HC Deb 26 June 1901 vol 95 cc1512-21

Order for Committee read.

MR. CROMBIE (Kincardineshire)

rose to move, "That the Order be discharged, and that the Bill be committed to the Standing Committee on Law." It would, he said, be out of order, or at any rate irrelevant, to discuss the merits of the Bill on this motion; the question was whether the Bill should be considered in Committee of the Whole House or in Grand Committee. He confessed that if he had had the choice he should have preferred the Bill to be threshed out on the floor of the House, because he felt confident that if a full opportunity of threshing out every Amendment were given to the Committee the Bill would have emerged from the ordeal in a shape much nearer to that in which it now stood than was likely if it went to a Grand Committee. But he thought they were not justified in asking the Government to do anything for this Bill which they would not have done had they introduced it themselves, and he felt certain that if the Bill had been theirs the Government would have sent it to a Grand Committee. Not only did he believe that the Government would have adopted that course, but if this Bill was to pass at all it must be sent to a Grand Committee, and if the House rejected his motion they would be simply killing the Bill. It had been laid down by Mr. Gladstone that Bills dealt with by Grand Committees should be of a non-party character, and he thought this Bill came within that description. He appealed to those who voted for the Second Reading—and 376 hon. Gentlemen voted for it—who by their votes certainly meant that the Bill should pass in some shape or form, to carry his motion. He wished hon. Gentlemen to be logical and rational, and not to stultify themselves by refusing to support the motion. A rumour had reached him that the argument of the recommendations of the Royal Commission was to be used against this motion, but it was a dangerous thing to talk of a rope in the house of a man who had been hanged. The Royal Commission it was perfectly true—


ruled that any discussion upon the recommendations of the Royal Commission would be out of order.


said he wished to keep entirely within the bounds of order, and he would only say that it seemed to him that the opponents of the Bill should be very chary of saying anything about the recommendations of the Royal Commission. In order to meet the opposition to the Bill certain Amendments had been introduced. He hoped that, in view of the concessions which the supporters of the Bill were prepared to make, hon. Members would vote for his motion. He begged to move.

*MR. TRITTON (Lambeth, Norwood)

seconded the motion. He said that if the Bill were not sent up to the Grand Committee there would be no chance of the measure passing this session, or perhaps for many years. There was no Bill before the House which had excited a greater amount of interest. He desired to send it to the Grand Committee because he thought it had in it the making of a most useful and reasonable measure of moderate temperance reform, and because he considered that there was no Bill more worthy of being sent up to a Grand Committee than one which sought to protect the little children of our land and check at the fountain head that stream of intemperance which everybody deplored.

Moved, "That the Order for Committee be discharged, and that the Bill be committed to the Standing Committee on Law."—(Mr. Crombie.)

MR. JAMES LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)

, in opposing the motion, agreed that the merits of the Bill could not now be discussed. He intended to confine his remarks to the question of procedure, and he hoped that the question of sending the Bill to a Select Committee or a Grand Committee would not be mixed up in any way with a debate upon the merits of the Bill itself. Those who had taken part or had been interested in the discussions twenty years ago on the question of the establishment of these Committees would be familiar with the fact that it was laid down, not only by Mr. Gladstone, but by all those who took an active part in the discussion, that the reference to Grand Committees should be confined to non-contentious measures. The hon. Gentleman opposite had spoken of measures which were not of a party or political character. Mr. Gladstone unquestionably did except from his procedure measures of a party or political character, but he went far beyond that, and excepted all contentious measures. He had also used words showing that it was in his mind that a measure apparently of a non-contentious character which assumed in its passage through Grand Committee a contentious character should be committed to a Committee of the Whole House. The remarks of the hon. Gentleman who seconded the motion were evidently made in ignorance of the fact that the principle of reference to Grand Committees had been adopted on the distinct assurance that it should be applied only to non-contentious measures. Both the mover of the motion and the seconder spoke of the great public interest of the Bill, but that was a matter he would not deal with; he was only dealing with the question from the point of view of history and precedent. If the measure were sent to Grand Committee it was true all hon. Members interested would have an opportunity for discussing it, because it would come up on Report, when opinions might be freely expressed. But he had always thought that the amount of time saved by reference to Grand Committee was, under those circumstances, largely detracted from, and more especially would that be so in the case of a measure that had aroused great public interest. A great number of petitions had been presented relating to this Bill—


How many against?


I cannot tell.


About 4,430 petitions in favour of the Bill and only 107 against.


The hon. Member does not give the number of signatures, but that is a detail.


But I can.


thought the hon. Member was ill-advised in raising a debate on the merits of the Bill or in challenging him to give statistics, when he was merely addressing himself to a question of procedure. The hon. Member had shown that hundreds of thousands of persons in the country were taking an interest in the Bill, and it could not, therefore, be styled a non-contentious measure. He was told that no fewer than 170 Members of that House had made application to be put upon the Grand Committee. That was ten or twelve times the number that could possibly be appointed, and it rather showed that the House wanted to consider this Bill in its collective capacity. As regarded the merits of the Bill, he had said nothing. The question they had to decide was a very serious one, which affected the whole system of procedure, and without regard at all to the merits of this particular Bill, he hoped that on these broad grounds the House would adhere to the principle already laid down, and would not create a dangerous precedent.


The right hon. Gentleman opposite has on this occasion exposed two qualities which admirably distinguish him—an extreme accuracy of statement and perfect consistency of conduct—but the right hon. Gentleman has also posed in a character in which I and a good many others cannot altogether accept him. He has posed as the expositor of the mind of Mr. Gladstone.


No, I did not talk about the mind of Mr. Gladstone. I simply read his words from Hansard.


The right hon. Gentleman read Mr. Gladstone's mind into his words. The mind of Mr. Gladstone was a somewhat remarkable intellectual instrument, and I do not know anybody who is less likely to be familiar with it than the right hon. Gentleman opposite. The right hon. Gentleman's argument was that this procedure was only intended to be applied to non-contentious business; that this was a contentious measure; and that, therefore, the procedure ought not to be applied to it. But what does the right hon. Gentleman mean to be understood by a non-contentious measure? What can be called a non-contentious measure if this is not one? It was carried on the Second Reading by a majority of between five and six to one, and even on the side of the House which the right hon. Gentleman adorns there was a majority of nearly four to one. Surely a non-contentious measure does not mean a measure in which nobody takes an interest at all! According to the definition of the right hon. Gentleman, that would be the only Bill which ought to be sent to a Grand Committee. I do not think there is anything in the contention of the right hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether the House has observed a peculiar deficiency in our constitution while this matter was being discussed. That is a Government day. His Majesty's Government have taken possession of the time of the House, and have set apart this day for a particular purpose under their guidance and instruction. But where is His Majesty's Government?


said this particular Wednesday was taken by the Government so as to enable these two Bills to be placed at the disposal of private Members.


But surely, when the Government takes that course, there should be some guidance from the Government. These are not two casual Bills picked up accidentally out of a number of private Members' Bills, but they are Bills with reference to which the Government has a policy. Hitherto we have had the advantage of the presence of the Scotch Solicitor General, of the Irish Attorney General, and of the Under Secretary for the Home Department, who, I am glad to see, has recovered from his recent efforts to maintain order at Stratford-on-Avon. On the last occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman represented His Majesty's Government my right hon friend the Member for East Fife asked a very simple question, pertinent to the subject in hand, and entirely within the range of the Department which the right hon. Gentleman opposite represents. The right hon. Gentleman, with that good-humoured affability which always distinguished him, rose and said, "I will go and inquire," and we never saw him again.


said the right hon. Gentleman had rather misrepresented his position. His right hon. friend the Member for East Fife asked when a certain Departmental Committee would report. It was impossible for anyone who was not a Member of the Committee to answer the question, and, wishing to obtain the information for his right hon. friend, he went to consult the Departmental Committee at the Home Office. Thinking that his right hon. friend wished genuinely for the information, as soon as he had obtained it he communicated it to him. That was the whole story.


I am extremely glad to have elicited this information and an explanation of what has previously been a mystery, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not confine himself to giving the information to my right hon. friend, because the House also would like the information. But on this occasion I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is in the House, not only for the purpose of having questions addressed to him and of going to the Home Office to inquire, but of stating, on the part of His Majesty's Government, the policy they mean to pursue with regard to these Bills. I have not completed my category. There was also on the Treasury Bench the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, whose thoughts were no doubt in China; and then there was the Secretary to the Treasury, whose particular function is to be most useful to the Government in the House and to be kind and courteous to hon. Members of the House, but whose main purpose is to remain dumb while other people speak. But, seriously, I do not think we should be allowed to discuss this question without any intimation at all of the feeling of the Government in regard to it, and I hope that before the debate has gone much further we shall be honoured by the presence of someone capable of instructing the House upon the subject.

*EARL PERCY (Kensington, S.)

said he did not intend to raise any objection to sending the Bill to a Committee upstairs, because he was in favour of the Bill and had voted for the Second Reading, and he agreed that it would be impossible to pass it this session if it was to be taken in Committee of the Whole House. At the same time, he thought it would be very undesirable for the promoters of the Bill to labour under any misconception as to the degree of unanimity which was likely to prevail in the House when the Bill came down from the Committee and was taken on the Report stage. There were two classes of Bills which were sent up to a Select Committee. The one class was composed of non-contentious measures, which everybody wished to see passed, and as to the principle of which everyone was agreed, and the other of Bills which no one desired but for which it was desirable to provide a decent burial, and which were, therefore, sent upstairs to the private crematorium. This Bill was not of that character. Undoubtedly the Bill had evoked a considerable amount of favourable feeling in the country, and it passed its Second Reading by an overwhelming majority, but it by no means followed that therefore it was a non-contentious measure. In one sense the Bill was a very contentious one, and the principle for which they voted was quite different from that embodied in the Amendments certain to be moved in Committee upstairs, on which many of them would not be represented. One matter, the penalising of parents, was of great interest indeed. In voting for the Bill he did so on the plain ground that the liquor trade was a monopoly, and under the statutes of Parliament they had the right to deal with it, and there-fore they had the right to provide that intoxicating liquors, like poisons, might not be sold to persons who had not reached a certain reasonable age. But when they came to a "different" principle, that the public-house was of a certain character—


The noble Lord is going into the principle of the Bill.


, reverting to the question of penalising of parents, argued against it, and said it was a totally different principle from that for which he voted on the Second Reading.

SIR W. HART-DYKE (Kent, Dartford)

said he thought it was a great pity that this Bill should have been introduced by a private Member. He thought a question of this kind, affecting as it did the social and domestic life of a great mass of the people, ought to be dealt with only in Committee of the Whole House, and under the full auspices of the Government of the day. It was not a question to be hurried through the Second Reading in two or three hours. He was in the unhappy position that, owing to his being a member of the Committee of Selection, he would be unable to serve on the Grand Committee. He regarded this as an impossible and impracticable Bill, a clear proof of which had been given by the number of Amendments put on the Paper with a view to altering its framework. If the resolution were agreed to, he was afraid that some day in August, and perhaps after twelve o'clock at night, they would be driven to discuss the Bill on the Report stage, which would be a great mistake. Public opinion was not yet fully alive to the proposals of the Bill. That was a fact, and, as the House knew, their proceedings were always six months ahead of public opinion. It would take at least another six months for the mass of the working classes of the country to understand the meaning of the Bill. A great many of his constituents were anxious to have the Bill passed, and it was very hard that he should be placed in the position of having to give a hostile vote to the measure; but he appealed, on behalf of those who as yet knew nothing about it, to allow the Bill to be dealt with in Committee of the Whole House.


said that if the right hon. Gentleman's constituents desired to have this Bill passed, the best way of doing it was for the right hon. Gentleman to vote for the resolution. Unless the resolution were passed the Bill could not possibly become law this session. He thought they could very well postpone the discussion till the Report stage, if any hon. Gentleman wished to oppose it.


said he certainly hoped the Bill would be referred to the Grand Committee on Law. He had considerable interest in the action of that Committee, and believed that all the Amendments which had been put down on the Paper were of such a character that they could only be thoroughly discussed by the Standing Committee on Law. This Bill was not nearly so contentious as the Vaccination Bill, which was dealt with by that Committee, and had become a law of the land. It was one which he believed was desired by a large proportion of the working classes of this country, who would regard it as a great misfortune if the House of Commons did not give proper facilities for passing a Bill which a large portion of the community at all events believed would produce sobriety and prosperity in the country.

MR. GRETTON (Derbyshire, S.)

said although he was opposed to the principle of the Bill being referred to a Grand Committee, and was of opinion that a Committee of the House of Commons was the only proper tribunal to discuss a measure of this kind, he did not wish to impede its progress. The Bill dealt with the private life and habits of the people, and it was to be regretted that it should be taken away from the House of Commons and discussed upstairs in what could only be regarded as a private capacity. He sincerely hoped that the Grand Committee would be able to safeguard the various interests which the proposals of the Bill attacked.


did not wish to stop the progress of the Bill, which was well thought of in his constituency; but as a brewer and a Frequenter of public-houses he asked for fair play to be shown to that particular business. They were fully as philanthropic as were the proposer and seconder of the measure, and they did not wish—nor could any right-minded man wish—to see little "kiddies" toddling along the streets with pots of beer. All they wished was that the promoters of the Bill would meet them in a fair way with respect to the age limit.


Order, order! The hon. Member must confine his remarks to the question.


disclaimed all intention of entering into the merits of the Bill, but he found as a listener to the debates that a great deal more time was occupied in discussing how the business was to be done than was devoted to the business itself. He did not wish to reiterate the merits of the Bill, but seeing that so many were anxious to see it passed into law, why should they not sit on a Saturday and discuss it before a Committee of the Whole House? He would not vote against the motion, because in their particular business they wished to have the matter settled; they desired to be amenable to the law, and to do their duty as average Englishmen.

Question put, and agreed to.

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