HL Deb 25 March 1909 vol 1 cc529-36

rose to move that a Committee be appointed to consider and report upon the Standing Orders relating to Standing Committees.

The noble Earl

said: My Lords, I do not think your Lordships will be at all surprised at this Motion, because frequent reference has been made to this Standing Order in past sessions of Parliament and to the way in which it has been applied. The Standing Order itself provides that all Bills are to be committed to a Standing Committee after passing through Committee of the Whole House unless the House shall otherwise direct. The obvious intention of the Standing Order was that the reference of these Bills to the Standing Committee should be the rule, and that any different order should be the exception; but, as a matter of fact, in practice the exception has become the rule, and, as your Lordships know, it is now almost invariably the case that when a Bill has passed through Committee of the Whole House the Motion is made that the Standing Committee be negatived.

Perhaps I may, in justification of my Motion, remind your Lordships very briefly of the history of this matter. The Standing Committee was appointed in pursuance of the Report of a Committee moved for by Lord Cadogan when Lord Privy Seal in 1888, and on that Committee the late Lord Herschell proposed the establishment of one or more Standing Committees for considering such Bills as might be referred to them. In his Motion he alluded more especially to Bills which were not of first-rate importance, and he considered that very good work might be done in the way of reviewing and revising these Bills, with the aid, as he said, of an experienced draftsman; but he had not in his mind, apparently, any idea that the Standing Committee would be empowered to make Amendments of substance. He expressed the opinion that a Standing Committee would be able to put legislation in better shape and prevent the inconsistencies and blemishes which were often found greatly to mar measures.

Curiously enough, the Standing Committee contemplated by Lord Herschell very much corresponded to what this House would be under the proposals which I think I have seen advocated by persons even so distinguished as the noble Earl who leads the House. Lord Herschell intended this Committee to be a reviewing and revising and drafting body, but not to have any powers of its own. That Report was considered, and the principle of Standing Committees was adopted in March, 1889, and in 1890 two Standing Committees were appointed, one of which was to look after law Bills and the other general Bills. When, however, these Standing Committees began to do their work they took quite a different view of their functions from that which had been taken by Lord Herschell. and, I believe, the House. They proceeded to act very much as a Grand Committee of the House of Commons acts at the present time. They went very carefully into the Bills and introduced Amendments of substance, and I remember that very frequently the sitting of the Standing Committee would occupy a couple of hours and even more. The result was that the Standing Committee, coming first, really usurped the power of the House, and when Bills came back to the House and were taken in Committee a number of noble Lords not members of the Standing Committee—I remember very distinctly the late Lord Beauchamp was one of them—took exception to this, and contended that the Standing Committee was taking away the powers of the House, and, moreover, that the Standing Committee was not even properly reported.

There was a great deal of substance, of course, in those complaints, and in 1891, in consequence of them, Lord Cadogan moved for another Committee to inquire into the Standing Orders, and it was in the debate which preceded the appointment of that Committee that the late Lord Salisbury said that for his part he thought the complaint might be met by making the stage of Committee of the Whole House precede, instead of follow, the Standing Committee. To cut a long story short, the Committee appointed on the Motion of Lord Cadogan adopted that view, and their Report was finally agreed to by the House. From that moment the Standing Committee began to decline in importance. The Committee was no longer able to make Amendments of substance, and the result was that noble Lords no longer attended, and the proceedings of the Standing Committee degenerated until they have come to what they are at the present time.

Your Lordships know perfectly well that during the last two or three sessions almost every noble Lord in charge of a Bill has proceeded to move that the Standing Committee be negatived. That form has been gone through on nearly every occasion, and the Motion to negative the Standing Committee has never been opposed in any practical manner and has now become as regular a part of the proceedings as the Motion for the House to resolve itself into Committee. Therefore, it seems to me quite worth your Lordships' while to appoint a Committee to inquire into Standing Orders and consider whether it is really desirable to have a Committee for this purpose, and, if so, what Bills should be referred to such Committee and under what regulations and orders. There is one other point of some importance. If the Standing Committee be not negatived in connection with a Bill coming forward on a Wednesday or Thursday, the Bill has to wait for nearly a week because the Standing Committee only meets on Tuesday. Your Lordships are well aware of the manner in which business is done in this House in the last five or six weeks of the session, and if the Standing Committee stage were really enforced the result would be to make almost intolerable the defects of which we at the present time often loudly complain. I beg to move.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon the Standing Orders relating to Standing Committes.—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Earl has altered the terms of his Motion. As it first appeared on the Paper, the proposal was to abolish the Standing Committee la mort sans phrase; but since then the noble Lord has amended the Motion and now asks your Lordships to appoint a Select Committee to consider the whole matter. I think that anyone looking at the Standing Orders of your Lordships' House will see that those who moved originally for the Standing Committee expected it to do a great deal of work which it never has done, and I am not at all sure that it might not still fulfil some of the functions originally intended by those who set up the Standing Committee.

The noble Earl

spoke just now of the review and revision of legislation. That is one of the functions which this House has always specially claimed for itself, and I do think that a Committee appointed to consider this matter might with great advantage look into the question of whether the Standing Committee might not devote itself more closely to such work as that, and also as to whether it might not meet at more frequent intervals when there is great pressure of work before your Lordships' House. I quite agree with the noble Earl that the work which the Committee at present does is extremely slight, and that, as far as the Amendments which are moved and carried in it are concerned, they might just as well, and perhaps rather better, be done in Committee of the Whole House. In fact, I do not remember now for many years past any Amendment inserted in Standing Committee which might not perfectly well, and, I think, with greater advantage, have been discussed in your Lordships' House.

I have a Motion on the Paper, which I put down every year, that a Standing Committee be appointed, and that a certain number of noble Lords he appointed to select the Standing Committee. I purposely placed it down with no day named, because I knew the noble Earl intended raising this question, and, of course, I shall not persevere with my Motion if his proposal for the appointment of a Select Committee is carried. If the Select Committee is appointed, I hope the result will be that we shall be able to devise some better work for the Standing Committee than has been put before it in recent years.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has moved this Motion has given a very clear, complete, and, I think, correct account of the history of the Standing Committee. It is undoubtedly true that when the late Lord Herschell made the original proposition that the reference to Lord Cadogan's Committee should include the consideration of the appointment of such a Committee, he did contemplate that its powers should be those of revising and reviewing—by no means contemptible powers, as I am sure the noble Earl will agree, although he seemed to think that they covered but a small field of political activity. It is also, of course, perfectly true that the Standing Committee did become either an anticipation or a repetition of what went on in the House itself. The noble Lords who attended the Standing Committee and took an active part in its deliberations were always the same noble Lords as those who took part in the particular measure in Committee of the Whole House.

At the same time, I think all of us who remember the Standing Committee in its brighter days will agree that some excellent work was done there; and although it is, of course, possible that the Committee which I hope your Lordships will agree to appoint may arrive at the conclusion that such a body is no longer needed, yet I am glad, like my noble friend who has just sat down, that the whole matter should be considered by a Committee. To use a famous phrase, a Committee sat by the cradle of the Standing Committee, and, if it is to perish, it is right that a Committee should follow its hearse.

I think there are other reasons why the work of the Standing Committee has, as the noble Earl said, tended to diminish in value and in importance. I believe that in many cases closer interest is shown in Committee of the Whole House than used to be taken some twenty years ago. That, I think, is all to the good and to the credit of your Lordships' House. Then, on the other hand—and this, I think, applies to the time when either party is in power—far fewer Bills which are not Government Bills come up from another place. It has become the custom in another place to occupy the greater part of the session with Government business, and it is undoubtedly the case that for the consideration of first-class Bills the Standing Committee has never been particularly suited. On the other hand, there are Government Bills of a more or less non-controversial character which in past times I have seen very usefully considered there. That being so, I am very glad that the noble Earl did change the form of his Motion, and that instead of proposing to abolish the Standing Committee straight off he has moved for the appointment of a Committee to consider the whole question, to which I hope your Lordships will agree.


My Lords, I think that on this side of the House there is no disposition to disagree with the Motion of my noble friend. We must all of us feel that the Standing Committee as we now know it is rather of the nature of a solemn farce. Again and again when a Bill comes before your Lordships' House a Motion is made, almost pro formâ, that the Standing Committee be negatived; and in these circumstances, there is an atmosphere of unreality about the proceedings which we must all deprecate. I think my noble friend has shown that the Standing Committee as it was contemplated by those responsible for its invention was a different piece of Parliamentary machinery from the Standing Committee as it has existed since the great alteration was effected which made the Standing Committee stage later than the stage of Committee of the whole House. I am glad that the Standing Committee is not to be summarily got rid of, and I cannot help hoping that the inquiry proposed by my noble friend may enable your Lordships to frame some proposal which shall conduce to the efficient discharge of our business.


My Lords, I respectfully venture to agree with what fell from the noble Earl the Leader of the House. I think his distinction between Bills which are Government Bills, and, therefore, on the whole presumably, I hope may say for both sides, more carefully considered and drafted, and private Bills was very sound. It has occurred to me to suggest that, if the Standing Committee is not to be abolished, it would be much better if, instead of having always the Motion to negative the Standing Committee, the presumption were that unless specially ordered no Bill should go to the Standing Committee. In this way the Standing Committee could still be retained, and if any Bill came up which the House thought it desirable should be examined by the Standing Committee, then a Motion to refer it to that Committee could be moved before or after the stage of Committee of the Whole House. I admit, however, that this is rather a suggestion for the Committee which it is proposed to appoint.


My Lords, having, fortunately or unfortunately, been selected as chairman of the Standing Committee year after year, I desire to say that I am extremely glad that this Motion has been brought forward.


My Lords, I wish to add one word in regard to the form of my Motion. The fact is that, as originally put down, it was rather hastily drawn; but when I came to read the pro ceedings I saw that your Lordships had always proceeded, in matters of this kind, by means of an inquiry, which, I think, is a most admirable course. I know that the House does not like to arrive at conclusions in a summary way, and as already two or three Committees have sat on the matter I altered my Motion to its present shape, which I consider a great improvement on the original terms.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.

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