HC Deb 08 February 1899 vol 66 cc181-5

I beg to move, Sir, That no Bills, other than Government Bills, be introduced in anticipation of the ballot, and that all Members who desire to ballot, whether for Bills, or Motions for the first four Tuesdays of the Session, do hand in their names at the Table during the sitting of the House on the first or second day of the Session, and that a copy of such Notices be handed in at the latest during the sitting of the House on the third day of the Session: That the ballot for the precedence of the said Bills and Motions be taken on the third day of the Session at a convenient time and place to be appointed by Mr. Speaker, and that the introduction and First Reading of Bills on the fourth day be taken before Questions and as soon after Three o'clock as Mr. Speaker may deem convenient. (Mr. A. J. Balfour.)

* MR. JOHN ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)

Before this motion is passed I should like to say a few words with respect to it. In one sense it may be regarded as a formal motion, for the convenience of the House, which the Leader of the House now makes once a year, and in many respects we are all glad of it. But, Sir, anyone who looks carefully into the matter will know that the word which some speakers use, "farce," which has now become quite a Parliamentary one, applies more strongly to this balloting business and its sequences than to almost anything else in our procedure. I really do not know whether hon. Members have carefully investigated what this system amounts to. Yesterday something like 300 Members put down their names for the chance of the ballot, and each one of them hopes that he will get the chance of a place. Last year I devoted a little spare time in investigating what had been the actual results during the last eight or ten years, in regard to this matter of the introduction of Bills by hon. Members. I venture to say that not 4 per cent, of the Bills ever have the slightest chance of receiving a discussion, and of those that do receive a discussion, not half get the smallest chance after Whitsuntide of discussion in Committee, and of those which do obtain a discussion in Committee hardly one goes through. I can give one instance of one which received the Royal Assent, and that was the Liverpool Court of Passage Bill—a purely local Bill. But it was quite local, as I have said, and unopposed. But, Sir, Bills which are intended to effect any real reform under present circumstances, as everyone knows, stand no chance. If there are half a dozen Members who are against a Bill, and the rest of the House in favour of it, it is impossible that that Bill can be proceeded any further with at any stage during which even an individual Member has a right to say "I object." It is too evident that the demand for this legislation, if that is indicated by the number of Members who put their names down and go to ballot, is growing; but, on the other hand, it is equally evident, that the chances of their Bills ever being discussed are rapidly diminishing. I do not see the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for the University of London, in his place, but he uttered his accustomed wail last evening that a particular measure was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. He knows perfectly well that that measure did get—almost accidentally, I believe—before a Grand Committee on one occasion. There were a comparatively small number of Members with strong but very legitimate reasons for opposing that measure I had the honour to be in the chair and that measure received very careful consideration. It was sent back to this House, and of course the usual result followed—it was perfectly impossible to get it through. Times were when such a Bill as that would have been dealt with by 30 or 40 Members interested in it. After Government Business those Members would have stopped and dealt with a most useful piece of legislation; but this has all been changed. In February, 1888, by a revolution in our procedure we stopped all that, and it is now in the power of any one Member to stop all progress of a measure by simply saying "I object." The right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the House, may say that he is not interested in this; he may tell us that he has no interest as a Member of the Government. That is so. But I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, as in- terested in the efficiency of the House of Commons as a working machine, and urge that he has some responsibility in seeing that our proceedings should be fruitful. The very fact that the leader of the House makes this motion to-day shows that we do commit to him the power of regulating our proceedings in this respect; but I do say that the demand for this sort of legislation—the expectation of it among our constituents—is growing, and that the chances are rapidly diminishing, and that as a matter of fact the whole thing under our present procedure is a perfect farce. I speak quite disinterestedly in this matter; my name is not on the back of any Bill which will appear before the House this Session, but I have had some little experience in these things. It was once my lot to conduct a Bill of a controversial character through Grand Committee. I have also often sat as Member and Chairman of those Committees, and it is therefore in the light of that experience that I make these few observations in the hope that the Government will, in small matters, as well as in large, consider whether some remedy cannot be found for the present state of things. I believe there are one or two very small alterations in our procedure which could be made, which would give every Session of the House two or three Bills some chance of passing. I am not one of those who can be considered as an admirer of the great mass of these Bills, because, as a matter of fact, I generally take a holiday on Wednesday afternoons when they are being discussed, knowing full well that they will go no further, but I do, Sir, think that it rather concerns our honour, and dignity, and efficiency that we should not go through the process of raising expectations, of dealing with all sorts of subjects, when we know perfectly well that a very small percentage indeed of those subjects will ever be discussed, and that hardly any of them will really get into Committee.

* SIR F. POWELL (Wigan)

I rise only to call attention to the change which has been made as regards the power of rejecting Bills. In the days of the half-past twelve o'clock rule a Member had power to object to the second reading stage being taken, and to the Committee stage being taken but, after that, his power of objection ceased. He could not object to the report stage, nor to the third reading. But under the present conditions, objection can be taken to these Bills at all their stages after midnight. The opportunities and chances of private Members are, and have been, diminishing year after year, and for my own part, I should be glad to see the old liberties and opportunities of private Members restored to them. I, myself, am in charge of a Bill on behalf of the County Councils Association, the object of which Bill is to prevent the pollution of rivers. It is a Bill of the greatest importance, and I cannot help thinking that it is something like a scandal that a Bill of that magnitude should be stopped year after year by the single individual action of a Member who comes from Ireland.


Neither the hon. Gentlemen who initiated this discussion, nor my right hon. Friend behind me, will expect me to deal with the very complicated matters they have raised. It is evident we cannot deal adequately with the matters unless we discuss first the twelve o'clock rule, and the powers of single individual members to stop the Bill, and secondly, the whole method of balloting—and whether any substitution for the chances of the ballot can be arrived at. That, I think, should be a matter for the House itself. But, I think, I may say that the hon. Gentleman opposite, and my hon. Friend behind me, are a little too pessimistic in their views of private Bill legislation. It is perfectly true that the great mass of private Bills are not discussed, still less passed, but if you go through the list of Legislative Reforms, you will see that a very considerable number of private Members' Bills are every year added to the Statute Book.

SIR C. DILKE (Gloucester, Forest of Dean)

Wholly unopposed.


No doubt, as the right hon. Baronet says, chiefly unopposed Bills.


Wholly unopposed.


Well, I do not see that the Nonconformist Marriage Bill—a Bill of so interesting a character as that—deserves to be classed as an unopposed Bill. That was passed last Session. But what I would ask the House to remember is this: By some means or other, every legislative assembly in the world finds itself under the necessity of smothering the great mass of projects, and proposed laws, which are brought before it. There are over 600 Gentlemen in this House, and of that number there is a large proportion having legislative ambitions, and some of them have legislative ambitions of more than one kind. It is quite evident, if the Government were to devote the whole of their time to this class of legislation, and abandon all hope of legislating on their own account, and give up every hour at their disposal to the time of private Members, they could not get through even more than a small fraction of these projects of legislation. Many of these Bills get crushed out principally by the action of the ballot, and more particularly still by the action of the House on private Members' rights. In America they have a different method of clearing the order book. But somehow or another, the great mass of these projects, because no time can be given to their adequate discussion, are lost. Whether our particular method of clearing them off is the best or not, I cannot say, but as the hon. Member opposite has not yet laid before us any detailed scheme which would alter this procedure to any advantage, perhaps, we ought not now to attempt any sweeping measure of reform. I have no doubt that what he has said upon the subject has called attention to the matter, and perhaps, in time to come, some more perfect method will be brought before us; but until then, perhaps, the House will consent now to pass the resolution which everybody thinks to be a great improvement upon the system in force before the present system came into operation, and then we will proceed to the debate upon the Address.

Motion carried.


In accordance with the order just made, I fix twelve o'clock to-morrow in Committee Room No. 10 for the taking of the Ballot, and perhaps it is as well that I should say to the House that the introduction and the first reading of the Bills will be taken on Friday as soon as possible after prayers.