HC Deb 03 April 1894 vol 22 cc1256-87
* SIR A. ROLLIT (Islington, S.)

said, that his Motion for the appointment of a Committee to consider and report upon the procedure, practice, and forms of the House was dictated not by party, but purely by business, considerations. Some such Committees had been previously formed, and there was an impression that their proceedings had not been fruitful, but, after a careful comparison of their proposals with the present Standing Orders of the House, he had come to the conclusion that many of their suggestions had proved valuable, and had been incorporated with advantage in the law of Parliament. Moreover, time had now elapsed, and some of the recommendations of such Committees, which, when made, had been in advance of public opinion, might now with advantage be reconsidered in the light of more recent experience. And he was also of opinion that, but for what such Committees had effected, the present state of Parliamentary business might have been much worse than it was. Such experience showed that business in the House of Commons had become more and more congested, and one of the Committees had reported that this feature of Parliamentary life would be likely to increase rather than diminish. There were now more speakers, and the Sessions were longer; indeed, it might be said that there were practically no vacations, and that Parliament had been for nearly 18 months in almost permanent Session. Yet, notwithstanding this sacrifice on the part of Members, the promises of Parliament were being less and less fulfilled. The programmes of Governments on each side of the House were but slightly carried into effect. The list of promises was long—of performances, extremely short. And in the case of non-official Members, the proportion of performances was almost infinitesimal, inasmuch as during last Session 309 such measures were introduced, while only 23 were passed. Even for the completion of the financial work of the year, the Government had been dependent upon the courtesy of the Opposition, and, while such cordial relations had an excellent effect on business, they could not be relied upon amid the stress of Party feeling. Yet Governments were constantly promising what it must be known could not be performed, and thus public opinion was greatly misled and public misapprehension produced. Equally, non-official Members were encouraged by the existing Rules to what he would call trying their luck at legislation. Some hundreds ballotted for the chances, and yet it was well known that, under the circumstances of the most favourable Session, only 10 or 15 places were worth having, and this year there were not more than five. Yet Members gave their time, and the time of the public, to the ballot. They remained midnight after midnight on the off-chance of passing a Bill, notwithstanding the fact that, even if they were successful in the ballot, nevertheless, if the measure was opposed, it could not possibly pass through all its stages in tin; House of Commons, as was indicated in the case of the Sites for Public Worship Bills of the last Session. Hence, there was a strong and growing feeling both inside and outside the House of Commons that, if Parliamentary institutions were not to be endangered, there must be some change—some reform. The Prime Minister himself, in his recent speech at Edinburgh, frankly admitted, and indeed, invited such proposals. The Prime Minister was, beyond doubt, sincere in this, and meant what he said. Moreover, he expressed a general public feeling, and he impressed upon the Government the duty on this occasion of following their own Prime Minister's recommendation by helping forward this Motion both in the House and in Committee. What, then, were the chief evils and their causes? They were: pressure of Parliamentary work out of all proportion to Parliamentary time, the want of business-like economy in dealing with that time, and the ever-present and all-pervading element of chance and uncertainty. It might not be possible to eliminate chance entirely, but he protested against making it, as they did, a principle of action. For instance, non-official Members' Bills and Motions, which had been useful in the past as themes of discussions, and as suggestions, and which, in many cases, had been carried into legislation with the best effect, were subjected to a series of chances and uncertainties. The first chance was the ballot itself. Was there always "a survival of the fittest" Bills? Some were good, but sometimes Wednesdays were wasted by talk on proposals which had no chance whatever of becoming law, which were even talked upon to stave off more important propositions, and which were sometimes put down with that very object, to which, unfortunately, the forms of the House too often lent themselves. This was the real origin of the Bill - Syndicates, which, though irregular, had at least the excuse of being organisations to forward the more important measures. Again, on Tuesdays and Fridays Motions were often dealt with in just the same way, and, as a result, they had those "counts-out" which often destroyed an evening's work when it was too late to devote the time to any other purpose, one remedy for which would be to count out a useless Motion, instead of the House, and then to proceed to the next Order. The second chance was the prospect that Governments might at any moment take the whole time of the House, indeed often Government work was so pressing that they must have it. Governments were always on the "pounce" for this purpose, as they were thought to be even last night. And, thirdly, when Bills came on at midnight, their being taken, even if entirely non-contentious, was still a matter of the greatest doubt. He admitted the objections to late Sittings; he himself had had no reason to complain: indeed, he acknowledged the courtesy of the House in permitting the passing of so many of his own Bills, and, personally, he was as much opposed as anyone to unduly late Sittings, except for the formal passage of unopposed, or, as he would rather call them, uncontentious Bills. If there was a real objection to them he had nothing to say, but he had gathered from a recent exclamation, as well as from Members themselves, that there were some on his side of the House who were opposed to all such legislation. He understood this feeling, though he did not share it, but, on the contrary, considered that legislation had advanced, and might more advance, the welfare of the people. Moreover, the Standing Orders contemplated the passage after 12 o'clock of uncontentious Bills, and he certainly objected to all progress being stopped by the simple words, on the part of a single Member, of "I object," especially when the objecting Member had not even read the Bill. He therefore proposed, though only suggestively, and, as in all cases, for the consideration of the Committee, that an effort should be made to reduce the elements of chance and caprice, and to secure more certainty, and that this might be effected by some system of selection in favour of the Bills which were relatively the more important and useful.




Well, it might be done in many ways, one of which was by Members undersigning the Bills which they approved upon a list in the Library, on the same principle as they now backed them. Or, by requiring more than one, say 10, Members to give notice of opposition, as had been suggested by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, and, indeed, the Speaker had already effected an improvement, which he heartily acknowledged, in giving time to Members to disarm opposition by a few words in explanation of their Bills. And there were other ways in which time might be saved and obstacles removed. There was what was called "obstruction," which came from both sides of the House, and which he need not define. With such dilatory tactics he had no sympathy, though he had no objection whatever to deliberate discussion, for which time must be gained by the removal of obstruction. St. Paul had said, "the strength of sin is the law," and the strength of obstruction was the present law of Parliament. The remedy was to strike at inducements to, and at the motives of, obstruction. For example, even now, if the Twelve o'clock Rule were suspended, merely in terrorem, the effect was magical, because Members knew that the time must come at some period of the early morning when there must be an end of the discussion. Consequently, they obstructed no longer, and generally all was over by midnight. It was the same with that somewhat barbarous instrument the guillotine. When once applied it was effective, but its application involved debate, in which time was often lost rather than gained, and in the Party struggle the merits were often wholly lost sight of. Hence, the guillotine was injurious, but there was very much to be said for producing its effect beforehand, and that considerately and impartially, by allotting a certain time to sections of a Bill, and to the Bill itself, through the action of the Speaker, aided by a Committee, such as the Committee of Selection. By this means, discussions would be devoted to the main points of measures, instead of often leaving them wholly unconsidered. But perhaps it might be necessary to take some securities for points developed during the Debate, by giving power to the Speaker to extend the time; indeed, he was in favour himself of giving much greater powers to the Chairman, as in the case of other public assemblies. Moreover, if the limitation of the time prevented some points being discussed, there were still many other stages in which this might, be remedied. Again, suggestively, the carrying over and on from one Session to another of Bills in progress, upon a Resolution moved by the Minister or Member in charge, might prevent their destruction and the consequent waste of public time, and remove a great incentive to Party obstruction. The last long Session of nearly 18 months showed that Sessions were, after all, only arbitrary divisions of time, and an incidental advantage would be the limitation of the necessity for the Closure. The Chambers of Commerce had resolved 10 times in favour of thus carrying over Bills, and again this year; and they had been actuated by the yearly fate of such an important, industrial measure as the Bill for Exempting Machinery and Tools from Rating, a subject which had received attention in most competing countries. This Bill had several times passed its Second Reading, and early last Session by a majority of 173, yet it never got further. Lord Salisbury had said that the practice of measures dying with each Session was as sensible as that of a business man who should annually destroy and recommence all his unfinished correspondence; and out of the 15 National Assemblies of Europe 12, and also the United States, had adopted the more modern practice he had suggested, which had vindicated itself by experience. Much, too, might be said for similarly carrying over measures from day to day, as in other public assemblies, as being likely to get more omnibuses to their journey 'send instead of their jostling each other to pieces by overcrowding Temple Bar. Again, much more devolution was wanted. Private Bill legislation ought to be delegated to Commissions or to the Town and County Councils, and at the last meeting of the Chambers of Commerce—which were formed of business men and men versed in public life—the voices from every part of Ireland—from Belfast to Dublin and Cork and from all political Parties—from Scotland and from England, were universally favourable to at least this form of business like Home Rule. These views he urged in the Debate on Scotch Committees last night, and he would now only add that the Estimates might well go to a Standing Committee. The time in Supply was greatly increasing, owing very much to the encroachments by the Government on the time of non-official Members, who were forced to take this opportunity of airing and redressing grievances. Thus, in 1869 the Civil Service Estimates were in Committee of Supply for 16 days, and in 1887 for 31 days; and this rate was progressive. True, in Supply, attention was given not only to finance, but also to points of policy and administration, and this was of value. But such discussion was desultory; the reductions of expenditure were utterly inadequate to the period expended on them; and, as the Secretary for India had said, there was a waste of public time to little or no purpose in preventing a waste of public money. Through a Committee there would be real revision of expenditure; the officials might, be examined; and the saving of time in Supply would give much greater opportunities of raising Motions for redress directly, and for securing their regular and adequate discussion. There was, indeed, already a plethora of such opportunities in the various stages of Supply—on first going into Committee, on the Motion that the Speaker leave the Chair, on Votes on Account—when discussion was most discursive, as it was on Supplementary Estimates and on the various stages of the Appropriation Bill, and also on Report of Supply. Surely all this was more than sufficient, if the time were economically and profitably used. And, indeed, the Committee of 1886 had recommended that every Public Bill should be referred to a Standing Committee (as was generally the case in the Lords), and that in one of such several Committees the Bills of non-official Members should have precedence, the Committees meeting on Thursdays and Fridays in the day time, and the House at 9 in the evening. These were all matters worth the consideration of a Committee, as were some of the technicalities, and what he might call the anachronisms, as well as the many anomalies, of present Parliamentary procedure. To learn that procedure was almost the work of a lifetime, which no business man could give, and the practice ought to be simplified and more closely adapted to modern life and to the procedure of other Public Bodies. For instance, there were the ancient forms in introducing Bills. These had been recently somewhat shortened and improved, but the discussion of the subject had consumed much of the time of the House, and the result had shown that there was still need for more consideration and change. After the ballot Members had to march to the Par, just as they did two centuries ago.


Hear, hear.


Yes, but in the reign of William and Mary time was more plentiful than now; and the rule was frequently broken by Members not going to the Bar at all, but only a yard or two from their places, and then countermarching to the Table. Next, the Order Paper, carefully prepared though it was by the Speaker and the Clerks, was dictated by ancient precedents. Once, no doubt from its name, it indicated the actual order of business, but now it was almost misleading to any but those who were experts in Parliamentary procedure. Then, the recent discussions of Lords Amendments showed that the system was cumbersome and restrictive of those opportunities for the adjustment of differences between the Houses which ought always to be effected, for the sake of both and of the country, if at all possible without sacrifice of principle. The reasons given for Amendments, compiled in a sham Committee meeting held behind the Chair, were often the very worst reasons, only worthy of such a mock proceeding; and the obstacles to conferences were such as to practically prevent them. Such a proceeding on Privilege as that of the noble Lord the Member for Paddington the other day—


I raised it to test the validity of the Rules.


I only need to say that the noble Lord raised it, not why he raised it, and I was going to thank him for having shown that the Sessional Order against Peers taking part in elections was an annual sham; as was the like Order of the House threatening Members with every severity for bribery and corruption, which was obsolete now that, by the Act of the right hon. Member for Bury, the House's judicial jurisdiction was delegated to the Judges, the annual Order being merely a relic of a procedure which was once a real one, but is no longer so, and one which could now hardly be constitutionally placed in operation. Lastly, the process as to Petitions was almost a misleading of the public. The Press even did not now notice them, as it once did. They were seldom if ever read; they were plunged into the dark profundity of a bag behind the Chair; and yet it was discovered the other night upon the Estimates that the cost of counting these Petitions was some hundreds a year, and the cost of printing what was seldom, if ever, read might be some thousands. He would be the last to propose to abrogate the ancient and once useful right of public petition, but he did propose to reform and make it real, and to put an end to an idle form and a useless expenditure. Other Committees had sat, and done good work, but experience was constantly extending. New conditions and circumstances affected the House like other institutions, and, with a view to the speedy and efficient despatch of public business—for public time was not their own, but the nation's—it was necessary that the House should possess itself of the most effective means of conducting its business and proceedings. Hon. Members were there in the performance of great public duties, at great cost of both time and money; they occupied both public time and attention; and anything in their forms and procedure which detracted from the public estimation of their services or tended to create misapprehension ought to be ended. He therefore asked the House, which had been indulgent, to agree with him that there were grounds for inquiry, consideration, and report by a Select Committee, and to take the opportunity of more economically utilising public time, of lessening what might be a source even of some danger to the State, and of adding to the usefulness and dignity of Parliamentary institutions. The hon. Member concluded by moving for a Select Committee.

* SIR C. W. DILKE (Forest of Dean)

There was one expression which fell from my hon. Friend in respect of which the noble Lord (Lord R. Churchill) opposite dissented. He said there was a strong and general feeling in the House and outside the House with regard to the cumbersome methods of procedure which we adopt. The noble Lord dissented, and I must say I share his dissent, because I do not agree with my hon. Friend, whose Motion 1 second, that there is any strong feeling within this House as to our cumbersome proceedings. No one can be found in Parliament to contend that our Forms and our way of using them are perfect, and outside the House of Commons there is an almost unanimous agreement that they are disgracefully had. If it is necessary to offer any proof of this statement I would give, for example, the mode of moving the adjournment of the House, and so bringing some unexpected subject, not however generally (as was intended) of a sudden nature, but often such as would bear postponement, before the House, in lieu of the business appointed for the day. This was never intended when the Form was devised to meet emergency. Then, again, there is the consideration of Estimates. We now debate the early Votes every year on every Vote on Account and on the main Vote far too fully, and we do not debate the later Votes at all. Then, again, there is the period of the year for the Sittings of the House. The theory is that we sit during the season, and Members take their houses upon that theory. The practice is beginning to be that we sit all the year round, and I venture to prophesy that in the present year, if the Government survive the Budget, we shall sit, as we did last year, throughout the autumn. There is a great deal of chance about our proceedings which gives a portion of our time to the Government, the organised opposition being able to select another portion—but only for the sterile purpose of moving Votes of Censure, while private Members are left to the chance of a chance, to individualism run mad—a single Member by the luck of the ballot obtaining the time which he may misspend. Our Forms are not business-like. The Assembly is less business-like than any County Council or Town Council in the country; and the democracy, or, to be precise, the new voters, enfranchised in 1867 and 1885, have never had the smallest sympathy with us in our inability to transact our work. One of their Representatives in this House, the hon. Member for Batter-sea, in a most able recent speech upon this subject in London, took a view which is almost exactly similar to that of the most experienced of our Chairmen of Committees, my right hon. Friend the Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall, and to the view taken by those very experienced gentlemen the Clerks at the Table, as expressed in the evidence of two of them before several Select Committees, and in the suggestions which have been made by Mr. Milman at various times. There was only one point in which I myself differed from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, as there is no point in which I differ from the gentlemen at the Table and from my right hon. Friend. I am content, in the great difficulty of selecting arbiters of our proceedings, to fully trust the Speaker of the House from time to time, as he is both the choice of the whole House and the natural protector of every minority. It is much easier, however, to point out the extent of the disease than to bring about agreement upon the remedy. The' various Committees which have sat have made many suggestions which have not been adopted, besides those which have. The Committee of 1886 suggested that every Bill should go to a Standing Committee unless otherwise ordered, and accompanied this proposal to divide the whole House into Standing Committees by suggestions, which I believe had the great authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin, for getting rid of that private business which the House no longer transacts as well as it once did. The Committee of 1888 appeared to share the views of the Committee of 1886, but also desired that the Estimates, or at least certain Classes and certain Votes on other Classes, should go to Grand Committee. The Committee of 1890 made suggestions which were far less unanimous than those of the Committees of 1886 and 1888, for they were carried against the Liberal Party, I myself agreeing with the majority of the Committee and not with my Party upon the subject, and they were for the carrying over of Bills. Since 1890 we have had a complete breakdown of Committee Closure, which it has been found impracticable to make use of in the manner which was undoubtedly intended by the House, and I say this as a strong friend of Closure, which I have supported for a great number of years, whichever Party was in power. But here I speak for myself only. To me it seems (although holding extreme views I am generally in a minority) that the House should be looked upon as a place of business, and not as a place of display, and that the democratic constituencies are far from agreeing with those in this House who look upon it mainly as an enjoyable arena of Debate. No one, I think, who was present throughout the proceedings in Committee on the Local Government Bill can think that they were wholly satisfactory, and, from my own experience of Select Committees and of Standing Committees, I cannot have a doubt but that the Bill would have emerged from Committee and come to the House on Report in a more workable form had it been examined by such tribunals, especially if there were power (which exists in most other countries) for the direct consultation by the Committee on technical points of the Government draftsman and experts. Against the evils of chance in private Members' time the private Members of the House have been righting by means of syndicate balloting, a practice, however, which has been condemned in the strongest terms from the Chair as a gross evasion of the Forms. This in itself seems to mo a sufficient base for inquiry by a Committee. If we could agree upon nothing else than to make, on behalf of private Members of this House, practical proposals for the allocation of private Members' time by a reasonable system of preference as against chance, I think that there would be a full justification for our proceedings of to-day. The Leader of the House has declared in the House that he thinks syndicate balloting (but for the former condemnation of the Speaker) a useful means of expressing preference. We are at present working by a rough plan, and are obliged to use rough means on behalf of private Members for forcing on the Government those measures on which the largest numbers of us are agreed—such as the Miners' Eight Hours, for which we are going to obtain time this year. But surely it does not transcend the resources of our statesmanship to find apt and scientific means of doing that which we all wish to do. The Committee of 1888 dealt with this matter in its evidence, though, strictly speaking, it lay outside the scope of the Committee, which was on Estimates. The Committee went far beyond Estimates, and had placed before it plans of the gentlemen at the Table and of my right hon. Friend the Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall, for underwriting Motions. Perhaps this is not the best form for carrying out our end, but surely we must all concur that power ought to be given to groups rather than to mere individuals—some proportion of the time to large groups, and some to small. There is a great deal to say for the view that half-a-dozen gentlemen ought to have their chance of bringing questions before Parliament. But in these days of pressure there is not much to say for the view that a single individual, who cannot obtain the support of any other, should be able to prevent business by monopolising its time; and at the present moment not only are private Members' days themselves an uncertain quantity, but success in the ballot is a chance upon a chance. Any power of the House to exhibit preference should apply to Bills as well as Motions. Some years ago, I think at the suggestion of one of the gentlemen at the Table, I was able to induce Sir Stafford Northcote's Committee to adopt the plan which is now observed of preference after Whitsuntide to the Bills which have passed through their first stages. This is the concession of the principle, and could easily be extended, and I have also seen a suggestion, which I believe also has the authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin, that we should do well to give a certain proportion of our Wednesdays to small and uncontentious Bills which have a reasonable chance of passing—Bills which would be allowed to remain in this class according to their freedom from unpopularity evinced by their not being under-written against. To sum up our suggestions, we press for the principle of preference by large groups and small groups of Members, as against the mere individual Member, and for the business aspect of the House against the show point of view.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon the procedure, practice, and forms of the House and Committees."—(Sir A. Rollit.)

LORD R. CHURCHILL (Paddington, S.)

said, that the right hon. Baronet opposite, like the hon. Member for Islington, had dealt entirely in paradox and generalities and had not descended to details. Though he had listened most attentively to the speeches just delivered he had been unable to discover that the subject had been treated by the speakers apart from generalities. He would deal for a moment, in the first place, with the statement of the hon. Member for Islington as to the private Members' Bills introduced last year. The hon. Member had I stated that of 369 private Members' Bills introduced last year only about 20 had passed.




said, the hon. Member had left out a most important reason, which was the fact that the Homo Rule Bill occupied 80 days, and that the rest of the Session was given up to Supply. How could 369 Bills, or any large proportion of them, have any chance in such a Session? The right hon. Baronet and the hon. Member said that the ballot operated unfavourably to legislation by private Members, and the former said that the country was largely in favour of private Members' Bills being advanced and thought that the time allotted to private Members should be enlarged.


, said, he must lake exception to the noble Lord's statement; be was under an entire misapprehension as to what had really been said.


also disclaimed the purport of the remarks attributed to him. He had said nothing of the kind, but that the system of procedure was most unworkmanlike.


said that, at all events, the general tendency of the two speeches was to impress upon the House that not only the House ought to be unanimous on this point, but that there was a strong feeling in the country about it. He had gone about the country a great deal—nobody went about the country more than he did last year—and he never met with anybody, any ordinary intelligent elector, who could explain what a private Members' Bill was. It was a most absurd name to give, and the ordinary elector had never heard of such a thing. The hon. Baronet had asserted that there was a strong popular feeling in favour of a great reform in the procedure of the House of Commons; but he questioned that statement from his own experience of public opinion. The hon. Member proposed that the range of discussion on the initiative of private Members should be enlarged by some process, which, however, he did not indicate. Personally, he bold that the use of Bills introduced by private Members was this—and it had been slightly hinted at by the right hon. Baronet—that subjects should be brought under the notice of the House and pressed upon its attention from year to year, until finally, if the Bills were in fact wanted, if they were really wise Bills, both parties would take them up and they would ultimately be carried. He had known several instances of that having occurred. It was absolutely impossible for the Government nowadays to afford sufficient time for the discussion of private Members' Bills, even if their Bills were excellent, and nobody could devise a scheme which would enable them to do so. The present Government would very soon be compelled by the pressure of circumstances to make the usual raid on the time of private Mem- bers, partly on account of the late period at which the Session opened, and partly on account of the immense amount of business to be got through. The hon. Member suggested that on the Opposition side of the House the feeling was unfavourable to private Members' legislation, but he would find that that statement was quite unfounded.


said, he was very reluctant to again interrupt the noble Lord, but he was not aware that he had said anything of the kind.


was alluding to the statement that an opinion was entertained on that side of the House that legislation was undesirable.


assured the noble Lord that he had only said that an opinion was entertained by some Members on that side of the House. The noble Lord would, of course, accept his assurance.


would pass on. The right hon. Baronet wanted to supersede the Ballot. There was a good deal to be said for and against the Ballot, but it was rather odd that one of the most Radical Members of the House should wish to do without any system of ballot. A system of selection, however, might operate most unfairly on a minority. Whatever measures were adopted, the majority on a, Committee would correspond with the majority in the House, and that majority would take care that the Bills of private Members in the minority should not proceed. That would be a very great hindrance to the equality of Members, and a great injustice; but the Ballot prevented that, for it gave everybody an equal chance; it gave the same chance to the minority as to the majority. They should not rashly and without thought adopt a proposal which would rule the House of Commons for it was impossible to say how many years. He pointed out that the procedure of the House of Commons had never been dealt with except under the Loaders of the Government, and generally with the support of the Opposition. He thought that some Committee had been appointed to consider the procedure of that House, and the character of those Committees was remarkable. They were composed of the most experienced Members of the House, but the Mover and Seconder of this Motion had given no indication whatever as to who should constitute the proposed Committee. Nothing could be more dangerous than that Members not well acquainted, as some Members of the House could not be well acquainted, with the Rules and Forms of the House and with its general procedure should decide what their new Rules, if any were adopted, should be. No man was a stronger opponent of constant alteration of the Rules of Procedure than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian. That was his attitude up to last Session, when, no doubt, great alterations were made in order to pass the Home Rule Bill. Up to that time no one was more averse to the alteration of the Rules of the House than the right hon. Gentleman. When it was proposed to carry on Bills from one Session to another, the right hon. Gentleman was absolutely opposed to the suggestion. In 1881 and 1882 the right hon. Gentleman made alterations in procedure. He was Prime Minister at that time, and there was trouble with the Irish Party, who were very strong. A Coercion Bill was being passed in 1881 and certain Rules of Urgency were adopted. From an authoritative source he had received the information that those Rules were passed on the initiative of the Chair. In 1892 the Closure was passed, and that also rested on the initiative of the Speaker. The procedure of the late Government was on this wise. The late Government passed the Closure in 1887 in much the same form as it had been passed in 1882, but it rested with the Speaker as well as with the Chairman of Committees whether the Motion should be put. It never was intended, he thought, except for the great political purpose of the Party opposite of carrying the Home Rule Bill, that the Closure should be used for the purpose of oppression or tyranny, but simply when the course of business became embarrassing. The late Government also passed in 1888 15 new Rules, the best which had ever been passed for regulating their business. He protested against the theory of the right hon. Baronet with regard to dealing with little Bills. They were often more contentious than big Bills.


desired to state what he really did say. He merely endorsed a suggestion of his right hon. Friend with regard to small Bills which had not met with more than a certain measure of opposition.


said, these interruptions showed that he was very unfortunate in his appreciation of what had been said. He protested against placing small Bills on a level with large Bills such as the Eight Hours Bill. He thought there should be a Ballot, and that private Members' time should be extended as much as possible. Their time was always very contracted—it was certainly never too largo. He had never known a period when private Members' time was not encroached upon by the existing Government. To put the reform of procedure into the hands of private Members without the concurrence of the Leaders of the Opposition would be the gravest departure from precedent ever adopted by the House of Commons.

MR. J. E. ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)

said, he agreed with the noble Lord that the term "private Members" was an absurd phrase. They were all public Members, and he was glad to see that in the latest edition of Sir Erskine May's book the term used was "unofficial Members," which seemed to him to convey a much more accurate description of the position occupied by those who wore not Members of the Government. He thought also that a proposal of this character should be brought forward under the aegis of the Government, and no Committee would command any confidence unless a commanding Member of the Government was its Chairman. At the same time, he did not concur with the optimistic view expressed by the noble Lord (Lord R. Churchill) of the present position. He cordially endorsed all that had fallen from the Mover and Seconder of the Motion with respect to opinion outside concerning Parliamentary procedure. He was bound to say there was a large amount of impatient bewilderment out of doors, and it seemed to him that the necessity of some further devolution of business was self-evident. The situation had become almost intolerable from its uncertainty. This matter affected the Government just as much as it affected unofficial Members. During the last eight or 10 years Queen's Speeches had always contained five or six times as many measures as could possibly be carried into law. No stronger condemnation of the procedure of the House of Commons could be found than in that single fact. The case with regard to non-contentious measures was oven more serious. During last Session of Parliament there were two Committees appointed by the Government dealing with matters in which the House, at least, had very great interest, and which were not Party matters at all. The Committee on Railway Rates sat a great many days, and after the most exhaustive inquiry with practical unanimity adopted a Report drawn by the President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Shaw-Lefevre). The President of the Board of Trade had announced that a Bill, founded on the recommendation of that Committee, would be brought before the House; but everybody knew that in the present state of business, and with the present procedure, it was almost hopeless to expect a good Railway Rates Bill. Then the Committee on Building Societies of last Session spent five hours in maturing its Report. He was sure that in the judgment of every Member of the Committee a Bill was needed dealing reasonably, carefully, but still firmly, with Building Societies throughout the country. If a notorious person happened to arrive in this country there might be such a feeling produced by the revelations which would be made at the particular trial as would almost compel the House to pass a measure on the subject. The cases of the Rating and Machinery Bill and the Eight Hours (Mines) Bill had been mentioned. Those two measures had passed a Second Reading by large majorities more than once; but unless something very unexpected happened and the Government gave facilities, neither of them had the slightest chance of passing into law. It almost came to this—that in regard to non-official Members' Bills the House began each Session with an unmitigated farce. Something like 250 Members put their names in the Ballot this Session, but even the first five of those who came out of it had very little chance indeed of seeing their measures become law in the present year. The reasons for the present state of things were not hard to see. There was a constant pressure from outside for new legis- lation, and constant promises from candidates in response to it. There was undoubtedly arising outside a feeling that an Act of Parliament could do almost everything, and cure all the ills that flesh was heir to. Accompanied by this the House had to contend with the fact that it had very much less time in which to transact its business. The alterations made in procedure in 1888 created an enormous revolution. A certain hour was fixed when business should stop, and this put for the first time in the power of persons who desired to obstruct or delay particular business the opportunity of doing so. It also put it in the power of one man out of 670 to stop all business after a particular time. Such a state of things would not be tolerated for a single moment in a Town Council or a County Council, or in any other body. Mr. Speaker had, much to the gratification and admiration of Members, mitigated the operation of the Rule in some respects, but he thought that before long the House ought to take the matter into its own hands. The real remedy for the present state of things was, after all, to bring the Standing Orders into harmony with the requirements of the moment. What he thought was most required was certainty in the way in which business was conducted. The Committee of 1861 quoted Mr. Speaker Shaw-Lefevre as saying in 1854— In all the improvements that we have yet made in the conduct of Public Business we have endeavoured as much as possible to let the House understand exactly what questions they have to discuss to prevent surprises and to give some certainty to our proceedings. Mr. Speaker Denison, speaking in 1861, said that the most important thing to which the attention of the House could be directed was certainty in the business of the House from day to day, and that certainty was to be regarded as the primary object. At the present time one did not know in the morning what would be done in the evening, or on one day what would be done the next. Who was responsible? Primarily, of course, the Government of the day was responsible. The appropriation of the time of the House by the Standing Orders was antiquated and obsolete. The Government had only two days out of five in which to conduct their business, and even the most inveterate non-official Member would agree that this was absolutely too small an amount of time for the Government to have at its disposal. One might see how absurd the Standing Orders were on this subject by looking at the annual Return respecting the manner in which the Government made inroads up on the time of the House. It was not well that the Government should so frequently have to alter the Standing Orders. It had been stated that Standing Committees had never been used for the purpose of considering non-official Members' Bills. This was an error. Twice last Session Bills which had no connection with the Government whatever were submitted to the Committee on Law. The Committee of Lord Harrington in 1886 specially contemplated their being so referred. As to the discussions in Committee of Supply, driven as they were almost universally now until after the last day of July, these were becoming of very little practical use, and he agreed with the suggestion of Lord Hartington's Committee that the actual financial examination of the figures might very well be regulated elsewhere. Some plan was needed whereby the volume of opinion with respect to particular Bills should be able to make itself felt. He thought also the valuable principle of classification of Bills, which was already recognised in the Standing Orders, should be adopted after Easter in place of after Whitsuntide. He was not sure that the question of carrying over did not involve much graver considerations than appeared from what was said either by the Mover or Seconder of the Motion. The Report of the Committee of 1890, and especially the Report brought up by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone), raised the very gravest Constitutional questions on the subject. There were a great many recommendations strewn through the Reports of the various Committees to which time did not permit reference; but he was one of those who had always felt that there had been, on the part of the predecessors of the present Members of the House, the very wisest caution in dealing with the Standing Orders. The Report of 1861 said that the maintenance of the old Rules was preferable to new but speculative Amendments. In the present Parliament some experiments had been made that had not been altogether successful, and he did not desire to rush into any rash experiments. The Seconder of the Motion had alluded to the Closure. He thought its use should be very carefully adjusted to the requirements of the business before the House. During the last Parliament he had seen the Closure used in a way which he thought was detrimental to the efficiency of the House and to the dignity of its Leaders. He had always held the opinion expressed by Sir Stafford Northcote that they should limit opportunities of debate rather than restrict freedom of discussion, and he agreed entirely with what had been said by the present Leader of the Opposition (Mr. A. J. Balfour), that the House of Commons must not be judged, like a mine, by the output. Whether the time had come for the appointment of a Select Committee was for the House to decide; but he thought that the Mover and Seconder of the Motion might be well satisfied with the manner in which the proposal had been received by the House. He was sure the discussion would be useful, and that sooner or later the House of Commons would have to reform its procedure, and do its business in a businesslike way.

MR. HANBURY (Preston)

said, he thought the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Islington (Sir A. Rollit) was a most interesting and strong speech as far as it consisted of a denunciation of the present system, but that there was a great, falling-off in it when it came to the suggestion of remedies. That, he thought, had been the defect of the whole of the present Debate. His hon. Friend had made one suggestion which immediately had cold water thrown upon it by the right hon. Baronet (Sir C. W. Dilke), and that was about "syndicating Bills" or "underwriting."


said, the hon. Member was mistaken. He had said, in passing, that possibly under writing might not be the best form of carrying out the intention, but, with regard to general principles, he had entirely endorsed the view expressed by his right hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Courtney.)


said, that hitherto, at all events, the House had set its face against that method. It had been one of the great complaints of private Members that all the Wednesdays had been taken up by the Irish Members. The right hon. Baronet admitted that in the House itself the feeling against the present system was not very strong, but said that a strong feeling existed outside. Of course, people outside could not know what the difficulties were; they could not know how difficult it was to frame Rules which would enable the hundreds of thousands of subjects that had to be discussed by Parliament to be brought before the House. He (Mr. Hanbury) agreed that a good deal of the private legislation of the House might be done locally. Even if it were not devolved upon Local Bodies it would no doubt be more economically done if done on the spot. No doubt a great many reckless promises were made by Members as to the legislation that was going to be passed, and constituents were naturally disappointed when those promises were not fulfilled. Reference had been made to a variety of the most useful Party measures, such as the measure arising out of the Report of the Railway Rates Committee. There was no doubt, however, that all Governments unfortunately gave too great a precedence to mere political measures over the measures which were supported by Members on both sides. His hon. Friend (Sir A. Rollit) had said there were some Members on that (the Opposition) side of the House who objected to legislation altogether. He (Mr. Hanbury) did not think there were any who went so far as that. There was, however, a strong opinion amongst many that it was better that a few measures should be passed after having been properly considered than that a whole host of measures should pass without much discussion, especially when they were passed after 12 o'clock at night. So far as he understood the suggestions of his hon. Friend, the result of all of them would be that they would sit later at night; that they would begin the Sitting earlier in the morning, and that they would sit during a longer period of the year. A great distinction ought to be drawn between Government Bills and private Members' Bills after 12 o'clock at night. He had always objected to Government Bills coming on after 12 o'clock, because the Government were the masters of their own time, but he was opposed to the blocking of private Members' Bills of a good and useful character. But they must recollect that if the suggestions of his hon. Friend were carried out they would every night have private Members' Bills discussed after 12 o'clock until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and thus, if at the same time they extended the Committee system, they would be lengthening the time of the House at both ends. The House was becoming more and more a House of business men, and it was utterly impossible for those men to sit there regularly on Committees at 12 o'clock in the morning. They had already gone too far in the matter of Committees. Queen's counsel and barristers and other Members were excused from attendance, and the result was that pretty much the same Members were found sitting on every one of the Committees. Therefore, if the suggestions of the hon. Member were carried out they would have fewer and fewer of the most useful Members coming to the House, and the work of the House would be thrown into the hands of a set of professional politicians. He entirely agreed that it would be well if there were more certainty as to Government Business, because at present they never knew what was coming on. Therefore, while he sympathised with the object of his hon. Friend, he could not see that any reasonable suggestion had been made as yet to meet the difficulty, and he was bound to say that he feared his hon. Friend's suggestions would rather increase than decrease the evil.

MR. COURTNEY (Cornwall, Bodmin)

said, he was afraid that the present state of the House justified the observations which had been made by his right hon. Friend the Member for the Forest of Dean, that this was a subject in which Members themselves did not feel very strongly interested. There was no doubt, on the part of the older Members of the House, a constant tendency to make idols of the Forms of business, and he was afraid they thought that there existed the best possible arrangements for the despatch of business. He was, however, quite satisfied that his right hon. Friend was right when he said that in the country there was a strong feeling that somehow or other they did not do as much business as their constituents had a right to expect. Work was not done. They talked about things, but somehow or other consumed their time without performing, not all that was required, but even a very moderate portion of what was expected of them. On the balance of argument, he thought the Leader of the House would see that there was a very strong case for a Grand Committee. There were only three ways of improving their position. They must enlarge their time, or diminish their work, or economise their time. As to enlarging their time, no doubt, as had been shown, their recent experience had been that it was curtailed. The recent experiment made of closing contentious business at 12 o'clock had very materially shortened the time at their disposal, and lessened to a very great degree the amount of work formerly done after that hour; but by reducing their work and economising their time they might still recover a great deal of lost ground. If the House were relieved of Private Business they would be able to devote much more time to Public Business without increasing the demand made on the time of hon. Members. If they also referred the Committee stage of Bills and certain branches of the Estimates to Committees outside the House, and got a considerable portion of work discharged concurrently by three or four Grand Committees, they would be able to get through much more Government Business. A good deal of time was now lost on Friday nights, and to save it he suggested that they should permanently adopt the practice of holding on that day a Morning Sitting from 2 to 7 o'clock for Government Business, and an Evening Sitting from 9 to 12 o'clock for private Members' Motions. That would be no waste of time, because a great many hon. Members who were not interested in the subjects to be brought on might go way into the country on the Friday night, after the Government Business was brought to a close for the day. With regard to private Members' time, there was a much greater power of economising that time which was at their disposal. A "system of voice" might be arranged by which the majority and the minority of private Members might each in turn proportionately get an opportunity of bringing forward their measures. They could, by an easy arrangement, secure that the time at the disposal of private Members might be so arranged that it could be devoted to subjects which they had at heart. This would facilitate legislation by private Members, especially if their measures, after reaching a certain stage, were allowed to be taken up again at that stage the following Session. No doubt under such a system the majority of the private Members would obtain the pull in the first instance, but the minority would also obtain their fair share of the time of the House. Reference had been made to some Members who appeared to think that all legislation on the part of private Members might be dropped, but he did not think that anybody of experience would approve of that. Bills introduced by private Members had been largely instrumental in influencing the legislation of this House. In some cases private Members had succeeded in passing their Bills: in other cases they had brought them on year after year until the Government had been bound to take them up and carry them through. He would refer to one of the most recent cases—the Cruelty to Children Act, which had been carried by the exertions of a private Member. The experience of the working of that Act must convince everybody who had any doubt about it before of the extreme necessity there was for passing such a measure. It had brought to light the most horrible cases of cruelty to children on the part of parents and others, and much evil had been redressed. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London and other private Members had been able to pass Bills which were of great interest to the community at large. It had been owing to the action of private Members on Wednesday afternoon that church rates had been abolished, the Burials Act carried, and many vexed questions of a similar character settled. The Deceased Wife's Sister question also, although not yet settled, had been dealt with on a Wednesday. By the proposal he had made many measures that were much desired by different sections of the House might be carried through. It had been suggested that an hour might be set apart once a week or once a fortnight for carrying measures to which there was little or no opposition. He entirely approved of that proposal. Of course, in such a case, if a sufficient number of hon. Members were to signify their opposition to any measure of the kind in writing it would come on in the ordinary way. These were all measures which might well be taken into consideration by a Committee without the Government being called upon to express any opinion with regard to them at the present moment. They said that there was a case for submission to a Committee, as public time was not now used as efficiently as it might be. Both in respect of Public and Private Business there was a case for examination, and for practical suggestions to be inquired into, and he hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite the comparatively small attendance at this Debate, would see his way to granting the Committee asked for.

* MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)

said, that when he first read the terms of the Motion he felt very much inclined to support it by his vote, but every speech he had heard had made him less inclined to do so, and the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bodmin had finally decided him to vote against the Motion. The speech of the Member for the Forest of Dean did not greatly affect his opinion of the Motion one way or the other, because the right hon. Gentleman had confined himself to generalities. The hon. Member for South Islington, who moved the Motion, was, he was bound to say, the Member who began the impression on his mind which induced him to vote against the Motion; but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bodmin had clearly shown, in that magisterial manner with which he was wont to address' the House, that the Motion should not further be proceeded with. The right hon. Gentleman, who was a man of great authority, had shown that two things only could be done to improve the forms of procedure of the House—namely, that Private Business, or business connected with Private Bills, should be delegated to some other authority; and that the Estimates, instead of being thrown, as it were, on the floor of the House in their thousands and left to the industry, or want of industry, of Members to go through them in order to acquire the knowledge necessary for discussing them even in a most cursory fashion, should be referred for examination to a Committee upstairs. There was something to be said for both these points. Private legislation undoubtedly partook of a judicial character, and it would be an advantage to remove all judicial business from the Chamber, which was nothing if not legislative. Again, the reference of the Estimates to a Committee would be an advantage if the Committee were empowered to have before it the permanent officials responsible for the Estimates. The difficulty in dealing with the Estimates was that the Treasury Bench was occupied by a number of gentlemen who really knew little or nothing about them, and who, when they were asked a question about them, could not answer until they had consulted their prompters who sat under the Gallery, or else could only say that the matter was under consideration, or give some other sort of unsatisfactory reply. It would, therefore, be of considerable advantage to have the Estimates examined by a Committee, who would have the officials who prepared the Estimates before them, instead of Ministers who knew nothing, and could know nothing, about the details. But, at the same time, he should be sorry to see the Estimates taken outside the purview of the House altogether, and he did claim that the right of examination of the Estimates, and of cross-examination of the Ministers upon them, was a right most essential to the performance of the most important duties of the Committees of the House. The hon. Member for Islington talked of discussion on the Estimates as a waste of time. He knew not from what fount the hon. Gentleman got his Constitutional knowledge; but he had always understood that one of the most important functions of the House was the guardianship of the Public Purse, and he did not see how the Public Purse was to be guarded unless the Estimates were duly discussed. The hon. Member for Islington had also used words that shocked him with regard to the Rules and Forms of the House. The hon. Gentleman said they were cumbersome, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Forest of Dean added that the outside world was convinced they were cumbersome. He challenged that assertion. He believed that no such feeling existed outside the House. There was a strong feeling outside the House that people did not understand the Rules and Forms of the House, and that was only natural; but he had never found any widespread public feeling that the Rules of the House were too cumbersome. He used the word "too" advisedly. Having regard to the great complexity of the business which came before the House, it was inevitable that the Rules should appear cumbersome to those not acquainted with them, but he denied that they were cumbersome as a matter of fact. Instead of being cumbersome, he considered that the Rules of the House were admirably good Rules. Undoubtedly, he had come across Rules which seemed to him at first to be without good reason, but he soon came to understand that there was excellent and sufficient reason for the Rules, and that without them the business of the House could not be well conducted. He would cite as an example of what seemed a trifling Rule the Rule which said that no Member might stand above the Bar. If that Rule had been strictly observed the scene which took place in the House last Session, and which they all regretted, would not have occurred. He should strongly condemn the hon. Member for Islington for presuming to tell the House that its Rules were cumbersome; and he had been pained to find that even the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bodmin was inclined to adopt the same tone, and cast ridicule and contempt on some of the Rules of the House, which were entitled to great respect. The Australian Parliament was, like all Parliaments worthy of the name, based upon our Parliament, and an Australian Minister recently writing on the subject had said that they had thought they could improve on some of the Rules that had been adopted from the House of Commons; but when they had changed the Rules, they found that things did not go so well; they saw that there was good reason and sound principle at the bottom of the Rules they had abandoned, and so they quickly re-adopted the Rules again. That was a very strong testimony of the value of the Rules of the House. He believed that the Rules were admirable. They had grown up from the experience of a thousand years, and if and when they were had it was because they had been subjected to hasty, unreflecting, and inconsiderate Amendments, contrived to meet the supposed exigencies of the moment or the imagined convenience of a Party. The Rules were good, and all that was required was that they should be understood and properly carried out. The Debate had turned on the point of the allocation of the time of the House. He ventured to say that it was impossible to read attentively through and understand the Rules of the House without seeing that the ordinary allocation of time was most excellent as between Ministers and non-official or unpaid Members. The allocation of the time of the House as between the unpaid Members and the placemen was good. But what, happened? The Session was hardly begun when the Government appropriated nearly all the time for their own measures, and there was very little opportunity left for any other business. The offenders against the Rules of the House, the purloiners of its time, were not the private Members, but the Government; and so long as private Members neglected to combine together, irrespective of Party, to maintain their rights and to refuse the Government permission to take all the time of the House in this unconstitutional fashion, so long would the. House suffer from what was the great complaint of the present time. The hon. Member for Islington had also declared that the results obtained under the Rules had not pleased him. There were not enough Acts of Parliament passed. The hon. Member complained that only 27 out of 357 Bills introduced last Session had passed. His own opinion was that 27 were rather more than ought to have been passed. The remaining 330 were extremely had, haphazard, ill-considered Bills, which ought never to have been introduced at all. The Member for Islington wanted more Acts of Parliament and less consideration. He, on the other hand, wanted more consideration and fewer Acts of Parliament. The Member for Islington had his pockets full of Bills, some Conservative and some Radical, but other Members took a more prosaic view of their duty. They were there to see that the business of the country was well conducted, and to prevent the hon. Gentlemen opposite from spending too much money. He also considered that the Twelve o'Clock Rule was a good Rule and required no alteration. It was not reasonable to ask the House to accept Bills after 12 o'clock, unless they were of a non-contentious character, and it was perfectly right that Members with sufficient public spirit should object to Bills being considered at such an hour, when there was no time for full and free discussion. It was suggested that they should have a system of underwriting Bills; but if Bills were to be underwritten, they must also have underwriting against Bills. That was only a natural corollary; and consequently they would have Members in charge of Bills occupying the whole of their time getting Members to back their Bills, while their opponents would be running about on the other side getting other Members to underwrite against the Bills. Then he presumed that there must be a quorum of underwriters. What would be the quorum, 50, or 90, or 120? He thought that half the House would not be too large a quorum. Therefore, it would be necessary to get 335 Members to back a Bill before it could be taken out of its turn and considered. He thought such a suggestion might be dismissed without further attention. Technicalities and Forms had been treated with great contempt by various Members who had spoken in the Debate. He defended the technicalities and Forms of the House as being a protection of the weak against the strong. He would remind the House that the Form of requiring a Member introducing a Bill to appear at the Bar of the House was taken from the ancient practice of Bills being brought into the House from outside, and when agreed to by the Parliament, becoming Acts. The time taken in this operation was extremely small, and it seemed to him that it was a Form to which meaning and traditions attached which ought not to be cast aside, but should be preserved. He was not prepared to deny that there were directions in which the Rules of the House might possibly be amended; but if there were, it was rather in reversion to old principles and forms and the language of old Rules than by—if he might use the term—getting into back parlours and inventing new Rules to fit particular occasions. There was a time when placemen were not allowed to sit in the House. There was a time when, according to Prynne, 40 was not considered a quorum except for Prayers and unimportant business; and when for the consideration of grave and serious Public Business it was held necessary that the whole or greater part of the House should be present. That Rule had been not invented, but borrowed from this House by the United States, so that while this House had gone back through the usurpation of the Long Parliament to a quorum of 40, the United States House of Representatives required that, before serious business could be considered, there should be half the House, plus one, present. That might be a reform worthy of consideration. Again, there was the "call of the House," such as was made in 1628, moved by Sir G. Moore— That any Members of the House being in town and not attending here the Serjeant to be sent for them. The Serjeant to be sent for all the Members of the House now in town as well lawyers as others There was no privilege for lawyers then. No; the country wanted them— to be here presently and to attend every day. Again, next year, this was placed on the Journals of the House— Ordered, No Member of this House shall go out of town till this great business is ended without special leave of the House. In 1628 it was ordered— The House shall be called upon Thursday next week, and every Member of the House then to attend upon pain of £10, to be disposed of as the House shall appoint, besides such further forfeiture as the House shall inflict. That "call" enforced in that manner was one which might conceivably be reverted to by Members jealous of the honour and dignity of the House. Again, he was informed, there was a practice which consisted in an arrangement between two Members that one should vote one way and the other the other without hearing the question. That was a practice he did not indulge in. He was told, however, that it existed to a large extent, lasting sometimes over several months. That seemed to him to be a practice that might be mended by the Rules of the House. He had ventured to make a few criticisms on the Motion. He had set forward the grounds on which he found it impossible to vote for it, and he submitted, in conclusion, that the Rides of the House as they existed were extremely good, if only the Government would not use its majority to prevent their observance; and, if they required alteration in any way at all, this should rather be in the direction of reverting to some of the ancient Forms and Regulations than by the adoption of crude, unreflected, and unconsidered Motions such as that presented to the House upon the present occasion.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 41; Noes 136.—(Division List, No. 11.)