HC Deb 11 May 1897 vol 49 cc238-45

rose to call attention to the duration of speeches in Parliament, and to move:— That, the duration of speeches in this House has increased, is increasing, and should be abated. He said that he rose with diffidence to move this Resolution, because he was aware that it was not for a humble agricultural Member of a dozen years' standing in the House to suggest a change in. the procedure of the House which had lasted for two centuries. He reminded the House that he and some hon. Friends had introduced a Bill having for its object the shortening of the duration of speeches in Parliament. He admitted that the Measure was crude, yet on a division he obtained a majority of 70 in favour of it. He thought that the majority of hon. Members, however conservative their views, would not deny that there was some necessity for a modification of the rules of procedure under which the Debates were carried on. Some hon. Members might remember a Debate, 14 years ago, when an hon. Gentlemán spoke from noon until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. [Laughter.] Last Session a right hon. Gentleman spoke on one occasion for three hours and ten minutes, and hon. Members who were Irish landlords and connected with Ulster constituencies were not likely to forget either the speech or its results, hi the Financial Relations Debate the other day an hon. Gentleman, known in two continents, made a speech which lasted for two hours and ten minutes, or, rather, he read a speech of that duration. [Laughter.] Then there were right hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House who never thought of speaking under an hour.[Laughter, and cries of "Name !"] They also knew hon. Members who made it their boast and pride that they never rose to address the House under 40 minutes. Such was the exuberance of dialectical ability in the last Parliament, that one hon. Member spoke on a sub-head (B) of the Estimates for half an hour on every Estimate, or whenever Supply was taken. That hon. Member was a lusus natureœ, and the House was not likely to see many like him again. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen had said to him, "Why is it you cannot leave the rules of procedure alone? What was good enough for our predecessors is good enough for us."' That was rather a specious argument, but it admitted of a, straight answer. There was a Latin or Greek poet—he was brought up at Eton, but his education had been neglected—[laughter]—who said, "Times change, and we change with them." He recalled to the recollection of the House that in earlier years some names continually recurred in Debate like recurring decimals. The majority of hon. Members in, those days sat and listened, waiting, as the right hon. Member for West Monmouthshire had said, their apotheosis, or translation to the House of Lords. [Laughter.] These Gentlemen did not speak, and the less they spoke the sooner they got their promotion. [Laughter.] Their descendants at the present time sat in the House of Lords, and they attended the sittings of that Assembly as infrequently and spoke as seldom as their fathers did in the House of Commons. But this was not the way in which the business of the House of Commons was conducted at the present time. Hon. Members had to attend, and to make speeches on behalf of their constituents, and to introduce Bills whether they liked them or not. He himself once introduced a Bill for the compulsory marking of shrimps—[laughter]—in obedience to the orders of his constituents, and he was bound to say that the Bill did not take its place on the statute-book. [Laughter.] There were several precedents for imposing a time limit on speeches. There was a reference in The Times the other day to what happened 50 years ago, when Lord John Russell proposed a Motion, to which Mr. Milner Gibson moved an Amendment, allowing hon. Members to speak only for an hour, though Mr. Milner Gibson said that he preferred 40 minutes. Two distinguished Members of the House who voted with Mr. Milner Gibson, were Mr. Bright and Mr. Cobden, and the Amendment was only lost by 26 votes in a moderately full House. Then in the House of Representatives at Washington the time limit, which was very short, was strictly carried out; it was only five minutes. [Cheers and laughter.] In the House of Convocation, in the United Service Institution, in the Poor Law Conference, the time limit, was strictly enforced. If hon. Gentlemen read Gibbon they would find that 2,000 years ago in Home, in the days of Julius Caesar—[laughter]—the Emperor was said to have been much annoyed at the exuberant verbosity of certain senators, and he ordered these senators to be imprisoned. [Laughter, and "Hear, hear !"] The majority of the Senate, however, did not wish to see members of their body shut in the Clock Tower, and, afterwards, according to the historian, such was the now of eloquence that decent debate was subsequently impossible. In moving this Resolution he did not address his remarks to the Front Benches. When right hon. Gentlemen chose they spoke as long as they liked, and as long as the House lasted this would always be so. He addressed himself rather to the private Member who was shut out of debate by the prolixity of right hon. Gentlemen. The Debate on the Financial Relations, for example, lasted three days; but scores of Members did not enjoy the chance of speaking. Then there was an agricultural Debate on a Motion made by the hon. Member for St. Helens. He did not think that was likely to bring about a millennium in the rural districts, and he should have liked to say, so, but it was impossible—the whole time was gone and the Debate was over. Although he and his Friends had taken particular care not to put any time limit in the Resolution, his own idea was that if right hon. Gentlemen could not liberate their soul in an hour, and if private Members could not say all they had to say in 15 minutes, then they did not know their trade and were not fit to occupy a seat in this House. [Laughter and cheers.] He and his Friends had not canvassed or button-holed any Members in the Lobby to support this Resolution; they had agreed to run the Resolution on its own merits, in the sporting phraseology which Lord Salisbury had adopted. If the right hon. Gentlemen would support the Resolution they would be received by their countrymen, when they went down in the autumn to address them, with more gratitude than if they had brought in half-a-dozen Education Bills—[laughter]—and private Members would be received by their constituents in the words of "Alice in Wonderland:"— And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy, [Laughter.]


, in seconding the Motion, said no innovation either in principle or in practice was advocated. Those who had been long in Parliament had witnessed many changes all tending to the limitation of Debate. He need only refer to the different varieties of the Closure which in the last ten years had sprung into being, the reduction in the number of stages through which a Measure had to pass. In the Debates of 1849 Mr. Hume mentioned that in his day an hon. Member had 17 opportunities during the course of a Measure of speaking upon it; now the opportunities were reduced to about eight. The evil now lay not so much in the length of speeches as the frequency of some speakers in addressing the House—[laughter]—and the fact that they frequently repeated their own arguments and, perhaps, more frequently repeated the arguments of other Members. Private Members were not entirely to blame for the desultory character of the speeches. From the mode in which business was arranged, from the uncertainty which attaches to the time or the opportunity on which any given subject might actually come on for Debate, it was scarcely worth the while of any private Member who had anything else to do to get up the subject thoroughly, because he never knew whether he would be able to deliver his sentiments, whether the time would serve, whether the Debate would come on, or whether he would be able to catch Mr. Speaker's eve as it revolves in its orbit. [Laughter.] As was observed by the eminent Statesman who took part in the discussion of 1849, "it was the uninformed themselves who had not thoroughly considered the subject who make the long speeches." ["Hear, hear !"] It had been calculated that, taking the ordinary duration of the Parliamentary Session and making allowance for holidays, counts-out, and so forth, the House spent in actual Debate something like 1,000 or 1,100 hours. Take it at 1,050. They might allot to the occupants of the Treasury Bench 300 hours and to Members of the Front Opposition Bench 150; that would leave 600 hours to ordinary Members, or, say, an hour a-piece. But they all knew that the bulk of hon. Members were not habitual speakers, and that the delays and redundancies and repetitions were inflicted upon the House by the comparatively few. ["Hear, hear !"] There were about 100 Members who were the regular speakers in the House, and he suggested that to the House generally, exclusive of the Front Benches, 600 hours should be allotted in the Session. The speeches of every Member might be recorded, and when he had occupied three hours of his time the fact should be intimated to him. [Cries of "Divide !"] Members of the Government could divide the time placed at their disposal among themselves; and if anyone wished for an extension of his time, he could borrow it from a colleague. [Cries of "Divide !"] He begged to second the Resolution.


said that he could remember the House more than 40 years ago, and he thought it was a mistake to suppose that there ever was a golden age when there were no bores, and when there were no complaints of the length of speeches. In the olden days a prolix speaker, who did not command the respect of the House, was subjected to rather rude interruptions, which were, however, employed with discretion, and never without representing the feeling of the House. In those days just as much useful work was got through, though with a great deal less speaking, for it was not thought necessary for everyone to speak, nor for everyone who had prepared a speech to deliver it. [Cheers.] No doubt, on account of the fierce light which now beat on the proceedings of the House, hon. Members liked their constituents to know that they were not silent; but hon. Members could, surely, exercise some restraint in not prolonging Debate by repeating arguments which had been stated by others. ["Hear, hear !"] He did not think the time had come when any drastic or automatic machinery could be adopted to regulate Debate; and it would be a great misfortune if such expedients were resorted to. The good sense of the House had hitherto been sufficient, without any precise rules, to enable the House to boast that it was the model and mother of Parliaments. The measures which had been taken within the last ten years had restored the order that obtained in times past; and the Debates were now conducted with as much regularity and decorum as he could ever remember. ["Hear, hear !"]


said that there was one person of whom complaint might justly be made, and that was the expert and specialist. Such a person had a right to be heard on the subject; but everyone had read his views beforehand in the magazines or newspapers. If such Members would only condense their arguments in the same way as they did in their letters to The Times, the Debates would gain considerably. ["Hear, hear !"] Some curtailment was necessary to restore the interest and brightness of the Debates. A real Debate was, indeed, seldom heard nowadays. It was generally a succession of essays. ["Hear, hear !"]


said that anyone who occupied a prominent position in the House, as did the right hon. Member for North-East Manchester, could always find an opportunity for taking part in Debate. But that was not the case with humbler Members, who on certain occasions ought to have more opportunity of expressing their views concisely. ["Hear, hear !"] He could not agree with the hon. Member for Hereford that there were no very recent examples of excessively long speeches. On the Third Reading of the Voluntary Schools Bill only 14 speakers were able to take part in the Debate, though it lasted the whole evening. The Financial Relations Debate occupied three days, on the first of which there were five speakers, on the second eight, and on the third only six. Yet that was a subject on which many Members felt a great interest. There were many many public bodies which had tried the experiment of limiting speeches, particularly the County Councils. On the Council with which he was connected, there was a particularly stringent rule, and the Standing Order had rarely to be suspended. The House might try the experiment, in the first place, on private Members' evenings. It might be said that public opinion would do all that was necessary; but the methods which were once effectual in hinting to a speaker that he had exhausted the patience were no longer effectual. He asked the House seriously to take into consideration this growing evil. ["Hear, hear !"]

MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

thought that some of the blame for the prolixity of Members was due to the Press. If an hon. Member condensed his observations within 20 minutes—which was long enough for the statement of his case—the gentlemen of the Reporters' Gallery cut down his remarks to a two minutes' speech. [Laughter.] The result of that system was to encourage Members to speak at undue length. The bore who occupied the attention of the House for a long time got some at least of his remarks reported, while the Member who made a short, bright speech, without the aid of notes, was dismissed with the line: "After some observations from Mr. A. B., the House divided." [Laughter.]

*MR. WALTER MORRISON (York, W.R., Skipton)

said that when he first entered the House of Commons there was a Rule against the Reading, in the course of a speech, of any printed matter except extracts from the Debates or from Reports or Papers presented to Parliament; but nowadays it was quite a common thing for Members to equip themselves with printed quotations from newspapers and read them at great length. ["Hear, hear !"] He thought that if the rule objecting to the reading of printed matter were revived, and if, in consequence, hon. Members had to write out the extracts they wished to read, the length of speeches would be considerably reduced. [Laughter and "Hear, hear !"] He also thought the House ought to set its face against the growing habit of reading speeches in manuscript. ["Hear, hear !"] If an unofficial Member could not condense what he had got to say into a quarter of an hour, or a right hon. Gentleman what he had got to say into an hour, he ought to go to school again. ["Hear, hear !"] He recollected that when Lord Palmerston and Mr. Disraeli were the leading Members of the House and followed each other in Debate they usually occupied only one hour each, and in that time they were both able to state their points with admirable clearness and force.

The House divided:—Ayes, 85; Noes, 24.—(Division List, No.203)