HL Deb 18 February 1869 vol 194 cc95-103

said, he desired to put a Question to the noble Earl, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The noble Earl assured their Lordships the other evening that the House would not be without work at the commencement of the Session? Now, he (Lord Chelmsford) wished to ask the noble Earl, Whether it was a fact that the Bankruptcy Bill was to be introduced into the House of Commons? He thought that if there was any subject that more specially belonged to the consideration of their Lordships than another, it was the Bankruptcy Bill. Their Lordships were aware that Session after Session Bills on that subject had been introduced in their Lordships' House; and a Committee of their Lordships had sat to consider the subject. Several of his noble and learned Friends had not only taken part in the discussions on Bills of that description, but they had themselves been the originators of Bills, or had assisted in perfecting clauses in Bills dealing with the subject; and he was quite sure that the subject would have a much more satisfactory discussion if the initiative were taken in that House than it would receive if first introduced in the House of Commons; for, in all probability, their Lordships would not then hear anything of the Bill till the month of July. He wished to ask his noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack, Whether it was true that it was the intention of the Government to introduce the Bankruptcy Bill into the House of Commons?


It is only within the last few minutes that I received an intimation from my noble and learned Friend that he was about to put this Question to me; but as the matter has been very much considered, I have no difficulty in giving an Answer. It is quite true that Notice has been given of the introduction of a Bankruptcy Bill into the House of Commons, and it will, I believe, be introduced in that House. It is also quite true, as my noble and learned Friend has said, that the question has been considered and re-considered in its various stages at various times. Indeed, I have had three very complicated, but, at the same time, very well arranged, and, in many respects, good Bills on the subject, presented to me for attention. Although there are reasons which have prevented my accepting entirely any of these measures, I have felt bound fully to consider those Bills, the matters treated in which affect so much the interests of a large and important portion of the community. I have also had communications on the subject from various members of Chambers of Commerce, and other persons connected with the trading and mercantile community, as well as from persons acting professionally for such parties, some of them representing towns such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham, which take a special interest in the matter. I have had, besides, personal communication, and communication by letter with various persons engaged in the commerce of the country; and I have found that though these persons differ in some respects, there seemed to be among them a common desire that a Bill affecting so materially trade and commerce, should be introduced into the House of Commons. Feeling that there was some degree of reason in this wish, I decided to introduce the Bill into the other House first. I thought the best mode would be, under the circumstances, to have the Bill introduced at as early a period as possible in the other House, in order that your Lordships may be afforded an opportunity of fully discussing and considering the subject. This is the Answer I have to give to the noble and learned Lord.


said, he did not think their Lordships would have any reason to complain if the Government did not give them any work, either at the beginning or the end of the Session; but he thought they would have great reason to complain if, after an enforced idleness up to Easter there should be a crush of work towards the end of the summer, which made it absolutely impossible for their Lordships to discharge their legislative functions satisfactorily, or give to the various matters brought before them the attention they deserved. It was a matter of notoriety that for many years this had been the case with the House of Lords:—for months nothing was done in their Lordships' House, but towards the end of June or the beginning of July, just at the time when everybody's strength was exhausted, and the weather was not particularly favourable for laborious investigation, there came up a flood of Bills from the House of Commons, to which it was wholly beyond the physical power of any legislative assembly to give adequate consideration. It seemed to him that that was a state of things which their Lordships ought to take very stringent measures to redress. He hoped the Government would co-operate with them—he should rather say would take the initiative in redressing it, and would do their best to ensure that those measures which they desired that House to consider should be introduced at a sufficiently early period to enable that consideration to be real. He should be very sorry to be thought factious in that House, but he begged to give notice that with regard to Bills brought up at a time when it was not physically possible to give them adequate consideration, be the merits of these Bills what they might, he should interpose every obstacle which the forms of the House allowed to prevent these Bills passing into a law. It was a farce to maintain a legislative body, and then to expect it to perform legislative duties just at the fag-end of the Session. There were some persons in the community who believed that their Lordships' House might be properly abolished; there were others who believed that its constitution might be properly altered; but he ventured to say there was no person in the community who believed it was desirable that the legislative functions of that House should remain a perfect sham, and that their Lordships should be required to register as mere matters of form subjects which had been really considered only in the other House of Parliament. He did earnestly press this question upon the attention pf the noble Earl who led the Government in that House (Earl Granville). There was no one in that House who had a more anxious desire than the noble Earl had to maintain the position of the House of Lords, and there was no way in which the noble Earl could give more full effect to that desire than by providing a remedy for this great and pressing evil. He need not say it was not a matter which could be made a reproach against any Government or of any party. It was an evil which had lasted many years. To the great Administration of Sir Robert Peel the complaints dated back; but it was an evil that had now grown to such a height that, unless something were done to redress it, the position and character of their Lordships' House in the community, as a instrument of legislative action, would be irrevocably gone.


thanked the noble Marquess for the courteous terms in which he had spoken of himself, and assured him that he entirely concurred in all he had said as to the deficiency of early business for this House, and the great accumulation of work towards the end of the Session. He was most anxious to equalize the work which came before their Lordships. The evil was not one of recent growth—it had been a subject of complaint for years; and he remembered hearing Lord Aberdeen state, some fourteen or fifteen years ago, that during the fifty years over which his memory extended the same complaint had annually been made. He (Earl Granville) had endeavoured, and as he had hoped with some success, to bring before their Lordships measures of importance at an early period of the Session; but with regard to two Bills on which he had counted, Notice was given, rather to his surprise, the very first day of the Session, of their introduction into the House of Commons. He assured their Lordships that he would not fail to urge upon his Colleagues the claim which they had a right to make, that business should be provided for them at a time when they had abundant opportunity of transacting it.


said, he believed the extent of the evil now complained of to be greatly due to their Lordships themselves, and perhaps to no one so much as to his noble friend (Earl Granville), who had just addressed the House. Allow him to remind their Lordships of what had taken place a few years ago. Some years since all were agreed that steps should be taken to check the same evil which is now complained of. With this view the House came to a formal Resolution that they would refuse to consider, with a view to legislation in the current Session, any Bill which came up after a certain date, unless it related to Supply, or was of immediate and pressing urgency. That Resolution was adopted with the unanimous assent of the House, his noble Friend (the Chairman of Committees) pointing out, in moving it, that it would do more harm than good unless their Lordships were prepared seriously to enforce it. What, however, happened? Towards the close of the Session, in the month of July, a Bill came up from the other House establishing the principle, as it was called, of Limited Liability. That was a subject of extreme difficulty, requiring the fullest consideration, and it was not at all one of such pressing urgency that it should have been passed without due consideration by their Lordships. To the astonishment, however, of most noble Lords, his noble Friend (Earl Granville), who then occupied the same position that he now filled, gave Notice of a Motion, affirming it to be so pressing, that the Resolution against proceeding with Bills which came up too late for proper consideration should be waived for it and the Bill proceeded with. The noble Chairman of Committees had so strong a feeling in the matter, that he at once announced his determination to oppose the Motion, and he himself (Earl Grey) thought it of so much importance that, though he had left London for the season, and was about 300 miles distant, he thought it his duty to come up to town and support him. At that late period of the summer, however, the attendance of noble Lords unconnected with the Government was small, and their opposition was fruitless. Lord Overstone had a strong objection to the measure, which was discussed for a whole night in Committee, but it was hardly argued, for to all the objections urged by him, by myself, and one or two others, scarcely any answer was vouchsafed on the other side, but they were summarily over-ruled by divisions, in which all our Amendments were defeated by majorities of 30 or 40 to 4 or 5. The result, however, had shown that he and his noble Friend were not very far wrong in regarding this as a hasty and improper mode of legislation. He appealed to noble and learned Lords who possessed judicial experience whether it had not been proved by its working to have been about the most hasty and inconsiderate piece of legislation which ever passed the two Houses, and whether it had not notoriously been the cause of infinite suffering and losses to numerous private families throughout the kingdom, while it had also, he feared, tended, very seriously to degrade and lower the whole tone of commercial morality in this country. His noble Friend Lord Redesdale) declared distinctly that he would not again, in another Session, move a Resolution against proceeding with Bills, not of pressing necessity, which reached that House too late in the Session, if this were set aside in favour of a Bill such as that which he had described, to which it ought to have been considered as specially applicable, since it was a measure for making a great and permanent change in our commercial legislation, which, even if it were right, could not be said to be one in the passing of which a year's delay would have been of the slightest importance, while it obviously required the utmost care in examining its details. The consequence had been that for the last thirteen or fourteen years no such Resolution had been proposed. He (Earl Grey) agreed with his noble Friend that it would have been a farce, after his experience of the want of firmness on the part of the House, to submit a similar Resolution, and he only trusted that if the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury) endeavoured to carry into effect the views he had so justly expressed, he would find the House a little more firm and consistent than on former occasions.


said, recurring to the measure which had been the original cause of this discussion, that he hoped that, nothing having at present been done, the Government would even yet reconsider the course they would adopt with reference to the Bankruptcy Bill. He did not think the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, or any other member of the Government, would express an opinion that there was any reasonable probability of the measure—considering its length and the many interesting questions it would raise—passing through the House of Commons be- fore the end of June or the beginning of July. If he remembered right the number of clauses in the Bill of last year was between 200 and 300, almost every one of which was of importance; and at the beginning of July their Lordships would have other measures of great consequence coming up from the House of Commons, and requiring their undivided attention. How, then, could the Bankruptcy Bill, jostled by other important measures, receive the consideration it required? If, on the other hand, it was now introduced, their Lordships were not occupied with any other business, and it might reach the House of Commons at a time when they in turn would be better able than at present to deal with it. He had been struck by what his noble and learned Friend had told them had happened within the last few weeks, and it appeared to him that that statement afforded the best recommendation that the Bill should originate in their Lordships' House. His noble and learned Friend (the Lord Chancellor) had stated that he had received deputations from the mercantile community in various parts of the country who were anxious to express their views on the subject. Now he had had some experience of that process, and he knew how valuable and important it was for the purposes of legislation. While, however, the noble and learned Lord, as a high Officer of the Government, had seen deputations, and knew the minds of the mercantile community on the subject, the Bill would devolve on the other House on one of the Law Officers of the Crown, whose time was fully occupied with other business, who was not a member of the Cabinet, and who therefore, could not address deputations with the authority and weight of the noble and learned Lord; whereas, if the measure was introduced in this House the noble and learned Lord would be a medium of communication between their Lordships and the mercantile community, since he would come here fresh from hearing the opinions of the trading community. He thought that if the representatives of the mercantile community were aware of the peril the Bill would run of not passing at all if brought first into the other House, they would alter their opinion. He could not help thinking that this preference for the House of Commons was the more to be wondered at when they remembered that a Committee of their Lordships' House had sat on the whole question, and that the measure to be introduced was nothing more than an affirmation of the propositions to which that Committee had given their assent.


said, it was of great importance that they should arrive at a clear understanding how it was that measures came up so late to their Lordships' House. It was obvious that many Bills were first brought forward in the House of Commons, and were there passed by decided majorities, which it was not likely would ever have been originated in their Lordships' House, but to which their Lordships would naturally, from that circumstance, pay far greater regard. Measures also affecting taxation necessarily came first before the other House. There were, however, questions of a legal or ecclesiastical character, and questions affecting our relations with foreign countries, which, owing to the presence of noble and learned Lords who had occupied the Woolsack, of Prelates of the Church, and of noble Lords who had held the Seals of the Foreign Office, might advantageously be debated in this House. With regard to important Bills coming up in July, he recollected that measures of the highest importance, such as the Roman Catholic Belief Bill, the Repeal of the Corn Laws, and some others, came before their Lordships in April or May, allowing ample time for discussion. With regard to the future conduct of business, he would venture to throw out a suggestion. At one period the Estimates were voted tip to the 1st of January; but this was afterwards changed to the 31st of March. Now that alteration had necessitated the consideration of the Estimates, which often led to long discussions, but of course did not result in any measures being sent up to their Lordships, between the meeting of Parliament, which was generally early in February, and the 31st of March. He would suggest to the Government the propriety of extending the Estimates to the 30th of June, by which means the House of Commons would have all the time up to the end of April for discussing measures intended to be sent up to their Lordships. It was, he thought, desirable that measures of great importance should have the assent of the House of Commons previous to their being discussed by their Lordships. The enlargement of the constituencies might, perhaps, result in an increase of talk in the House of Commons, and, unless there was an alteration in the financial arrangements, measures would not come up, as they did formerly, at the beginning of May, but as late as the middle or end of July. He did not think that any inconvenience would result from such an alteration, whilst it would facilitate the discussion of other matters of importance in both Houses of Parliament.


said, he would earnestly recommend the Government to confine the Bankruptcy Bill to the two points mentioned in Her Majesty's Speech—the more effective distribution of assets and the abolition of imprisonment for debt. If they attempted to introduce what he would term a "monster" Bill, it would stand a great chance of not receiving sufficient consideration, and this important subject would have to be postponed to another Session. He quite concurred in the opinion that the measure should first receive the consideration of their Lordships, and a Select Committee might receive the suggestions of the mercantile bodies. He foresaw so much difficulty in the way of a Consolidation Bill first introduced into the other House that, though from bitter experience he had little confidence in this House at large in dealing with bankruptcy, he should himself bring in a Bill, limited to the two crying evils he had mentioned, in order that it might be fully considered before they could hope to receive a lengthy Bill from the House of Commons. With regard to the general complaint that had been made, he thought it was much to be regretted that almost all important measures were first carried through the House of Commons.


reminded their Lordships that one of the recommendations of the Select Committee of last Session was that Questions which would lead to discussion should not be put without Notice. The Question of the noble and learned Lord (Lord Chelmsford) was one perfectly legitimate, but the House had been led from it into a debate which, though important and interesting, would have been still more so had Notice of it been given. He hoped, therefore, the rule would in future be adhered to.