HC Deb 28 May 1902 vol 108 cc869-79
(10.47.) MR. A. J. BALFOUR

The Committee which I ask the House to appoint is the Committee which I promised when introducing the new Standing Orders. I do not think it necessary that I should now say anything at length on the subject. It was feared by some hon. Members that the new Rule altering the time of private business to nine o'clock would militate against its proper conduct. I hope, indeed, that that is not true, but I think it might be desirable that there should be a Committee to consider the question. There are larger questions connected with private Bill procedure not touched on by this Motion, but these, I think, can only be dealt with by a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons. It is only a Committee of Lords and Commons that can really recommend what general change should be made in the system common to both Houses of dealing with this branch of our work. All that is proposed now is to ask this Committee to consider whether that part of private Bill procedure which is special to this House ought or ought not to be modified by any change in our Standing Orders. There are questions connected with the period in which fees should be exacted, the amount of the fees, and the stages which Bills have to go through which should be considered by this House. Larger questions affecting private Bill business should be discussed in common between the two Houses. The reference is whether in view of the change in the time at which private business is taken under there solution of the 1st of May, 1902, any alterations in Standing Orders are desirable in the interests of economy, efficiency, and general convenience.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire whether, in view of the change in the time at which Private Business is taken under the Resolution of 1st May, 1902, any alterations in Standing Orders are desirable in the interests of economy, efficiency, and general convenience."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)


I think the right hon. Gentleman has left the House in considerable doubt, or with lack of information, as to what is the purpose of this Committee. In the first place, it is not to inquire into the large question of how private business is to be dealt with as a whole. The Scotch Private Bill Procedure Act which was passed a few years ago, and which has worked extremely well, has given us a certain amount of experience in approaching the large question of private business generally. But that is not the object of the inquiry now proposed. We have already fixed and determined that private business is to be taken at nine o'clock. What, therefore, is the Committee to inquire into? I am not speaking in any captious spirit, because I am very anxious to see a better arrangement of private business, and I have frequently given free expression to the sentiment created by the hideous discomfort and disarrangement of our business by private Bill business which we witnessed last session and the session before. So far, we are all agreed. The right hon. Gentleman spoke about inquiring into the period in which fees should be exacted. But that is surely a small matter to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into, and I think the House is entitled to a little more information. The Committee is not to inquire into the question of preserving the proper control of the House over private business, and yet relieving it from the burden of tedious investigation which has been found so inconvenient of late years. It is also assumed that private business shall always be taken at nine o'clock. That is a fixed and irrevocable Rule, for the moment, at any rate. What else is there to inquire into?


May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman? There is really no more information to give except this. The House has assented to altering the time of private business from three o'clock to nine o'clock. It has been suggested that this is a serious blow at the mode of conducting private business. I have always hoped, and still hope and believe, that that is not the case, but, at all events, I quite agree that it may be worth while that the House of Commons should inquire whether the change of hours requires any corresponding and correlated change in our Standing Orders. If the House is completely satisfied that we can deal successfully with private business at nine o'clock, without any further alteration, I should be the last to complain. Critics, however, have said that we require further alterations to make the system work, but if it is already clear that no change in our Standing Orders is necessary, then I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that all we have to do is to appoint that larger Committee to inquire into the general question of private business. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman.


I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I think, however, he is under some misapprehension when he says that the objection expressed to taking private business at nine o clock was that it would damage the interests of private business. Our objection was that it would throw the rest of the business of the House into confusion, and it would occupy an evening sitting which ought to be otherwise employed. Moreover, the nine o'clock Rule has only just come into operation, and I do not see what experience can be drawn from its working to guide the Committee as to the changes that should be made. I still fail to see, with no desire to present the appointment of the Committee, what its particular function is to be.

*(10.56.) MR. BLAKE (Longford, S.)

said he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman. He thought that the general sense of the House with reference to the change of the time of private business was that the inconvenience would be ra her to public than to private business. That was the view which he himself had more than once presented to the House, and he also pointed out that the true remedy was to make opposed private business the first order on some one morning or evening sitting of each week. The right hon. Gentleman had made that impossible by the change in the Standing Orders, and the House was now absolutely committed to the present system of conducting private business. He thought that the House in the circumstances was entitled to receive from the right hon. Gentleman, who solemnly moved that a Committee should be appointed to consider whether any alterations in the Standing Orders were desirable in the interests of economy, efficiency, and general convenience, a statement of the possible changes which were to be open for consideration. The right hon. Gentleman threw out only one suggestion with reference to fees, but nothing in the time in which private business was to be taken had any relation to the question of fees. He was, therefore, utterly at a loss to understand what was the character of the investigation the House was asked to embark on. He did not know that any change was now-possible which would make greatly for economy, efficiency, and general convenience, and as far as he could see the great change which might have produced economy, convenience, and efficiency of conduct was a change which the right hon. Gentleman had rendered impossible by the adoption of the new Standing Orders. He said this, of course, eliminating those larger issues of great consequence which it was understood were not embraced in the reference. He thought the House was entitled to receive from its Leader, when invited to appoint a Select Committee, some reasonable explanation of the functions which the Committee was to discharge.

MR. RENSHAW (Warwickshire, W.)

said he agreed with his right hon. friend in his view, which was also shared by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, that the question of private business, in its wider aspects, needed to be dealt with by a joint Committee of the two Houses, and that it was desirable that as early as possible a Committee of that sort should be appointed. He did not, however, believe that at this period of the session it would be possible to set up such a Committee to inquire into such a large question and to report before the end of the session. The question now before the House was the appointment of the Select Committee to inquire into the effect of the present Sessional Orders, which he hoped would soon be Standing Orders, on private Bill legislation. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition challenged his right hon. friend to say upon what particular point such an inquiry was needed. His right hon. friend referred to the question of fees, which had been brought forward on more than one occasion; but there was another question which ought also to be inquired into by the Select Committee, and that was whether or not it was desirable to alter the method in which the House dealt with the various stages of private Bills. That was a matter which he assumed would come under the consideration of the proposed Committee. He ventured to make an appeal to his right hon. friend with reference to the actual language of the Motion. He had put an Amendment on the Paper—to omit the words "in view of," in order to substitute "subject to." It seemed to him that the language of the Motion indicated that the changes which were to be considered by the Committee were consequent upon the alteration in the time at which private business was taken. He did not think that was the intention of the right hon. Gentleman, and he, therefore, begged to move his Amendment.

Amendment proposed, in line 2, to leave out the words "in view of" and insert the words "subject to."—(Mr. Renshaw.)

(11.10.) MR. T. M. HEALY

said he thought the House had some reason to complain that the proceedings of the 1888 Committee had not been referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. It was unfortunate that there were only two copies of the proceedings of that Committee available, and he was informed by the librarian that they were both on the Treasury Bench, to which he had no means of access.


Order, order! That does not arise out of the Amendment.


Perhaps the Government will hand us over one of the copies.


My hon. friend's Amendment is a drafting Amendment. I think his words are better than mine, and I am prepared to accept them.


said that, as far as he could understand, the reference made it impossible for the Committee to consider some things which they ought to be free to consider. The reference on the Paper only referred to the change in the time at which private business was taken. That meant, ho took it, that it would be open to the Committee to consider how the conduct of private bill business was affected by the House meeting at two o'clock instead of at three o'clock. That was a matter of vital importance, and, if the Committee were appointed at all, it ought to be able to consider that question. He held a very strong view on the matter, as he believed that the change in the time of the meeting of the House would affect Private Bill Committees to a very serious extent indeed, and would put a strain on Members serving on such Committees which would be absolutely intolerable. Therefore, he thought it was a very lame thing to appoint a Committee on private Bill business, and tie it up so closely that it could not consider the question of the time of the meeting of the House. The Amendment would, in his opinion, prevent the Committee from considering that matter, as the Committee would not be able to take into consideration the desirability of any alteration in the Rules, as they would have to conduct their inquiry subject to the Rules as they stood at present. He did not think that was desirable.


said he thought the hon. Member for East Mayo was quite correct in his interpretation of the Amendment, which would distinctly limit the reference to the Committee. At present, the Motion allowed the Committee to suggest alterations in the Standing Orders in view of the alterations already made, but if the Amendment were inserted they would not have that power. His right hon. friend was no doubt aware of the extremely anomalous position of Wednesdays under the new Rules. There were four different kinds of Wednesdays.


Order, order! The hon. Member is not speaking to the Amendment before the House.


said he was merely giving an illustration of a matter which he thought the Committee ought to be allowed to inquire into.


The Amendment before the House is to insert the words "subject to."


said his contention was that the words "subject to" would limit the scope of the Committee. There were four different kinds of Wednesdays. On one, opposed private business could not be taken after 10.15. That might appear to the Committee to be very inconvenient, and they ought to have power to consider it. He, therefore, thought it would be very unfortunate if the Amendment were adopted. After all, his right hon. friend should remember that he need not be bound by the Report of the Committee. In the circumstances, he would suggest to his hon. friend the desirability of withdrawing his Amendment.


said his view of the Amendment was that it enlarged the reference to the Committee. If the words "subject to" were inserted, the whole range of Standing Orders would be open to consideration, and not merely the change in the time of private Bill business. Any alterations which the Committee might recommend need not in that view be limited to private Bill business, as long as they were in the interests of economy, efficiency, and general convenience.

COLONEL LUCAS (Suffolk, Lowestoft)

asked if the question of carrying over private Bills from one session to another would be included in the reference.


I am in favour of the Amendment. The Committee is to be appointed to inquire whether, in view of the change in the time when private Bill business is taken, any alterations are desirable; and these alterations, we are told, have reference to fees. What on earth have fees to do with the matter? It is said that if we put in the words "subject to" we restrict the inquiry. I do not see that. I remain in the same degree of ignorance as to the precise purpose for which the Committee is to be appointed, but, if it is to be appointed, I think the words "subject to" are better than "in view of."


said that, whatever form of words were inserted, the inquiry would be limited to private business. As yet, the House had had no experience of the work of the new Standing Orders, but it seemed to him that one of their effects would be that private business would be likely to disappear from the control of the House. Surely the question of fees was not the only one which should be inquired into. For himself, be should prefer to see the larger question dealt with.


Order, order! The hon. Member must confine himself to the Amendment before the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, again proposed.

(11.25.) MR. T. M. HEALY

said that the postponement of the Budget had given hon. Members a very agreeable day, because it was quite clear that the Government did not intend to go on with any business at all. There had been a long Irish debate during the afternoon, but the conduct of the Government was most placid and admirable, and there was not even a suggestion of the closure. Now they were engaged in discussing a Motion which was not intended to lead anywhere or do anything. It, however, presented to the House the First Lord of the Treasury in one of his lighter and earlier moods, before the trammels of real responsibility fell upon him. The right hon. Gentleman dashed into the question before the House without the remotest intention that a Select Committee should ever be appointed. It was one of the means the Cabinet had of killing time, until they could make up their minds whether the bread tax was to be imposed or nor. Having cast their bread upon the waters, he trusted right hon. Gentlemen would not complain if private Members addressed themselves to the question of private Bid legislation in a serious spirit, and considered it from a legislative point of view. From his standpoint, nothing was more admirable than the way in which the House of Commons conducted its private Bill legislation. He did not see that it was less important to consider a Stoke Poges Gas Bill—if it had any gas—when "the curfew tolls the knell of parting day," than to consider whether the natives of India should have waist cloths or pocket handkerchiefs. Private business was of more importance to the country than all the great Imperial talk which had been heard during the last few years. He could not understand why any Englishman, seeing the admirable manner in which private business was conducted, should desire to make any change whatever, but when a change was proposed it was remarkable that no reference was made to the recommendations of the Committee of 1888. The private business of the House of Commons was conducted by one of the best Chairmen it had ever had. In the same way, private business in the House of Lords was admirably conducted by Lord Morley; what was wanted was some codification or co-ordination of the Standing Orders. If that could be done, he did not think that there could be a more admirable system than the present, system, with the sole exception of the question of fees. The House made a profit of something like £40,000 a year in fees. He really thought that fees ought to be abolished. They were an unjust imposition on people who could not very well afford them, and they prevented people coming to the House for private Bills. In 1888 two Committees were appointed—one on public procedure, and the other on private Bill procedure. He had the misfortune to sit on both, and, although some changes were made in public procedure, the vast mass of the proposals with reference to private Bill procedure made by a most competent tribunal—if he might say so as regarded every Member of it except himself—remained absolutely untouched, although during the intervening fourteen years a Conservative administration was in power except for three years. It was, therefore, remarkable that the right hon. Gentleman should have made his proposal tonight without any effort being made to carry out any one of the proposals of fourteen years ago. He thought the appointment of the Committee would be futile, as the matter could only be considered after they had a little experience of the present method of conducting private Bill business. On the previous night he thought it was an advantage that the Bill with reference to the Richmond Hill view should have been considered in the evening, when Members were not impatient for questions or other business. The Committee of 1888 consisted of six Members of the House of Lords and six Members of the House of Commons, and every person connected with private Bill business was examined before it. Not a shadow of a change had been attempted as the result of its recommendations, and now the First Lord of the Treasury, like the child of nature he was, made his proposal as if really the world never existed until 1902. It appeared to him that they were simply wasting time, and Members ought not to be asked to engage in an inquiry such as was proposed until the Government took steps to carry out proposals which, if they were not of age, were at least fourteen years old.


said that, like the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, he had a difficulty in seeing what was the precise purpose for which the Committee was to be appointed. He did not think it was a question of fees. He himself did not consider that the provision for private business was quite sufficient; and he imagined that one of the principal matters which the Committee would consider was whether some further time was not required for it. The reference was very vague; but, if that were the object of the Committee, he thought it was a very laudable one, and one which ought to be encouraged.

Ordered, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire whether, subject to the change in the time at which private business is taken under the Resolution of 1st May, 1902, any alterations in Standing Orders are desirable in the interests of economy, efficiency, and general convenience.