HL Deb 23 June 1890 vol 345 cc1605-19

in rising to call attention to the attendance of Peers in the House of Lords, said: My Lords, I have noticed lately in all the speeches I have read the extreme popularity of what I believe is called the historical argument. I feel that in this proposal which I am about to bring before your Lordships' House I am in some danger of fulfilling in my own person an historical illustration. In the year 1789 an indirectly celebrated character, a certain Dr. Joseph Guillotin, devised the use of that instrument of death which was at once called by his name, and in 1792 Dr. Guillotin himself was within an ace of putting into motion in his own person the machinery he had devised. Now, my Lords, I am afraid that I might myself be the first person to come under the operation of the proposal which I am going to develop to your Lordships, but there is this difference between Dr. Guillotin and myself, that whereas Dr. Guillotin was, more or less, the victim of the vexatious circumstances which surrounded him, I, under this proposal of mine, keep my fate actually in my own hands. I think it would be very desirable at once to divest the Notice which I have put upon the Paper of vagueness, and to explain the naked principle of the idea which underlies that Notice. Mr. John Bright advised somebody who asked him to suggest a good rule for making a forcible speech, to confine himself to one idea, and I propose to confine myself, as far as possible, to one idea this evening. To put it into the very plainest English, I am going to ask your Lordships to consider whether it might not, for many reasons, some of which I shall endeavour to give, be advisable to consider the expediency of making a Vote in a Division in this House during any Session depend upon a certain number of attendances during the Session immediately preceding it. To put it still more clearly, I will take the case of Lord A (whom we will consider a purely imaginary personage) and a few hypothetical dates. Lord A, we will say, has not attended a certain number of times represented by X in 1891. He would appear in a list in 1892, which could be prepared by some impartial authority from an available source, for I believe our attendances are already recorded on the Journals of your Lordships' House, as having lost his right to vote during 1892; but Lord A during 1892 could redeem his right by his attendances during that Session to vote again in the Session of 1893. That, my Lords, is the principle of the proposal. Of course, the smoothness of working of a principle of that kind depends upon a great many details, and the consideration of details, I think, depends upon a stage of deliberation, which in this case I am conscious may never be reached, but which I should like very much to see reached. If Lord A happened to be an ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, or an ex or present Master of Buckhounds, the fulfilment of those duties might be considered grounds of exemption; and I think if Lord A was Chairman of Quarter Sessions or Board of Guardians, and did a great deal of useful work for his county, that might be again a reason for exemption, or if he were travelling in the colonies, or was away from ill-health, those also would be reasons for exempting him: but exemptions of that kind do not at all, I think, affect the general principle which I put before your Lordships this evening. I may, perhaps, say here that I would not, of course, expect from any of your Lordships an expression of anything like approval of the proposal this evening. People like sometimes to have time to make up their minds upon any subject, while other people dissent quickly—generally speaking they approve more slowly. Therefore, all I propose to do this evening is to make good my case as far as I am able; and if I receive anything like a measure of encouragement, say within 10 days or a fortnight's time, I would bring up a Motion and carry it to a Division for the appointment of a Committee to consider how far the proposal is reasonable and useful, and to report to the House upon it. I may remind your Lordships that this course was followed in 1868, when the question whether proxies should be continued or discontinued was referred to a Select Committee of this House, the deliberations of that Committee resulting in a Standing Order doing away with proxies which has never been repealed, and is still in force. I am very clear myself that, assuming any need of reform in your Lordships' House, that reform should begin within the House itself. I do not think any reform which necessitates an Act of Parliament is a reform which can be wisely considered. I think if we could devise any reform which would make the House more useful, and which could be carried out in the form of a Standing Order, such reform should be carefully and wisely considered. Upon that point I should like to quote a very eminent authority, Sir Edward Coke, who says:— Whatever matter arises concerning either House of Parliament, ought to be discussed and adjudged in the House to which it relates, and not elsewhere. Well, my Lords, I think there may be two cardinal objections to this proposal, which I shall try to anticipate. Those objections will probably come from two sets of people, representing different opinions. Objections may come from a section of your Lordships who may say—"We grant there may be some value in your proposal, but we dispute altogether the possibility for this being done by a Standing Order or Resolution." That is the first objection which I anticipate. The second may come from those of your Lordships who will say—"We quite admit that you can do this by a Standing Order, but we think what you are proposing is only a quack remedy." If I can answer the first of those objections which I am anticipating, I think I shall establish the "possibleness" of my proposal. If, on the other hand, I can answer the second, I think I shall have established its usefulness and reasonableness. If I can answer both, whatever may be the measure of your Lordships' approval, I shall have justified myself, perhaps, in the view of the House for bringing this proposal before it. For I can assure your Lordships that I feel very strongly that to bring forward a measure of this sort in your House in at all a frivolous spirit would he a most extraordinary proceeding. Now my Lords, I approach the first part of this subject, which I will call the Constitutional difficulty, with considerable diffidence. The ability to deal with a question of that kind depends so much upon absolute clearness, and that again depends so much upon habit, that people who have not that clearness and habit must feel considerable diffidence. On a celebrated occasion, Lord Lyndhurst in this House recited, I believe from memory, every black-letter authority, on a very important proposal which was brought before the House. It was an extraordinary effort of memory, rendered necessary, I believe, by the fact that his eyes would not permit him to read his notes. It appears, however, that on that occasion Lord Lyndhurst got his way not by the weight of his black-letter authorities, but by the weight of his own personal authority and the vivid impres- sion which he created in the House. I can hope for no succour either from personal authority or from vivid impression; but perhaps I may advance this plea that I at once reassure your Lordships I shall quote no black-letter authorities upon the subject. Now, my Lords, I will proceed to handle the Constitutional difficulty which might be raised in this matter, that is that my proposal cannot be carried out by a Standing Order. Assuming an unanimous approval—which cannot obviously be assumed in regard to a measure of this sort—I believe that such a proposal as this could be carried out without any Standing Order. I believe it could be carried out by what is called a Constitutional understanding. Of course, your Lordships are aware that as Peers we all have the undoubted and absolute right to sit upon your Lordships' Court of Appeal; bat by a Constitutional understanding it is an understood thing that no lay Lord does sit upon that Court of Appeal, and that the lay Lords have entirely given over the exercise of their judicial functions to the Law Lords. Well, I think, on that analogy, the same thing could be done here. I believe that this proposal could be carried out by a Constitutional understanding. But, my Lords, I think it would be far better done by a Standing Order, as was done in the case of proxies by the Standing Order to which I have just alluded. I have explained what was done then; and as that Standing Order can be vacated by giving two days' notice, although you might pass a Standing Order on the lines I have suggested you would not be committing yourselves to any absolutely irremediable error. There would be no great machinery necessary to set it in motion, and upon notice you could vacate that Standing Order. Of course, a Standing Order, as long as it is in force, is absolutely binding upon the Members of either House of Parliament, whichever House passes it, and either House of Parliament has absolute control over its Members with a view to making them obey that Standing Order. It has been suggested to me that such a Standing Order might bring us into an embarrassing law-suit, and that some stiff-necked Peer might dispute the authority of the Order and bring a law-suit against the officers of the House. It is quite true, of course, that a Peer might force himself past the Clerk, and having got rid of the Clerk, score out his own name with a chalk pencil; but I think that would be such a solitary instance, and the Peer who would adopt that courageous mode of making the correction he desired would be such an isolated individual, that that is not a contingency which we need keep very much before us. But I think Mr. Justice Stephen, in summing up in the case of "Bradlaugh v. Gosset," decided that where there is no legal remedy there is no legal wrong, and although a Peer might feel himself very much aggrieved by such Standing-Order he could not get any remedy for it as he could against an infraction of the law. My Lords, I hope that will servo to show that as far as the Constitutional difficulty goes it can be met by a Standing Order. Now I come to the second objection, which I anticipate—that it may be urged against me that what I have to propose is only a quack remedy. I dissent from that altogether. I think that the affirmation of any such proposal and putting it into force would be a distinct advance in the Constitutional morality of your Lordships' House. In that we are accountable to no constituents we incur, I think, very much graver responsibilities, and that we should on that account devise every possible safeguard against in any way overdoing or abuse the exercise of the powers entrusted to us. But, my Lords, it may be said that this plea is altogether too theoretic, and that I ought to find some plea which is not so abstract or theoretic. I believe that the House would become more useful if in this way it became more seemly, and that increased usefulness would be the result of increased seemliness. A very keen critic, Mr. Bagehot, whose work on the subject Professor Dicey still considers incomparable, speaks on this point so very much better than I can speak myself, that perhaps your Lordships will allow me to read his own words. Mr. Bagehot, in his work on the English Constitution in the chapter on the House of Lords, says— As far as politics go there is profound truth in Lord Chesterfield's axiom, that the world must judge of you by what you seem, not by what you are. The world "(says Sir. Bagehot)" knows what you seems, it dots not know what you are. An assembly, a revising assembly especially, which does not assemble, which looks as if it does not care how it revises, is defective in a main political ingredient. It may be of use, but it will hardly convince mankind that it is so. And in another place Mr. Bagehot says— Some day or other the slack attendance in the House of Lords will destroy the House of Lords. My Lords, instances could be multiplied of the usefulness and the self-help which may be begotten by appearances, and I think if the House should affirm a principle of this kind your Lordships would find more business to do, and I believe we should be altogether in a better position as a part of the body politic to bring about—I believe it would require an Act of Parliament—a state of things which would lead to Bills being carried on from one Session to another, and to make arrangements for a better and fairer distribution of business. I hope, my Lords, you may see the temporal discretion of getting as much as we possibly can into touch with the times we live in, and of adapting our own ideas to the altered condition of political society. We live in days of legislation—as we recently heard in your Lordships' House—in days which many people consider days of over-legislation. That means that occasions may arise much more frequently or rapidly than they have hitherto done where the two Houses of Parliament will differ—not come into actual collision, because I think the fears of actual collision between the two Houses are much exaggerated, and that those occasions are much more rare than people who go about agitating would have their audiences believe; but differences of opinion must arise, and I think it would be well if we could do away with the old reproach that the decisions of the House of Commons are reversed or are liable to be reversed and rejected by a majority of Peers, who at no other time give any sign of political life or political responsibility. We shall thus get rid of an old reproach, and by getting rid of it give an answer to the only arguable objection to the House of Lords. My Lords, what we should remember now, is that we are the revising assembly of a democracy, we are the revising assembly of a House of Commons which is every day becoming more important, because it is becoming more representative. I think, my Lords, in justice to your opinions, if they are open to the objection that those opinions are carried by a majority which at no other time shows any sign of political responsibility or political life, that objection should be removed. That I hold is an objection which, although it may not be fatal, goes a long way to obscure and outweigh the justice and value of the opinions which your Lordships arrive at. Well, my Lords, so much for the question of quack remedy. There is one more advantage which I claim for my proposal, which is that it provides a convenient and automatic channel for disposing of that more or less historical personage the "black sheep." It also provides a similar convenient and automatic channel for some Peers who do not care about attending to politics. They would be freed from, in some respects, a false position. After all, it is not an absolute certainty that because a Peer has succeeded to a seat in the House of Lords, he has succeeded to an inclination for politics, and it may reasonably be supposed that he finds other directions for the exercise of his talents or inclinations which are more congenial to him. Those Peers will disappear without any beat of drum, and, as far as the black sheep are concerned, without any invidious finger of scorn being' pointed at them. That is all I have to say upon that point. My Lords, I am well aware that this House rests upon ancient deference, custom, and tradition. As a lover of the House, I should be the very last person to wish to say anything which would in any way impair that ancient tradition or that ancient deference, but I have yet to learn that either an institution or an individual impairs the respect which is due to him by converting his rights into responsibilities or by giving, as it were, hostages to his privileges. I thank you, my Lords, for having listened so kindly to what I had to say. I hope your Lordships will give the proposal I have tried to outline to you, your full consideration, and I hope you will be advised in this matter, not by me, but by a very wise man who said that "In the long run the retention of a froward custom was more likely to lead to difficulties than positive innovations.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble Friend, who has been unexpectedly called away, I may, perhaps, be allowed to intrude myself upon the House upon this occasion. I have no wish, as I am sure your Lordships will understand, to treat that which has been brought forward so feelingly and seriously in any other way than seriously, but, at the same time, I do not think it satisfactory that we should be called upon to discuss that which is not before us in any material shape or in a shape in which we can form a deliberate opinion as to its working. The proposal thrown out is simply that there should be in this House a species of self-selection—a plan by which people who selected themselves in one Session should be the acting people in the next. Though it is, doubtless, most desirable to my mind that we should have meritorious persons taking their part in the proceedings of the House of Lords, it seems hardly the best' way for securing this object that Peers should be allowed to select themselves. Mere attendance in this House does not give one any special idea of the qualifications of those who may so attend. Nor is it possible, I think, to carry into effect the proposal of my noble Friend, which, as I understand it, is that if a Peer had not attended a certain number of times, say in the last Session of 1889, he would have been disqualified, and is to be deprived of the right to vote in the present Session of 1890; but though he is not to be allowed to vote, the House, apparently, is still to have the advantage of his eloquence. The great objection to the proposal is that it involves an interference with the summons which the Queen sends to those who sit in this House. A Peer has received the Queen's summons to come here and perform that duty which it has been so emphatically announced to-day is incumbent upon him, of advising upon the dangers and conditions of the State. I should like to know whether, when he is cut off from his Vote, he is to be cut off from speech, and whether we are to lose the benefit of that wisdom which he may possess though he may not have been in attendance during the preceding Session. His right of speech, I understand from the noble Lord, would remain to him, but he would be really considered as in fact qualifying himself in the course of the Session going on for voting in the Session to come afterwards. Therefore, I suppose he would be coming here and you would not put a prohibition upon the use of his tongue, though you might the use of his Vote. But it certainly would, as far as I understand it, be an interference with the Queen's summons to the Peers, calling upon them to advise in this House upon the affairs of the State. My noble Friend seems to be under a misapprehension as to the attendances in this House. No doubt, except on one or two occasions this Session, there has not been a large attendance; but, as a matter of fact, everybody who is a Peer, with the exception of about 150, including several Members who are filling high offices abroad, have attended—that is to say, there has been an attendance at different periods during the Session of more than 400 Members of your Lordships' House. What, then, would be the case if this Resolution of my noble Friend were carried? Why should we wish that all Peers should be in attendance here when there is no business? I see from the Journals there was, for instsnce, one occasion when the attendance fell very low, but if you look at what the business was that was put down for that night you will see at once that it would be absurd to ask the attendance of a great number of your Lordships for the purpose of disposing of business when no business was on the Paper to be done. With regard to the right of sitting in your Lordships' Court of Appeal, there is no doubt in your Lordships' hands, if you wish to exercise it, the power of sitting upon the legal questions which come before the House, and if you were present and attended to all the evidence and arguments brought forward you would have a right to vote. But as a matter of practice that right has been given up long ago. A change has been made in recent years by which it is required that there shall be a quorum of Law Lords. By the Act which was passed in that matter the House resumed its power which at one time was threatened to be taken away. My noble Friend seems to think that this proposal would be a remedy for something which I cannot make out to exist. What is it that is to justify the disqualification here? Is it the slack attendance that my noble Friend complains of? There has been always present a number of Members amply sufficient to do the business before the House this Session, and if my noble Friend had attended upon the Committees he would have seen that there has been not only a large attendance upon those Committees, but that there was a degree of care and anxious watching over the different measures brought forward which would show that this House was exercising that power of revising legislation which he seems to think so especially belongs to it. The noble Lord rather takes away from us any desire to execute him with his own guillotine, to follow his own analogy, but I cannot help observing that, from a Return which I have had put into my hands, my noble Friend has only attended eight times out of the 57 occasions on which the House has sat this Session, and I do not think it is a very advantageous thing that this House should be governed by theory instead of by practice. The noble Lord has not afforded us the advantage of the practice of his theory, either in the House or on the Committees of the House, for I have received the terrible information that in his great desire that this House should exercise its revising powers upon the matters which come before it he has not himself exercised his revising powers once during the last four years. My Lords, I value theories very much, but, at the same time, I do not think that those of us who have been in constant attendance in the House should be taught by those who have not attended, or that we should be corrected by those who would themselves seem to deserve the correction which they would apply to us. I agree with the noble Lord in saying that any reform of the House should come from within. I do not think it would be very advisable that we should be brought into strong collision with those who would wish to reform us from without. But I think I may say this, that the House has been endeavouring to, even if it' has not succeeded, bring about a state of things by which the legislation passing through the House should be carefully examined. I know that some of your Lordships differ as to the value of those Committees which sit weekly for several hours on each occasion for the purpose of carefully examining the legislation which comes before them, but I feel certain that if those Committees did not exist the House would in full assembly make it its duty to go carefully through those measures which might be brought before the House. There are always in the House, we may feel sure, those who would take care that that was done. I may mention one noble Lord who sits opposite, Lord Herschell, whom I do not see there at the present moment, who would take care that that duty was performed. I am sure there is no one in this House who is not convinced that any legislation which might be brought before the House would receive attention and care from the noble Lord, and that, if necessary, your Lordships would have an opportunity of carefully revising it. My Lords, I have had a very short experience of this House, and I should not have thought of addressing you upon this occasion had it not been for the sudden absence of my noble Friend; but I would venture to express the hope that your Lordships will not go into the theoretical experiments which are, I believe, quite contrary to the terms upon which your Lordships sit in this House. I do not think it is advisable in any way to deter Peers from coming to this House. Supposing you were to inform indirectly in that way all those who had not attended last Session, by way of inviting them to attend more regularly, that they should not have speech or vote—or if speech no vote—during next Session, of course they would not come. No man would come to the House if he were bound by such a Standing Order as that. In my opinion such a Standing Order would be wholly illegal. It would be contrary to the terms on which your Lordships are summoned to this House. You are bound to give your advice and votes while you are here, and if you desire to do anything of this kind it must be done by legislation and not by a Standing Order. It would be a most unreasonable thing that any Member of this House, who has been absent a good deal during one Session, should have to explain to your Lordships the reason why to was absent, the mission upon which he was engaged, and whether or not the reasons which he might be able to give were sufficient to bring him within the exemptions mentioned by the noble Lord. That is not the way in which I think your Lordships can arrive at a wise conclusion upon this subject. There are those who think that great reforms are needed in this House. I confess I am not one of them; but much may be done, and one way in which the value of your Lordships' House may be maintained will be by a steady perseverance in the work in which we are now engaged—that is, in looking most carefully into those legislative measures which are committed to your care.


My Lords, lam sometimes accused of not being so extreme a reformer of the House of Lords as I ought to be, but I think the noble Lord the Lord President of the Council has been a little too hard in dealing with my noble Friend. I think that everyone who heard him must have been struck not only with the substance of his speech but with the extreme moderation of his tone in bringing the matter before your Lordships' attention. I think it is part of 'the merit of the noble Lord that he did not directly propose the change to which the noble Viscount objects, but he merely stated that his wish was to ascertain how far it would be in accordance with the feelings of the House, not to adopt this particular measure, but to go so far as to appoint a Committee by which the matter might be considered in all its bearings. Now, I agree with a great deal that the noble Viscount has said. I agree that there is practically a better attendance in this House than there is popularly supposed to be; and I entirely agree with what, perhaps, is not so well known to the public as it ought to be, the immense advantage which has already accrued to the legislation pissed from this House by the work done by the very numerous body of Peers in the Standing Committees lately appointed. But the noble Viscount seems to think there is no grievance at all. I think a grievance is felt. Whether yon can remedy that grievance in this way or in any other way I do riot at present undertake to state; but I do most distinctly state that it is thought a very objectionable thing by the public with regard to the proceedings of this House, that whereas our normal numbers are few and generally composed of pretty nearly the same class of Peers, perhaps, once or twice during the Session, when there is a measure of very great importance to be considered, Peers who have not shown the slightest aptitude, or the slightest liking for any political subject come down to the House, and, by merely giving their votes, convey very often a very erroneous view of the opinions of the House of Lords. I entirely agree with both the noble speakers that any reform had better come from within, but I disagree with the noble Viscount that for such a reform as this a Bill would be required. I think there are great objections to a Bill, not fatal objections at all, but I think it would be unwise of the House of Lords to volunteer to lay themselves, as it were, on the dissecting table of the House of Commons, excepting on the ground that a very large and important measure justified it. And besides that, such a Bill, if it were possible, should come backed up by the full authority of its being a Government measure, brought in by a Government who naturally command a majority in the other House. But I do not think this matter, which is one entirely concerning our own procedure, is one which requires a Bill. If, indeed, it affected any right of the Crown, or of the House of Commons, that would be a very different thing, and there, I think, the necessity for a Bill would arise, but with regard to a mere question of procedure, I am quite sure you have the power of dealing with it yourselves if you think it is advisable so to do. Certainly, after the very decided opinion that the noble Viscount has given on the part of Her Majesty's Government, I can hardly, unless some unexpected support come to my noble Friend from other quarters, suppose that he will wish to insist upon the matter being referred to a Committee, but I should be glad if some of the non-official Members of the House would, on a subject of this sort, for it is obviously not at all of a Party character, express their opinions as to what they think, for the sake of the House, would be desirable to do.


My Lords, I agree with my noble Friend who has just spoken with regard to the tone and spirit in which this proposal has been introduced by the noble Lord near MR. I certainly should not be inclined myself in a summary way to reject the principle of the proposal; but I am bound to say that I do feel a difficulty in looking upon this as a question merely of procedure of the House. The proposition is in substance, under certain circumstances, to exclude Members of the House who have a right to be present in it from the power of voting in its proceedings, not for any fault they may have committed which might justify suspension or anything more, but simply for non-attendance in the previous year. I will not say, if precedents could be found by any Committee which might be appointed, that the Committee might not come to a conclusion that this might be treated as a matter of procedure, but at present I own I feel a great deal of difficulty about it. If we look to the other House no one would suppose it would be constitutional for the House of Commons, by a general Resolution or Standing Order, to exclude from voting some of its Members, unless upon grounds of necessity for the maintenance of its order or the regularity of its proceedings. While, therefore, I do not at all say that if a Motion were made for the appointment of a Committee upon this subject I should oppose it, I am bound to say that my present impression is, in such a case as this it would be going beyond the powers which the House has to regulate its own business to carry out such a proposal.