HL Deb 20 August 1883 vol 283 cc1321-9

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.

Moved, " That the House do now resolve itself into Committee."—(The Lord Chancellor.)


, in presenting a Petition against the Bill being passed into law during the present Session, said, he did not concur in the prayer of the Petition, as it would not be desirable, or for the public benefit, that the Bill should be thrown over to another Session, although he could have desired more time to consider it. It was a Bill that appeared to have been prepared with great care, and made most efficient provision for the immediate protection and realization and distribution of the properties of bankrupts, from which he hoped for very great advantages. He would, therefore, although presenting the Petition, humbly recommend their Lordships to pass the Bill.


said, he was not in the House when the Bill was read a second time, though he should have felt it his duty, if he could, to have rendered assistance to their Lordships; but he knew he could be of no use, because he could not say that the Bill was a good or a bad one, as he had not had an opportunity of reading it. He knew the second reading would pass, because the Bill was introduced by the Lord Chancellor, and because their Lordships knew that a Grand Committee had been for two months "cutting and carving it," which he believed was the right expression to use towards an honest attempt to improve a Bill. He could show their Lordships a string of Amendments that he had had sent to him, and he had himself made 67 notes and queries of things he would like to have had an explanation about; but he should not trouble the House with any one of them, as he knew it would be utterly hopeless. The clause relating to disclaimer he really could not understand, though, if he was sitting in their Lordships' House when the matter came there for decision, he should be under the necessity of coming to some conclusion upon it. He could not but think it was altogether wrong and unreasonable that the Bill had not been placed before their Lordships in such a way and at such a time that those of their Lordships who were competent to speak on the matter should have been heard. He was not opposed to the Bill; he believed it to be a good Bill, and it would be a great pity if it did not pass through Parliament this Session; but it was a most alarming and improper thing to pass a Bill in the hope that in some future time they might be able to amend it. Its severity was most wholesome, and he hoped it would have the effect contemplated, of deterring people from the fraudulent and reckless bankruptcies which were now only too common.


said, he would remind the House of a proposal he made a few weeks ago, that Bills might, be postponed from one Session to another, with the possibility of taking them up again at the point where they were left. The position in which the House was placed was, that either they must reject the Bill, because they had not time to consider it, and so nullify a great deal of hard work in "another place," or they must accept the Bill on the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. The latter was the course they were to adopt, and it was the right course under the circumstances; but surely it would be much more dignified if, when Bills of this magnitude and importance came up at so late a period of the Session, their Lordships had power to postpone the consideration of them until the commencement of the next Session. It was derogatory to the dignity of the House that it should be entirely cut out from the consideration of the Bill. It was not a Bill which excited much political feeling, while, at the same time, it was one which some of their Lordships were very well qualified to discuss. Their Lordships would be well occupied in the beginning of next Session in hearing the answers to the 67 notes and queries of the noble and learned Lord who had last spoken.


said, he was very much struck by a remark of the noble and learned Lord (Lord Brarnwell) when the Bill was read a second time in that House. He said he felt it a positive humiliation to do so. That was a very strong expression. They must remember, however, that some Acts, notably the Settled Land Acts, had been passed by that House with even less consideration, from the technical nature of the subject, than they were giving to this Bill; and they ought also to bear in mind the great length at which the whole Bill had been discussed by the Grand Committee, under the able Presidency of Mr. Goschen. Under these circumstances, they might fairly be satisfied with the competency of the hands it had passed through. Although some noble Lords had expressed irritation at the impossibility of considering the Bill, yet none of them had expressed serious objection to any of the principles of the Bill. There would be a serious responsibility on the part of the House, and one which he would not be willing to share, if they were to throw out the Bill, which had taken so much labour in "another place," without their Lordships having very good reasons for its rejection. There was only one provision which, he regarded with dislike, and that was of great political importance. He alluded to the immense patronage conferred upon the Board of Trade. He did not approve of placing such enormous patronage in the hands of the Executive for the time being. The Board of Trade would appoint the administrative staff—that was to say, the Official Receivers of debtors' estates all over the country; and they would not be attached to the Court of Bankruptcy, but would come under the superintendence of the Board of Trade. Thus the Board would have a larger amount of patronage than any other Department of the Government. He did not wish to move any Amendment in this matter; but was it absolutely necessary that the appointment of the Receivers, who held a most important office under the Bill, should be in every part of the country taken out of the hands of the local authorities and placed in those of the central authorities? He remembered, when he was at the Post Office, there was a large amount of patronage there; but the minor appointments were practically in the hands of the Treasury, and the more considerable ones were distributed strictly on the principle that they were rewards for good service. In this case, however, the appointments might be used to reward electoral services.


said, he was sorry the noble Duke had not proceeded beyond a protest, and either moved, or given Notice of moving, an Amendment to the Bill in the very salutary direction in which his speech had pointed. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest dangers to the Constitution was that of permitting the American maxim, "that the spoils belonged to the victors," to become acclimatized here; and the enormous patronage which the Bill conferred upon the Board of Trade might, unless carefully watched, work in that direction. Thirty years ago, or more, statesmen of this country were very much alarmed at this danger, and they introduced a system of competitive examinations for the purpose of guarding against it. He had no doubt whatever, notwithstanding what had been said against that system, it had been very effective for that purpose, and had entirely divested those smaller appointments, in a great number of Departments of the State, of any political or electioneering character. But they were now about to create a very large series of valuable appointments which were above the level of competitive examinations. Therefore it was obvious it would have to be very carefully provided that they did not become rewards for merits of an electioneering character in the various parts of the country where they existed. The very fact that they were spread all over the country would make them all the more valuable for rewarding services of a Parliamentary and electioneering character. He confessed that he should very much prefer that the precedent set in respect of another kind of office—namely, that of a Revising Barrister, should be followed in this instance. His appointment was in the hands of a Judge of the Crown. There was no reason why these appointments should not be placed in the hands of either the Judges or County Court Judges, or some non-political or permanent officer whose judgment in such matters would not be affected by any political considerations. He could not now, without Notice, move in Committee the institution of any such change in the Bill as that; but, certainly, if he found the opinion of the House encouraged him in moving an Amendment in that direction he should be disposed to move it upon Report.


said, he thought that the discussion which had just taken place quite justified the comments which he had made on the second reading of the Bill. There were some six pages of doubtless valuable Amendments about to be moved by the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack. Now, during the present Session the House had enjoyed the advantage of the services of a body of Legal Authorities of, he believed, an eminence and judicial experience unequalled at any former period; and he could not help thinking that in all probability some one or other of those high Legal Authorities might also have suggested some Amendments of considerable value. He hoped that the public would consider that for any defects in the working of the Act, the management or mismanagement of the Government—they best knew which—in sending up that Bill for consideration in detail in the third week of August would be responsible.


observed, that that Bill bade fair to become law without having been examined in either House of Parliament. Discussion was deprecated in the other House on the ground that the Bill had been fully considered by a new Institution called a Grand Committee; and now in this House, because the Commons had accepted it, their Lordships were practically asked to give up all their rights and privileges to a Grand Committee of the other House, and to abdicate the function which the Constitution vested in them. It seemed to him doubtful whether they had any moral right thus to forsake their duty.


said, that if they did not pass the Bill through Committee it would be equivalent to throwing it out for this Session; and, for his part, he thought the Bill ought to be thrown out, and allowed to come up at a reasonable period next Session.


said, that, complaints having been made as to the circumstances under which that Bill came before their Lordships, he wished to notice a few of the particular criticisms which had been offered in the course of that discussion. The noble Earl who spoke last but one had referred to the formidable array of Amendments on the Paper, consisting, as he said, of six pages. Those Amendments were only formidable in appearance. The draftsman of the Bill had performed the useful function of revising the form and expression of the measure in its last stage; and nearly the whole of the Amendments in those six pages were merely intended to give greater precision of expression, without altering the substance. There were, indeed, a few Amendments to which that remark did not strictly apply; but these were framed only to clear up some points of detail, without altering any principle of the Bill. With regard to the question of patronage, the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) was under a mistake in respect to the Official Receivers. If the Board of Trade were to appoint all over the country the persons who were from beginning to end to deal with the property of bankrupts and to administer it, it would, no doubt, be a serious matter; but the functions of the Official Receiver were of an entirely different character from that. The creditors were to have the right to appoint their own trustees, as they did under the present law; but during the short interval that might elapse between the initiation of proceed- ings and the choice of the trustee, in order that the estate might not suffer, those officers, the Official Receivers, were to be appointed to protect the interests of the general public in regard to fraudulent and reckless trading, and also to protect the interests of the creditors at an early stage of the proceedings, by providing them with the information without which they would be helpless, and which experience showed that they could not obtain for themselves. Those officers were to be ad interim receivers pending the appointment of the trustee and the manager by the creditors. The other officers were only that portion of the existing staff who discharged what were called administrative duties. With respect to the alleged severity of the Bill, he would point out that it did not make any new misdemeanours. Those acts of fraudulent bankruptcy which were punishable as misdemeanours remained, in substance, as they were. The Bill did, undoubtedly, enumerate various acts discreditable to a debtor, which might be—but not necessarily must be—a ground for refusing his discharge. He was very sorry indeed that there should be anything to prevent himself and their Lordships from having the assistance of those who were so well qualified to give it as his noble and learned Friends opposite, and other noble and learned Lords not present. He did not think it would be profitable to enter into any explanation now of the causes which, whether in that House or in "another place," had contributed to prevent the Bill from coming earlier before their Lordships. One of those causes was the great care and pains taken with it in the Grand Committee of the other House, and also, subsequently, in the other House itself. He could very much wish that this and other Bills also had reached their Lordships sooner. With all the important legislative Business which the Government had to transact, and with the encroachments on the time, limited as it was, which was at its command, he should be very glad if, by any greater economy or better distribution of time, it would be possible to bring important Bills at an earlier date before their Lordships. But he did not think it would be a wise course for their Lordships to throw out all Bills of importance which came up to them after they had been carefully considered elsewhere, and had been, on the whole, approved by the best authorities on the subjects with which they dealt. He did not think it would be wise to reject this Bill in the hope that it would be possible to legislate better on the subject in a future Session; and with regard to the suggestion of his noble Friend (Lord Balfour) that Bills might be taken up in a future Session at any stage which they might have reached before Prorogation, there were two considerations to be borne in mind if that question should ever come before their Lordships—first, the enormous accumulation of Bills in various stages, which might then be expected to arise from Session to Session; and, in the next place, the great temptation that would arise to introduce Bills of a character which their Lordships might not think deserving of encouragement, and to throw out other Bills by postponing their stages, in order that they might be taken up in another Session. However, those questions were not now under consideration. All he could say was that, as their Lordships were aware, the greater part of this measure was the re-enactment of former laws, without any alteration in those points which experience had shown did not require alteration; and, with regard to those points in which alterations had been made, those were matters which had not been done in a corner, for they had been for a long time subjects of consideration by the mercantile community, and by both Houses of Parliament. This Bill had been prepared after great deliberation and consultation between the Government and all those officers of the Bankruptcy Courts and County Courts on the one hand, and of the Board of Trade on the other, who were best able to bring valuable information to bear upon the subject; then it passed into the form in which it had been introduced in the other House, and it was then referred to the Grand Committee on Trade, by whom no Amendment of importance was introduced without full time being given for its consideration. Therefore, their Lordships had all the guarantees before them upon the subject which could be given. He would not presume to say there were no points in the Bill which experience of its operation might prove to require amendment; but he could say con- fidently that few measures had ever been presented to their Lordships upon which more care had been bestowed.


said, that, with regard to the point of patronage which had been raised, it was very natural that Parliament should be extremely jealous of vesting any large amount of patronage in any Department of the State. He had been expecting to hear from the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack some very strong reasons for vesting patronage of this kind in a Department of the State, instead of Courts of Law or local authorities. These receivers would be a kind of interim officers of the Court; but the noble and learned Earl had not pointed out why they could not as well be appointed by a Court of Law. He thought the importance of their duties was a reason for giving this patronage to the Courts. The Board of Trade had power, not only to appoint these officers, but to remove them. He hoped that on a future stage of the Bill the House would have some further explanation on this point.

Motion agreed to; House in Committee accordingly: Amendments made: The Report thereof to be received on Wednesday next; and Bill to be printed as amended. (No. 211.)

House adjourned at a quarter past Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.