HL Deb 24 May 1889 vol 336 cc910-9

in rising to ask the Chairman of Committees if he will state to the House on what principles the new Standing Committees on Public Bills are constituted, especially as regards the admission and exclusion of Peers who are not of judicial or official or ex-official standing; also, whether as regards Scottish legislation these Committees are to remain constituted as at present; also, whether, in his opinion, the words of the Standing Order No. LIV. (to the effect that "at any Committee of our own" any Lord, though not of the Committee, is entitled to come in and to speak but not to vote) are applicable to the case of the new Standing Committees, said: I had some hesitation in putting on the Notice Paper the quèstions I am about to ask—as they may appear to be of a somewhat invidious character. But in what I propose to say, no susceptibilities shall be wounded. In fact, I take no exception to any of the names that appear on the list of Members either of the Committee of Selection or the Panel of Chairmen, or of the Standing Committees. On the contrary, the House has chosen a Committee of Selection, and has chosen well. The Committee of Selection in its turn has chosen a Panel of eight Chairmen, and has chosen well; no men of greater ability and better business habits could have been found. Again, the Committee of Selection have chosen 98 Peers to serve on the two Standing Committees, and on the whole has chosen well. I find no fault with the materials of the new organization. If it is, in some respects, defective, the faults are those not of commission but omission. Again, as regards the new system. I think it probable that a well-chosen Committee, presided over by a good Chairman, may transact the business committed to them with great efficiency. But it must be remembered that the greater the efficiency, the greater the confidence felt in the proceedings of these Committees, the less will be the disposition to scrutinize Bills in Committee of the whole House, so that virtually the Committee of this whole House stage in the passage of Bills through Parliament will be largely superseded. Moreover, to consign Bills to a limited number of Peers is to derogate from the theoretical equality of the rights of all Peers in matters of legislation. The change in the House of Lords by the adoption of this new system is much more sweeping than what has been done in the Commons. In the Commons the only Bills that are referred to the Standing Committees are those connected with law and trade. In the Lords all public Bills are to be referred, or are capable of being referred, to the new Standing Committees. I have made an analysis of the composition of the Standing Committees as at present constituted, dividing them into three categories. The first category consists of all the Law Lords; the second, of all Peers who are now holding office or who have formerly held office. The list includes not only those who hold or have held high office, but those also who have held subordinate posts in the Administration. The nomination of Peers in these two classes is virtually of an ex officio character. The third class consists of the residue of the Peerage—men who have never been connected with office. There are now two Standing Committees—one for legal Bills, the Members being 40 in number; the other for General Bills, numbering 60—but as two Peers belong to both Committees, the actual number of Peers appointed to serve on them is 98, not 100. Here is the analysis—

For Legal Bills. General Bills. Totals.
1st. Law Lords 10 2 12
2nd. Official and Ex-official 20 38 58
30 40 70
3rd. Unofficial 10 20 30
40 60 100
(2 being counted twice.)
Thus, while the legal and official and ex-official elements (58 Peers in all) are a large majority of the whole, and are in fact of an ex officio character, only 30 Peers out of the whole body have been chosen who have been unconnected with office. Some of the omissions are particularly noteworthy. 1st. The whole Bench of Bishops; 2nd, the whole of the Representative Peers of Scotland, 16 in number, with the exception of one of the number who now holds office. Some 44 in all are omitted from the Committees. As regards Scottish legislation it is proposed in the House of Commons that there shall be a Grand Committee for Scottish legislation, consisting exclusively of Scottish Members. This I think objectionable. But in the case of these new Standing Orders in the Lords, the composition of the Committees is not what it ought to be. The Peers connected with Scotland on these Committees are as follows:—
Legal Bills. General Bills.
1st.One Law Lord 1 1
2nd. Two Official and Ex-official 2 8
One Unofficial 1 1
4 10

Total 14; but one has been counted twice. Therefore, the actual number is 13.


My Lords, I scarcely understand why this question is addressed to me, because I am not ordinarily responsible for the composition of these Committees, except so far as I am ex officio Chairman of the Committee for selecting Peers to serve on the Standing Committees; but as the noble. Lord has referred to me, I will do my best to answer. It is difficult to lay down any distinct principle on which noble Lords are chosen for the Standing Committees. As your Lordships are aware, the new Standing Order provided that there might be four Committees, and that the aggregate number of Peers that might be appointed upon them was to be 150. Having that number in view, with only two Committees to be appointed, it seemed to the Committee of Selection that if they appointed 100. Peers and distributed them between the two Committees that would in spirit be consistent with the Standing Order, and would perhaps be a little more liberal than the House intended to be. I need not say that by limiting the number of Peers on the Committees it is impossible to avoid the omissions to which the noble Earl referred. It is of the essence of a Standing Committee that it should not be a Committee of the whole House. As to the omission of right rev. Prelates, no doubt in certain classes of Bills their presence would be not only useful, but I may say almost indispensable. With the view of meeting a case of that kind, it was laid down by the Standing Orders that the Committee of Selection should have the power to add to a Standing Committee a certain number of Peers not exceeding ten for the consideration of certain Bills. This power has been exercised to a large extent with reference to the Bills already referred to the Standing Committees, and I am quite sure the Committee of Selection will only be too glad to exercise it to the fullest by adding to the Committees noble lords who are specially interested in any Bills. It appears to me that this is one way of meeting the question of omission raised by the noble Earl. It is hardly to be expected that the Members of the Episcopal Bench would have time or inclination to devote themselves to the details of many of the Bills sent to the Standing Committees. As to the omission of Scotch Representative Peers, I never myself, and I doubt very much whether any of my colleagues on the Committee of Selection had any particular regard to the fact whether the Peers selected were or were not Scotch Representative Peers. The principle, if I may call it a principle, which guided us was this. We went through, with the help of noble Lords of experience on both sides of the House, the list of Peers, and as far as we could, we appointed those Peers who generally attend to the business of the House, and who would, in our belief, desire to serve on the Committees. In doing so, I have not the slightest doubt that we have omitted some noble Lords who would be very useful, and I am sure that the Committee will only be too glad hereafter to remedy any mistakes they had been guilty of, and to add as far as they can to the appointments already made. What I said with regard in the omission of right reverend Prelates also seems to me to apply to Scotch Members. I understand the noble Lord to state that there are 13 Scotch Peers on those Committees; and the addition of ten Scotch Peers, which would be made in the case of important Scotch Bills, would appear to give a fair and adequate representation of Scotland. This elasticity is specially provided in the Standing Orders, and with all submission it appears to me that that elasticity obviates the necessity for any special constitution of the Committees, for the discussion of Scotch or ecclesiastical or any other Bills. As regards the last point of the question of the noble Lord, I have no hesitation in saying that the Standing Order No. 54, under which any Lord, though not of a Committee, is entitled to attend and speak, but not to vote, does apply to Standing Committees. as it does to every other Committee; but I should doubt whether such a noble Lord, not of the Committee, would be entitled to move an Amendment, although he would have power to speak on any subject before the Committee, or on any Amendment moved by a Member of it. I think that as far as I can I have answered the question put to me by the noble Lord. I am sure that if there is any Bill in which he is especially interested which is referred to one of these Committees, the Members of that Committee would be glad to add his name to their list.


I wish to put another question to the noble Lord opposite (the Earl of Morley) upon this subject of Standing Committees, and I may mention the reason that I address the question to him is because I have been. informed by a Member of Her Majesty's Government that he is the proper person to answer the question. I wish to know whether arrangements cannot be made to enter upon the Journals of the House the proceedings of the Standing Committees, and also the attendance of noble Lords on those Committees. When a Bill goes into Committee of the whole House, if anything of importance is done in Committee it is recorded in the journals, with of course, as the Committee sits in the same appartment as the House, the attendance of noble Lords. Now, we send many of our most important Bills to another room. It is arranged that both the Standing Committees shall sit concurrently with the House, and almost all noble Lords who pay constant attention to our business. are engaged on either one or other of the Committees. Last Tuesday one Committee sat a little earlier than the House, and the other at, I believe, the same time, and on inquiry from a noble Lord, whose duties required him to be here, as to how many Members there were in the House, I was told that there were only about seven. As we cannot be in two places at once, and as it is obvious that the work of the Standing Committees is more important than the business which is put down in the House on the days when they are meeting, I think it is only reasonable that the names of those noble Lords who attend should be recorded. With regard to the recording of the proceedings of the Committee what I am suggesting would be no in novation at all, because as I have pointed out, proceedings in Committee of the whole House are already recorded, and I think is if of historical importance that what takes place in the Standing Committees should equally be recorded in a permanent form.


I think the noble Lord has brought forward a subject which may be usefully discussed by your Lordships. I quite agree that there ought to be a record of the proceedings of the Standing Committees. The only doubt I have, after making inquiries, is exactly the form in which they should appear. The Journals only record proceedings of the whole House, and the Reports which are submitted to the House by the various Committees. If you introduce into the Journals the proceedings of the Standing Committees they can only form part of the Report of those Committees to the House. Now, it would obviously be inconvenient, and would make the Journals bulky and difficult to refer to, if they were burdened with matter foreign from the work of the House itself. What I venture to suggest is that the proceedings of the Committees should be reported and placed in an appendix at the end of Journal.


But in the book itself.


Yes, in an appendix to the journals, so that that portion may be bound separately if desired. There is good precedent for appendices. Up to the year 1850 the appendices to the journal formed a considerable part of the whole volume, which was very much thicker then than it is now. If the House will agree to that, I would suggest that the proceedings of the Committee and the attendance of the Peers should be printed in an appendix at the end of the volume, including of course, any Amendments that are proposed to the various Bills.


I venture to hope that the House will not make any change until it has had full experience of the working of these Committees. For the present, I think the more simple the record of the proceedings the better. As time goes on we shall find out whether it is desirable to have fuller records in the Journal, but let us be guided by experience, and not by mere theory, and let the arrangement go on to the end of the Session before making any further change.


I do not know whether my noble Friend who has just spoken is aware that the House came to a Resolution on this subject some few days ago, and that, in fact, the proceedings of the Standing Committees are recorded and circulated with the daily Minutes of proceedings. That certainly applies to the Standing Committee over which I have the honour to preside to which are referred all general Bills. The question was raised in that Committee at one of our meetings whether it was not desirable, as the Committee was in effect substituted for Committee of the whole House, that some record of the proceedings should be taken, and in consequence a Resolution was moved in this House and was agreed to, that the proceedings of the Standing Committee should be printed and circulated with the Minutes. I wish further to point out that in doing this the House has followed the practice which has been adopted by the House of Commons. I doubt very much whether the attendance of Peers ought to be printed under any circumstances with the Minutes. It would be an innovation on the constant practice of the House, and I for one should be sorry to see it. At the same time your Lordships will remember that inasmuch as these Committees have taken the place practically and almost nominally of the Committee of the whole House, it does seem that it would be a misfortune not to have a record of the attendance of Peers. I believe we are the only Assembly in the world of which it can be said that for centuries the attendance of each individual Peer has been almost without break or variation recorded in the Journals; and, as a matter of antiquarian and even historical interest it would be a great misfortune if there were now to be any break.


My Lords, there is one very small point to which I would like to draw attention, and that is the very inadequate accommodation that there is provided for the meetings of these Committees. Some amount of inconvenience has already been felt, although all the noble Lords appointed on the Committees have not been in attendance. We shall presently have important measures sent to us from the House of Commons which will no doubt excite great interest, and the attendance at the Committees will be much larger. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that this question of accommodation should be dealt with. I am not certain that it would be altogether practicable, but it has occurred to me that provision might be made for these Committees in the new rooms at the side of the Central Hall.


I quite agree with what has fallen from noble Lords as to the importance of some, record being preserved of the proceedings of the House of Commons, but I also agree with the noble Marquess that it is equally important that the proceedings should not be too formal. I think the short Minutes to which the noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) has referred are quite sufficient. I cannot conceive it possible that the House, which has, be it remembered, to deal with Bills after they have left the Commons, should be left in ignorance of what has taken place, and the Divisions that have been had, and the Amendments that have been unsuccessfully proposed.


I wish to draw the attention of the House to another point in connection with these Standing Committees. It appears that the average attendance at the meetings is very small indeed. Without making any invidious criticism upon the constitution of the Committees, I must say that there are some Members who are by no means regular in their attendance, Why they should have been put on I do not know; but, as some noble Lords feel agrieved at their not having been appointed to serve on these Standing Committees, I think greater caution might be exercised in selecting those Peers who are fit and proper and willing to serve.


It is quite true that the proceedings of the Standing Committee for General Bills do appear on the Minutes, but those of the Standing Committee for Bills relating to Law, &c., do not, and I think it is extremely unfortunate that they do not. My noble Friend (Lord Herschell) is to-night going to move the rejection of a Bill which has been before that Committee; many important divisions were taken, and it would be of the greatest advantage for your Lordships to see how those divisions went; but, unfortunately, there is no record of them whatever.


I sincerely hope that the noble Lord at the head of the Government will reconsider his decision with regard to records of the proceedings of these Standing Committees. The present system is all very well for those Peers who serve on the Committee, but it is exceedingly hard that those who are not Members should have no opportunity of ascertaining what has been going on, especially having regard to the fact that the Bills when they leave the Committees, come up to the House for final adoption or rejection. With regard to what has occurred to-day, I cannot sit down without making one respectful remark to my noble Friend at the head of the Government. I think the objection I ventured to take to the appointment of these Standing Committees in the first instance is now becoming better understood by noble Lords who have reconsidered the subject. A great many Peers have begun to find that they are practically disfranchised, and have not the opportunities of discussing various measures that they had before the Committees were appointed. It is a very singular thing that we should have tried to find a remedy for our having nothing to do in following precisely that course which was adopted by the House of Commons for precisely the reverse complaint. We have surely plenty of time to discuss all the measures that are brought before us. Indeed, about the only thing which can be said in favour of these Standing Committees is that they lead to a greater occupation of your Lordships time, because there is no doubt that in the case of all important Bills we shall in the House itself have to go all over the work that has been dealt with by the Committees. Meanwhile, the work is not always better done than would have been the case if it had been performed in the House itself. I may instance the proceedings in the General Committee upon the Smoke Bill (Metropolis) wherein, doubtless from the absence of special information upon the subject, I understand that a decision has been arrived at which will prevent any railway engine from approaching within several miles of the Metropolis. This work will have to be undone by the House if we are to preserve the inhabitants of the Metropolis from an inconvenience which would amount to a calamity. Of course, the House has decided to try the experiment of Standing Committees, and it should have a fair trial; but I do hope that the noble Marquess will give the matter his careful reconsideration, and that if he finds that we are practically re-discussing in the body of the House that which has previously occupied the attention of the Standing Committees, and if he finds, moreover, that there is, as I think there is, just cause of complaint by Peers who are deprived of opportunities of discussing Bills in which they are interested he will not scruple to abolish this new reform, which, although no doubt a measure of progress, does not appear to be one of progressive improvement.


I have no doubt that if the predictions of the noble Lord are fulfilled, the House will not hesitate to alter the Standing Orders and abolish these Standing Committees. I rose, my Lords, simply to say that I have not objected to the circulation of Minutes such as those to which the noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) alluded. What I referred to was the suggestion that the proceedings of the Committees should be entered in the Journal, which means a very large amount of formality and detail, the introduction of which I strongly deprecate.