HL Deb 04 March 1872 vol 209 cc1298-307

My Lords, I rise to put to my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs the Question of which I have given Notice—namely, What Bills Her Majesty's Government intend originating in the House of Lords? It is not my intention to enter into a long discussion on this subject: I cannot, however, but think it is a matter of regret that more Bills do not originate in this House. Up to this we have had but very little before us in the way of legislation; and I say this is to be regretted, because I really think it would be of great advantage, not only to this House but also for the expedition of public business, if more of the Bills brought in by the Government during the present Session had been originated in your Lordships' House. I think I can name subjects on which the Government propose legislation, and the Bills referring to which, I believe, might appropriately be brought into your Lordships' House in the first instance. There is the sanitary condition of the country—a subject of the highest importance—would not the Bill which the Government propose to introduce in reference to sanitary arrangements be well suited for discussion in this House before it is taken by the Commons? Then there is the subject of mines; but I believe the Mines Regulation Bill is to be introduced in the other House of Parliament before it comes up to your Lordships' House. I think it might well be discussed by your Lordships in the first instance; and I feel perfectly confident that this House would be perfectly competent to deal with the subject of Scotch Education, if the Bill on this subject were introduced here in the first instance. If this course be not adopted, what will be the result? If all those Bills, of considerable importance, be brought into the House of Commons in the first instance, by force of circumstances they will not reach your Lordships till the end of the Session—a period when we have not sufficient time to devote to them the consideration such measures ought to receive. Looking to the state of business in the other House of Parliament, I do not think it is likely that any Bills of great moment will come from that House at this side of Easter. When it is remembered that Bills coming to us from the other House of Parliament may possibly have to go back again, I am afraid we must con-elude that it will be impossible that they can be discussed in a satisfactory manner if we continue to receive them at so late a period of the Session.


My Lords, the Question my noble Friend has put is a very natural one: neither is it extraordinary that he should complain of our having very little to do at the beginning of the Session; for the complaint of our not having enough to do at the beginning of the Session and too much at the end has been made, as stated by the late Earl of Aberdeen, for the last 50 years; and I am afraid that the remedy is not at all apparent, because in the nature of things, where there are two legislative Chambers, and one is a representative body, the greater number of measures can only come on for discussion in the non-representative Chamber after they have been discussed in the other or second Chamber. This subject has been frequently considered in successive years, and my noble Friend near me (Viscount Halifax) will bear me out when I say that I have always been desirous of having as many Bills as possible introduced in your Lordships' House in the first instance. [Viscount HALIFAX: Hear, hear!] Your Lordships will all understand that the Government could not think it desirable to originate in your Lordships' House Bills which would be likely to be rejected before the House of Commons was afforded an opportunity of expressing an opinion on them. But with regard to the Mines Bill, for example—one of the measures referred to by the noble Duke—no doubt there are reasons why that Bill might have been introduced in this House, for many of your Lordships are mine owners, and still more of your Lordships are interested in the condition of the working classes employed in those mines; but it must also be obvious that both the proprietors of mines and the men are more directly represented in the other House of Parliament than in this. The noble Duke seems to fear that no legislation will be introduced in this House. That will be by no means the case. As to Bills of another character, the noble and learned Lord behind me (Lord Westbury) has given Notice of a Question which will be replied to by my noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack, and I trust that answer will be satisfactory. And I may say that there are Bills of an administrative character in regard to Ireland which my noble Friend (the Earl of Dufferin) will introduce before Easter. Indeed, he will introduce them immediately. Then there are a Bankruptcy Bill, a Prisons Bill, and a Bill relating to Imprisonment for Debt, which will be introduced in your Lordships' House in the first instance. I may also mention a small Bill relating to cattle diseases, which I may add to the three Bills I have just named. I cannot go further at present. There are a few other Bills in the Home Office; but I am not yet in possession of information to enable me to say whether they will be introduced first in this House. I believe, therefore, that full occupation will be found for your Lordships before Easter.


My Lords, I do not think it is quite fair to blame our representative system for your Lordships having too much leisure time at the beginning of a Session, and too much employment at the end. I think the difficulty in this matter arises from the Government having to consult the wishes of individual statesmen. A Minister does not like to introduce a Bill unless he can make a speech on it, especially when he has prepared the Bill himself. The consequence is, that when Bills come from the Home Office, or have reference to local government, the noble Earl (Earl Granville) finds himself in that minority among the Members of the Cabinet which has always been unable to secure the introduction of any considerable number of Bills in your Lordships' House. But, can we not find a remedy? Owing to the system now pursued, there is not sufficient time allowed us for careful legislation and for resorting in all instances where it may be advisable to the practice of sending Bills up to a Select Committee, by whom they may be thoroughly examined. I will venture to make a suggestion, if it be not considered too revolutionary. Would not it be possible to introduce Bills not of a party character in the two Houses simultaneously? This would not relieve either House of the duty of a careful consideration of the Bills; but it would prevent the business from being huddled into a space of time that is not sufficient for its discharge. I am afraid this proposal is too revolutionary for the noble Earl to consent to it without first trying to recover from the shock it may have produced.


My Lords, this is a subject of very great importance. As the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond) has observed, at the beginning of the year we are practically without business, and at the close of the year more business is thrown upon us than can by possibility be properly attended to; and the existing arrangements for carrying on the business of Parliament lead also to this still worse result—that a great deal of the work of legislation for the country is utterly neglected. Bills which are essential for the welfare of the people of this kingdom—for their daily life and comfort—are postponed from year to year, while mere party subjects are debated at great length. There is this further evil—that in many instances the legislation of the Imperial Parliament is hasty, crude, or ill-considered, and the various portions of a Bill are so inconsistent with each other, that it is impossible for the Courts to divine what were the intentions of the Legislature. It is almost an exceptional case when a Bill having passed in one year it is not necessary the next year or the year after to pass another to cure its obvious defects. Last year there was a striking example of this, when we were forced to pass a new Act to amend the Habitual Criminals Act, which had itself been passed only the year before.


That Act originated in this House.


That is so; but whether it originated in this or in the other House of Parliament, I am referring to it to show the unfinished manner in which Bills leave Parliament. It cannot be otherwise when important Amendments in Bills come to be considered by your Lordships at the same time that the Appropriation Act comes before you for a third reading. I cannot, however, think that the remedy suggested by the noble Duke or that suggested by the noble Marquess would answer the purpose. I do not believe that bringing in a larger number of Bills in this House in the first instance, or introducing Bills concurrently in both Houses, would effect the desired object; and for this reason—By the very nature of the constitution of this House our function is more properly to revise legislation, rather than to originate it. In the first place, many of the subjects of legislation involve questions of money, with which, practically, we can do nothing. For instance, sanitary measures have been referred to, some of which, it has been suggested, would be peculiarly appropriate for first introduction in this House; but in making this suggestion it seems to have been forgot that you cannot move a step in such legislation without having to face the question of money, and according to the privileges of the other House of Parliament we cannot deal with questions of taxation. But even when there is no question of money, in how large a number of the subjects of legislation is it not desirable to know what are the feelings and wishes of the great masses of the population who are represented in the other House of Parliament? I must say that my experience—and it is one extending over a very great number of years—is not favourable to the introduction of a large proportion of Bills in this rather than in the other House of Parliament. I remember that when I had a seat in the other House, I remarked that that House was not disposed to accept Bills that had come from this House with the same readiness as it did Bills which originated in the House of Commons. There is, indeed, a class of Bills to which this remark does not apply, and which I think may with advantage be brought into this House in the first instance—I allude to what are commonly called Law Bills, and especially measures to improve the constitution and the mode of proceeding in our Courts of Law. There are in this House noble and learned Lords whose assistance in the examination and discussion of such Bills is of peculiar value; but with the exception of these and one or two other classes of measures, I do not believe that any very great proportion of Bills can be originated here with advantage. My Lords, I do not think any remedy can be found for the state of things from which the country is suffering, except on a plan by which Bills which have passed through the House of Commons in one Session may be sent up here the next Session on a simple vote of the House of Commons affirming the Bill again. Your Lordships may recollect that the late Lord Derby introduced a Bill on the subject, which passed this House; and, though I supported it, I am bound to admit that the House of Commons had exceedingly good reason for declining to support it. I think, when the subject comes to be considered, that there is an irresistible objection to doing away with the discretion which each House has to regulate its own proceedings; because if once you introduce the practice of prescribing by Act of Parliament in what manner an Act is to be passed, this would happen—that you would have the Courts of Law called upon to decide whether the statutory form had been observed. Legislation, therefore, of the kind suggested by Lord Derby was, I think, justly objected to; but I can see no reason why the same end should not be obtained in a different manner. Why should not a Standing Order to this effect be passed by the House of Commons—that when a Bill has been passed by the House at such a period of the Session that it cannot come up to this House with a probability of being properly discussed here it shall be in the power of that House to save it for our consideration till the following Session, and that a single vote, without discussion and without debate, shall then be sufficient for sending the Bill up to this House. Let me point out how this would work. Only last Session a very important Bill, which had occupied the attention of the other House of Parliament for many weeks, was brought up to this House quite at the end of July. That Bill was not rejected on the merits; it was rejected—and I think most properly—on the ground that at that period of the Session there was not time to consider it. Now, if such a Standing Order as I have suggested had been in existence, the House of Commons would not have sent that Ballot Bill to be considered by this House in the last days of the Session, but would have reserved it till Parliament met in February, and then sent it to your Lordships; who would have had full time to consider it, and to have sent it back to the Commons by a sufficiently early day to enable the two Houses to arrive at a common understanding. On the other hand, what has been the result? The Bill was rejected here for the reason I have already stated; its rejection caused no small amount of irritation, which was very needless under the circumstances; the Bill is again before the House of Commons, stopping other legislation, and it promises to be such a very considerable time before it reaches your Lordships that it is not impossible it may come up too late this year again to enable this House to give it the necessary consideration, or, at all events, to allow of the needful communication between the two Houses for coming to an agreement if they should differ on some of its provisions. When this subject was discussed two years ago it was supposed by some that there was a strong disposition on the part of the House of Commons not to adopt the suggestion, because Members of that House thought the present system afforded them the means of forcing this House to pass Bills. If this was really the motive for opposing the change, it does not seem to be a good one, and it is also clear that it would have manifested a want of appreciation of the real facts of the case; because if a Bill were brought up in the month of February, your Lordships could have no such ground for rejecting it as that on which the Ballot Bill was properly rejected last year. I may mention another case in which great advantage would have resulted from adopting the practice I have recommended. Two or three years ago a Scotch Education Bill was introduced in this House by the Government; this House carefully considered it, amended it very materially, and sent it down to the other House of Parliament. There it lay on the Table for a very long time without any notice having been taken of it. After that it was committed pro formâ, and in this manner it was completely changed from the form in which it had left your Lordships' House. With Amendments entirely changing its character, which had been adopted in this manner without discussion, it was sent up to us for a consideration of the Commons' Amendments on the same day as that on which we took the third reading of the Appropriation Bill. Of course, it was utterly impossible for your Lordships to deal with the Amendments at that period of the Session. If such a Standing Order as I suggest had been in existence that Education Bill would have been sent up here at the beginning of the next Session, with the Amendments the Commons had thought fit to make; we could have sent it back again to the Commons at an early period of the year, and there would have been ample time for those communications between the two Houses which so often enable them to come to an agreement on the provisions of Bills on which they differ in the first instance. I am far from asserting that the difficulties with regard to legislation would be entirely removed by such a Standing Order. I cannot help thinking there are other difficulties of a serious nature besides those which I have named. I believe the forms of proceeding—especially in respect of the manner in which Bills are dealt with in Committees—are so far from being satisfactory that they require careful revision. I cannot help seeing that there is a great change for the worse in the manner in which business is now conducted in the House of Commons as compared with what was the case formerly. We have, I think, no small right to complain of the want of judgment, discretion, and energy with which the Parliamentary Business of the Government has been managed in both Houses. If the important Bills to be submitted to Parliament were more carefully considered in the Recess, if they were introduced in a form more matured and better fitted to accomplish their purpose, there would not be the same difficulties as now exist. Moreover, the Bills of the Government are not only now brought in with less care in their preparation than formerly, but I am also afraid that they are drawn up with more reference to party considerations than to what would make them really useful working measures.


said, he could not entirely agree with the noble Earl who had just spoken. He did not think their Lordships had much reason to complain of there not being enough legislation in the year. He thought they had plenty of legislation—he (Lord Redesdale) only wished that some of it was better considered. He did not object at all to Bills being thrown out; because he believed that a measure was often all the better in the end for having two Sessions taken over it than if it were passed in a single Session, and it was extremely undesirable that important measures should be hurried through Parliament. With regard to the Ballot Bill which had been rejected towards the close of last Session, and to which reference had been made, he thought great advantage would be found to have arisen from the course adopted by their Lordships. A bettor Bill had been introduced this year, and the other House would have a fair opportunity of considering the matter. He objected to the proposal that Bills of a former Session should be again adopted by the House which had passed them in the preceding year by a single vote without Amendment. The Amendments which could then be made in the measure when it went back would be only such as could be made upon those introduced in the House to which the old Bill had been so sent. It was to be regretted that subjects of real practical interest were too often neglected in the House of Commons, and the time which ought to be devoted to them occupied by measures of a party and sensational character. He thought it would not work well for the two Houses to be discussing the same measure at the same time and perhaps coming to totally different decisions upon it. The real practical question was, would the Government take care that their Bills should be well prepared, and would they bring them in so as to give fair time for their proper discussion?


said, he did not think the discussion of that evening, in which every noble Lord who spoke differed from the noble Lord who spoke before him, would tend much to remove the difficulties connected with the transaction of business, or to hold out any great prospect of a more satisfactory state of things than exists at present. The Sanitary Bill, to which allusion had been made, was a measure of a character which it would be extremely difficult to originate in their Lordships' House, inasmuch as it was to some extent a money Bill; and as to the Mines Regulation Bill, there were strong reasons for introducing it in the House of Commons, where there were a number of practical men well acquainted with the subject it dealt with. He did not think it would be an improvement to introduce an increased number of Bills in that House. The functions of their Lordships' House, he thought, were on the whole much better exercised in revision and review than in originating Bills, except in the case of Bills of a special nature. The noble Duke spoke of the Scotch Education Bill as one which might well have been introduced in this House. Now, the experience they had had on such a Bill was not encouraging. A Scotch Education Bill was brought into that House two years ago and went down to the other House, where it was so greatly altered, that when it came back to their Lordships again it was at once rejected. If their Lordships passed Bills and sent them down to the other House, they were not unlikely to be so amended in the other House as to come up to their Lordships again almost in the shape of new Bills.