HL Deb 16 July 1869 vol 198 cc4-13

Your Lordships will remember that a Select Committee was appointed last year to consider whether any and what arrangements could be made to remedy the defective construction of the House, with reference to hearing; and that after a number of sittings, we presented a Report, which contained some interesting designs by Mr. Barry, the architect. The recommendations of that Report, however, have not been carried out, because the Members were equally divided in opinion as to some of them. I think there will be no difference of opinion among your Lordships, as to the very defective acoustic properties of the House. I admit that noble Lords sitting on the Treasury or front Opposition Bench have facilities for speaking and hearing; but the majority who sit on the back Benches, and below the Gangway, are very inconveniently situated. There is a large space overhead, and also a large space underground—for there are catacombs or chambers extending the whole length of the House—to which the voice penetrates. It is quite true that other Legislative Chambers, such as those at Paris, Florence, and Washington, are all much larger than this; but their construction is much more convenient for their objects, and much better adapted for hearing. In each there is a tribune, or some place from which the Members speak. As to the remedy, I have no doubt. I believe it consists in a smaller chamber for ordinary purposes and ordinary business, when you meet in small numbers, and when the business may be fairly transacted within a smaller area. Various designs were drawn up by Mr. Barrry for the assistance of the Committee on that point; and some of the Committee were of opinion that the robing room might, at an expense of £40,000, be converted into a chamber with good acoustic properties and convenient access, containing 321 seats, as compared with 466 in the present House. The Committee, however, were equally divided on that point; and a tie being always regarded as a negative, I will not enter further into that proposal. I will now deal with the improvements which I think may be made in the present House. If you desire to make this Chamber a satisfactory one for speaking and hearing, three improvements are required. Yon might lover the ceiling, as in the House of Commons; and I have very little doubt that the result would be satisfactory; but, on the other hand, you would greatly detract from the architectural proportions of the room. Secondly, you might have a glass screen behind the upper Bench and the Woolsack, and so limit the area within which our discussions are carried on. This plan, however, a small majority of the Committee disapproved. Thirdly—and this, perhaps, would be the greatest improvement— you might project the Galleries further, which would greatly enlarge the space at your disposal, and, I believe, would act as a kind of sounding board. All these propositions, however, were negatived by the Committee; and, inasmuch as I was Chairman, I am performing simply a Ministerial duty in laying their recommendations before the House — leaving it to your Lordships to act as you may think proper. The improvements to which, with one exception, we unanimously agreed, are of a minor kind, but, I believe, would materially conduce to the comfort and general convenience of the House. The first is, that the seats in the body of the House be so re-arranged as to allow an additional interval, not exceeding six inches, between the second and third Benches. Now, the width of this building is exactly the same as that of the House of Commons, and the number of Benches is also the same; but the interval between the second and third is, for some unaccountable reason, six inches less than in that House. I propose to enlarge the interval to that extent, which would be convenient to many of your Lordships. Of course, this would, to a certain extent, narrow the floor, but only to a slight degree, and it would but make it the same width as that of the House of Commons. Secondly, I propose that the Gangways, on each side of the Treasury and front Opposition Benches, be widened by six inches. It must have been observed how frequently the Gangways are incommoded by Peers passing and re-passing; and though this alteration would involve the narrowing of the table, it should be remembered that it is constructed for four persons, and that only three sit at it. The third proposal is, that the further part of the space below the Bar should be screened off, in accordance with Mr. Barry's design. It now is rather a corridor, connecting the two side Lobbies, than the Bar itself; and it is constantly crowded, sometimes by Members of the House of Commons, but oftener by strangers, agents, and persons on business, who retire thither to discuss the details of Bills which are before the House, or other matters. The hum of conversation thence arising is often very considerable, and is an inconvenience both to your Lordships and to the reporters in the performance of their duties. I propose that this space should remain as a passage, and to this I think there can be but little objection. The fourth proposition is a somewhat larger one. At present the space immediately below the Bar is partly occupied by chairs and seats, usually occupied by ladies. It has been proposed that these chairs should be removed, the ladies being transferred to one of the Galleries which are now occupied by Members of the House of Commons, and that the whole of that space should be re-seated. You have at present twenty seats below the Bar, and you would thus obtain sixty additional seats, the whole or a considerable proportion of which the Committee wished to be allotted to Members of the House of Commons. I am quite aware that such a course would be returning good for evil, for the House of Commons, in a recent re-construction of their House, have removed us from the seats under the Gallery which we were accustomed to use when we visited that House, and have sent us to a most inconvenient place upstairs, where we cannot hear the debates so satisfactorily. This, too, is a serious inconvenience to Public Business, for there was formerly no better opportunity of arranging and discussing points of importance between Members of both Houses than that afforded under the Gallery. I should be the last, however, to wish to retaliate on the House of Commons by any hostile arrangement. I believe they acted under great pressure in regard to space, and I should hope that they will, on public grounds, re-consider the question. Meanwhile, if we have an opportunity of affording them greater comfort, it is our duty and policy to do so. By carrying the sides of the Bar flush with the central portion of it, which is now advanced into the House, a sacrifice of not less than twenty seats will be involved, and after the experience of the recent debates I should be sorry to lose any seats. Tour Lordships must have seen that, partly from the change in the system of proxies, and partly from the important nature of the question, the House was crowded, and there was not an inch of room which could be spared. By carrying the Benches at the Throne end of the House a little further, an equal number of seats might be gained without much inconvenience, so as to compensate this sacrifice. Even if that fifth proposal be objected to I should still urge the previous one; for in the House of Commons, before the recent change, the seats under the Gallery, though generally reserved for Peers, were very often occupied by Members of that House; and if an extension towards the Throne end be not sanctioned it would still be desirable to re-seat that space either for our own use or for the use of the House of Commons, as might, under particular circumstances, seem advisable. The sixth Resolution is, that the iron bar which now fences off the upper part of the Bar be removed. I am aware that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has an insuperable objection to its removal; but when the House is transacting ordinary business there is no advantage in keeping Members of the House of Commons four feet from the front of the Bar by means of this rail—and I believe that counsel are allowed at the Appeal Sittings to come up to the Bar. The last proposal is that the Reporters' Gallery be brought forward by not more than four feet. We know that that Gallery is very much crowded, and that it is extremely defective, the reporters having' to discharge their duties under great difficulties. The addition of one bench would satisfy all their requirements, and would bring them somewhat further into the House, thus enabling them to hear better. Considering the indistinct tones in which speeches are sometimes delivered, and the hum of conversation which prevails, it is almost a marvel that our debates are reported with such extrordinary fidelity as they ordinarily are, and that so few inaccuracies occur, and it is desirable that we should facilitate the task by so simple and advantageous an arrangement. There are other questions which the Committee considered, and they recommended the conferring of a certain power on the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees, or other Peer, that deserves consideration, but I do not bring it forward now. Another question is that of the ventilation of the House, of which we have had an opportunity of judging during the last few weeks. Your Lordships would be rather surprised if you were to watch the extremely complicated and highly scientific arrangements which exist under your feet for bringing in air, subjecting it to various processes, and returning it to the House. Complaints have recently been made on all sides, sometimes of the frigid and sometimes of the torrid zone. I do not, however, deal with that subject at present. The changes which I have explained would not, of course, make the House in any degree perfect. They are the mere minimum of those which I desire to see, but I believe they would add very considerably to the comfort of the House, and may be made without in any degree affecting the architectural effect of the building. I have no strong feeling on the subject, for these improvements fall short of those which I should desire; but as Chairman of the Committee I thought myself bound to submit them to your Lordships' consideration.

Moved to resolve,

  1. 1. That the seats in the body of the House be so re-arranged as to allow an additional interval not exceeding six inches between the second and third benches:
  2. 2. That the gangways on each side of the Treasury and front Opposition Benches be widened by six inches:
  3. 3. That the further part of the space below the Bar be screened off in accordance with paragraph IV., section 1, of the Report of the Select Committee:
  4. 4. That the sides of the Bar be carried forward four feet so as to be in a line with the present centre portion of the Bar, and that the space available be re-seated in accordance with paragraph IV., section 2, of the Report of the Select Committee:
  5. 5. That the seats sacrificed in the body of the House by the above alteration be replaced by lengthening to a corresponding extent the seats towards the Throne end of the House:
  6. 6. That the rail by which the upper part of the Bar is fenced off be removed during the ordinary business of the House:
  7. 7. That the Reporters Gallery be enlarged and brought forward by not more than four feet.— (The Earl of Carnarvon.)


Your Lordships must, no doubt, be extremely obliged to any Member of the House who takes a great deal of trouble in any matter connected with your personal convenience. I own that I have been rather sceptical with regard to the badness of this House as to its acoustic properties. To a certain degree I am somewhat of an authority on this subject, for, in the first place, I have been a constant attendant here for twenty-three years; in the second place, I am rather deaf; and in the third place, I frequently mumble; and while I am sometimes surprised at the accuracy with which I am reported, I think I am oftener than any other Member reported to have been perfectly inaudible in the Gallery. Now, I believe it depends very much upon ourselves. When we speak out and the House chooses to listen the room performs its function perfectly. When we do not, of course it is not to be expected in any chamber that a different result should be arrived at. The room has not so much to do with the matter as has been supposed. I say that, however, with some qualification, for the noble Earl, during the whole of his interesting-remarks, did not raise his voice beyond a conversational pitch, and during a considerable portion of them the House was not perfectly silent—yet I could hear without difficulty every word he said. With regard to the Committee, I am grateful to them for not having reported in favour of four changes which I think would have been objectionable. As to the first I think it would have been exceedingly inconvenient to have a smaller House for ordinary use. As to their last three proposals, I very much doubt the advantage of them. I am not sure whether the bringing of the Galleries forward would improve or deteriorate the acoustic qualities of the House. With regard to the Resolutions that have been agreed to, I may say there is no doubt that Committee was composed of Members most competent to consider the question; but it was a small Committee, and it seems that opinions were pretty equally balanced on most of the points raised. I think, therefore, the House would hardly be prepared on a question of so much detail to adopt at once all these suggestions en bloc. It would be much bettor to empower the Committee sitting at this moment with reference to arrangements proposed by the Government as to the Dining and Committee Rooms to put themselves into communication with the proper repre- sentatives of the Government with reference to some of these questions. I should deprecate acting at once in the matter. I cannot help adverting to one point with regard to the question how far the House itself is to blame. For the last few years our debates have been miserably reported: now, I think anyone who has read the Reports this year must have been struck by the immense improvement in those Reports. I believe they are in no degree inferior to the Reports of the speeches delivered in the other House, and I cannot help thinking that this very fact shows that we have laid too much blame on the construction of the House as being unfit for hearing. All these details, however, having been carefully considered by the Committee, are well worthy of consideration, and they had better be left to indirect communication with the Government than be decided at once.


said, that he came very much to the same conclusion as his noble Friend (Earl Granville). While he thought that some of the suggestions made were practical and valuable, he doubted very much the prudence of adopting them en bloc. He thought that inconvenience might arise from giving space for Members of the House of Commons so far advanced into the body of the House, as it would be, by having that space advanced to the level of the front of the Bar—he thought their private conversation might be an inconvenience to the proceedings of their Lordships. He would rather suggest that the Bar should be removed to a level with the place where Members of the House of Commons now were, as this would give them room for an additional cross-Bench for the accommodation of Peers. He might add, however, that he was far from wishing to curtail the space at present allotted to Members of the House of Commons, and should be very glad if further and more convenient places could be assigned them in one of the Galleries. He admitted that upon all these suggestions there might be difference of opinion; but he would advert to one point that was not in the Resolutions, upon which there would be, he thought, a good deal of unanimity, and that was, that the state of ventilation in the House should be improved. It was a matter that eminently affected their Lordships' comfort and health. On Monday night he never felt the heat greater in any room that he ever sat in —indeed, it seemed as if hot air were being purposely pumped into the chamber: and yet, whilst hot air prevailed above, the feet of noble Lords were exposed to currents of cold air which came in from below. He trusted some other mode of ventilation would be adopted, for on the back-Benches there had been universal complaints, and though the noble Earl opposite was disposed to treat the matter rather jocularly, it was one which seriously affected their Lordships' comfort.


said, he had already requested the Clerk of the Parliaments to ask the eminent gentleman who superintended the ventilation to attend the Committee next week on that subject. These difficulties of ventilation were probably greater than their Lordships in general imagined.


concurred in the complaints of the ventilation. It seemed almost impossible to admit fresh air without causing a strong draught, and the cold air all came underneath the Benches, while the Bar, where during the recent debates there was a great crowd, was without ventilation. Dr. Percy, indeed, informed him that the thermometer at the door marked only sixty-three degrees; but the ventilation of the House could not be judged by thermometer in different situations, for the temperature differed very much in different parts. Dr. Percy had remarked that it was not his own scheme, and that he only did the best he could; but if he were to sit on those Benches he would soon perceive the inconvenience, and it was high time that an improvement should be effected.


said, he wished to make his own addition to these tales of woe, and to call attention to the cold experienced on the Benches occupied by himself and his right rev. Brethren. He believed that this was chiefly owing to the opening of the door of the Ladies' Galleries, which closely communicated with the external air, the consequence being that not only did the light of bright eyes pour down, but also a draught of cold air enough to carry off the heads of those sitting on the right rev. Bench. It would not be surprising if this affected their speeches, and he hoped therefore that the peculiar dangers of this peculiar Bench would be taken into consideration.


complained of the cold draught to which Peers sitting below the Gangway on the Ministerial side were exposed. He hoped that when the defect pointed out by the right rev. Prelate was remedied some attention would be paid to the opposite extremity of the House.


After what we have heard from the right rev. Prelate and the noble Duke I must say I heartily wish that I sat where those most pleasant draughts of air are felt. It appears to be one among the many advantages of supporting the Government that fresh air is supplied to their side of the House, while the unfortunate Gentlemen who sit with the Opposition are condemned to be stifled by air that must either proceed from the Styx or Phlegethon, or from the main drain of the metropolitan sewers. I have been in many buildings where bad smells were experienced, but I never felt anything like that which was experienced in this House on one of the sultry days that we have had lately. One of the difficulties in respect to ventilation is that all persons are not agreed about it —that some can stand a great deal more heat, while others can bear a great deal more fresh air than their neighbours. I do not know whether it would be possible to invent something of a glass case in which the right rev. Bench could sit where they would be free from these draughts; but I believe that the more we discourage these artificial systems of ventilation, according to which hot air must be made to descend and cold air to go up, and which send in all sorts of air. where it is not wanted, and resort to the natural remedy of opening the windows, the better it will be for our general comfort.


said, he hoped the noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) would accede to the suggestion of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and not press for a decision of the House on the present occasion. He was in favour of the first Resolution, but should deprecate any considerable reduction of the breadth of the table; if six inches were taken off each side that would be as much as could well be spared. With regard to sitting accommodation for their Lordships, he thought their Lordships must feel that it was smaller instead of larger than could be desired. He thought Mr. Barry's suggestion with respect to the space at the Bar was particularly good. If strangers were admitted during the debates to the space that was thrown forward for the use of counsel at the hearing of appeals, the conversation that would be carried on there might be found very inconvenient to their Lordships. He would prefer that the Bar should be left as it was, except as to the re-arrangement of the seats in it, which would be found very advantageous, whether the space there was to be given up, as at present, to the ladies, or was partially or entirely to be given up to Members of the House of Commons. He believed the architect had a great objection to bringing the Reporters' Gallery further forward. When the Gallery was thrown forward on a former occasion it was found to improve the hearing in the House. Whether by bringing it still farther forward it would be found more advantageous in regard to hearing he did not know; but if that could be done without architectural inconvenience it might be desirable.


said, he would like to see the Reporters' Gallery advanced and seats given on each side, and he thought the alteration would not interfere with the architectural appearance of the House or with the hearing in it. He bore his testimony to the horrors endured in that House during the last few days from the proceedings of the ventilation philosophers in whose power they were, and he must say, on behalf of those who occupied the Government Bench, that they did not get the benefit of those delightful currents of cool air which were said to be supplied to their supporters. He joined in deprecating those ingenious contrivances by which when the weather was cold they suffered from extreme cold, and when it was hot they suffered from extreme heat, and for his part he would much prefer that they should be relegated to the common-sense practice of ventilating by means of the windows.


said, he was exceedingly happy to accede to the suggestion that this matter should be referred to the Committee, as had been suggested by the noble Earl(Earl Granville.)

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.