HL Deb 25 February 1889 vol 333 cc236-52

, in introducing the Report of the Select Committee made to the House on the 31st of July last, said: My Lords, when in the course of last summer I moved your Lordships to appoint a Committee to inquire into the Standing Orders of this House relating to the conduct of public business, I explained to the House the reasons which induced the Government to make that proposal and the objects which they proposed to themselves in doing so, and I do not think it will be necessary for me to trouble your Lordships with any repetition of such statement. There is, however, one point to which I wish to allude once more—namely, to the disclaimer which I then made as to there being any idea or intention that the appointment of a Committee to carry on this inquiry should be either in substitution or anticipation of any more ambitious schemes or proposals which might be brought forward in the future for the reforming of the constitution of this House, or its reconstruction as a branch of the Legislature. It appears to me that the question of the constitution of this House and the subject of the conduct of our legislative proceedings are entirely distinct, and should be kept separate. If we are to wait until any reform is carried out in the construction of this House, with the assistance which has been promised to us by the noble Earl the late Secretary for Foreign Affairs (the Earl of Rosebery), having regard to his Lordship's duties in connection with the London County Council, it is likely that for some years to come we should leave the Rules which govern our proceedings unchanged and unamended. My Lords, if it be true, as has been stated by noble Lords, and by others outside the House, that for many years past this House has not addressed itself to the task of remodelling the Rules of its procedure, it appears to me that however short or however long may be our tenure of the position which we now occupy as a branch of the Legislature, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can in order to meet the criticism, and if possible to carry out the wishes, of those who desire to amend the proceedings of this House. My Lords, the Committee which the House appointed to consider this question was one which I think I may venture to say must carry the greatest possible authority. If noble Lords will look at the names of the Peers who constituted that Committee, it will be seen that they were taken from all sides of the House. The Members were representative of the various stages of thought upon this and other questions, and I think it will be at once conceded that the tribunal to which these Rules have been referred was one which may be considered, not only impartial, but in the highest degree authoritative. I did not receive any great encouragement from the noble Earl opposite the Leader of the Opposition, when I ventured to make the Motion upon this subject; but I feel bound to add that the noble Earl consented to serve upon the Committee, and therefore we had the invaluable advice and assistance which his unequalled knowledge and experience of the procedure of this House would naturally give him, and I must therefore acknowledge the great assistance which he was able to give us in all our proceedings. Then there was another noble and learned Lord who sits on the same bench opposite, and I cannot help expressing my regret that he is unable to be present upon this occasion—I mean the noble and learned Lord (Lord Herschell). One at least of the most important provisions recommended in this Report is due to the initiative of the noble and learned Lord, and I think that all Members of the Committee will agree that we should derive the very greatest possible advantage from his experience. When I say that the Committee also had the advantage of the services of the late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and others who have in public and in private taken the greatest interest in this question, I think I have said sufficient to show that this Report may, at all events, be received as representative of the general body of opinion in all parts of your Lordships' House. Turning now to the Report, the main difficulty with which the Committee were confronted was, on the one hand, the opinion of those Members of the House who are jealous of the ancient forms and procedure of the House, and who I believe would be best satisfied by leaving things absolutely in statu quo; and, on the other hand, there was the feeling of those who would wish for a larger and greater measure of reform and change than is recommended in the Report. It has been our duty as far as possible to steer a middle course between these two sets of opinion, and I trust that the House will think that we have, to a certain extent, been successful in that aim. Speaking generally, we decided to remove, where possible, all paragraphs in the Standing Orders enforcing absolutely obsolete and useless forms, forms which had for a long time dropped entirely into the background. We wish to preserve that which is antique, but, if possible, to do away with that which is antiquated. Then, my Lords, there are certain new provisions which will be found in the amended copy of the Standing Orders which has been furnished to your Lordships, and which I will endeavour as shortly as possible to explain, and it occurs to me that possibly I might in a very few words be able so to classify these new Rules and changes as to make them clearer to your Lordships than the} would be by a cursory examination of the papers now in your Lordships hands. With regard to the obsolete forms, your Lordships will find there are several, No. XVII., No. XXXVII and No. LVII, to which I need no further allude. They are simply Rule which have long dropped out of use There is one, No. XLII, which will be found on page 29, which has been amended so as to conform with the pre sent practice of the House. Then there is a set of Rules, some of which are important in themselves, because they relate to messages and conferences between this and the other House of Parliament. I think that all of us must wish that the relations between this House and the other House should be as cordial and conciliatory as possible These Rules which we have struck out and to which we have proposed Amendments, were not only objectionable an even offensive in themselves, but calculated somewhat to hinder that comity between the two Houses which is at all times desirable. At paragraph LXXXVIII. and LXXXIX., at page 50, your Lordships will find the new Rules which we have inserted instead of the old Rules, the new Rules being, in fact, a statement of the procedure which has been in use for some time past. Then, my Lords, in reference to the conduct of Debates and Procedure your Lordships will see at page 16 Paragraph XXIV., that we have amended the old Standing Order by omitting the part which prohibits our calling each other by our proper names and titles. No new Rule has been prepared providing that we are to call ourselves by our own names, but the prohibition has simply been removed. Your Lordships will be fully aware of the inconvenience which has occasionally arisen from the practice which it is intended to reform. There is a small alteration on page 16, also in Rule XXV., enabling the Mover of a Bill to speak in reply at every stage of that Bill. Then I come to a provision which is, I think, more important. On page 22, paragraph XXXA, your Lordships will see that a provision has been made for there being a quorum of the House upon any division, with certain limitations. The chief objection which has been found to the absence of any rule as to a quorum is that it has been possible that a Bill which passed through the other House of Parliament, after considerable discussion, upon some occasions should be rejected by a very inadequate number of Peers towards the latter end of the Session. Perhaps I had better read the proposed new Rule to your Lordships— If, on a Division upon any stage of a Bill, it shall appear that 30 Lords are not present in the House, the Lord Speaker shall declare the question not decided, but the debate thereon adjourned to the next sitting of the House; and if such Division take place when the House is in Committee, the Chairman shall declare the question not decided, whereupon the House shall resume, and shall be again in Committee at the next sitting of the House. That, my Lords, I think, will remove what was formerly a reproach as to the inadequate attendance of Peers upon occasions when important legislation has been before the House. Then there is another paragraph, which provides not only for an adjournment of the business in question, but it gives power to the House to order that the business in question at the time of the adjournment should be taken at the next sitting, or at some later hour of the evening. This, of course, I need hardly say, refers to the difficulty which has been experienced in this House, and not in this House alone, of carrying on discussions after to 8 o'clock, or even before 8 o'clock. Great anxiety has been felt that the debate should be closed at or about 8 o'clock, and the result has been that some questions have been inadequately discussed, and many noble Lords who wish to take part in the debates have been prevented from giving their valuable assistance to the House. The Rule which has been proposed by the Committee is as follows:— If at the close of the speech of any Lord it shall be moved that the business then in hand be adjourned, or the House being in Committee that the House be resumed, and it shall be so ordered, it shall be lawful for the House thereupon, without notice given, to make further order that the business in question shall be taken first, either at some later hour of the evening or on some future sitting-day to be then fixed. Then, my Lords, there is one further Amendment to which I ought to call your attention, and that is at page 24, No. XXXIV. This provides for the taking up of Bills that come up from the House of Commoms. Your Lordships may remember that there was a Rule that if a Bill were bronght up from the House of Commons after twelve sitting days without some noble Lord giving notice of the second reading, the Bill should be dropped for the current Session. It has occasionally happened that a Bill has been dropped merely through the neglect of the Member having charge of it. Provision is now made that such Bills may be taken up at a later period of the Session, with certain limitations. This is a matter which I think the noble and learned Lord (Lord Herschell) brought forward last Session, and it is a small alteration which I think will commend itself to the House. Then I come, my Lords, to what is the most important of the recommendations of the Committee, which will be found on page 27, paragraph XLI. The Committee recommend the following Rule:— At the commencement of each Session of Parliament Standing Committees shall be appointed, to one or other of which, unless the House shall otherwise order, every Bill shall be committed, instead of to a Committee of the whole House; and, on the Report of the Standing Committee being received, the Bill shall not be re-committed unless the House so order. The Standing Committees shall not exceed four in number, and shall be appointed for such classes of Bills as the House may determine. There are other provisions enumerated in following paragraphs which, perhaps, I may summarize as follows:—Standing Committees, first of all, are to be nominated by a Committee of Selection. They shall consist of not more than fifty nor less than twenty Lords, and the Committee of Selection is to have the power to add not more than ten Lords in respect of any particular Bill. The quorum of a Standing Committee shall be twelve. The Standing Committee may appoint any Sub-Committee for the consideration of any Bill. The Chairmen of these Committees are to be nominated by the Committee of Selection, but there are not to be more than 12 nor less than eight Lords to serve as Chairmen, and they shall nominate amongst themselves the Chairman of each Standing Committee, and may change the Chairman from time to time. I should add that the Committee of Selection will consist of the Chairman of Committees and eight other Lords to be named by the House. Then, my Lords, I think the only other paragraphs to which I need call the attention of the House are to be found on page 12, Nos. XVIA. and XVIB. These allude to the absence of noble Lords. Your Lordships are aware that there has always been power in the House to enforce the attendance of its Members. That power has not been exercised for many years, and it is to be hoped that it will never be necessary to exercise it. The two Rules proposed are these— The absence of any Lord from this House, except for sufficient reason, shall not prevent the Committee of Selection from calling for his services. Lords may obtain leave of absence at the pleasure of the House upon cause shown. These, my Lords, I think are the chief features of the Report to which I now beg to draw your Lordships' attention. I do not think I need add any further remarks. There were certain subjects which, to my regret, were withdrawn from the purview of the Committee, but I have gone at sufficient length into the result of the Committee's deliberations as far as they went, and I trust that the proposals made will commend themselves to the approval of the House.


My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has brought before your Lordships' House a subject of very great importance, and the recommendations of the Select Committee, constituted as it was of Members representing various views and opinions, deserve to receive, and I am sure will receive, careful consideration by your Lordships' House. I do not propose to go through the alterations and additions to the Standing Order seriatim, but upon the most important change—namely, that of the appointment of Standing Committees—I may say that that proposition is one in which I heartily concur. My Lords, I take this opportunity of expressing the hope that the whole subject of Parliamentary reform will not form the subject of any Party debates, but will be dealt with by this House upon its own merits.


My Lords, I am sure I shall be expressing the sentiment of the House generally in paying tribute to the admirable manner in which the noble Lord has brought forward these proposals; but I must say that it appeared to me that there is one very great hiatus in his statement. He described very clearly what was proposed to be done, but he certainly ignored the very important question whether there was any reason at all for these changes in our Standing Orders. I do not myself see that any adequate ground has been made out for such a change. With regard to the proposal to appoint Standing Committees, I fear that the proposal will be the means of excluding a very large number of Peers from the debates in Committee, and I do not think that that is a very desirable thing. We are not so overwhelmed in work as they are in another place as to render it necessary so to economize our time. I can quite imagine this happening in your Lordships' House—that a Bill may be brought forward on which a Peer not accustomed to take much part in your Lordships' proceedings, and who would not naturally be a Member of any Standing Committee, might be able to bring to bear upon the discussion of that Bill a great deal of valuable information of the most useful kind, but, not being a Member of the Standing Committee, he would have no opportunity of giving the House the advantage of his criticism upon the various clauses of the Bill. The only opportunity he would have of discussing it would be either upon the second reading of the Bill or on the Report, but to rise and make a speech at a stage where you can only speak once is very different from being able to make frequent observations in Committee. Furthermore, I think your Lordships, in passing this new regulation, will be doing away with a very good oppor- Tunity for young Peers to take part in your Lordships' proceedings. If the present system had been found to work unfairly or inconveniently, then I could understand these changes being proposed; but I have never heard of any complaint in this direction. The complaints against your Lordships' proceedings are many and various, but I have never heard any complaint alleged against our proceedings in Committee in discussing a Bill. I cannot help thinking that this proposal is an imitation of the French Bureaux, which certainly have not been attended with happy consequences as regards the French Assembly. Anybody who is acquainted with the proceedings in the French Assembly will know that under the form of proceeding there, it is impossible to get that numerical proportion and balance of discussion which we get in our proceedings here. I trust we shall not adopt this particular proposal without full consideration. I am sure it is a great mistake, in an Assembly like this, to make change, without very full discussion and mature deliberation. I am for improvements, but I am distinctly against mere change; and in this case I really fail to see what we are to gain by alteration. With regard to the suggested alteration as to adjournments, I think the provisions proposed are very wise and proper. Again, I think it is hardly worth while to depart from our present Rules upon the subject of addressing one another by our names. The practice we have hitherto pursued is very decorous, and I do not think we shall gain in decorum by calling each other by our names and titles. I am not quite certain how the forms of the House will enable these complicated questions to be put, but certainly as regards the appointment of Standing Committees I must say "not content."


My Lords, although I became a Member of this Committee last year, I was not able to serve upon it, and I therefore approach this matter with the disadvantage of not having heard the arguments which were, no doubt, put forward in favour of the proposal for Standing Committees. I heard, however, very fully from my noble and learned Friend (Lord Herschell) what his views were in making the suggestion, which, in point of fact, is only a modification of a proposal made by the noble Marquess opposite. The noble Earl who has just sat down seems to think that there is nothing whatever in our present arrangements with regard to discussions in Committee which requires any alteration. I am quite unable to agree with him. I do not think he has at all apprehended the point in discussion in this matter. I do not suppose that it is the proceedings in Committee which are found to be defective, or which require alteration; but what we find is this, that there are a great number of small and comparatively unimportant Bills which pass through Committee without any notice or discussion whatever. Now it seems to me there is one function which is pre-eminently the function of this House, apart from any great initiative proposals, and that is the revision of Bills. It becomes more and more difficult, of course, for the other House, with the great multiplicity of business which they have, to give minute attention to Bills not of the first consequence. What we want is that all these Bills should be carefully scrutinized. What is everybody's business is always found to be nobody's business, and if the House is divided into small Committees, whose special business it is to consider the Bill referred to them, I think it will be of advantage to the country, and will redound very much to the credit of the House. Believing as I do that this alteration will lead to a more thorough examination of particular Bills, I certainly welcome the proposition. With regard to Bills of great importance, I apprehend that it is not intended to refer them to Committees of this kind. Of course they would come before the Committee of the whole House. With regard to noble Lords who might take a particular interest in a subject, and who might not happen to be upon the particular Standing Committee, I observe that there is a provision in the proposed Standing Order that any ten Members (or of course fewer) may be added to a Committee for the purpose of the discussion of any particular Bill; so that any Peer having special knowledge might be added, and the Committee would have the advantage of his experience.


My Lords, I want to point out to my noble Friend that the proposals now before us have not the intention, and would not have the effect, of depriving this House of any control over its Committees. The House might, if it pleased, direct that a Bill, after it has passed the Standing Committee, shall be considered in Committee of the whole House. There will still be the stages of Report and Third Reading. I imagine that when a Bill has been read a second time the Motion put from the Chair will ordinarily be, "That the Bill be referred to a Standing Committee," and it will then be open to any Peer to move, instead of the words "Standing Committee," to insert the words "Committee of the whole House." The Question always is, "That this Bill be committed," and under the new Rules I suppose it would be simply necessary to add "to a Standing Committee." It would therefore come before the House on each occasion, and there would be full opportunity for every Member of the House to give his opinion. My Lords, I feel very strongly as a Member of this House for some years that Bills of a secondary class are not considered with that care which they deserve, and that we do not examine into the phraseology of Bills, and especially the references in the Bills which form so large a portion of our modern statutory language, with the care which might reasonably be expected of a House constituted as this is. Upon the whole I think the proposal a good one; but I would point out to your Lordships that we do not stand pledged to it for ever; if it turn out that the proposal does not answer, it will be easy to send the matter back to the Committee.


My main object, my Lords, in rising is as far as possible to confirm what has fallen from the noble Lord opposite (Earl Beauchamp) as to its being desirable, and, indeed, indispensable, that each of these changes should be separately weighed, and canvassed, and considered. There is no sort of unity between the various alterations; they are not all subordinated to any common object, so as to make their being accepted or rejected en bloc either desirable or practicable, and I hope the noble Lord will see his way to giving the House an opportunity of considering the various proposals seriatim. Very little has been said about a proposal which strikes me as of remarkable importance—namely, that Divisions shall not be taken unless thirty Peers are present. I merely wish for a moment to submit to noble Lords that that proposal is freighted with considerable consequences. It is clear that under such a regulation it would be possible in this House to defeat and throw out Bills without giving the appearance of opposition. I need only suggest what comment would have been made had such a course been adopted with reference to the Irish legislation of the past few years. I do not affect any arrière pensée for the Standing Orders as they originally stood, but I do maintain before your Lordships that these suggested Amendments ought not to be accepted without careful deliberation, and in that view it is essential that the House should have the opportunity of expressing its opinion upon them separately.


My Lords, I would like to ask whether it is necessary to-day that this Report should be approved in all particulars? It appears to me that if the Amendments were brought before the House in Committee of the whole House, we might express our opinion upon them in their order. I do not think the discussion need necessarily be a long one, but it seems to me that a very considerable amount of inconvenience will occur unless these proposals are taken one by one, because, as to some of them, there will probably be no opposition, whilst others of them will excite a great deal of opposition, and may give rise to considerable discussion. I entirely concur with what noble Lords have said as to the extremely representative character of the Committee whose Report we are discussing, but I may point out that the Committee appear to have been very much divided upon some of the most important of the proposals which they make. Two of them come before your Lordships as the decisions of 11 against 10; and I do not think that, in a matter of this kind, we should take the Report of the Committee upon trust, or hurriedly come to conclusions upon it.


My Lords, I do not think the House should be called upon to give an opinion upon these new regulations unless they can be discussed and decided upon individually. Some of the recommenda- tions, as has been pointed out, will have to be very carefully examined into. I may instance the paragraph on page 22— If on a Division upon any stage of a Bill, it shall appear that 30 Lords are not present in the House, the Lord Speaker shall declare the question not decided, but the debate thereon adjourned to the next sitting of the House; and if such Division take place when the House is in Committee, the Chairman shall declare the question not decided, whereupon the House shall resume, and shall he again in Committee at the next sitting of the House. I have only to say in respect to that—and I think I shall be borne out by those of my noble Friends who have had any very long experience in this House—that towards the beginning of August it will be found a matter of the greatest difficulty to collect 30 Peers together in the House. That is merely one point. I daresay there are a great many others that might be mentioned, but it shows, I think, that we ought not to be called upon to give our consent to these alterations collectively.


My Lords, the most important change which it appears to me is proposed to be effected is the appointment of Grand Committees, or, as they are called in these amended Orders, Standing Committees. Now, we find that that proposition was carried by ten votes to eight, so that it was not the unanimous opinion of the Committee. Your Lordships will remember that these Standing Committee Rules will apply to all Public Bills, and therefore will include Government Bills. I always understood that Government Bills were introduccd on the sole responsibility of the Government; nay more, I have heard it said here, and heard it said here by a great constitutional authority, that to move to refer a Government Bill to a Select Committee was in the nature of a vote of censure on the Government, because the Government were solely responsible for their own Bills. I certainly approve of the Amendment proposed by the noble Earl opposite. I quite agree with what has fallen from the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury) that, with regard to Bills not of the first importance, the course of proceeding is by no means creditable to the House, and no doubt it would be an improvement if Bills of that kind were referred in the first in- Stance to a Standing Committee. I think the better course will be that these Amendments should be put to the House one by one.


My Lords, I have no right, I know, to speak again, but I should like to be allowed to answer a suggestion which seems to have been made that this question has been, to some extent, sprung upon the House suddenly. I think it is due to myself that I should explain that this Committee was appointed on the 7th of June, and the Report was made on the 31st of July. During the Autumn Session last year, I stated to the House that probably it would not be convenient that we should consider this Report at that period of the year, but I gave notice that I should ask the House to consider it as soon as we met this year. Therefore, I really think that I may disclaim any insinuation that this matter is sprung upon the House, and I may also say, with all due respect, that I think noble Lords have had considerable time to consider the course that they should pursue with regard to this Report. My Lords, with reference to the suggestion which has been made that this Report should be considered in Committee of the whole House, I think that such a suggestion is impracticable, because it is not the practice of the House to sit in Committee to consider the Report of another Committee. That being the case, the natural order would be that all the proposed new Standing Orders should be put en bloc, and on the debate which will ensue noble Lords will be able to move any Amendment which may occur to them as to any particular proposal. The House perhaps was not aware that that would be the procedure that would be adopted to-night, and to that extent, perhaps, the House may have been taken by surprise. In these circumstances, may I venture to make the following suggestion. I would propose that the consideration of these Amendments may be adjourned to any period which may be considered convenient, in order that noble Lords may have time to consider what Amendments they would like to propose.


May I point out that if there is merely an adjournment of this debate, noble Lords who have already spoken will be debarred from further participation in the debate, and therefore will not be able to propose any Amendments?


I take it that if in the interval noble Lords gave notice of the Amendments which they wish to make, it would be perfectly competent for them to make them, although they had already spoken this evening.


My Lords, I rise to suggest whether it might not be convenient to the House if, instead of merely adjourning the debate, the noble Lord the President of the Council would consent that the Question should be dropped and give a new notice for another day, which would set all noble Lords at liberty to speak upon the Question, whereas if the debate is merely adjourned they will not be able to do so.


My Lords, I think my noble Friend's suggestion is very well worthy of consideration, but at the same time it hardly meets, as I apprehend, the exact difficulty in which we are placed. The desire, no doubt, is, by some expedient or other, to take each of these separate Questions seriatim. These Questions are wholly distinct one from the other—they have scarcely any relation to each other, and if this heterogeneous mass of propositions are put en bloc it will be really impossible to come to anything like a satisfactory conclusion. I am sure nobody will for a moment suppose that my noble Friend who has taken charge of this measure would have desired to take the House by surprise. That would be entirely foreign to his nature, and I know no one who is more accustomed to deal in a perfectly straightforward manner with anything which passes through his hands. At the same time, I think it is likely that this discussion will be extremely valuable to the House when the matter is properly before us. I would now press upon my noble Friend at the head of the Government that he should exercise the resources of his fertile imagination in discovering somehow or other a method by which each of these separate and very difficult subjects can be submitted to your Lordships one by one, in order to obtain a decision upon them.


It seems to me, my Lords, that this will be exactly the right method. The first Motion will be that this Report be now considered. After that we shall take, seriatim, Amendments on all the points. Then comes the final Motion that these be the Standing Orders of this House. That seems to me to give all the opportunities which noble Lords can desire.


My Lords; I rise for the purpose of making a suggestion which I think will meet all the difficulties which appear to have arisen. It is quite true that the only satisfactory way of discussing these Standing Orders is to take them seriatim, and it is equally true that that will take an enormous amount of time; but I think there is a middle course, which is this—that we should take seriatim all those Standing Orders which are absolutely new, and then take those in which any alteration has been made, leaving without discussion those Standing Orders in which no alteration has been made. I do not think that noble Lords will find that that will take a very great deal of time, and I am inclined to think that it will be satisfactory to the supporters of the proposed changes as well as to those who wish to oppose them.


My Lords, I would point out that it is only this evening that we have had from the noble Earl (Earl Cadogan) any explanation of the grounds upon which the Select Committee came to the conclusions reported to us. It cannot be expected that noble Lords who have now, for the first time, heard that explanation should commit themselves without more mature consideration, and I cannot help thinking that the better course would be to take these alterations seriatim.


I think, my Lords, we shall find it impossible to discuss this matter satisfactorily unless we take the Amendments one by one. Here is one that, upon a Division upon any stage of a Bill, a quorum of 30 Members shall be required; here another constituting Standing Committees; another relating to conferences with the other House. How is it possible that in one discussion we can deal with all these subjects, which have little or no connection with one another?


I would suggest to my noble Friend that he should withdraw his present Motion, and bring it on after we have had time to look into the Amendments and alterations proposed.


My Lords, I was about to ask the leave of the House to withdraw my Motion.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn, and the Order, on Motion, discharged.