HC Deb 21 February 1899 vol 67 cc22-9

"That it be an Instruction to the Committee that in selecting Members to serve on Committees for the consideration of Private Bills equal consideration shall be granted to any Member on the ground of his private profession, business, or avocation."—(Mr. Lloyd-George.)


I beg, Sir, to move the Instruction which stands in my name with regard to the Committee of Selection. The Motion which I move is different in form to the one which is down on the paper, but I have only altered two words. I have substituted for the words "no exception" the words "equal consideration shall." The object, of course, is that there shall not be any special consideration which can be urged by any individual Member as to his particular business which shall exempt him from serving on Committees on Private Bills. Of course, it is not intended to apply to events which may happen in the course of the next few weeks which might prevent any individual Member from doing his duty on the Committee, and which should be taken into account by the Committee of Selection. But a practice has grown up of granting something in the nature of a general exception in favour of one or two professions. My contention is that that should not be so for the future. It is not a Rule of the House; it is not a Standing Order; in fact, it is in defiance of the Rules of the House. We are all here on terms of perfect equality. There is no Rule which admits of any exception or favour or privilege to any particular profession, and it is not right that, in the interests of one profession (I am not going to allude particularly to that profession) there should be a Rule which extends a larger share of the burden, of the drudgery of the work of the House to those who are not engaged in a few particular avocations. I can quite understand a barrister saying that in the course of the month of February he would not be able to attend certain Committees because he has certain work to do, and I can quite understand the Committee of Selection taking that into account and saying that that particular Member shall be exempted during particular months, but anything in tha shape of a General Rule exempting a man because he happens to be a barrister is very unfair to the rest of the House. It is very true that a Member who is called upon to attend these Private Bill Committees performs very onerous duties, and those duties are growing heavier every year, and there is a disposition on the part of Members to claim exemption, and if this is permitted to go on, the whole work of Private Bill Committees will necessarily fall upon those few Mem- bers who are willing to take their share in what I may call the drudgery of the work of the House. Therefore I move that there shall be no general exemption, but that there shall be an exemption upon special considerations, and I therefore beg to move the Notice as amended which stands in my name.

MR. STRACHEY (Somerset, S.)

I rise to second this Motion, and I think with the Mover of it that there ought to be no particular exception with regard to this particular work. It may have been all right in the days in which there was a large class who had a great deal of leisure and very little business; but in these days there is a large number of Members of this House who are interested in agriculture, and who undertake the management of their own estates, which is, after all, so necessary. Therefore I say that there is no class in this House which has a great deal of leisure, and that is my reason for saying that all the Members of the House ought to be treated equally. But it seems to me that a very large class of able men, whose services would be of the greatest value on Private Bill Committees, are by custom exempt. Every Member of the House will feel that a barrister having a large practice and great experience of examination and cross-examination of witnesses is the very man who would be most useful to sit upon these Committees, but by this self-denying ordinance these practical men who do great service to the House and to the country at large are not allowed to serve upon these Private Bill Committees. It may be unpleasant, it may be inconvenient, it may not be profitable to men of large legal business to serve on Private Bill Committees, but I am quite sure that if brought before them in the House they would say—very properly and very necessarily—that the convenience of this House and the service of the public ought to stand before any private question, however imports it may be.

*MR. HALSEY (Herts, Watford)

I am sure that the House will expect a few words from me on this question, and in addressing myself to the matter before the House I must beg the indulgence of the House for the position in which I find myself, in having to take the place of one like my right honourable Friend the Member for the University of Oxford, who has for so many years presided over this Committee. His sound judgment and ripe experience (to which I feel I can lay no possible claim) did, I am sure, obtain, as it ought to obtain, the confidence of this House. I beg to take this opportunity of thanking the honourable Gentleman opposite for the courtesy with which he has treated us all through on this matter. He postponed his Motion till this day for this reason: that we believed that the Committee of Selection would be constituted in its old form, and that my right honourable Friend, as its Chairman, would have been ready to deal with the Motion which has been made. Providence has ruled it otherwise. My right honourable Friend, as the House is aware, is suffering from a most grievous affliction, and I am sure that I am expressing not merely my own feelings, but the feelings of every Member of this House, in whatever quarter he may sit, in tendering to the right honourable Gentleman our deepest and most sincere sympathy in the trial that has befallen him—a trial which must deprive us for a time of his presence, and of his large experience upon this as upon all other matters. Now, Sir, I come to deal with the Motion of the honourable Gentleman, and I am bound to say that it would have been impossible to have accepted the Motion in the form in which it was originally put down on the paper, because it was of too large and sweeping a character, and because it would have absolutely bound the Committee to deal with every individual case. Now, the Motion as it is now proposed represents much more fairly what it has always been, I will venture to say, the endeavour of the Committee of Selection to arrive at. The view which we take, and which we have always endeavoured to uphold, is best expressed in the answer which was given by my right honourable Friend the Member for the University of Oxford, who was asked a question on the subject early last Session. On that occasion he stated that no Member of the House had any right of exemption from service on Private Bill Committees, either by Standing Order or Instruction of the House; but that it had ordinarily been the custom of the Committee of Selection not to place on such Committees Members of the learned professions actively engaged in practice. Should, however, there be a difficulty in obtaining an adequate supply of Members qualified to serve, the Committee of Selection would consider it their primary duty to call upon any Member to serve who, in their judgment, ought to take part in those labours, even if such demand might involve a modification of the previous custom. Now, I should like to supplement that by saying that I think I am expressing the opinion of the Committee when I say that whatever may be the claim of Members to be excused on the ground of professional engagements, they are carefully considered by the Committee. These appeals for excuse are not limited alone to barristers, but we have solicitors, bankers, merchants, and members of other professions. Our object is to take each case on its merits. When an honourable Member applies to us, and writes to say that his avocation makes it inconvenient for him to attend to his duties on the Committee, it always has been our custom to endeavour to give full consideration to his representations, and to call upon him to serve or not as we think it is expedient in the interests of the House and the carrying on of the Committees. I am bound to say that we fully recognise, we always have recognised, that it is the bounden duty of every Member of this House to serve on a Private Bill Committee if he should be required to do so. At the same time, we endeavour to carry out that obligation and enforce it with as much consideration for the convenience of individual Members as is consistent with the due performance of this important work. I do not know whether the honourable Member will think it necessary to press this Motion in its amended form. I confess that I see no reason why the House should not accept this Motion; but whether the Motion stands or whether the honourable Member will be content, with the discussion that may take place before the master is finally settled, this I can at any rate venture to say, that I for one do not regret this point having been raised. I believe that it will strengthen the hands of the Committee, and that it will also show what there may have been need to show to the very numerous younger Members of this House, that it is as much a part of their duty, if called upon, to give up their own convenience and to serve upon these Private Bill Committees, as it is to perform any of the other duties which they come to this House to perform. If any difficulty should in the future arise in obtaining the services of these Members, then I trust that the House will support the Committee of Selection. But I should like on that point, with all respect, to point out that I cannot quite acquit the House itself of a little laxity. The House appears to have established rather an abrogation of its ancient practices during the last two or three years. I do not know how long, because I have not had time sufficient to go into the question. In my early Parliamentary days, if a Member serving on a Private Bill Committee did not attend on any particular day the Chairman of the Committee reported to the House the fact that that Member had not attended, and the fact was duly entered on the journals of the House, and the entry was invariably followed by a distinct order of the House that that Member do attend the Committee on the following day. That was a peremptory order, and that was a custom which was never departed from except, of course, in the case of sickness or ill-health. That order was sufficient to bring to the notice of the Member in question that it was his duty to serve, and that if he set that order at defiance the consequences might be serious. I do not know how it has crept up in the last two years, but the House seems to have been less urgent in this matter. I have got here two instances which I should like to give to the House. On June 18th, 1890, I find, from the journals of the House, that Mr. Davenport reported, from Group G. on Private Bill Committees, that the Committee could not proceed to business in consequence of the absence of Mr. Henniker Heaton, and, curiously enough, Mr. Lloyd George. The House ordered that the two honourable Members "do attend the Committee to-morrow at half-past 11"; that was the ancient practice of the House. But then, coming to modern times, I find rather a different practice in vogue. On May 6th, 1898, it was reported that Mr. Hnrwood was absent from a Private Bill Committee; that Report was ordered to lie upon the Table. I will venture to suggest that the House would strengthen the hands of the Committee of Selection in insisting upon the service of Members. They can do1 that by reverting to the old practice— that, is, that if a Member is absent from his duty on the Committee an Order should be issued saying that he should attend. At any rate it would have the effect of impressing upon the young and inexperienced Members of this House that it is a part of their duty to attend on these Private Bill Committees. I trust that this discussion will impress, especially upon the younger Members of this House, the fact that it is an obligation on their part to attend to all duties that appertain to membership of this House, and not merely to those which may bring them before the public and before the notice of their constituents. I believe this discussion will strengthen the hands of the Committee of Selection, and that it will in that way conduce to the proper carrying out of this very important part of the work of the House with undiminished efficiency.

*CAPTAIN NORTON (Newington, W.)

I do not desire to say more than a few words upon this occasion. There can be no doubt that in all legislative assemblies it is well known that all Members are considered equal, and yet we find an attempt in this House to create a privileged class. Because these men happen to be engaged in a particular profession, they are to be allowed to have more privileges than their brother Members. I well remember hearing the late Mr. Gladstone argue that there was no difference in any point amongst the Members of this House. We find that there is no rule or regulation upon this matter. This custom has simply grown up, and it has grown up altogether in favour of barristers. But, Sir, business men have equal claims upon their time as barristers have. Then there are those Members who are directors of public companies. They must give some time to the work of an office and to attend any Board of which they are members, and I cannot see that a Member of this House, who prefers to play golf, should not have the same privileges as Members who happen to be barristers. The right honourable Gentleman the Chairman of the Committee stated that we would be excused from attending Private Bill Committees if, in their judgment, we should be excused. That I entirely object to. Let a roster be made, and those who desire to excuse themselves, either for business or pleasure, find somebody who would be willing to perform their duty. So far as I know, the younger Members like to serve on these Committees, but I repeat that it is manifestly unfair that those who do not happen to be members of the legal profession should be placed at a disadvantage with their brother Members.

Question put.

Instruction agreed to.

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