HL Deb 27 January 1891 vol 349 cc1129-39

My Lords, it is not without some regret that I ask your Lordships to again enter upon the consideration and amendment of your Standing Orders. It will be within the recollection of the House that about two years ago a large and representative Committee sat and examined into the whole of the Standing Orders of this House, and that after a Report to the House, those Orders were reprinted in the form in which they now appear upon the Table. With regard to most of the changes which were then carried out, I think it may be said that they not only met with the assent of the House generally, but it was considered that they resulted in a practical improvement of the general rules of our procedure. There is, however, one class of Standing Orders as to which there has been considerable difference of opinion. I allude to those providing for Standing Committees to take Bills of certain classes under their consideration. I think that whatever may have been the opinion of your Lordships upon the desirability of the appointment of those Standing Committees, there can be little doubt that, as far as the work they have done is concerned, and as far as we can judge of the result of their labours, the effect of those Standing Committees can only be considered to have been in every way satisfactory. I have had the honour of sitting on one of those Committees, and I should venture to bear my humble tribute of testimony to the ability, care, and energy which the Members brought to the examination of the various Bills which were referred to them. If I may be allowed to give one instance of this I would mention, the Pharmacy Acts (Ireland), Bill. That Bill related to an intricate and perhaps not a very generally interesting subject. It was one in which a noble Lord, who enjoyed the respect of both sides of the House, the late Lord Milltown, had for several years taken some interest. He had in vain endeavoured to pass a Bill through this House to settle that difficult question, and it was not until the Bill was taken up and passed through the Standing Committee last Session that a satisfactory solution was arrived at. That, I believe, my Lords, is an instance of a class of Bills upon which the labours of Standing Committees may be advantageously expended. I trust, therefore, that there will be no doubt in the minds of the Members of the House as to the desirability of the appointment of those Standing Committees during the present Session; but even if there should be any opposition to such a course the proper opportunity will be afforded for bringing forward any Motion on the subject when the appointment of the Standing Committees is moved at a later period. My object to day is to invite your Lordships to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the Standing Orders connected with those Committees, to suggest any change that might be thought desirable in regard to them and their procedure, and to alter —as I believe it will be found necessary to do—the somewhat unsatisfactory wording of the Standing Orders. I do not know that I need trouble the House with any further suggestions as to what the procedure in this Committee will be. There is one fault which has been found with the operation of these Standing Committees with which, I confess, I have some sympathy. It has been pointed out that the proceedings of the House in the Standing Committees are so imperfectly reported in the public journals that an impression has been conveyed abroad that the House of Lords, instead of doing more work, does rather less work now than in former years. That I need hardly say is an erroneous impression; and though, perhaps, excusable in the circumstances, I am bound to say I think it may be very justifiably corrected. The fact is, the House does a great deal of work in the Committees which does not come before the public, and on more than one occasion, when it has been announced in the newspapers that your Lordships' House had adjourned after only a five minutes' sitting, I myself, and other Members of this House had been in attendance upon a Standing Committee for more than two hours previous to the sitting of the House. It has occurred to me that perhaps some improvement might be effected in regard to reporting the proceedings of the Standing Committees by negotiations with the Hansard proprietors, in order to obtain from them a report of proceedings in the Standing Committees on a similar scale to that which is now given of the proceedings in Committees of the whole House. I had the honour of being Chairman of a Joint Committee of both Houses at the expiration of the last Hansard contract, and provision was then made that fuller reports should be given inHansard of the proceedings in Committees of the whole House, and it appears to me—I only throw it out as a suggestion—that, by negotiations with the Hansard proprietors, we might ensure an equally full report of the proceedings in our Standing Committees. I think this would be a very desirable object to attain, because, beyond the mere sentimental objection that it is thought outside by the public that we do not work as hard as we really do, there is also the fact that Bills which have passed through the House of Commons and have reached your Lordships' House are liable to be thrown out after discussion in the Standing Committees, without the possibility of the public generally, or those specially who are interested in the subjects with which the Bills deal, being able to ascertain for what reasons they have been so summarily rejected. I do not know whether this suggestion of mine will bear fruit, but I should be glad if other noble Lords would make any other suggestion which might seem to obviate what I believe to be the only tangible objections to the Standing Committees. I need only add that I do not think this Committee need occupy the time of your Lordships for more than one or two sittings. It is necessary that we should proceed with it as soon as possible, because I am informed there are Bills coming before this House which will require the attention of Standing Committees. Therefore it is desirable that it should be appointed without delay. In the meantime, I trust that your Lordships will agree with the suggestion I have made in regard to reporting the proceedings in Standing Committees, and that the result of the labours of this Select Committee will be to so improve the operation of those Committees as to remove the objection which appears to be felt to them on the part of some of your Lordships. I beg to move in accordance with the Motion which, stands in my name.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to examine and report upon the Standing Orders of the House which relate to Standing Committees."— (The Lord Privy Seal,E. Cadogan.)


My Lords, I do not rise for the purpose of offering the slightest opposition to the proposition which the noble Lord has made. The change introduced two years ago by the institution of these Standing Committees was, no doubt, one of considerable magnitude and importance, and it is quite reasonable that after two years' experience we should take counsel together to see whether the system could be improved, and whether some objections that have been raised could be obviated. I am very glad the noble Earl has given no countenance to the idea that those Committees have proved a failure and have not answered the purposes for which they were appointed, for nothing, I believe, could be further removed from the fact. The evil which those Committees were designed to meet was a serious one. Now, I do not believe there can be two opinions that one of the most important functions of your Lordships' House is to act as a Chamber of revision, to carefully scrutinise legislation as it passes through Parliament, and to see that the intentions of those who are changing the law are not only carried out, but are carried out as efficiently as possible. This is a function which your Lordships' House is in a position to discharge more effectively than the other House of Parliament, and changes in the procedure of the other House have rendered it more than ever necessary that that function should be discharged by the House of Lords, for, owing to such changes, it has. become almost impossible to pass through the other House what I may call the smaller measures with anything like adequate discussion. Private Members' Bills, if they are to be passed at all, must be passed by means of some arrangement or compromise with those who take objection to those measures or to certain provisions in them; some sort of compromise is arrived at, and it is an undoubted fact that even measures of real importance and of considerable magnitude have passed through the other House of Parliament without a single word of discussion. The form of legislation is a matter of supreme importance, because though the object of a change in the law may be one with which we all agree, if the shape it takes is such as not to carry out that object or not to carry it out effectively, the very purpose of the legislation is defeated, and if the language used is not carefully scrutinised the measure though passed with the best possible intentions, may not only fail in its object but give rise to great litigation, expense, and worry. Therefore your Lordships would, I suppose, all be agreed that the duty of carefully revising the language of legislation is one which is cast especially on this House and that we ought to endeavour to fulfil that duty in the best possible way. I think it is hardly possible for any one, either, to controvert this fact, that down to the time of the creation of these Standing Committees, that was a work which had been very imperfectly discharged. I am not saying this at all by way of blame. It resulted from an infirmity of human nature. "What is everybody's business is nobody's business," and the consequence was that when measures were introduced which were not of any very exciting character or especially attracting the attention of particular Members of your Lordships' House they were apt to pass through with very little notice or concern. It is, of course, very difficult even for those who would be disposed to criticise the language of legislation to be always on the alert, present, and prepared to discuss the provisions of a measure on every occasion when the Member of your Lordships' House in charge of a Bill may chance to put it down; and without any particular blame therefore to any one that particular function of this House, we all agree, was very imperfectly discharged That by the system of Standing Committees of the House legislation has been scrutinised, revised, and amended to a greater extent than ever before is a fact, I think, which is impossible of dispute and capable of demonstration. I am not going to trouble your Lordships with more than one or two examples, though I could give many. Take for example such a measure as that for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. There was one Amendment made by your Lordships' House about which there was some controversy, and which some considered to be rather mischievous than beneficial; but putting that aside, and it was comparatively a small matter, I do not hesitate to say that many blots were removed from the Bill, the gaps which had been left open were stopped, and many improvements effected in it by your Lordships; and those who were interested in the Bill frankly admitted that when it had passed through your Lordships' hands it was a very much more effective piece of legislation than it was when it left the other House. Another measure to which I may refer was the Official Secrets Bill. That Bill had an object about which there was a common agreement, but it had been insufficiently sifted by the other House. It came to your Lordships' House in a form which would have made it cover many cases, which, as all agreed, ought not to be covered, and in a shape which might have given rise to considerable difficulty between ourselves and some of the colonies connected with the mother country. These blots were removed by the Standing Committee, and the measure assumed a more satisfactory shape. One other instance only to which I will refer is the law relating to factors, a very difficult subject, which was taken up in your Lordships' House. This is an instance of a Bill originating here; but the reason which renders it necessary that this House should carefully scrutinise the measures coming from the other House must render it also necessary that even greater care, if possible, should be exercised with regard to measures going from this to the other House. A Bill had been introduced by Her Majesty's Government, and another Bill had been introduced by Sir John Lubbock in the other House. Those two Bills were taken and moulded into one, and a great deal of time and care was bestowed upon them. What was the result? The Bill went to the other House, was referred to their Standing Committee on Trade, and after undergoing the complete scrutiny of members of the mercantile community, as well as lawyers, it came back to your Lordships' House with only one single Amendment, and that not of an important character. I have given these few instances—I might have given many more of them—to show that an amount of care and attention has been recently bestowed upon the form of legislation—and the form, as your Lordships know, is often of the very substance of it—which never was bestowed formerly; and I am quite certain that all who have attended those Committees will agree with what the noble Lord has stated in the testimony he has given to the very great care and attention bestowed by the Committees on the Bills which come before them. The attendance has been continuous, and the Members so attending have been numerous. A great many Members of your Lordships' House have followed the discussions thoroughly, and have taken part in the legislation, who would never have taken any such part had it been that the measures were simply coming forward as they used to do for discussion in Committee of the whole House. Suggestions were made and difficulties pointed out by noble Lords who would never have thought of getting up in your Lordships' House to make speeches upon the subject, but who joined without hesitation in the kind of discussion which takes place in Committee, and threw out suggestions which were often very valuable. The establishment of Grand Committees has therefore led to more of your Lordships taking part in legislation, taking an interest in it, and actively concerning themselves about it, than was the case before. So much with regard to the results arising from this change. But it has been said by some that all that has been done in these Committees might have been done in Committee of the whole House. With that I cannot agree. I say it would not have been done in Committee of the whole House, and I say also that it could not have been done as effectively in Committee of the whole House. Saying that it would not have been done I hold to be justified by what had occurred in the past, and I have already pointed out to your Lordships shortly the reasons why that was the case. That it could not have been done I assert, because it appears to me that the kind of criticism which you want for a Bill where no question of principle is raised, and when upon the general object you are agreed is one for which a Committee of the whole House, affords the worst possible machinery which the wit of man could desire. When, on the other hand, we are met together in Standing Committee, suggestions are thrown out and the matter is dealt with in a more informal fashion than is the custom here —you can deal with it in a way that you could not in Committee of the whole House. While those Committees have been sitting the Members attending upon them have been by no means excluded from taking part in the discussions on the Bills. More than that, I think it capable of demonstration that the discussions upon Bills after they have been through Committee have been fuller than on former occasions when they had not. The explanation is simply that a greater number of your Lordships have become acquainted with the points which have arisen in a way that they could not have become acquainted with them if the Bills had not come up for discussion there; and, therefore, you have heard noble Lords taking part in discussions who would not have done so had they not attended the Grand Committees. So that instead of causing less to be done in this House it has caused more time and attention to be expended upon measures before it. I know there have been other objections made. It is said that you seem now to do less than you had done before. I do not myself feel oppressed with that. I quite admit it is desirable that the public should know what we are doing, but if a choice has to be made between seeming to do work and not really doing it, and not seeming to do work but yet, in reality, doing it, I, as a practical man, must say that I very much prefer the latter, and I am glad that the result has been accomplished, even if we have seemed to do less. But I think that one objection would be met if we could persuade the Press to take a somewhat different course than that which they have taken. It seems to me that it would be of advantage to the public and not disadvantageous to the newspapers themselves. Some of the discussions in the Grand Committees have been very well reported in the Press, but the reports have not been put under the heading of "Parliamentary Intelligence." You have had to search for them, and at last have found them, perhaps in some out-of-the-way corner of the newspaper, whereas, if they had appeared, even if only at the same length, under that heading, I believe that those interested in the discussions would be glad to be able to find them more easily and to obtain more readily the information which they desire, and I do not see that it would be of any disadvantage at all to the newspapers. I do not throw out that suggestion in the interests of your Lordships' House only, but in the interests of large sections of the public, who take an interest in such Bills as that for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and who would be glad to find such reports as are given placed under the head of "Parliamentary Intelligence." I do not propose to detain your Lordships further. I am very glad that this matter is to be considered by a Select Committee, in order, if possible, to remove any objections and to make the working of this machinery more effective than it has been, and if I may venture to say so I will most heartily give such aid as I can to accomplish that result. I was only anxious that no impression should get abroad that this experiment of Standing Committees had proved a failure, or that it had not carried out the object contemplated by those who introduced it. I would point out this also: that amongst its most valuable results have been those obtained owing to the suggestion of the noble Marquess at the head of the Government, that particular classes of Bills which require minute examination should be referred to a Sub-Committee of the Standing Committee. One instance of that I may mention. A Bill was introduced to codify the Law of Partnership; a very intricate and difficult subject, and that Bill was considered line by line by a small Sub-Committee, presided over by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, who gave very many hours to the consideration of that measure. I cannot doubt that the result of that consideration will be that when that measure is brought into practical working a great deal of litigation may be saved which would very likely have followed if great care had not been bestowed on the wording of every part of it. My Lords, I trust the deliberations of this Committee may result in the improvement of this machinery, and certainly not in impairing the beneficial effect which has been produced by the change made two years ago.


My Lords, I am very glad to hear the spirit in which this Motion has been received by the noble and learned Lord opposite, to whom we owe to a very great extent the institution of these Committees. I agree with him that the Standing Committees have done a great deal of good work, and that the Statute Book has been the better for their work. I desire, however, to point out lest anyone should think reference to a Committee is needless, that there are two matters which require to be considered and decided in the open House. One of them is the question whether you will go on with two Committees, or whether we should have only one. It has occasionally happened during the last Session that the second Committee, for General Purposes, presided over by Lord Kimberley, has met, and there has been no business for it to do. There has been a little difficulty in apportioning the work between the two Committees. The noble Lord referred to the plan of doing the work by delegating it to Sub-Committees as being one which had in his experience worked satisfactorily, and I am not sure that it would not be better to do the whole of your work in that way, and to have one Committee which should be empowered to appoint Sub-Committees to consider the Bills which may be submitted to them. At all events, such an arrangement would have the effect of always providing business for the noble Lords who come down, and it would prevent one Committee from being overloaded with work while the other had no work at all. The other difficulty is rather a curious one, and arises, it seems to me, a good deal from sentiment. I have heard it stated again, by some of the noble Lords behind me, that this system prevents discussion in the open House; but as the Bills have to pass through Committee of the whole House after passing through the Standing Committees, it is very difficult to perceive how that complaint can be justified. But I am told it is not in human nature for noble Lords to criticise a Bill of which all the criticisable parts have been taken out by the Grand Committee. It is like gleaning after a very careful harvestman. They say that the first pressure of the olive or the grape produces by far the most excellent and valuable result, and I can conceive the disappointment of those who have expected to get a lengthy discussion upon the provisions of the Bill at being deprived of a considerable amount of criticism of a measure after it has been subjected to the press of the noble Lord on the Woolsack, and of the noble and learned Lord opposite and others. No doubt it may leave them in rather a disappointed condition, and they may think that they have been asked to rather a Barmecide feast when they are asked to apply their powers to the discussion of Bills from which all the materials for discussion have been removed. I will venture with diffidence and humility to suggest a remedy which I think would meet the difficulty, and that is, that Bills should pass through this House before they are referred to a Standing Committee. This House is too modest and too timid to discuss a Bill which the Standing Committee has passed, but I am quite sure the Standing Committee would not be too modest or too timid to discuss a Bill which this House has passed. We should have the general principles which were to be laid down duly brought forward and discussed in the Committee of the whole House, and the more prosaic work of making a decent Act of Parliament would be delegated to the Committee upstairs. I believe that that would be a plan by which we should unite practical utility with patriotic sentiment, and that we should in that way overcome one of the most formidable difficulties with which we have had to contend.

On Question, agreed to.

Then the Lords following were named of the Committee—

L. Chancellor E. Granville
E. Cadogan (L. Privy Seal.) E. Kimberley
V. Oxenbridge
D. Richmond L. Foxford (E. Limerick.)
M. Salisbury
E. Derby L. Brabourne
E. Morley L. Colville of Culross
E. Beauchamp L. Herschell.
E. Camperdown

The Committee to meet on Monday next, at half past Two o'clock; and to appoint their own Chairman.