HL Deb 19 April 1888 vol 324 cc1676-86

, in rising to move— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty to appoint a Commission to inquire into and report upon the question whether a revision of the Standing Orders in the House of Lords, or other changes with regard to it, might be so framed as to add to its efficiency, said: My Lords, although the Motion stood upon the Paper on the 19th of March, it was not possible to bring forward the Notice in the form of an Amendment. It came behind another, and, according to the usages of Parliament, two Amendments cannot both lead to a Division. Indeed, by one, the House will recollect, some hesitation and confusion was occasioned. In answer to a challenge from the noble Earl who moved for a Select Committee, I said that I should bring it forward as a separate proposal; and have, therefore, sought an early opportunity to do so. My Lords, it cannot be held that the subject is abandoned, because on the 19th of March, after an eloquent debate, the Motion was defeated. The language of the Press, which if it ought not to have too great a sway, can never be entirely disregarded, urges us to follow up the question. There is a Bill before us to reconstitute the Chamber. Let me add it was presented since I gave my Notice for this evening. If that Bill had any chance of being adopted as it stands, the present Motion might have been unnecessary. As it has not the least, the Motion is most apposite. That Bill requires a Commission to amend, and even a Commision to interpret it. I am not on that account opposing it, or wishing to disparage it. I do full justice to its author, who has laboured on the subject. But it requires, like other schemes, a drastic and effective agency to decompose and to appraise it. A few weeks ago, the noble Earl from whom it comes, declared himself in favour of inquiry. To-night it is hardly necessary to enter into general considerations when your Lordships have lately had so great a dose of erudition and of oratory that its effect may still continue. Whether Mr. Pitt, or the noble Marquess the First Minister (the Marquess of Salisbury), has been most fertile of new Peerages, is a very interesting question, but does not really bear upon the changes to be thought of. We may see, from the memoirs of Lady Esther Stanhope, that Mr. Pitt avowed to his gifted niece, who was the mistress of his household, that he had gone much too far in that direction. We do not know that the noble Marquess has yet been hurried into any similar confession. I only mention that in passing. The essential point is to show that, in rejecting a Select Committee, the House has in no way declared itself against a Motion like the present one. A Select Committee would not have been a proper agency from several considerations. On a subject of such magnitude, so interesting to all the House, and where so many would have urged a proper claim to sit upon it, it must have been composed of a number about or over 20. A Body of that kind cannot be consultative. It is made up on principle of adverse elements, which look on one another with reciprocal distrust, and cannot well be drawn to harmony and confidence. I do not speak from theory, but saw it upon two occasions—a Committee of Lord Grey upon the Franchise; a Committee under the late Lord Clanricade, a few years after, upon Irish Land Tenure. In all probability the Committee would have been under the direction of the noble Earl who moved for it. But he is more conspicuously than anyone identified with a Leader much distrusted by the greater part of this Assembly. Moreover, in his long and able speech, the noble Earl foreshadowed rather violent proposals, of which the aim would seem to be to transfer the majority from one side to the other. But there is something else more fatal to the project. The Select Committee could only work during the Session, and the remainder of the Session would not suffice for such a task as it would have to grapple with. It might be re-appointed. Its toil would even thus be intermittent. Evidence would grow and no conclusion be arrived at. Beyond that, although he spoke almost two hours, the noble Earl never once attempted to point out that a Select Committee would be a safe or an effective agency to bring about his object. His silence upon that point has condemned it. In advocating a Commission, it may be first desirable to guard it against one or two misapprehensions. It has been said that the House of Lords would lose control over the problem. The control would be quite as great by one method as by the other. A Peer might preside over the Commission, and there is no doubt that, under the direction of the Government, he would do so. A majority of Peers might also sit upon it. Again, Parliament would not be bound by its Report more than by that of a Select Committee. No Government, no Parliament, is forced to act on the recommendation of one body or the other. Like pioneers, they are subordinate to those who have instructed them. They form a path; they do not order a direction. Now for the advantage of the process. It would, in the first place, be far more limited in number. Half-a-dozen might complete it. Secondly, it need not be made up of persons usually at variance. Thirdly, it admits of talent beyond the circle of the House or of the Legislature. Lastly, it would not be subject to the Prorogation, but might go on continuously working until its labour was completed. As to the modus operandi, many who sit here might be available as Chairmen. It would be in communication with the Government. There would be leisure to gain Reports from all the Upper Chambers either of America or of the Continent. There would be leisure to canvass all the schemes which politicians have arrived at. There would be leisure to hear the evidence which Members of the House, who know it well, might be inclined to offer. A conclusion would be formed which must enrich, although it cannot force or compromise, the Ministry who gather it. Nine months, as they would not be broken by a Prorogation, might be sufficient for the purpose. If the Commission sat in May, by February of next year the result would be in our possession. My Lords, there is a great deal of experience to which I may appeal during the last 50 years, or since the period when legislation gained an impulse not as yet exhausted. Even before 1830 the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel appointed a Commission—famous in its time—to inquire into the Law of Real Property, from which a series of improvements has originated. The New Poor Law, in 1834, perhaps the most successful measure of our age, if you consider the abuses it corrected, the principles it recognized, the clamour it survived, the influence it exercises by Boards of Guardians and by workhouses, was nothing but an offspring of that agency. A year later, municipal reform was similarly organized and similarly carried. A Select Committee has not, as far as I know, been the basis of any celebrated measure. But there is a converse. It is worth while to glance at legislation which no inquiry has preceded. Has it entirely succeeded? If a Commission had preceded the Reform Act of 1832, it might have lasted longer. If a Commission had preceded the re- presentative arrangements we live under, they might not have earned the title of Niagara which Mr. Carlyle gave them. If a Commission had preceded the Act on the Irish Church in 1869, we might not have seen as its upshot Protestants and Catholics dissatisfied, a fund sufficient to have tranquillized the country miserably squandered, religion unendowed, and anarchy incorporated. Experience, both positive and negative, may lead us to conclude that Commissions are the best source from which measures can proceed, unless they are the work of a Department, which is the case with many Bills your Lordships have considered. But no Department is available for organizing changes the House of Lords may be in need of. It is not a matter to refer to the Board of Works, the Treasury, or even the Home Office. The reference which I propose is based on much consideration. There is no desire to gloss it over; but, on the contrary, to bring it under the scrutinizing eyes of those who are requested to adopt it. The Commission would, at first, inquire whether revision of the Standing Orders would meet the wants of the Assembly. It is not desirable to rush into an Act of Parliament until you know it to be necessary. It is not desirable to bring one House before censorious discussion of another if you can avoid it. It is opposed to all the principles of statesmanship to seek, by hazardous exertion and precarious adventure, what you may bring about by safe, by self-depending, and internal re-arrangement. If the noble Earl who moved on the 19th of March has not arrived at that conclusion or derides it, he has not meditated long enough, and he has taken Nimis eloquentiæa, sapientiæ parum, for his motto. One change alone—beyond those which I lately urged upon the House, and wholly independent of them—might have considerable influence. It is the enlargement of the quorum. If a quorum of 40 or 50 was required, the daily aspect of the Upper Chamber might be seriously altered. I do not recommend the alteration, as certain hazards would belong to it, but only mention it to show that by working through the Standing Orders we might powerfully act upon attendance, the leading object to be compassed. We have lately seen in "another place" a transformation brought about by nothing but an altered system of Procedure. Blind, indeed, must be the politician who, wishing to improve the House of Lords, is unadmonished by that circumstance. But after the Commission has explored the possibility residing in the Standing Orders, they enter on the whole domain of legislative effort. The words "or other changes" take away all limit. It is not very likely that they will follow the noble Mover on the 19th of March, and recommend a Congress of both Houses—such as we may sometimes watch at Versailles, in which your Lordships would be unavoidably outnumbered—to settle controverted questions. But they would be quite at liberty to do so, if they could reason that the efficiency of this House would be promoted by the measure. In pointing to the grounds of a Commission, I am not under the necessity of indicating any scheme to which I may be favourable. It would be imprudent upon this account. The most cautious and elaborated set of changes must lead to difference of opinion. Those who do not acquiesce at first in any feature of a plan suggested would be inclined to vote against the course which I now advocate, although without a strictly logical connection, as the Commission might be wholly adverse to the feature so objected to. But I will go so far, with the permission of the House, as to refer to a most interesting paper which has come before the world since our late discussion, and alludes to it. It is a contribution to The National Review of April, by the Hon. George Curzon, who sits for a part of Lancashire, with the concurrence of the Hon. William Brodrick, who sits for a part of Surrey. There is scarcely any proposition in it I should not be inclined to accede to, or any train of reasoning which has not frequently occurred to me. The appearance of this paper, which is not the first from the same quarter, leads to several reflections. It shows that among elder sons, whom time may bring into this House, there is a movement to reform it. It shows that among rising politicians, there is a great maturity of observation and suggestion on the topic. It shows that a former Private Secretary of the noble Marquess opposite—for such was Mr. Curzon—impregnated with his opinions, versed in his ideas by means of that relation, is disposed to lead opinion on the subject. The Government would be deluded if they thought that an attitude of mere resistance or evasion would suffice for them. Not, however, that the slightest censure ought yet to fall upon them. On the 19th of March, they were well entitled to resist the Motion. They would be ill-advised if they determined to extemporize a measure. Should a Commission be appointed, I hope to bring before it, in a more guarded form, a scheme which coincides with that of Mr. Curzon and Mr. Brodrick in most of its particulars, and all of its foundations. It remains to touch, although but superficially and briefly, on the grounds which make some course of action indispensable. As neither Mr. Curzon nor Mr. Brodrick have sat in this Assembly, they cannot reason from experience of what demands consideration in it. The grand evil, I submit to your Lordships, and that without which no proceeding would be necessary, is the degree of non-attendance. Out of about 500, we may count on about 50. But that might be endured, although it leads to hostile criticism, and has many inconveniencies. It is only at the end of the Session it becomes enhanced into a political calamity. During the months of August and September, as I have seen for the last two years, myself remaining, the Government are wholly uncontrolled and sit with empty Benches opposite them. In the meanwhile, at the same period, and, therefore, under equal disadvantages, in "another place," you see about 300. Of course, the explanation is an obvious one. According to the hidden laws by which the world is governed, good motives are not strong enough unless necessity corroborates them. Necessity arises from electors, while men who sit for life are thrown too much upon their virtue. There is another rather grave consideration which has not been adverted to so far as I remember. In "another place" 162 Members have arrayed themselves against the hereditary principle. That circumstance alone would not, indeed, have much importance, unless it was regarded in connection with another. It ought not to be forgotten that the officers of this House are paid by an annual Vote, which may be, and is, usually debated. The same 162, enlarging gradually, may end in power to reject it. It has been said that fees would act as an equivalent. But fees depend on Private Bills and litigation, which must always be precarious. The action of this House might thus be seriously compromised by those whom, in its present form, it has to look to as opponents. It cannot be said that this House is in itself disposed to overcome the disadvantages under which it labours. A Committee on Acoustics sat some years ago. Not one of its conclusions has been acted on. It is true that they were insufficient for their purpose. But on other points—as I have lately proved—there is a similar reluctance to do anything. There is nothing violent or startling, as has often been assumed, in the principle of change applied to Upper Chambers. Some of the most distinguished have been corrected with advantage. The Roman Senate, if I am not deceived, on several occasions had new elements adjoined to it. It lasted far enough into the Empire to debate whether Christianity or Paganism should be the national religion. Since 1830, the French Senate has been often reconstructed. It is still flourishing, and musters day by day, as I know, about 100 Members. Withing the last few years, as we were told on the 19th of March, the Upper House of Hungary has been a good deal modified, with no bad effect so far as present information reaches us, under the direction of a statesman so remarkable for prudence that he is styled at Buda-Post the Sir Robert Walpole of his country. The policy of change, however, reposes on a deeper ground, and one too difficult to bring before the House, except in passing for a moment. When 20 years ago, no doubt under imperious necessity, the Reform Act of 1832 was superseded, and the power of the middle-classes was subverted, it became more essential, on the widest grounds, that the virtually disfranchised Orders should find in this House the refuge which they wanted. It became more important that a House of Commons, based on the supremacy of numbers, should not be wholly uncorrected and unbalanced. But it may be doubted whether, in its present shape, this House can ever be the necessary equipoise. That equipoise is better drawn from Senates than from Armies. But, if Senates refuse to give, they furnish Armies with a reason for supplying it. Before sitting down, I wish to make a serious appeal to the noble Marquess the Prime Minister, that he may not suddenly impede the only course by which improvement in the House can be apparently effected. The alternatives are all of them exhausted. A Select Committee has been negatived. The Government have not the slightest disposition to introduce a legislative measure. The Bill which has been read a first time might be read a second time, on the condition of being subjected to an organized tribunal, but is not likely to proceed on any other footing. The noble Marquess can appreciate the caution by which the Commissioners are invited to probe the Standing Orders, before embarking on the open sea of legislative project. According to the terms proposed on the part of your Lordships, there will be no avowal of deficiency. You will not plead guilty to inadequate attendance, or any other error. The proudest, the most irreproachable Assembly might still desire to ascertain whether its efficiency by any change might possibly be heightened. The noble Marquess cannot overlook the special difficulty of passing any measure on this subject through the two Houses of Parliament. In one, you have Conservative reluctance, in the other, Radical antagonism, to perplex you. In one, men look with pardonable jealousy on change; in the other, they are opposed to anything which takes away the blemishes, enhances the authority, and thus prolongs the action of the Upper Chamber. It is only by the aid of a well-organized Commission, the authority it gives, the currents of opinion it diffuses, that you can hope to steer through obstacles so diverse. But let me not be thought to mean that on a subject of this kind the noble Marquess can be permitted to assume the part of a Dictator. Before Easter your Lordships gave a lesson to the Government which cannot be forgotten. If something must be done, if every scheme is immature, if no preparatory course, except that which I suggest, is either feasible or adequate, it becomes this House to lead the Government into the true path, and not by them to be irrationally turned from it. With different ranks, with varying traditions, with Parties violently hostile—at least on this side of the House—your Lordships are condensed under one principle, "Nobility obliges." To resist place and power, when they go astray, or even when their policy is hesitating and their counsels are ambiguous, is not among the least imperative of many duties it suggests to us. I trust on this occasion that it may not be required, and that the Government may see the course which I submit to be the course which prudence sanctions and necessity imposes. I therefore move the Resolution of which I have given Notice.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty to appoint a Commission to inquire and report upon the question whether a revision of the Standing Orders in the House of Lords, or other changes with regard to it, might be so framed as to add to its efficiency."—(The Lord Stratheden and Campbell.)


said, he lead listened very attentively to the earnest speech of the noble Lord in explanation of the Motion which he had brought before their Lordships. His Motion was— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty to appoint a Commission to inquire into and report upon the question whether a revision of the Standing Orders in the House of Lords, or other changes with regard to it, might be so framed as to add to its efficiency. These revisions were not uncommon. They had been adopted from time to time, and it would be for their Lordships, when they saw a definite need of revision, to inquire into any matter which required to be set right. The noble Lord had observed that Select Committees on these matters had been condemned; but that view was hardly accurate. What was objected to in the Motion of the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Rosebery), some little time ago, was rather the indefiniteness of the Reference to the Select Committee, and not the use of a Select Committee as a means of inquiry into a definite matter which required inquiry. He did not think the Motion of the noble Lord would be exempt from the same criticism; but, even if it were otherwise, it would be perfectly impossible to agree with the Motion. He never heard of a Royal Commission upon the Standing Orders. It was contrary to the constitution of the House, and it was very fortunate that the noble Lord lived in peaceful times, as two centuries ago he would inevitably have been sent to the Tower for such a proposal. There was no instance, he ventured to say, of one of the Estates of the Realm initiating an inquiry into the constitution of another. If there was anything in the Standing Orders which the noble Lord, or any other noble Lord, could show required inquiry, the Government would not be averse to inquiry; but, of course, it must be by the ordinary Constitutional course of a Select Committee. But he feared it would be raising a grave Constitutional question to ask the Crown to undertake an examination of the Standing Orders, and he could not advise their Lordships to assent to the Motion.


I am not sure whether I fully understand the objection of the noble Marquess. If this House addresses the Crown to pursue inquiry by which changes may be recommended, what is there to prevent the Crown from undertaking it? It can be no encroachment on our Body. But this is nothing but a technicality, as the Commission, like all Commissions, would be nominated by the Government. Beyond that, the Reference to the Standing Orders, although it seems to me a good precaution for the reasons I have stated, is in no way indispensable. It may be omitted altogether, and the Commission would only have a general Instruction to report on changes which appear to be desirable. If, however, Her Majesty's Government feel themselves unable or unwilling to organize a Commission of the kind, I cannot press the Motion.

On Question? Resolved in the negative.