§ THE PRIME MINISTER AND SECRETARY OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS (The Marquess of SALISBURY)
, in moving that the Notice of Motion for a Select Committee to inquire into the Standing Orders of the House, which stood in the name of the Lord Privy Seal, should have precedence over the other Business upon the Paper, pointed out that the first Order of the Day related to the University (Scotland) Bill, which was a Government measure. Therefore, his Motion amounted to no more than a proposal to substitute one Government Order for another. Thus private Members, who, by the way, were not as sensitive as many private Members were "elsewhere," could not oppose with justice the proposal which he submitted to the House.Moved, "That the first and third paragraphs of standing Order No. XX be suspended, and that the Lord Privy Seal's Motion have precedence of the Orders of the Day and Notice which stand before it,"—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)
§ EARL GRANVILLE
said, he hoped the Motion of the noble Marquess would not meet wth serious opposition.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (Earl CADOGAN)
My Lords, I rise to move—That a Select Committee be appointed to examine and report upon those Standing Orders of this House which relate to the conduct of Public Business.It is somewhat ominous that at the commencement of a discussion upon the Standing Orders of this House we should find it necessary to suspend one of the best known Rules of our Procedure. I 1316 can promise the House, however, that I shall not detain it any great length. It will be the more easy for me to abbreviate my speech, because the House has already had the opportunity on three occasions during the present Session of discussing its Rules of Procedure and its constitution. The first occasion arose on the Motion of the late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (the Earl of Rosebery) for the appointment of a Committee to revise the constitution of this House, when it was thought by your Lordships that to appoint a Committee to consider so large and important a subject was a step which could not be taken with perfect safety. Another noble Lord (Stratheden and Campbell) on a subsequent occasion proposed a Motion for a Commission to inquire into the subject of the Standing Orders of this House. The view of the noble Lord, I understand, was that it was desirable that we should examine that subject with the assistance of some Members of the other House and of other gentlemen whom he thought qualified to join in the work of inquiry. That view also failed to commend itself to your Lordships. The third occasion was when my noble Friend behind me (the Earl of Dunraven), with characteristic independence and courage, brought forward a Bill embodying the various changes which he considered it was desirable to carry out in the constitution of this House. That Bill was fully debated before your Lordships on the Motion for second reading and was withdrawn. These discussions, if they did nothing else, revealed a considerable difference of opinion between those who had turned their attention to the subject of the constitution of the House. The noble Earl the late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, at the conclusion of his speech, used the following expression:—He trusted that their Lordships would without further delay undertake the duty of repairing, renovating, and reconstructing their House.Now, I believe that in the opinion of this House it is necessary and desirable to proceed without delay to repair and renovate this House, but I am not equally sure that we are prepared at this moment to undertake its complete reconstruction. Between the very divergent opinions upon this subject—the opinions 1317 of those who are in favour of abolishing the House of Lords as at present constituted, and, on the other hand, the opinions of those who think that there are no changes that can be carried out with propriety—I think that there are certain middle views upon which useful legislation can be founded and useful action taken. It is possible that it may be necessary to reconstruct this House at some future time; but in order to reconstruct you must first pull down, and before doing so I believe that it is the opinion of your Lordships that we ought to exhaust all measures of reform, repair, and renovation on and within the lines of the present constitution of the House. In reforming the House of Lords with a view to increase its efficiency I believe that we shall have to proceed on the lines indicated by the noble Earl opposite, who was once Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In a speech during the debate on the Bill of my noble Friend behind me the noble Earl said that the reform of the House should be undertaken in a tentative, guarded, prudent, and careful manner. I believe the noble Earl on that occasion spoke the opinions of the majority of your Lordships. I believe that the ancient method of the inclined plane is the method best suited to the Assembly with which we have to deal. It is a method which we ought to prefer to the more violent methods of modern science. In accordance with this spirit the Prime Minister, in the debate on the Bill of my noble Friend, announced to the House the policy which the Government were prepared to pursue with reference to this question, and he said that he would be willing to introduce a measure to facilitate the entrance of Life Peers into your Lordships' House. He also stated that he would be prepared to bring in a measure to give power to this House—a power which we do not at present possess—to expel from our midst any of our Members who may have been convicted of offences rendering them in the opinion of all right-thinking men unworthy to sit in a House representing a branch of the Legislature. Those two matters will have to be dealt with by a measure which the Prime Minister will introduce before long. But there are besides many points connected with the procedure of this House which it will be 1318 necessary to deal with if we wish to treat the whole of this subject in a thorough and comprehensive manner. The Prime Minister intimated in his speech—and I believe we all agree with him—that the procedure of this House is open to considerable objection and requires renovation. It is with this view that I have given Notice of a Motion for a Committee to inquire into the subject of the Standing Orders of the House. I do not pretend for one minute that by a recasting of the Standing Orders you can remove all the objections that are entertained to the composition of the House and its constitution; but the speeches that have been made and the writings that have appeared during the last few months have convinced us that there are many matters which are not suitable for legislation, but which can and ought to be dealt with under the Standing Orders. Let me point to one difficulty that meets us upon the very threshold of the subject. I have found the utmost difficulty in ascertaining exactly the position of some of our Rules and regulations. They have grown up, some of them under prescriptive right, some of them by immemorial custom, and some of them exist on our Journals simply in the form of Resolutions. Others, again, occupy places in the book containing the Standing Orders. It would be much simpler and much more useful if the majority of the Resolutions which are passed by this House with reference to its proceedings could find a place among the Standing Orders. This is now far from being the practice in our House, although it is the practice in the other House. Let me refer, by way of example, to the question of the hour at which this House meets. Some few years ago a noble Lord moved that the House should meet for Public Business at half-past 4 o'clock instead of at half-past 5, and a Resolution was passed to that effect; but I cannot find that there is any Standing Order upon the subject. This shows how difficult it is to classify the Rules that regulate our Procedure, and to find the sanction under which those Rules have been established. Now, I propose to enumerate the chief complaints and criticisms which have been brought against the Procedure of this House, and to show that they constitute a justification for the appointment of a Committee such as that for which I now move. 1319 The first and most important subject which can be dealt with under the Standing Orders is the quorum of this House. The late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, on both occasions of his bringing this subject before the House, dwelt at some length upon the utter inadequacy of the quorum of three, which, he believed, was held to be the quorum of our House. I cannot ascertain under what authority the quorum is fixed, but it does stand at as low a figure as three. The noble Earl gave us some amusing anecdotes illustrating the impropriety of a quorum being fixed at so low a figure. I do not propose to enumerate them, but I should like to tell the House what I believe to be the greatest inconvenience of so small a quorum and the strongest reason which exists for an alteration in our Rules in this respect. The greatest objection I conceive to be this—that it is quite possible that the House of Commons may have spent several weeks in the discussion and elaboration of a measure which it sends up to this House in a late period of the Session, and which it is in the power of this House to reject by the votes of an unduly small number of Members of this House. I can find within recent years two instances of such a proceeding. In the year 1878, on the 5th of August, the Tenant Right (Ireland) Bill was brought up to this House, having been passed by the House of Commons. A Motion was made to read the Bill on that day three months, and a Division took place, consisting of 25 Non-Contents and eight Contents. In so small a Division as this the measure was rejected. A still worse case occurred last year on the 12th of August. The Agricultural Labourers' Holdings (Scotland) Bill, which had passed the House of Commons, was brought up to this House. On the Motion to go into Committee on the Bill there were nine Contents and nine Non-Contents. The Committee was, therefore, negatived, and the Bill was lost. I only give these two cases because they show a state of things against which it is our duty to guard. I will give some instances of smaller Divisions in this House. In August, 1867, in a Division there voted on the one side one and on the other side nine—total, 10. In the same month of the same year in a Division there voted on one side seven, on the other 11 1320 —total, 18. In 1868 in a Division on one side there voted 13, on the other side six—total, 19. In 1871 there voted in a Division on one side seven, on the other eight—total, 15. In 1879 in a Division on one side there were three, on the other 13—total, 16. In 1885 in a Division on one side here voted seven, and on the other six—total, 13. I do not want to found any very strong argument on these figures, but I do think they show that when we have a quorum such as that under which we perform our legislative duties it is possible that measures may be rejected by a very inadequate number of votes. I commend that subject to the attention of the Committee if your Lordships should grant it. Then, with regard to the question of the attendance of your Lordships in this House, I approach a very difficult and, perhaps, a very delicate matter. My noble Friend behind me, in the debate a few weeks ago, suggested that a minimum of attendance by your Lordships at the debates in this House should constitute the right to vote. Whether your Lordships would agree to that I do not know, but of this I am sure, that it is within the power of the House, though perhaps some of your Lordships may not be aware of it, to enforce the attendance of its Members not only at Committees, but also at any other time during the progress of legislative Business in this House. Whether or not measures should be adopted to enforce a better attendance I know not, but undoubtedly the subject is one which should receive the attention of the Committee. Then my noble Friend the late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs called the attention of the House to the functions of the Lord Speaker, or rather to his want of functions. My noble Friend who introduced a Bill on the subject of Procedure in this House also told us that the want of authority by our Speaker paralyzed the energies of the Members of this House and prevented a large number of able Members from taking part in our debates. I have never been able to understand why the Chairman of the House of Lords should not exercise the rights and enjoy the authority exercised and enjoyed by any chairman of any meeting throughout the whole country. It is a fact that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack does possess the authority and the right 1321 to call Peers to Order, although I have heard that doubted. [Cries of "No, no!"] I find on page 17 of the Standing Orders the following Rule:—If any Lord has occasion to speak with another Lord while the House is sitting they are to retire to the Prince's Chamber and not converse in the space behind the Woolsack, or else the Lord Speaker is to call them to Order, and, if necessary, to stop the business in agitation.Thus the Lord Speaker has authority to call us to Order, and, therefore, he has authority to regulate our proceedings, at all events, in some respects. If that is the case, why should he not be allowed to select those who are to address the House in their turn? My noble Friend opposite, I think, more than once called attention to the inconvenient and almost unseemly character of these contests which occasionally take place between noble Lords in their natural desire and ambition to address your Lordships. Two noble Lords gave us an excellent illustration of this difficulty during the last debate upon our Procedure, and I cannot help hoping that if we do revise our Standing Orders in this respect, our Speaker will, in future, have the right to call upon any noble Lord to address the House, instead of its being left to one of the Leaders of either side to make the Motion that one of two speakers should be heard. Then there was the subject, and it was one of great importance, of resignation by life Peers of their office and status of Peers. My noble Friend opposite alluded to this question in his able and eloquent speech on a former occasion. He said that in 1678 a Resolution was passed by the House affirming that no Peer could divest himself of his Peerage, or that, in other words, it was impossible that any Peer should resign his seat and his post in this House; and my noble Friend argued that, inasmuch as it was in the power of the House to pass this Resolution, by the same reasoning it must be within the power of the House to pass a Resolution affirming the right which they had previously denied. I am bound to say that I cannot quite coincide with the view of my noble Friend. But let me say that in the Standing Orders there is a Resolution that no Peer can take his seat until he has attained the age of 21, and if the reasoning of my noble Friend is correct, it would be equally impossible for us to 1322 assert that a Peer should not take his seat until he was 25 years of age, which is an Amendment I have heard suggested by many who take an interest in this question. I have mentioned these matters because I think that when we come to examine into the Standing Orders we shall find that we must be very careful in the Resolutions which we place upon the Paper, and we must take into view the analogy which will be drawn from any Resolutions which we may so insert. My noble Friend opposite suggested in the course of his speech that Joint Committees of both Houses should sit to consider the state of Business in each House, for the purpose of relieving the congestion of our House, and the inactivity of the other by a consideration of the Bills to be brought forward in both. That was a very important suggestion; but in looking over the Standing Orders of this House I could not help being struck with the fact that the regulations to guide and control our proceedings when we are sitting in conference or on Joint Committees with the other House are such as to discourage to a very high degree any such negotiations between the two Houses. No language of mine can, I think, sufficiently well describe the inconvenience of the Standing Orders affecting our proceedings in conjunction with the other House of Parliament. The House will bear with me if I read what is the present condition of our Rules on the subject of conferences with the other House—The place of meeting with the Lower House upon conference is usually the Painted Chamber, where they are commonly before we come and expecting our leisure. We are to come in thither in a whole body, and not some Lords scattering before the rest, which both takes from the gravity of the Lords and besides may hinder the Lords from taking their proper places. We are to sit there and to be covered, and they are at no Committee or conference even either to be covered or to sit down in our presence, unless it be some infirm person, and that by connivance in a corner out of sight, to sit but not to be covered.That, undoubtedly, does seem absurd and a mere laughing matter; but I cannot help thinking that if we are to encourage, as I hope we always shall encourage, joint action on the part of both Houses of Parliament, it is impossible to keep on our Standing Orders such a Rule as that which I have just read, and I trust that the Committee which will revise our Standing Orders will once for 1323 all obliterate it from our Rules. Then there are many other small matters which affect the dignity and convenience of our debates. There is, for instance, the question which was also mentioned by my noble Friend as to the difficulty which arises from our not being allowed to name each other in debate. That is a small matter, but it affects the convenience of the House. There is likewise the question of the hours of sitting, which I have previously mentioned, and also that of whether there should be an adjournment at a certain hour for dinner as some have suggested. There is another question of some importance—namely, that of the reporting in this House and the arrangements which may have to be made to facilitate the obtaining of better reports of our proceedings. I have the honour to be Chairman of a Committee of both Houses on this subject, which has not yet concluded its deliberations, and therefore I cannot now refer to the matter in any detail; but, if it is thought necessary that an official report should be made of the proceedings in Parliament, it would probably be found requisite that the reporters should be allowed to come within the sacred precincts in which we sit, and in that case the Standing Orders would have to be altered. Then, if the Prime Minister introduces and succeeds in passing his Bill to enable us to expel any Member of this House who is thought unworthy to sit in it, an alteration of the Standing Orders will be necessary in regard to that subject. I have, my Lords, now enumerated the chief points with which the Committee that we desire to appoint would deal. As I have said before, the policy of the Government is to repair and renovate within the lines of the present constitution of the House, and I believe that in the Bill which my noble Friend will present, and in the action of the Committee which I trust your Lordships will appoint, remedies will be found for many of the criticisms which are passed upon this House. I will say also for this Motion that it does not compete with and is not antagonistic to any more ambitious schemes which we have heard suggested in various quarters, and which I do not believe the action of this Committee will in any sense prejudice. It is designed to meet many reasonable objections, to remedy obvious defects, and to disarm 1324 some legitimate criticism. That being the scope and object of the Committee which I beg to move, I think I am entitled to express the hope that noble Lords on both sides of the House in dealing with this question will co-operate with the Government in the honest attempt which they are making so to improve the Procedure of this Assembly as to maintain the traditions and to enhance the influence and authority of the House of Lords.Moved, "That a Select Committee be appointed to examine and report upon those Standing Orders of the House which relate to the conduct of public business."—(The Lord Privy Seal.)
§ EARL GRANVILLE
My Lords, although I do not rise to offer the slightest objection to the appointment of the Committee which has been proposed by the Lord Privy Seal, I am not perfectly sure that I should not have preferred that he should not have given his reasons for his Motion, but should have simply moved it. The first ground which he adduced for the appointment of the Committee I confess I did not think was a very strong one. He wishes to change some obsolete and ridiculous Standing Order in regard to maintaining a formal superiority for Members of this House over Members of the other House when they meet in conference. With respect to the question of a quorum, the noble Earl certainly made as much as he possibly could of that point; but, notwithstanding the instances which he quoted of Divisions taken in this House when very small numbers were present, I am not aware that any great practical inconvenience has arisen from that cause; while, on the other hand, if a quorum consisting of a considerable number of Peers were adopted, enormous practical inconvenience might result, more especially for any Liberal Government which might be in Office. With regard to his suggestion as to the authority of the Lord Chancellor in this House, I am entirely opposed to it in principle. The noble Earl referred to the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons; but it should be remembered that the Speaker is elected by the House of Commons, and is considered to be a perfectly neutral person and perfectly impartial. On the other hand, the Lord Chancellor is a political officer, and is generally, if not always, a Mem- 1325 ber of the Government; and that gives him a political character. Although I am sure that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, like his immediate predecessors, would wish to be perfectly impartial, yet it is impossible that on any vexed question of a Party nature suddenly arising, the decision which he gave might not be supposed at least to have been influenced by political or Party feeling. Then, again, I have great doubts whether we should extend the age of admission to this House from 21 to 25 years. I do not think that would be an advantage. I think that every encouragement should be given to young Peers to come into the House at 21, in order that they may be allowed as early as possible to become acquainted with Public Business. With regard to the practice of Members of the House referring to each other by their titles, the same objection applies as in "another place," that it might possibly add a little to the direct acerbity of debate. The Committee might do some service by removing Standing Orders that are obsolete, and by classifying the remainder, but I hope that in other respects it will do more good than the speech of the noble Earl has foreshadowed.
§ THE PRIME MINISTER AND SECRETARY OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS (The Marquess of SALISBURY)
My Lords, I think that the Motion might have met with a somewhat less ungracious reception from the noble Earl opposite. It is not to be expected that those who are in favour of this Committee should all hold exactly the same views as to the matters which will come before it for consideration. The noble Earl naturally differs from my noble Friend as to some of the points that will come before the Committee; but, while we should be glad to avoid that melancholy result as much as possible, I cannot admit that that is an argument against appointing the Committee. Undoubtedly, there are some matters in the Standing Orders of this House which will require very little alteration, but there are others which ought to be put upon a more reasonable footing than they are at present. Some of these points are of considerable importance. Two of them are of great importance—namely, the question of the quorum and the question of securing the attendance 1326 of noble Lords during the debates. There are, I think, other matters for consideration, as to the apportionment of time, especially in view of the circumstance, which appears now to have become permanent, that we have to wait very often a considerable period while the House of Commons is not doing its work, until that House sends up measures, and we have to approach a vast mass of accumulated Business at an advanced period of the Session. It might, therefore, be considered whether some possible alterations of detail in our modes of proceeding would not make it more easy to meet that difficulty. All that I intend to urge is that I do not think we should necessarily abstain from appointing this Committee, either because we may be unable to find solutions in which all will agree, or because the alterations to be made are not of first-rate and revolutionary importance. We do not undertake, as I have had the honour of saying to your Lordships before, to make any startling or dramatic changes in the character or constitution of this House. We wish, as the noble Earl has said, that any reform we attempt should be made tentatively, believing that the work will be done better if it is done slowly and by small steps, if we are careful never to depart from the original lines which the traditions of this House have brought down to us, and if we are careful also to avoid conforming to a mere passing and accidental impulse, remembering that the process of improvement ought to be constantly going on, and ought not to be the subject of sudden, large, and sensational steps. I hope that will be the spirit that will always animate your Lordships' House, from whatever side the Government may be constituted; and I have very little doubt that if we address ourselves in that spirit to the task before us we shall materially and sensibly add to the influence of this House, and to the value of the services which it is capable of rendering to the country.
§ Motion agreed to.