HC Deb 03 July 1907 vol 177 cc715-20
MR. A. J. BALFOUR (City of London)

said he desired to call the attention of Mr. Speaker to a point of some importance in regard to procedure in Grand Committee. He understood that in Standing Committee A, when discussing the Public Health Bill, a large number of clauses were passed when a quorum was not present. Under the Standing Orders regulating the proceedings in Grand Committee it was the duty of the clerk of the Committee to call the Chairman's attention to the fact that there was not a quorum present, and thereupon it was the duty of the Chairman to adjourn the Committee or suspend the sitting until a quorum had been obtained. He was informed that in Standing Committee A the clerk did call the Chairman's attention to the absence of a quorum. Nevertheless, the Chairman decided to go on with the business; and in these circumstances the greater portion of the Bill was passed through the Committee stage. He wished to ask what course the House ought now to pursue in the matter.


The hon. Baronet who was Chairman of the Committee is present, and perhaps he would like to make a statement before I say anything.

*SIR WILLIAM HOLLAND (Yorkshire, W.R., Rotherham)

said that under the strict interpretation of the Standing Order he must confess himself at fault and bow to the Speaker's will. But his offence might appear less grave if he were permitted a word of personal explanation. He was in a dilemma in regard to the Bill, and took the course he did take with a full sense of his responsibility under the special circumstances of the case. Here was a Bill of 142 clauses of the utmost possible importance in the interest of the public health; and questions of public health brooked no delay. It embodied the experience and the wishes of the Police and Sanitary Committee. There were thirty-three pages of Amendments, and after a short discussion last Monday it was apparent that the whole of those Amendments were about to be accepted by the promoters of the Bill; so that practically he regarded the measure as an agreed Bill. A quorum was present when there was anything to be discussed; but when there was nothing left but the mechanical work of putting a large number of agreed clauses he confessed the quorum was not throughout fully maintained. In his judgment, an adjournment at that particular stage, after so much work had been done, might have been fatal to the chances of the Bill passing during the present session, because he thought there would have been difficulties in getting a quorum together on a subsequent occasion. He founded himself on the precedent of the Speaker, who does not instantly suspend the House when fewer than forty Members are present. He waits until some Member notices it. And if any member of the Committee had called his attention to the fact that the quorum was not maintained he should instantly have suspended the proceedings; but, as every Member of the Committee was very anxious to have the Bill passed, none of thorn were likely to call his attention to that circumstance. With this explanation, he submitted himself with the utmost respect to the judgment of the House.


After the explanation which has been given by the hon. Baronet, the House will probably be inclined, under the special circumstances of the case, to condone any irregularity which may have occurred. At the same time, I think, for future guidance it would be just as well that I should observe to the House that Standing Order 62 is very particular. It says that if at any time during the sitting of a Select Committee the quorum fixed by the House shall not be present, the clerk of the Committee shall call the attention of the Chairman to the fact, and the Chairman shall thereupon suspend the proceedings until a quorum be present or adjourn the Committee to some future day. By Standing Order 47 the procedure of Select Committees is made applicable to Standing Committees. Therefore, I take it that under the Standing Orders of the House, for the future, it will always be the duty of the clerk to call the attention of the Chairman to the absence of a quorum, and the Chairman must take action thereupon. The right hon. Gentleman has asked me what would happen supposing any irregularity were committed in Grand Committee. It is rather difficult to deal with hypothetical cases, but on the assumption that the Committee met and proceeded without a quorum, I should be of opinion that the Committee, properly speaking, was never constituted and did not meet, and that none of the work done could be accepted as being the work of that particular Committee. If there is a quorum when a Committee begins its work and that quorum melts away, it will be for the House, I think, in each case to determine whether it would be necessary to recommit the Bill. I do not think that I have vested in me any power to strike out the Amendments made by that Committee, for I should have no knowledge of the exact moment when a quorum was or was not present. Therefore, I could not undertake any such duty. But in each case where an irregularity of that sort has been committed, the House would desire, on the facts being brought to its attention, to consider whether it would be necessary or desirable to recommit the Bill.


pointed out that most important functions of the House had now been relegated to Grand Committee; and therefore he desired to ask the Speaker or the Prime Minister how they were to deal with cases in which they had reason to believe that a Committee had not obeyed the Standing Orders. The original difficulty arose from there being no authentic record of what took place in the Committee. But, apart from that, there was the more serious difficulty that a breach of the rules having been alleged and a Motion being put down on the Paper in consequence, that Motion could only be dealt with in the ordinary way unless the Government gave time for its discussion or it could be raised as a question of privilege. There might be the extremely embarrassing position of a Bill coming on for the Report Stage, Members being conscious of the Bill having passed through Committee by irregular procedure. He asked whether a Motion regarding the regularity or irregularity of the Committee procedure would be a matter of privilege.


I am afraid my answer to that question must be no. But I may perhaps make this observation. There are particular irregularities committed by Committees, for instance, in connection with financial arrangements, the insertion of a clause involving a charge upon the people without the previous assent of the House—irregularities of that kind I should be prepared to deal with, and I think I am the proper person to do so. But an irregularity such as was the subject matter of the first question put to me in connection with the Public Health Bill, that is a subject for the House to deal with, not for me. Difficulty really arises from the fact that the House is discussing a hypothetical case, and it is a little difficult to have in mind all cases of irregularity that may arise.


asked if an undoubted irregularity arose requiring the attention of the House, could that be brought forward as a matter of privilege.


No, that would not be a matter of privilege; the proper course would be to make a Motion to recommit the Bill, and such a Motion would have precedence on the Report stage, and the Member making it could state the grounds for recommittal.


asked the Prime Minister whether, seeing that in substance the ruling of the Speaker was that a breach of the Standing Orders being committed a Motion condoning the action of the Chairman could be carried by a Party majority, the procedure in Standing Committees did not deserve careful attention.


asked whether it was not usual for anything that occurred in Committee to be reported by the Chairman or some Member who was present? Was it not most irregular for a Member who was not present to raise the question?


When the matter was brought to the attention of the House, I first asked the Chairman of the Committee if he had any observations to offer, and I think the House has heard from him what took place in Committee.


said a formal irregularity had been committed in regard to the Public Health Bill. All the business, as he understood, that was transacted while the Committee was short of a quorum was the arrangement of agreed matter, and therefore no harm had been done. What reason was there to expect that the irregularity would be followed in other Committees? Standing Committees had been in operation for many years, and they were transacting now the same sort of business with the exception that the Chairman had power to apply the closure. Therefore, until they heard of some flagrant iniquity being committed by a Standing Committee, such as had not occurred yet, he thought they might be content to leave matters as they stood. The fears of the right hon. Gentleman appeared to be entirely conjectural.

SIR F. BANBURY (City of London)

said that in the Scottish Standing Committee there had been similar attempts to carry on business without the presence of a quorum of Members.


After what has occurred to-day, those who now sit and those who will sit as Chairmen will be well aware of the duties of the position.


asked if it could be made a rule that the absence of a quorum should be entered on the record of a Committee's proceedings.


I think if everything had been done that ought to have been done there would be a record that, attention being called to the absence of a quorum, the Committee adjourned; but, owing to the fact that something was done that ought not to have been done, the record was imperfect.