HL Deb 17 February 1870 vol 199 cc413-25

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what arrangements they propose to make with regard to Public Business in this House. He had several reasons for putting the question. Last year, as their Lordships would recollect, one or more measures of importance came before them at so late a period that the attendance of Peers had become very limited, and great dissatisfaction was felt at their being pressed forward in so thin a House. He did not wish to revive these discussions, but he wished to call the attention of the Government and of the House to the great waste of time under the present system. Parliament was summoned to moot on the 8th of February—it was now the 17th—and he believed he was correct in saying that as yet no notice of any public Bill had been given in that House by the Government. It was obvious that if so much time was wasted at the beginning of the Session a great deal of work would have to be crowded into the end. Now, in the Sessions from 1865 to 1868 various measures were submitted to their Lordships at a comparatively early date; and last Session great public benefit accrued from that course being taken with the Habitual Criminals Bill, which underwent a searching discussion, and in which very great improvements were introduced., much of the credit of which was due to its early consideration by their Lordships. The fact that most of the heads of Departments promoting legislation were mostly Members of the House of Commons was no obstacle to this course, for that Bill, though it naturally belonged to the Home Office, was introduced by the Lord Privy Seal, and he did not see why arrangements should not be made by which other Government measures might be introduced in their Lordships' House in the same way. A Speaker of the House of Commons, when asked by Queen Elizabeth what had passed in that Chamber, replied, with a bow, "Please your Majesty, six weeks." But it was to be hoped such an answer would never have to be given in these days; and their Lordships could materially assist in preventing this if Bills were submitted to them at an early period of the Session. It was most unsatisfactory to concentrate all the work of this House into a few weeks in July and August, when noble Lords were exhausted, and when many of them were breathing a purer air at a distance.


The noble Earl's suggestion is not quite of a novel character, for I hardly remember a year since I have sat in this House when a similar appeal was not made; and I remember hearing Lord Aberdeen state that as far back as his experience went the same complaint had almost every year been made. The Joint Committee which sat last Session very much considered this question with some others; as also proposals for making certain changes by means of the Standing Orders; but they were unanimously of opinion that it was inadvisable to adopt them. After stating the evil the Committee said— The Committee admit, with some qualification, the existence of the evil which it is proposed to correct, but are of opinion that it can only be remedied by general consent, and believe that there are objections to all the proposed modes of obviating it which make it unlikely that the House of Commons would take a different view now from that which they took in 1848, when a Bill moved by the Earl of Derby, and passed through the House of Lords, was referred to a Select Committee of the House of Commons, who declined to recommend it for adoption. The Committee went on to say— The Committee are of opinion that considerable expedition might be made in the progress of legislation if more Bills, especially those of a legal or ecclesiastical character, were to originate in the House of Lords. It seems to them, however, that the arrangement of public business between the two Houses can only be left to the discretion of Her Majesty's Ministers, having regard to the character and importance of the different measures introduced, and the opportunities afforded for discussing them in either House. With regard to what occurred last Session, the introduction of certain measures into this House was, on some points, very successful, but on others it was not quite so; for your Lordships—whether rightly or wrongly, I will not now discuss—refused to consider the Amendments made by the Commons in the Scotch Education Bill when it came back to this House. Your Lordships are well aware of the excessive pressure be of business in the House of Commons as well as in this House, but that your Lordships were exhausted at the close of last Session, I am disposed to question, for I saw very few symptoms of exhaustion, either collectively or individually. In that very month of July the amount of business in the House of Commons is overwhelming, and if the number of hours they sit were compared with our sittings they would be found, at least, three to one. I do not, therefore, think too much stress should be given to the plea of exhaustion. At the same time I am quite of opinion that important measures should be brought up to your Lordships in time for careful and serious consideration, and I can only say that it will be the duty and pleasure of the Government to have certain Bills laid before you. My noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack has arranged to present a Bill respecting procedure in the Highest Courts—a subject mentioned in Her Majesty's Speech—and also a Bill relating to Appellate Jurisdiction, which is one of great importance. On Thursday next, moreover, my noble and learned Friend intends to introduce a measure dealing with Naturalization; and I trust that legislation will not suffer from your Lordships having to deal with important Bills at a very advanced period of the Session.


As a member of the Joint Committee to which the noble Earl (Earl Granville) referred. I venture to correct a statement which I think he inadvertently used—that they unanimously declined to recommend an alteration, either by Bill or by Standing Order, which would have carried forward into the ensuing Session Bills which were incomplete in the previous Session. I certainly never concurred in such a Resolution, and one who has gone from us, and who took an earnest interest in the matter—the late Earl of Derby—never, I am quite sure, consented to abandon the proposal. That Committee was more remarkable for the feeling disclosed on the part of Members of the House of Commons than for any Resolutions which it adopted; for those Members who spoke and acted with the greatest courtesy towards us candidly avowed that their reasons for objecting to any measure for lessening the glut of legislation at the end of the Session was, that the present state of things gave them much greater facilities for pressing through this House measures to which the majority of your Lordships are opposed than a more rational arrangement would offer. Now that really hits the core of the evil. There is no particular evil in our having nothing to do at the beginning of the Session, though it were to be wished the fates would give us a lighter summer and the Commons a lighter spring. We must not, however, complain if we have little to do now, and have to work hard by-and-by, but must endure it as well as we can. The practical result is, that measures are forced upon your Lordships at a time when there are not sufficient Members to give a real expression of your opinion upon them. There was a most flagrant instance of this last year. Within three days of the Prorogation most of us were dispersed, and it was generally understood that the Scotch Education Bill would not be proceeded with. So generally was this understood that I met a distinguished Member of the Government in France, who told me that there was not the slightest prospect of its being settled. All of a sudden, however, the Bill entirely remodelled in a sense already declared by this House to be most objectionable, was sent back, and at two days' notice, presented for our acceptance. The great zeal, energy, and assiduity of my noble Friend (Lord Redesdale) defeated that attempt. I came back my-self, but, unfortunately, on the wrong day. Now, that is an instance of what, in a smaller degree, is constantly hap- pening; and it is necessary that your Lordships should turn your attention to doing something with regard to which we do not want the consent of the House of Commons to make it impossible for such surprises to occur. If we arrange that legislation is not forced upon us when there is only an official quorum in the House, the responsibility of waste of time at this season of the year must be left with the Government.


said he did not wish to be guilty of an inaccuracy. The noble Marquess certainly supported his proposal in the Committee and the late Lord Derby also; but he believed the paragraph in the Report condemning it was adopted without a division.


This subject is one of extreme difficulty, and without very great exertion on the part of the Government we cannot hope for an improvement which, as the noble Earl (Earl Granville) rightly says, has been earnestly desired for nearly three quarters of a century. It is necessary, both in justice to your Lordships and to the public, for measures are hastily passed the details of which require careful consideration, and which might be considerably improved if these details were more carefully examined. But it is impossible when 30 or 40 Bills appear in the Orders of every day in July and August that their details can receive more than nominal consideration. The result of our present arrangement is that Bills are passed which are ill-considered and ill-digested, and are certain in the course of a year or two to require amendment. The noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury) has but stated the plain truth when he says that the evil cannot be corrected, simply because the House of Commons does not desire it, and that our only remedy is to do something which shall make that House desire this improvement. At one time we passed a Resolution that, except in cases of urgency, we would not give a second reading to Bills that came up after a certain date. During the short time that we adhered to that Resolution it was of some use, and if strictly enforced it would have been most beneficial. But what happened? The last time it was adopted the noble Lord (Lord Redesdale) moved it at the beginning of the Session, and strongly advised your Lordships not to adopt it unless you intended to adhere to it; while on both sides there was the strongest declaration that you would adhere to it except in cases of real urgency. Late in July, however, after I myself and most of your Lordships had left town, there came up a Bill of a very complicated character, requiring the gravest consideration—especially from noble and learned Lords—the Limited Liability Bill. It was a measure which had been much discussed for some years, and was by many deemed highly desirable; and I myself thought it so. It had no party character, but effected a largo alteration in our commercial legislation, such as, if not done cautiously, would lead to great abuse. To the surprise, however, of many, the noble Earl (Earl Granville) then, as now, Leader of the Government in this House, gave notice that he would move that the Bill came within the proviso of urgency, though it had been talked of for years, and might perhaps with advantage have been discussed for three or four years more. I thought this Motion so outrageous that I thought it my duty to come up 300 miles and resist it; but on the Opposition side of the House there were present only about half-a-dozen Peers, and there was a majority of persons holding Office of double that number. We accordingly proceeded to discuss the Bill, and my noble Friend (Lord Overstone), who had the greatest acquaintance with the subject, expressed the strongest opinion against the hasty passing of such a measure. He truly said that every clause required weighing with the greatest care. But the official majority overbore us, and it was passed with merely nominal consideration. Lord Overstone did what he could to amend it, and I lent him my humble assistance; but it passed substantially as it came up. The result has been that it has literally fulfilled every prediction contained in the remarkable Protest entered on your journals by Lord Overstone; indeed, reading it now, and comparing it with the actual operation of the Bill, it reads like history and not prophecy. Parliament has never passed a measure productive of more private suffering, more cruel injustice, more flagrant wrong to persons incapable of protecting themselves. The noble Lord (Lord Redesdale) has naturally declined to move such a Resolution again; but I hope that when you can stop hasty legis- lation in a way which cannot be deemed unjust, and when by allowing crude legislation to go on you cause great evil, your Lordships will revert to the plan of refusing to consider any Bills sent up at later than a proper date, and will firmly adhere to it. The result would probably be considerable inconvenience for one Session, and a great outcry at the postponement of some measures; but the House of Commons would find means thenceforth of taking care that we should have Bills at a proper time. I have no hesitation in saying that that House has the power of doing so. I am not an advocate for a great many Bills beginning here. A certain class of Bills may do so with advantage; but I am bound to admit that with the majority of Bills their passing would not be facilitated. I admit also that there are objections to the plan proposed by the late Lord Derby for providing by an Act of Parliament taking up Bills in a subsequent Session; but I see no reason why the House of Commons should not accomplish the same object by Standing Order. They might resolve that when a Bill had passed their own House so late in the year that it could not be sufficiently considered here, it should by a single vote be at once read three times in the ensuing Session and sent up here. The adoption of that course would lead to a great improvement in our legislation—especially if coupled with other measures for improving the machinery of business.


I am glad to hear the noble Earl's opinion that it is not desirable, as a general rule, that Bills should originate here. His long experience must have shown him that, except as to Bills of a certain character, their passing would be greatly endangered by their introduction here. The present Government are surely not open to blame, for last year we introduced more than one Bill of considerable interest, and this Session we propose to introduce measures of a legal character. The Habitual Criminals Bill is a very good illustration of the fact mentioned by my noble Friend (Earl Granville), that the House of Commons also is so overwhelmed with business at the end of the Session, that it has sometimes great difficulty in considering Bills in a satisfactory manner. I naturally took great interest in that Bill, and I confess that as the Session advanced I had great doubts whether it would not be dropped in that House, of which there was considerable danger. Now, if that was the case with a Bill which met with general approval, it is much more likely to happen with Bills which excite differences of opinion. The noble Earl opposite (Earl Grey) took the opportunity afforded by this discussion of making a trenchant attack on the Limited Liability Act, seeming to think that as the commercial crisis occurred since its passing, it was caused by it. Now, I will not give an opinion on a subject not properly before the House; but though there is no man to whose opinion on commercial questions I am more inclined to defer than Lord Overstone, and though fully valuing the opinion of the noble Earl himself, I venture to think that that crisis was not caused by that Act. I think also that, whatever regulations had been laid down for the conduct of Public Business, Lord Overstone and the noble Earl would, in the discharge of what they felt to be their duty, have attacked that measure and offered all possible opposition to it. They laid hold of the noble Lord's (Lord Redesdale's) Resolution, simply on a principle "any stick to beat a dog." That Resolution was not convenient, for I had often myself to propose the suspension of it—which showed no negligence on the part of the then Government, nor any disrespect to this House, but simply that it was impossible to carry it out. I question, indeed, whether it is competent or proper for this House virtually to decide when the Session is to terminate; for Parliament is called together by the Crown, and it is the duty of both Houses to remain until the business is completed. With regard to the Scotch Education Bill, I regret that an impression sprang up, owing to some indecision in the House of Commons whether it should be proceeded with, that it would be abandoned; and I admit that that might have given some ground for objecting to its consideration by your Lordships; but, irrespective of that misunderstanding, it was clearly the duty of your Lordships, in the case of a Bill which had undergone protracted discussion in the other House, to remain and discuss it in its amended form. Last Session was, no doubt, an unusual one, and measures of great importance occupying both Houses, some others were driven off very late; but whatever Government may be in power it will always do its utmost to facilitate the passage of Bills through the other House. From the very commencement of the Session, there is a continuous struggle on the part of Members of the Government to send up measures to your Lordships in sufficient time, knowing as they do the risk which otherwise attends them.


Like the noble Earl (Earl Granville) I scarcely remember a Session which has not been opened with a somewhat similar discussion—namely, a question as to what Bills the Government would introduce, a certain number of speeches on both sides, and a more or less satisfactory assurance from the Government. I am sorry to say that the noble Earl's answer to-night must be classed with the less, rather than with the more, satisfactory assurances, for lie offers us a more meager programme than has been customary on former occasions. Last year, six or seven Bills were introduced here—including the Habitual Criminals Bill, which was thoroughly sifted by your Lordships, and in which some important Amendments were made; the Governor General of India Bill, which, it is true, was subsequently altered, but the discussion on which was useful; and the Scotch Education Bill. All those were important measures, and there were four others of less moment. The present programme is comparatively small, and I should be glad if the Government would consider the practicability of giving us rather more occupation before Easter. Unfortunately, the Members of the House of Commons were unwilling to accept the proposal of my noble Friend (the Marquess of Salisbury) last Session; and if the Government decline to give us a reasonable amount of work whereon to employ ourselves in the early part of the Session, it must remain for this House to consider what course it will take. I cannot say what would happen if the more stringent measures which have been hinted at were adopted; but it is our duty not to be parties to confessedly bad legislation. I do not say that the present Government are more to blame than previous Governments; but it is impossible to do justice to the Bills which flow in upon us in July and August, and this House practically loses all sense of responsibility in dealing with them; crude measures are consequently passed, and the only marvel is how such legislation can ever be made to work. If the Government can devise no expedient for a more equal distribution of labour, it becomes the duty of this House to refuse its assent to Bills, no matter how important, rather than be a party to crude and often dangerous legislation.


said, the real truth was the government of the country was in the House of Commons, and no Minister liked to introduce a measure of importance into the House of Lords until he first knew what was likely to be the feeling of the House of Commons with regard to it. In some instances, it was stated in evidence, Bills had met with an unfavourable reception in the other House, expressly because they had first been introduced into their Lordships' House. At the same time, it was very desirable that any Bills of a character admitting of their being brought forward in their Lordships' House should be so introduced, and his noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack had done well in promising Bills of a legal character for their consideration. Religious subjects might also be taken up with advantage in their Lordships' House; upon the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, which had been promised by the Prime Minister—for instance, it would be very desirable to have the opinion of the Bench of Bishops. But a Resolution such as that which was suggested for the adoption of their Lordships would utterly fail to accomplish the object which was desired. In the case of some great Bill, like that of the present Session, or the Irish Church measure of last year, would it be possible for a mere Resolution to resist the progress of such a Bill? No. The same thing would arise which happened in the case of the Limited Liability Bill, and the House of Commons would sweep triumphantly through the Resolution. At that time, the Notices given for not insisting on the rule, upon the ground of urgency, were so frequent as almost to create a laugh. Nevertheless, it was most desirable that the Ministry should keep its eye upon such Bills as were capable of being introduced with advantage at an early period in their Lordships' House, so that these might not be delayed till the extreme end of the summer or even into autumn.


said, the best proof which could be afforded of the practical impossibility of carrying any measure until the feeling of the House of Commons had first been ascertained was afforded by the case of the Scotch Education Bill, which was introduced into their Lordships' House last year at the very beginning of the year and yet failed to become law. The Government seemed to have adopted the very best mode of advancing Public Business by introducing an unusually large number of Bills in the House of Commons at the very outset of the present Session, which would probably give their Lordships plenty of occupation at an early period.


said, it was easy to say it was the duty of their Lordships to stay in town as long as there was any business to get through or till the Queen chose to release them from attendance; but everybody knew that this was not a practical observation—they all knew what occurred as the end of the Session approached. As to the Scotch Education Bill of last year, the House of Commons sent it back, no doubt: but when? It came back on the day that the Consolidated Fund Appropriation Act was read the third time. And how was the Bill treated after it had left their Lordships' House? The House of Commons after several postponements, read it a second time, and it was the next day committed pro formâ for the purpose of striking out nearly all the Amendments which had been made in their Lordships' House, and of putting the Bill back very nearly into the shape in which it was originally introduced. And that was the shape in which it came back to their Lordships on the 9th of August, Parliament being prorogued upon the 11th. The Bill could not be printed before the next day, and it was obvious that the Government would resist all Amendments, because the delay which would attend its going back to the Commons would lead to the loss of the measure. Under these circumstances he regarded the vote at which the House then arrived with the utmost satisfaction. It was emphatically a declaration of what the House felt to be due to itself, and it was a step taken with perfect independence, for not a single Member of the late Government voted in the division by which the Bill was rejected. A Resolution that the House would not read Bills a second time after a particular date he regarded as a most legitimate declaration; and it was a course which, if it were adopted by both Houses, would get rid of any question of privilege. The reason why he himself did not renew the Motion was that the other House of Parliament had objected to it, and he thought it was a proposal which, if made, ought to proceed from the Government and not from an independent Member. At the same time he had been very happy last year, in the debate on the Scotch Education Bill, to quote the authority of the present Prime Minister in support of such a Resolution. About ten years ago, when the right hon. Gentleman was not in Office, a Bill was sent down at a late period from their Lordships' House, for the purpose of enabling the Bishops of London and Norwich to retire. The right hon. Gentleman took exception to the period at which that Bill was sent down, and said that if the Government brought forward measures so late in the Session, it would be the duty of the House to adopt a Resolution that no second reading of a Bill should be taken after a certain day. With this high authority for the course he recommended, he hoped that the matter would be dispassionately considered, for all parties agreed that it was desirable legislation should be well and carefully matured. The same proposition which was made with regard to public Bills had been made and acted upon with the greatest advantage in the case of private Bills. At one time the utmost difficulty was experienced in getting these Bills at any reasonable period; but by fixing a date and adhering to it the Bills now came up on or before the day named, and if one was too late it was often accounted for by some exceptional circumstances. This had been accomplished simply by a rule of their Lordships' House—for no similar rule prevailed in the Commons. The question of extending the system of public Bills was one well deserving of consideration, affecting as it did the convenience and the best interests of the country. As to the introduction of legal measures into their Lordships' House during the present Session, two Bills had been mentioned in the Queen's Speech, which he thought belonged essentially to the class that might be presented to their Lordships, one having reference to the transfer of land, and the other to the distribution of real property in cases of intestacy.


said, he wished to add a few words with reference to the two Bills which his noble Friend the Secretary for the Colonies had stated that he (the Lord Chancellor) was about to introduce. One of these had for its object to enable the courts of common law to make arrangements for carrying on their duties in certain cases in which difficulties were experienced. At this moment one of these courts was unable to exercise all its duties in a satisfactory manner, owing to the decease of one of its Judges, while in the other courts there are more than enough Judges to discharge the duty cast upon them. This state of things had induced him to bring forward a Bill, which he should ask their Lordships to read a first time to-morrow evening. If it had not been for the absence of his noble and learned Friend (Lord Cairns), who, after this present week would be absent from their deliberations for some little time, he would not have said a word upon the subject of the larger measure before actually introducing it; but as that measure was founded upon the Report of the Judicature Commission, which recommended changes of importance and of very great magnitude—and inasmuch as that Commission had been obtained by his noble and learned Friend, who himself presided over its labours, took the greatest interest in its deliberations, and assented to the Report at which the Commission arrived—he was most anxious before their Lordships lost the benefit of his assistance, to bring forward the subject in such a manner as at least to obtain from him a valuable opinion upon those recommendations on which the provisions of the Bill were mainly based. The other Bill was the Naturalization Bill, which would carry into effect a very large number of the recommendations contained in the Report of the Commission which sat on the subject, leaving only a portion of their recommendations undealt with, for reasons which, at the proper time, he would explain to the House.

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