure one whenever a great event happens in the House?" Some Members—like himself—were busy men, and could not afford to waste hours hanging about the House in order to secure their seats. He thought that now they had popular representation the House of Commons ought to adopt the modern practice that was in force in the Parliaments of all civilised nations—namely, to allocate to each Member a seat, which he should retain as a right in the name of his constituency. There was an impression amongst the occupants of the Front Benches that to give each Member a seat would necessitate a very considerable enlargement of the House, and compel them to adopt the system of speaking from a tribune; but he did not hold that view. Neither could he accept the argument that the question should not be dealt with this year, for the reason that the number of Members from Ireland might be reduced from 103 to 80. He did not think that a reduction of 23 Members would make any material difference in the appropriation of seats, nor did he think there was much prospect of the reduction taking place at all. Two or three good plans had been prepared, showing how accommodation could be given to the whole of the Members on the floor of the House. It would not be necessary, as he had said, to adopt the tribune, which would be contrary to the practice, the experience, and the tastes of Englishmen. If they adopted, say, an oval shape for the House, it would not be necessary to have a tribune. At any rate, something should be done to relieve Members of the necessity to struggle for seats. If there was one thing he detested more than another it was a scrimmage, and at any time he would rather forego the pleasure of being present in the House on an important occasion than go through the indignity of rushing and pushing and fighting for a seat, especially as he had a legitimate title to a seat without it. He had never been able to understand on what principle hon. Members bad to obtain a fresh seat every night, and struggle to obtain it, and he thought that over 600 Members ought not to be put to the necessity of trying to obtain accommodation in a House built to accommodate 300.

*MR. CREMER (Shoreditch, Haggerston)

regretted that the hon. Baronet who had introduced this subject was not able to take a Division on his Resolution, though there was reason to believe, from what had happened on previous occasions, that it would not have been adopted owing to the opposition of hon. Gentlemen on the Front Benches. The Front Bench Members obtained their seats no matter how late they were in putting in an appearance, and they were also privileged in having the Table in front of them on which to place their notes and rest their elbows when making speeches. And, forsooth, because these hon. and right hon. Gentlemen suffered no inconvenience, they were not disposed to listen to the legitimate complaints of hon. Members who were not so favourably placed as themselves. The only persona satisfied with the existing state of things in the House were the occupants of the two Front Benches and the hatters—the latter not only because of the damage done to hats in the struggle to got into the House, but because, having no other place to put them, Members about to speak placed their hats on the seat behind them, and very often, when they had finished speaking, sat down upon them. Apart from the Front Bench Gentlemen and the hatters, he did not believe anyone was satisfied with the present arrangement. Visitors to the House invariably exclaimed—"What a small place it is! How do you all manage to get seats?" A Member who was anxious to secure a seat had to come down to the House sometimes as early as 6 o'clock in the morning and deposit a hat upon the Bench. He was told on good authority that in some portion of the building there was a stock of hats kept for such occasions by some hon. Members. Two or three hours before the sitting of the House one of these hats was taken out of a locker and put on the Bench, while the hon. Member, wearing his ordinary hat, marched out of the building. This, he believed, was contrary to the rule or understanding which had prevailed in previous Parliaments. In the endeavour to secure seats other hon. Members sometimes placed a card or a scrap of paper with their names written upon it on the Bench, and some used a glove, or adopted the meaner device of getting a person about the building to deposit a card on the seat. Members who attended at Committees were privileged to put a pink card in the slot to enable them to occupy the seat in front of it during the Sitting; but it frequently happened that, coming down at 11 or half-past 11 o'clock, they found cards placed on the seats, not by the Members themselves, but by other persons, the Members coming down leisurely to take their seats 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour before the opening of the proceedings. That was taking a mean advantage of Members who had been serving on Committees, and he hoped that some steps would be taken by the Authorities of the House to prevent the practice being continued. He had visited the Chambers of France, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States, and everyone who contrasted the advantages accorded to Members in the Legislative Chambers of those countries with the House of Commons must give their verdict for the proposal of the hon. Baronet. In the French Chamber every Member had a seat allotted to him, and the acoustic properties of the place were excellent. If the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works wanted a model for a Chamber, let him go to the Senate House in the Luxembourg at Paris. The difficulty of allotting the seats if the House were enlarged would not be a great one. In the United States the process did not occupy more than three-quarters of an hour at the opening of a new Congress. He thought it had been a mistake to construct the House of Commons in this longitudinal shape, and he would suggest that in any reconstruction which took place one of the walls should be carried back 30 feet, which would render it possible to construct a Chamber of a horse-shoe shape which would provide the requisite amount of accommodation. If that suggestion were adopted, the First Commissioner of Works should be assisted in carrying it out by a number of practical men especially selected for that purpose —he did not mean a Committee like that appointed in the last Parliament to consider certain alterations, which alterations had been made at considerable expense, but which, in the estimation of many hon. Members, were by no means improvements. If a Committee were appointed without a contingent of practical men upon it he (Mr. Cremer) should oppose it.


This matter was discussed at some length on the Vote on Account before Easter, and at the close of that Debate I stated that I would consult the Government on the question. I have done so, and I have now to say that the Government consider that this is a matter for the House, and that if there appears to be a general desire that a Committee should be appointed they will not oppose it. At the same time, their advice is that the Motion for the Committee should not be brought on till next Session. And the reason for that is this: If you look back to the last six or seven Parliaments, you will see that at the beginning of every first Session there have always been many complaints of inconvenience to Members and want of accommodation, and that pressure has been put upon the Government to consent to an alteration of the House. There have been Motions made for Committees and frequent Debates; but hon. Members have always been met by successive Governments with the recommendation that the appointment of a Committee should be postponed until the next Session, and when the next Session has arrived the pressure has disappeared. I am bound to admit that in the early part of the present Session more inconvenience was felt by Members than at any time in the past; but there was an unusual number of new Members in the House who exercised their privilege of coming into the House to take part in its proceedings. That state of things will probably not continue, and, indeed, a considerable change has taken place since Easter. I have made it my business to take careful note of the attendance from time to time; and since Easter I have observed that, although there has been a number of first-rate Debates, on such subjects as Home Rule, the Budget, Egypt, and the Eight Hours Question, at no time has the House been inconveniently filled. On Wednesday there were 500 Members in the precincts of the House; but at the time when the House was fullest I counted the Members present, and there were not more than 200.


There were over 300 at one time.


That might have been just before the Division.


No, it was not.


The floor of the House can accommodate 346 Members; so that, even if the hon. Baronet is right, there were 46 empty seats.


There are only 306 seats where Members are permitted to take part in the Debates.


There is sitting room on the floor of the House for 346 Members, and seats in the Galleries for 100. On the last night of the Home Rule Debate, just before the Division, although the two Leaders spoke, there were, excepting the last few minutes before the Division, several empty seats to be found in all parts of the House. I drew from that the conclusion that already other attractions had induced hon. Members not to crowd into the House. We shall have ample experience during the remainder of the Session, and it will be interesting to observe whether the House will be in a normal condition during the prolonged Home Rule contest. If, after that experience, there should be a general desire next Session to appoint a Committee, the Government will assent to it. As to the proposal that the House should be so enlarged as to afford accommodation to the whole of the 670 Members on the floor, I am strongly opposed to it. It may be wise to so enlarge the House as to do away with the existing inconvenience, but to enlarge it so as to provide a seat for every Member is, I think, a proposition which would not be entertained by the majority of Members in the House. I may remind hon. Members that there are very few occasions in the House when there are so many as 550 present. The House will doubtless be surprised to hear that during the present Session there have only been two occasions on which more than 550 Members have voted, and only nine where there were 500. The average number of occasions on which there have been more than 550 Members present, even for the purpose of voting, is not more than two in each Session. It is obvious, therefore, that as a rule a large number of Members are always absent from the precincts of the House. Under the circumstances it would not be wise to follow the example of Foreign Legislatures referred to by the hon. Member for Shoreditch, and provide seats for all our Members. The hon. Member asked me if I had visited Foreign Chambers. I have; and I must say I deprecate following their example. If we have to find a seat for every Member we shall have to enlarge the House to such an extent that it will be necessary to have resort to the tribune. ["No, no!"] Yes; that is my opinion. We should have to so enlarge the House that it would be impossible for hon. Members to speak in the ordinary way from their seats. We should have to resort to the practice of foreign countries. That would entirely alter the character of the House, and I should be most strongly opposed to it.


If the right hon. Gentleman has been present at Debates in the Chamber at Washington he will have noticed that none of the Members speak from the tribune. In Continental Chambers it is optional.


I have frequently seen Members speak from their places in the French Chamber.


They can speak from their places, but in important Debates they generally speak from the tribune. The difference between those Houses and ours is that in them a large proportion of the work is done in Committee and only a small proportion in the House, whilst here the bulk of the work is done in the House. It is, therefore, desirable that the Chamber in which we sit should not be very large. On the whole, I think this House fairly meets the necessities of the case. It may be too small to meet requirements in extraordinary Debates; but the question is whether, for the purpose of providing for extraordinary occasions which occur only two or three times in a Session, it is desirable to put the House to inconvenience in its ordinary and normal condition? If the experience of the remainder of the Session should show that the present arrangements are inconvenient to Members, the Government will consent to a Committee meeting this year; but, for my part, I should desire that that Committee should confine itself to the question whether there may be some enlargement of the House, with the view of meeting the special cases I have referred to, and that it should not go into the wider question that has been suggested—namely, that of providing a place for every single Member. That, in my opinion, would be altogether unnecessary, and would inevitably lead to the adoption of the tribune.


said, he could not understand why the right hon. Gentleman should want to delay the appointment of the Committee till next Session. A Committee went very fully in the matter in 1867–8, and reported that increased accommodation could be obtained in a most satisfactory manner and without interrupting the Business of the House. The Committee were of opinion that the alterations could be easily accomplished in the space of the Recess at a cost of some £120,000. The right hon. Gentleman said that since Easter the accommodation of the House had been ample. Since Easter, however, the proceedings with one exception, had not been of the interesting character that they were sometimes. Next week a very different state of affairs would be witnessed. Even that evening the House had been inconveniently crowded. There was no doubt that a large number of hon. Members absented themselves from the House, because of the difficulty they found in obtaining accommodation. That might be the "Mother of Parliaments;" but there was no Parliament House in any part of the world which was so inconvenient to Members, and also to strangers, as that at Westminster. It was perfectly disgraceful that hon. Members, the greater number of whom had other avocations to pursue, should, in order to obtain a seat on any important occasion, have to be at the House at 11 or 12 o'clock in the day and, according to the Rule, not leave the House subsequently. There were 669 Members of the House, excluding the Speaker, and there were only 240 seats from which any part could be taken in the proceedings. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would see whether he could not suggest some means of improving the accommodation, and thus distinguish his tenure of Office as First Commissioner of Works.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

said, that might be the Mother of Parliaments, but it was a most unjust stepmother to its own children, because it did not provide room for them in its lap. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Commissioner had started a most extraordinary theory. He seemed to be under the impression that when anybody got into the House of Commons his duty was to keep out of it as much as possible. It would be interesting to know whether the Government Whip shared the right hon. Gentleman's opinion on this point. The right hon. Gentleman said he himself was opposed to any change in the House; and, therefore, on the sic volo sir jubeo principle, he would not allow the matter to be discussed. If his hand was forced on the subject, he thought that the obnoxious addition to the accommodation of the House should be limited as much as possible, and that the House should not, in any event, be enlarged sufficiently to provide accommodation for all its Members. What would be said of any County Council in the country which, being in want of a proper meeting place, calmly built up a hall in which only half its Members could find places? The Government had come into power with a great Newcastle Programme, and were always complaining of delays; and yet, when a Committee was proposed on an important subject of this kind, the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner said, "Let us put it off for a year." What would the Government say if he (Mr. Labouchere) said—" Let us put off Home Rule for a year." In view of the strong opinion which had been expressed in favour of some alteration, it was only fair and reasonable that a Committee should be appointed during the present Session. He knew his hon. Friend could not divide on the present proposal, and he had put down a little Amendment of his own in favour of reducing the First Commissioner's salary by £50. There would be two advantages in voting on that Amendment—they would get the Committee, and at the same time would save the country £50.

DR. FARQUHARSON (Aberdeenshire, W.)

was of opinion that better accommodation ought to be provided for the House. He remembered, on one occasion, Mr. Mitchell Henry making a Motion from a very effective standpoint— he was obliged to address the House from the Galleny, and he said he did so because he could not get a seat down below. It seemed to him (Dr. Farquharson) that a Committee would be extremely valuable, because they must have regard to the future, when hon. Members would be called on to attend in their places much more than they did now. It was probable that ere long they would have payment of Members, and hon. Members would then have to attend to their duties with much greater assiduity than they did now. They would have to be almost constant in their attendance, therefore they would expect to have proper accommodation. But there were only two points worthy of consideration. When the Home Rule Bill passed, whether the Irish Members were retained at Westminster or not, it was evident that they would not come here in such numbers as they did now, nor be so assiduous in their attendance. That, to a certain extent, would relieve the House. Then—and this was his second point—if they had Home Rule for Ireland it was probable that they would have Homo Rule all round—Scotch and Welsh as well as Irish Home Rule. The House would then, in all likelihood, be solely devoted to Imperial questions, and the strain on it would be less even if the number of Members were not reduced. There was a good deal to be said on both sides of the question, therefore he was anxious to see a Committee appointed.

*MR. ANSTRUTHER (St. Andrews, &c.)

thought that the answer of the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works was insufficient for the needs and requirements of the present day. It had been decided by a Committee of the House, as long ago as 1868, that greater accommodation for Members was required, and it seemed to him that what they had to do now was to set to work and see how that additional accommodation could best be provided. The right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works had used what appeared to him to be a very curious and, perhaps, unfortunate expression when he said that hon. Members came into the House in large numbers at the beginning of the Session because, forsooth, of the privilege they enjoyed of listening to important speeches. He had been brought up to believe that it was part of the duty of an hon. Member returned to the House to come and listen to the speeches of leading Members in order that they might form a reasonable judgment on the matters debated. It was no argument to him to say that the House was not always full, or was only sometimes full, and that, therefore, there was no necessity for additional accommodation. He knew very well from his own experience that Members were very often reluctant to come into the House on crowded evenings, because they knew they would suffer so much discomfort. It was said that if the House were enlarged it would be more difficult to hear Members' speeches. Well, he was prepared to assert the exact contrary. Members below the Gangway at present were unable to hear a great deal of the conversation which took place between the occupants of the two Front Benches across the Table; and if the House were enlarged it would be necessary that those Gentlemen should speak louder, so that everyone could hear them. There was a Committee now sitting to inquire into the subject of reporting the proceedings of Parliament, and all the evidence which had been received from the gentlemen who were good enough to sit in the House night after night reporting its proceedings went to show the difficulty experienced in hearing what was said on the floor. It would, therefore, be wise for the First Commissioner of Works to reconsider his decision, and appoint a Committee to consider the questions of the accommodation in the House and the accommodation in the Reporters' Gallery together. They might then be able to arrive at the ideal of the Secretary of State for War—solvitur ambulando.

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