HL Deb 26 July 1861 vol 164 cc1565-73

My Lords, notwithstanding the important business which stands for consideration this evening, I hope that I shall not be thought unduly to occupy your Lordships' attention if for a few moments I invite your attention to the present state of public business, and ask the noble Earl the President of the Council to give some explanation as to the course which the Government intend to pursue with regard to those measures which are waiting for what must at this period of the Session be called by courtesy your Lordships' consideration. I have examined the Journals and Proceedings of the House of Commons, and I find that the state of business in that House has been and is as follows:—At Whitsuntide there had been introduced into the House of Commons 68 Bills, and since then 80 more have been brought in, making a total of 148 Bills proposed for progress this' Session Of these 76 have been passed by the House of Commons, including those subsequently rejected by this House, five have been rejected by the House of Commons, and 23 have been withdrawn. There remain now in the House of Commons 44 Bills, of which a considerable number have still to come up to your Lordships' House. Besides these, there are now in this House 30 Bills in progress, and 18 for which no day has been named, making a total of 48 Bills now before your Lordships' House; and there are 44 more yet before the House of Commons, on which your Lordships may have to give your decision. Even if the Session was to last for the three weeks with which we were threatened the other, evening by the noble Duke, I think that your Lordships will agree with me that there would be but scant opportunity for discussing the vast mass of Bills, 92 in number, to which I have referred. I have not in this calculation taken any notice of the various Bills which have been sent from either House to the other with Amendments requiring consideration, and one of which will, I apprehend, occupy a very considerable portion of your Lordships' time this evening. Among the Bills in progress, and more especially among those for proceeding with which no day has been named, there are some of very great importance. For example, there are seven Bills which I wonder that the Government have not taken an earlier opportunity of bringing under your consideration—the Bills for the consolidation of the Criminal Law. Those Bills were passed through this House at a very early period last year, and were sent to the House of Commons. For some reason that House never took the slightest notice of them, and they were not passed. This year the House of Commons has got the initiative, and a considerable time ago all the seven Bills were passed and sent to this House. They have been for some time upon your Lordships' table, but as yet no noble Lord has given notice of his intention to bring them forward. These are Bills which have already passed your Lordships' House, and cannot lead to much controversy. Indeed, I believe it is the general opinion that they should be taken on trust, because it would obviously be impossible to go through all the details. On the other hand, there are some Bills which do not at first sight appear to be so important, but which yet involve very serious questions. For example, in your Lordships' House there is a Bill with regard to the building of courts of justice, which was read a second time pro formâ, on the distinct understanding that it was to wait the arrival of another Bill still under the consideration of the House of Commons, the object of which is to provide the money for the erection of these courts. Upon inquiry the calculations upon which the financial portions of that Bill are founded have been discovered to be exceedingly erroneous, and it has been ascertained that if the schemes is carried out it will not only absorb the whole of the suitors' fund, as to our right to avail ourselves of which there is considerable doubt, but will also involve an expenditure on the part of the country of something like a million of money. In the course of yesterday evening notice was given in the House of Commons that the progress of that Bill would be resisted whenever it was brought forward, yet between two and three o'clock this morning the Bill was read a second time without a word being said, and a few minutes afterwards the House was counted out. If a Bill of this importance is to pass the other House on the 26th of July, between two and three o'clock in the morning, in the face of a threatened opposition, and if the Chief Commissioner of Works still clings to the hope of passing the Bill this Session, I must protest against that mode of getting a measure forward, and express a hope that the noble Earl (Earl Granville) will, on the part of the Government, take care that this Bill does not pass at a period when the attendance in both Houses is exceedingly thin, and after this evening is likely to be thinner. There is another Bill, of his intention to bring forward which on Monday next the Postmaster General has given notice, and which, although apparently of little consequence, is really a very important Bill. It professes to settle the rank and social status of the mayors of boroughs, and nothing can be more unobjectionable, though hardly anything can be more unimportant, than a measure of that kind; but under the plea of settling the status of mayors clauses are introduced which give power to the Secretary of State, on the application of any fifty individuals, absolutely and arbitrarily to alter the arrangement of wards in any borough, and to vary the number of the representatives of each; in point of fact, to completely alter an Act which was passed for the regulation of these matters only two years ago. I have no objection to settle the status of mayors, but I hope that the Government will not press so important an alteration as this. My reason for calling attention to this subject is that I am sure that this House suffers in public estimation very unjustly from the manner in which Bills are at this period of the Session hurried through it. Last night we had twenty-six Bills to dispose of; to-day there are twenty-three on the paper; and no one can think the manner in which some of them are disposed of—and I allude more particularly to the Committee on the Irremovable Poor Bill, a measure of very great importance—is at all creditable to this House. There is another danger to which we are exposed at this period of the Session. Bills are brought in which are called Continuance Bills, but in them are frequently introduced material alterations of the law, which pass both Houses without attention being paid to them. Last year about this time we were called upon, on the ground of urgency, to pass a Bill called the Gunpowder Bill, which was represented to be of great importance as providing for the secure storage of gunpowder. It was objected that it was a Bill which might have been brought forward at a much earlier period; but on the representation of the noble Earl opposite, your Lordships passed it in the month of August. I perceive that within the last few days a Bill has been introduced into the House of Commons for the purpose of amending that Bill, and it will be sent up to this House at about the same period of the year at which the original Bill arrived. Yet the errors of the original Bill must have been discovered long ago, and this amending measure might have been brought in much earlier in the Session. If I rightly understand the proceedings of the House of Commons the Secretary of State for India last night moved certain Resolutions, which are to be reported today, and upon which a Bill is to be founded authorizing the Indian Government to borrow £5,000,000 more money. That Bill has not yet been even introduced in the other House, and I leave your Lordships to judge when it is likely that it will reach this House. I wish to ask the noble Earl whether he is prepared to act in the spirit of the Resolution which my noble Friend, the Chairman of Committees, usually proposes, and whether the Government are prepared to give a pledge that during the short remainder of the Session Bills against which considerable objections are entertained, and Bills which are not of paramount and urgent importance, shall not be pressed on the attention of the House, which will probably consist of a very limited number of Peers? I wish further to ask the noble Earl whether he will communicate with his colleagues in reference to the business which stands on the books of the other House, so that he may be able to state what portion of the business before either of the Houses of Parliament it is the intention of the Government to proceed with, and that your Lordships may be able to ascertain what amount of business is likely to be carried on during the period when your Lordships can be in attendance? I do not think I am unreasonable in calling attention to the fact, that something like ninety Bills still remain to come before us at the end of July—but a week or ten days from the end of the Session; and in expressing my belief that the time has come when Her Majesty's Government may advantageously exercise a discretion in selecting those Bills which they deem most important to carry.


My Lords, in answering the question of the noble Earl, I must give in some degree the same sort of unsatisfactory reply to similar questions, as far as I remember, ever since I sat in this House, and which I have been informed by the Marquess of Lansdowne and Lord Aberdeen was uniformly given during the whole of their experience. But I would ask your Lordships not to allow yourselves to be carried away by a mere enumeration of a number of Bills; because it is very evident that many of them are of no importance, being mere continuance Bills and the like; and, therefore, at whatever period of the Session they may be brought in, they do not require any great deliberation. The noble Earl alluded to several measures for effecting the consolidation of the law. There were particular circumstances connected with the Attorney Generalship which prevented those Bills from being brought forward as early as they would otherwise have been; but most of them having been under the consideration of this House last year, a great deal must, and I think may fairly, be taken upon trust. The particular day, therefore, on which they may be taken into consideration is immaterial. With regard to a most important and, I think, most useful Bill, which was considered in Committee last night—I mean that relating to the Irremovable Poor—I really do not know how Her Majesty's Government are to blame with regard to it. We think it an excellent Bill; we approve all its clauses. Five minutes before it came on in Committee there were nearly 100 Peers present. The noble Earl voted against the Bill without giving the slightest reason for his vote, and it was quite open for him or any other noble Lord to have questioned every one of the clauses and to have divided the House if he thought it desirable to do so. It was not for us to get up and raise objections to a Bill of which we approve; but I am quite sure that my noble Friend the Under Secretary, who had charge of the measure, would have been ready to reply to any questions or objections which the noble Earl or any one on the other side of the House might have thought proper to originate. The noble Earl has mentioned another Bill, of which I know nothing, with regard to giving precedence to mayors; but if the proper authorities have consented to the measure, I cannot see any objection to such a Bill. The noble Earl has mentioned one clause which, primâ facie, deserves consideration; the Bill is at present fixed for Monday next, when, if it comes forward, and the noble Earl should urge satisfactory reasons, the House, no doubt, will not refuse to be guided by them. I really do not think it is too much to expect that Peers who are interested in particular Bills should be present when they come forward, and I am sure the majority of the Peers present could, if they wished, make it convenient to stay in town for the very limited interval during which the Session will continue. I will certainly make inquiry as to what Bills Her Majesty's Government may think it desirable to abandon as not being likely to pass this Session.


protested against the conclusion at which the noble Earl (Earl Granville) had arrived with regard to the Irremovable Poor Bill. He had no objection to raise against the measure, but with regard to the manner in which it had been pressed he did not think the House had been fairly treated. It was read a second time on Tuesday, and the Committee was fixed for Thursday. On Thursday evening he left a letter at the noble Earl's house intimating his intention of proposing Amendments in Committee, and of asking the noble Earl on that account to postpone the Bill. He did make the request, and was at once refused. He did not anticipate that any high value would be placed upon his suggestions, but it was, nevertheless, the fact that he bestowed more attention upon the business of the House than almost any other Peer, and having been for twenty-five years chairman of a board of guardians, he naturally knew something of the subject. He gave reasons for the Amendments which he wished to propose, and stated some strong facts connected with the rates upon different kinds of property; but the noble Lord who had charge of the Bill did not condescend to give a single reply to his arguments or the slightest explanation of a satisfactory character. The Government had a majority in the House and forced on the measure. It was true that he might have compelled a division to be taken, but it was never his wish to adopt a vexatious proceeding or a course which was not likely to have any useful result. The responsibility of what had been done, therefore, rested upon the Government, and he was bound to say that if the legislation of their Lordships' House was to be either beneficial to the country or creditable to Parliament, the Government ought to abstain from throwing difficulties in the way of those who were disposed to take part in that legislation. He certainly did not think it desirable that any measures except those of importance should be read a second time after that evening; being within ten days of the close of the Session, the effect of introducing Amendments into any Bill would be either to defeat it altogether or to send it down to the Commons, where, in its altered shape, no consideration could be given to it. Had the Resotion which he usually proposed been adopted, it would have been impossible for Bills to be brought before them in such numbers at so late a period of the Session. At the particular request of the noble Earl opposite he had abstained from moving that Resolution this year, a Committee of the House of Commons, from whose deliberations some good result was hoped, being at the time in investigating the subject. But, on the contrary, the business of that House was more behind now than it had ever been.


said, it was true the noble Lord had written to him on the subject of the Irremovable Poor Bill, but the letter did not reach him till some hours afterwards. But even if he had deliberated an entire day upon his request he did not see that he could come to any other conclusion. The noble Lord himself had originally fixed the Committee for Thursday, and his Amendments were directed not to the improvement of the machinery of the Bill but tended to subvert the principle, which had already been affirmed.


said, it was unjust to ask Members of their Lordships' House, which had been sitting from February, to debar themselves of that relaxation which the public generally were preparing to enjoy. Members of the Government, who were paid high salaries and obliged to stop in town, might find no difficulty in coming down to the House, and disposing very pleasantly of the business; but their Lordships, generally, had reason to complain of the alternative forced upon them, which was either to remain in town at considerable inconvenience, or, in the public sight, to incur the odium of neglecting their duties.


said, noble Lords opposite were not justified in speaking as if the present was the only Government which was to blame for slackness in bringing business before the House. During the Government of the noble Earl opposite an important and cumbrous measure of some 200 clauses—the Local Government Bill—was carried through their Lordships' House within a few days of the close of the Session. On that Bill a series of Amendments were proposed, and he warned the noble Earl at the time that the subject was one which demanded careful consideration, and that the measure contained provisions which, if passed as they stood, would require amendment in future years. The noble Earl, however, said that great pains had been taken with the Bill in the other House, and that it was deemed of importance that it should not be delayed. He therefore withdrew his opposition; but his prediction had been fulfilled, for they had been amending the Bill from time to time up to the present moment, when another measure was before them to amend the clauses which were passed, contrary to his advice, in such hot haste. As to the Irremovable Poor Bill, it was introduced in February last, and was deferred in order that it might be referred to the boards of guardians throughout the country. The result of that reference had been about seventy answers in favour of the Bill and only some half-dozen against it. The Bill had been most carefully considered; the principles upon which it was based were simple and well understood by those who had studied the subject, and it consisted of only nine or ten clauses. It was perfectly obvious that the object of noble Lords opposite in urging the postponement of the Bill was simply to renew, in an indirect way, the attempt which they made directly, and in which they were defeated on the second reading, to throw out the Bill. He did not think that that was treating the Bill fairly. On the previous evening, when he had an Amendment to propose in the Universities Elections Bill, the noble Earl opposite deprecated it on the ground that the return of the measure to the Commons at that period of the Session would jeopardize its passing. But the alterations which were proposed to be made in the Irremovable Poor Bill would not merely endanger it, but would insure its defeat. He thought, therefore, that, under these circumstances, his noble Friend the President of the Council had no alternative but to refuse to postpone the Bill.


observed that, since he had sat in the House, he had repeatedly heard complaints of the pressure of business at the close of the Session. He regretted to say, however, that the evil, instead of diminishing, was constantly increasing. It was no excuse for the present accumulation of arrears that matters were worse in a former Session. There were a number of important Bills affecting Scotland which their Lordships had not yet had an opportunity of considering, and which he thought it would be unjust and unreasonable to proceed with at that period of the Session.


said, in his opinion the chief cause of the delay in public business was the increase of the talking powers of the other House. As long as the House of Commons chose to spend several months every year in mere debating, instead of in doing work, their Lordships must expect to have to sit perhaps through the whole of August in order to carry on the business of the country. However disagreeable it might be, he thought they were bound to sit on, and that they ought not for any pleasure of their own to go away till they had accomplished their task. He hoped their Lordships would teach the other House how real work might be done without unnecessary talking.