HL Deb 24 March 1882 vol 267 cc1784-94

, in rising to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the sittings for public business should commence at 4 P.M. instead of at 5 P.M., said, his Motion was not now proposed for the first time, as it was originally moved in 1867 by the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury), whose name was associated with so many salutary reforms, and he nearly succeeded in carrying it. The Motion was renewed in 1878 by the noble Viscount opposite (Viscount Midleton), and it received a large measure of support from Peers on both sides of the House, representing every shade of political opinion. On that occasion the Motion was opposed by the late Earl of Beaconsfield, though in an indirect manner. He said— There should not be a fixed Rule, like the Laws of the Medes and Persians, that the House should meet at 5 o'clock. As the Session advances, as Business increases, it is in the power of the House to apply the remedy that is wanted by meeting earlier. I do not know whether my noble Friend will ask for a more decided opinion by the House, or whether he will be satisfied with the debate—leaving those who have the management of Public Business to consider whether the Rules may be relaxed without inconvenience to the Public Service."—[3 Hansard, ccxxxviii. 630.] On that occasion the Mover acceded to the request of the noble Earl, and did not take the opinion of the House. A short time afterwards, in the course of an important debate, he moved that the House should meet at 4 o'clock in order to renew it; but he was told that it was an important Motion of which Notice ought to have been given, and that the hearing of an important appeal would be interfered with, and he therefore withdrew the Motion. Next year it was renewed by a noble Earl near him (the Earl of Dunraven), and it met with considerable support from both sides of the House. On that occasion the opinion of the House was tested by a division; and, although Lord Beaconsfield renewed his opposition, yet the Motion was supported by 64 to 101 against. On both occasions the present Leader of the House spoke for the Motion, and on the latter occasion he gave it the support of his vote. The noble Earl then said that he believed the younger Members of the House were in favour of the Motion, and he felt sure it would be brought forward again. There was a strong and growing feeling among their Lordships that important subjects were sometimes passed over without adequate debate, and without the Members of the House generally having the opportunity of expressing their opinions upon them. Owing to the customs of their Lordships' House, and the somewhat lax observance of Rules, it sometimes happened that important debates arose in the course of conversation; and, if the subject of conversation was not the first Order of the Day, it not un-frequently happened that the speeches were limited to the occupants of the two Front Benches. He said limited, and it was necessarily so, because the House had a strong objection to sitting after half-past 7 o'clock, especially if the Leaders on the two Front Benches had spoken. For this the Leaders were not to blame; and both the present and the late Leaders of the House had frequently stated their desire that the general body of Members should participate freely in debate, and more especially the younger Members. But it was absolutely necessary that occupants of the Front Benches should at some time express their opinions on subjects of importance; and when a conversation arose at a somewhat late hour, it became impossible for them to abstain for any length of time from addressing the House; and after they had done so, and the magical hour of 7 had passed, it was practically impossible for any of the younger Members of the House to command a hearing. A very important instance of this occurred so recently as this Session, when the House was asked to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the Irish Land Act of 1881. After the leading Members of the House had spoken there was no opportunity for those sitting on the Back Benches to express their opinions. The natural inference to be drawn by the outside public was that on such an important occasion only five Peers cared to take any part in the proceedings. He would ask their Lordships to consider whether such an impression was calculated to uphold the dignity of the House in the feelings of the people of this country? It was not only on such occasions that there was not time for the Business. It was quite true that in the early part of the Session, there was comparatively little on the Paper; but in the later months of the Session Notices of Motion became more frequent, and, in addition to subjects for discussion, several Bills were brought forward for consideration. What was the result? Why, either the Business was rapidly hurried over, or it was postponed, because the time had been exhausted, or a later Order was considered of importance, and thus Bills in Committee escaped that revision they were supposed to receive at their Lordships' hands. The most familiar argument against the proposal was that there was comparatively little Business early in the Session. In common with others of their Lordships, he regretted it; but that did not in any way touch his position as to the lack of time when there was Business to do. Although the House had sometimes little or no Business, yet that did not affect the fact that when they had Business they had not sufficient time in which to do it properly. He admitted that debates arising out of conversations did not frequently occur; but if there were only one occasion during the whole Session on which a subject was brought forward which there was not sufficient time to discuss, owing to their hour of meeting, that was an ample reason for its being altered. With respect to the convenience of the Lord Chancellor, he believed that he was in favour of the proposed change. But if the convenience of the noble and learned Lord was in any way interfered with, they already had a Deputy Speaker in the person of the noble Earl (the Earl of Redesdale), who had held the position of Chairman of Committees with great advantage to the House for many years. As regarded any interference with the Appeal Business of the House by reason of the proposed change, he wished to hear the opinion of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. At the same time, he would wish their Lordships to consider the relative importance of Appeal Business compared with Public Business. He believed that, in the opinion of the country, the importance of the Public Business of the House far outweighed that of any appeals brought before it. As respected the convenience of Ministers, he was fortified by the opinion of the noble Earl the Leader of the House, who, in 1879, declared that the convenience of Ministers would not be seriously interfered with if the House met at 4, and expressed himself in favour of the proposed change. So far as the majority of their Lordships was concerned, he thought that their convenience would be met by the House sitting at 4. Many of their Lordships served on Select Committees, which adjourned at 4 o'clock, and if they desired to remain for the Public Business in the House they must remain within the precincts of the House and occupy the intervening hour in the best way they could. If they met at 4 for Public Business that time would not be wasted. When this proposition had been made on previous occasions it had been opposed by the late Lord Beacons-field in his lighter and more airy manner, without addressing himself very seriously to the real merits of the question. It was also opposed by the ex-Lord Chancellor (Earl Cairns). He did not pretend to say that the proposed change was the only reform which it was desirable to make in their proceedings; but he believed that if they were to meet an hour earlier for the despatch of Public Business many debates would not be nipped in the bud as they now frequently were, and, especially towards the close of the Session, the Business of the House would be conducted in a much more efficient and thorough manner than at present. The noble Earl concluded by moving his Resolution.


, in seconding the Motion, expressed the opinion that its adoption would be of very great advantage to the House, and would much facilitate the proper conduct of Business. He had compiled some figures respecting the Sittings of their Lordships, with the view of showing the effect of the present hour of meeting in their curtailment. In 1877 their Lordships sat on 93 occasions, on 49 of which the debate closed before 6. On 41 occasions the House rose between 6 and 9, and there were six cases of long debate followed by divisions. In the following year, the House sat 103 times, and on 47 occasions adjourned before 6 o'clock. On 52 occasions it sat till between 6 and 9, and in four cases there were long debates. If their Lordships sat at 4 o'clock it would entirely suit the convenience of noble Lords sitting on Select Committees, who would be enabled to proceed at once with the Public Business of the House, and afterwards have greater leisure to attend to their own affairs. Moreover, the consequence of meeting at 5 now was, that when an important debate arose only Cabinet Ministers, or noble Lords who had been, or expected to be, Cabinet Ministers took part, and those among their Lordships whom he might call private Members were deprived of the opportunity of expressing their opinions. There certainly was no necessity for the clôture in that House, as it was enforced in a very strict form already—that was to say, when it was seen that there was a general wish to close the debate at the important hour of the evening no Peer sitting on the Back Benches was so unwise as to disregard it. He knew they would hear from the noble Earl at the Table (the Earl of Redesdale) the objection that Peers could not take their seats at 5 o'clock if this Motion were carried. From the time of Charles II. down to the passing of Lord Campbell's Act Peers could not take their seats at 5 o'clock; they were obliged to take their seats before 4 o'clock. If it was necessary that clause of Lord Campbell's Act might be repealed. It was said that additional labour would be cast upon the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack if this Motion were carried; but he had on a former occasion made an excellent speech in favour of the change. It was perfectly true that since 1853 their Lordships had commenced their Sittings for Judicial Business at half-past 10 o'clock instead of 10. If it was necessary to give additional time to the Lord Chancellor, there was not the slightest reason why their Lordships should not revert to the practice which prevailed during the whole of Lord Eldon's tenure of the Office of Lord Chancellor and for 50 years previously, and commence Judicial Business at 10 o'clock instead of half-past 10. In nine cases out of 10 the first Business of the Legislative Sittings was purely of a perfunctory character. There was not the slightest reason why the seat of the noble and learned Lord who occupied the Woolsack, if he felt fatigued by previous Judicial Business, should not be admirably filled by the noble Earl at the Table (the Earl of Redesdale) until the noble and learned Lord was able to take his seat on the Woolsack. It was said that this was a question which required a great deal of examination and consideration. But examination and consideration had already been given to it on the Motion of the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies (the Earl of Kimberley). What was the result of that deliberation? The Committee actually passed a Resolution that the House should, if desirable, sit at a quarter past 4 o'clock. That was carried by 9 to 8, though it was true that it was subsequently reversed by 8 to 7. On the recent occasion of the debate on the Irish Land Act several of his noble Friends would have taken part in it if there had been time for doing so. This Motion now came on for the third time. He should support it on every possible ground, and he did not believe that any valid reason could be assigned against it. If it were carried it would add to the dignity and efficiency of the deliberations of their Lordships' House. Moved, "That, in the opinion of this House, the sittings for public business should commence at Four P.M. instead of at Five P.M."—[The Earl of Camperdown.)


said, that an appeal had been made to him by the noble Lords who had just spoken, and they had said, with perfect truth, that he (Earl Granville) had spoken and voted on previous occasions in favour of this Motion; but he was not quite sure that he felt so keenly on the subject now as when in Opposition. Still, he thought that he had no very good reasons why there should be a diminution of his zeal in this matter. Argument had been so well put forward by his two noble Friends in favour of the Motion, and as no Peer had risen to express an opposite view, he thought he need not make any observations upon the merits of the question; but he would suggest that the time of meeting should be a quarter past 4, and not 4 o'clock, as it would cause some inconvenience if the time devoted to hearing Appeals were shortened by the alteration proposed. He could not help pointing out to unofficial Peers that there was a certain advantage in the earlier hour of meeting. On those occasions when the House adjourned soon after the hour of meeting the greater part of the afternoon was at present lost; but supposing that they adjourned, as it sometimes happened, at five minutes after they met—namely, 20 minutes past 4, those noble Lords would have the whole afternoon before them, and the inestimable advantage of being able to catch the 5 o'clock train, even if they wished to go into the country. With the greater security which he had suggested in regard to Appeals, he should, on this occasion, cordially vote with his noble Friend.


was of opinion that the noble Earl opposite would entirely fail in the object which he had in view if he succeeded in carrying his Motion. The idea of the noble Viscount (Viscount Midleton) was that if the House met earlier more Peers would take part in the debates; but he would ask their Lordships to look at the question like men of common sense. The House met now at 5, and commenced Business at a quarter past, and half-past 7 was the dinner hour. The two noble Lords said, in proposing this change, that there would be longer time for discussion; but now, if there were any Business of importance to transact, their Lordships were always willing to remain at the House even till a late hour of the night to dispose of it. When there was no Business of importance they rose early—namely, at half-past 5 o'clock—and the effect of this Motion would be, if it were agreed to, that on those evenings, instead of the House becoming impatient at half-past 7, they would become impatient at 5 o'clock. The result of the change would be that they would rise earlier.


said, he thought that to meet three-quarters of an hour before the time they now met would be no gain to anybody, and, in fact, a perfectly needless occupation of their time; while the inconvenience would be extremely great to the noble and learned Lord who occupied the Woolsack, and the Legal Lords engaged in the exercise of the Appellate Jurisdiction of the House. The arrangement would also materially interfere with the conduct of the Private Business of the House in his Department. He would remind their Lordships that from a quarter to 4 o'clock to a quarter to 5 was the most busy period of the day with many of their Lordships; and, looking at all the circumstances of the case and the inconvenience, he saw no reason for making any change.


remarked, that the noble Lord who had made the Motion had truly remarked that when he (the Lord Chancellor) was not in Office he had supported a similar Motion. He had held the Office of the Great Seal before he expressed that opinion, so that he was not ignorant of the demands which an earlier hour of meeting would make on the time of the Lord Chancellor, or of the inconvenience which might arise unless their Lordships made such arrangements as would prevent the inconvenience. But he thought then, and he thought still, that if the change would conduce to the more adequate discharge of the legislative and deliberative functions of the House; if it would tend to induce the House more frequently to take the part which became such an Assembly in connection with the discussion of important public questions; and if it would tend to increase the number of speakers, no considerations connected with the Appellate Business of the House, or with the official position of the holder of the Great Seal, could be of sufficient importance to countervail the reasons for the change. He had received substantially the same impression as that of the Mover and Seconder of the Resolution—namely, that the hour at which the House met now, when considered in connection with the inevitable effect of other circumstances upon the habits of their Lordships, did operate as a discouragement, and had a tendency to limit the proportions of discussions on important public affairs. He frankly confessed, also, that this discouragement was not absolutely confined to the younger Members of the House, but extended even to the occupants of the Front Benches, where the rule that silence was golden prevailed to a greater extent than it would prevail, or ought to prevail, if there were more time for debate. A good many subjects which might be discussed with advantage to the country were often only touched upon very slightly on account of the sense of the inconvenience that was caused by a discussion prolonged beyond half-past 7. It was all very well to say that on occasions when Business was continued up till 8 or 9 o'clock, noble Lords might remain and prolong the debate if they should think fit; but, as a matter of fact, they did not like to do so, because their Lordships generally would disapprove that course, their habit being to make arrangements and enter into engagements in the expectation that the Business, under ordinary circumstances, would not last beyond a certain hour. Even on the great occasions when the House did make the necessary effort, and sat for some length of time, an additional hour, or three-quarters of an hour, would often be useful and advantageous. For these reasons, he thought the proposed experiment was, at least, worth trying; but he should be glad if their Lordships would also make such arrangements as would obviate the necessity of the presence of the Lord Chancellor or of the Chairman of Committees upon the Woolsack at the earlier hour of meeting. If his noble Friend should agree to make a quarter past 4 the hour of meeting he would endeavour to persuade the noble and learned Lords constituting the Appellate Court to sit at a quarter past 10 instead of half-past 10, and rise a quarter of an hour before the usual time. As he had already said, he had voted when out of Office for a similar Resolution; and he could not now refuse to support the present Motion without laying himself open to the charge of having less care for the convenience of his Predecessor in Office than for his own. He was, therefore, prepared to vote for the Motion.


said, that in the history of the future it would be a singular incident in the mode of conducting Public Business in the year 1882, that the two Houses of Parliament, abandoning their tedious practice of adding Acts of Parliament to the Statute Book, occupied themselves with talking about their own discussions. In the House of Commons the virtue of silence was strongly enforced, and in the House of Lords the virtue of loquacity was being encouraged. His impression was that the Motion was not a very important one, and that it would lead to no very important change. He did not share the views that had been expressed as to the motives that actuated Peers when important matters were under discussion. A terrible picture had been drawn of the importance to the Public Service of an adequate discussion on the occasion of the nomination of the Committee on the Land Act, and their Lordships had been told how the debate was closed when the witching hour of dinner was in view. He did not wish to depreciate the claims of dinner; but he ventured to say that there were not many Peers upon whom the pangs of hunger had so large and anticipatory an effect as to make it impossible to continue a debate when the clock showed that the time was within 60 minutes of the dinner-hour. He thought there must have been other causes than the approach of dinner to account for the silence of their Lordships on the occasion referred to. He had always felt that this question was really one for the decision of those who were in Office. It was on them the burden would fall; and if the noble Earl opposite (Earl Granville) and the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack felt that the change could be effected with convenience in connection with the Public Service, it would be ungracious in those who were not engaged in that Service to put any difficulty in the way of the Motion. For those noble Lords who were engaged on Committees it would be a great relief, because it was difficult for them to know what to do with the fragment of time between the rising of the Committee and the present hour of meeting of the House. The suggestion of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack was one of considerable weight. There had been an impression among the younger Members that they were unfairly dealt with by those who sat on the Front Benches, and that the flood of their eloquence was unduly checked. He should be sorry to take any step that would confirm that belief; and he hoped, now that they proposed to make that change, they should see the younger Members spring forward into the arena of debate. In that case, they might congratulate themselves on the change.


stated that he would accept the change in his Motion proposed by the noble Earl (Earl Granville), and substitute a quarter past 4 instead of 4 o'clock.


said, he hoped that when the change took place the Government would give their Lordships something to do. There were many Bills which might be introduced into the House of Lords; but they had been sitting all this Session with their arms folded, because the Government would bring forward nothing in their Lordships' House.

Motion amended, and agreed to. Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, the sittings for public business should commence at a quarter past Four P.M., instead of at Five P.M.


asked the noble Earl (the Earl of Camperdown) what he proposed as to the time when this change was to commence? Probably it would be more convenient to delay any change until after Easter.


said, that he would consult the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, and the Leaders on both sides of the House.