§ VISCOUNT PALMERSTON
Sir, I rise in pursuance of notice to propose the appointment of a Select Committee to consider whether any changes can be made in the forms and proceedings of the House which may tend to accelerate the progress of public business. It is well known that 154 both in the House and out of it there has for some time past been an opinion that some of the forms which have hitherto been observed by this House may be dispensed with without injury to the public interest, and with a considerable acceleration of public business. It is well known, also, that several improvements have been made of late years in this respect. Much time, for example, has been saved by the regulation that no speeches should be made on the presentation of petitions. Much time has also been saved, and no injury to the public service has been sustained by the rule that when a Bill has once gone into Committee, the House may go into Committee upon it at any other time as "progress," without any specific Motion. We have saved some time by referring Bills of a similar kind to the same Committee. Various improvements have, in fact, been made, all of which have tended to accelerate public business, and I am not aware that any complaint has been made that these changes have interfered with the full discretion that has and ought to be enjoyed by the House in dealing with the matters brought under its consideration. Undoubtedly we ought to be very cautious in changes of this description; taking care that while on the one hand the public business shall be expedited, and that no time shall be unnecessarily lost in transacting business, yet, remembering on the other hand that expedition is not the sole purpose for which this House meets. We meet for the purpose of giving a full and ample consideration to all the matters that come before us, and we ought not to adopt any shortened forms of procedure that might prevent the full and ample discussion of the questions that are brought under the notice of the House. It is, therefore, not desirable that the Executive Government should take upon themselves to propose any specific measures to the House on this subject. Those measures deserve to be considered by a Committee, and not a small Committee, which shall embrace a sufficient number of Members who are experienced in the proceedings of this House, and qualified by its numbers and impartiality to suggest the changes that may accelerate business and not interfere with full discussion. Now there are several suggestions which have been made in different quarters. I will merely mention them as illustrations, without proposing them as matters which the Committee will have to consider, although 155 some of them having been recommended by competent persons will naturally be among the suggestions that the Committee will consider. One suggestion which has been made—not so much in this as in the other House of Parliament—is, that Bills which, when a prorogation takes place, have gone through several stages shall be taken up in the succeeding Session at the particular stage where they were left, and go on as if the Session preceding had been continued. That suggestion I will not now give an opinion upon. There is another suggestion—namely, that in the early part of the Session—say until Easter—an additional day in the week should be given to Government measures. At present the Government have only two days in the week; and it has been suggested that the Committee should consider whether it would be encroaching too much on the days allotted to private Members to give the Government another day until the Estimates are passed, or until Easter or some other time. On that suggestion I give no opinion either, and it will be for the Committee to consider it. It has also often been discussed whether some limit ought not to be put to the practice of giving Notice of Motions on the adjournment of the House from Friday to the succeeding Monday. Well, that is a matter which has been frequently discussed in this House. Many opinions have been expressed, some one way and some another, and it is a matter which the Committee will deem it their duty well to consider and to report their opinion upon it. It has also been thought by many that a good deal of public inconvenience arises from the extreme latitude of making Motions on going into Committee of Supply. The result is, that at a particular time of the Session the Estimates that ought to be considered, and any delay on which is often highly inconvenient to the public service, are put off by the interposition of Motions on going into Committee of Supply. Another inconvenience is, that Gentlemen who come down prepared to discuss the Estimates find the House talking about Syria, India, Italy, or anything else. That, also, is a matter which the Committee would no doubt take into consideration. At the same time it must be admitted on the other hand, that our maxim is that Grievances and Supply go together; and that, consequently, when Supply is mentioned, people are permitted to talk upon 156 anything else. Then, again, there is the practice, which has grown up very much of late years—grown up, indeed, so much that you, Sir, have never thought right to interfere with it, but which I apprehend is really and truly a departure from the strict orders of the House—namely, the practice of a Member getting up, and, when about to make a speech without a Motion, and in a manner totally irregular, saying that he would put himself in order by moving the adjournment of the House; and then he proceeds to speak on a subject totally unconnected with the question whether or not the House should adjourn. Subject to your correction, I apprehend that if the strict rules of the House were enforced, requiring the Member who speaks to speak to the question before the House, the Member ought properly, when the question is, "that the House do adjourn," to confine himself to giving reasons why the House should or should not adjourn, and that to dilate upon every other possible topic is not according to the strict rules of the House. Without giving any opinion as to what might be done on that point, I think it is one of the questions which the Committee will have to consider. I have only thrown out these various suggestions as those which I bear in mind at the moment as having been made by different Members at different times. I propose that the Committee should consist of twenty-one Members, which number would enable it to comprise Members of experience on both sides of the House; and I should hope that a Committee so appointed, going fairly into the consideration of the question how far we could alter the mode of conducting business without interfering with the perfect freedom and successful exercise of discussion might be attended—could not fail to be attended—with considerable public advantage. I, therefore, move—That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether, by any alterations in the Forms and Proceedings of this House, the despatch of Public Business can be more effectually promoted.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed.
§ MR. HORSMAN
said, he believed that the House generally was anxious to promote the object which the noble Lord had in view in proposing this Committee; but he would venture to say that the terms of reference in the proposed Motion were so narrow that they were likely to render the labours of the Committee inoperative. An 157 alteration in the forms and proceedings of the House was the only point to which the Committee was to direct its attention; but as the noble Lord truly said, they had been improving the forms and proceedings of the House for many years: yet they still heard complaints as much as ever of the obstruction of the business of the House. They had Committees in 1837, 1.848, and in 1854, and he thought he did not exaggerate when he said that at least nineteen-twentieths of the opportunities formerly afforded to Members to make speeches or Motions had been, and most of them very properly, abolished. But then the question was, whether these improvements had brought them to the condition they desired. On the contrary, did they not still hear that the evil continued or had increased? The most important of those improvements were founded on the Reports of the Committees of 1848 and 1854, and they were submitted to the House avowedly as experiments. Had the experiments succeeded? To judge by the result from the complaints made, they had not, but had failed up to the present time: and now it was proposed to proceed in the same direction, without considering whether they had not, to some extent, mistaken the malady under which the House suffered, and failed to administer the proper remedy. The House should consider whether there were not other causes besides defects in the "forms and proceedings," to which the evil might be attributed. The cause was not far to seek; it was stated in the Report of 1838, in words for which he believed the House was indebted to the right hon. Gentleman now in the chair; and he would suggest that the present Motion should be enlarged and improved by the adoption of some of these words. The changes made in the last twenty-three years had been immense. The noble Lord had mentioned one of the most important, and he would state some others. The noble Lord had referred to the former practice of debating on the presentation of petitions, and Lord Eversley had told the Committee of 1854, that on the presentation of a petition by Mr. Spring Rice from the University of Cambridge, a debate arose and lasted four days, the only Motion being that the petition "do lie on the table." Formerly, too, upon every Order of the Day being read, any Member might rise and get up a debate. That power was now very properly taken away. Then, on going into Committee of Supply, there were two 158 distinct Motions put from the chair; first "That the House resolve into a Committee of Supply;" and upon that every one of the 600 Members in the House might raise a discussion, and take a division; and next, "That the Speaker leave the chair," upon which again every Member might raise a discussion and take a division. This had been almost entirely taken away, and there only remained the power of making one Motion with a division on going into Committee of Supply. But the fact was that during the time when these impediments to public business existed, there was not on the part of the Government so much complaint made, or on the part of the House so much inconvenience felt, as at present. What was the cause of this? That was stated in the Report of the Committee of 1838, over which the present Speaker presided. That Committee made two classes of recommendations. One class applied to the forms and proceedings of the House and to the privileges of private Members, and this class was given effect to with great promptness and energy. The other class of recommendations applied to the conduct of business through the House by the Government, to the duties and responsibilities cast on the Government, and to the claims of the House on them. This class of recommendations was very much forgotten, and sometimes altogether disregarded, and the House appeared now to have no knowledge of them at all. The Report of the Committee of 1838 contained the following passage:—Your Committee venture to express an opinion that the satisfactory conduct and successful progress of the business of the House must mainly depend on tier Majesty's Government, holding as they do the chief control over its management. They believe that by a careful preparation of measures, their early introduction, the judicious distribution of business between the two Houses, and the order and method with which measures are conducted, the Government might contribute in an essential degree to the easy and convenient conduct of business.He, therefore, suggested that the terms of the proposed Motion should be enlarged by the insertion of these words of the Report of the Committee, so that the Motion would run thus:—That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether, by any alterations in the Forms and Proceedings of this House, and by the more careful preparation and early introduction of measures, by the judicious distribution of business between the two Houses of Parliament, and the order and method in which measures are conducted, the 159 despatch of Public Business can be more effectually promoted.Now, he would ask whether the advice of the Committee with respect to the more careful preparation of measures, and their introduction at an early period of the Session, had for some years past been followed? In answering that question, he had no wish to take any particular Session as an illustration; but he thought he might fairly adduce that of last year as affording an average specimen of the mode in which the business of the Government was conducted. The number of Bills originating with the Executive which had last Session been submitted to Parliament amounted, he found, to upwards of 120 or 130—a number not quite in accordance with the advice of Sir Robert Peel, than whom no man knew better how to conduct the business of the House, and whose opinion it was that it was desirable not to introduce many Bills, but rather such a number as would be likely to be carried. He also found that a great many important measures had last Session been laid upon the table late in the Session; while some of the utmost importance, such for instance, as the propositions of the Government, in connection with Indian finance—a subject daily assuming an aspect of greater importance and difficulty —had not been brought under the consideration of the House until late in August. But was it the fact that the House prevented or impeded unduly the passing of Bills of recent years by taking advantage of its forms and regulations? In reply to that question, he would only say that he held in his hands a list of the Acts of Parliament which had been placed on the statute-book since the period of the Reform Act, and that by it it appeared that 154 public Acts had been passed last Session, that being the greatest number which had received the assent of Parliament in any one Session since 1832, while the highest number passed in any other year since 1832 was in the Session of 1853, when 137 Bills received the Royal Assent. Now, one circumstance, he might add, which operated very inconveniently in the transaction of public business, was the accumulation of Government Bills upon the table of the House at the end of the Session. To remedy the evils resulting from such a state, a Resolution had in 1821— in the days of the unreformed Parliament —been passed to the effect that it was expedient that during the current Par- 160 liamentary Session no more than twenty Orders of the Day for any proceedings on public Bills should be set down in the Order Book in any one day. The evil, however, in subsequent years continued to prevail, and he believed that last Session no less than fifty or sixty stood upon the Notice-paper for discussion at a single sitting. He was perfectly ready to assume that great difficulties in the conduct of the public business were felt by the Government, and he hoped that by extending the inquiry of the Committee, as he proposed, they would be enabled to afford the Executive some means of overcoming obstacles which had hitherto been deemed insuperable. He must, however, before he sat down, be allowed to advert to one other point on which the noble Lord in the course of his observations had touched—he alluded to the suggestion that an additional day in the week should be allotted to Ministers for the transaction of Government business. Now, there was broached in some quarters a new theory, hitherto quite unknown to Parliament and to the Constitution, that the most important functions of the House of Commons consisted merely in considering the measures submitted to it by the Executive. Such a theory might be all very well in the case of an assembly which was under the influence of a despotic rule, and which was called upon to do little more than to wait for and register the edicts of its master; but the British House of Commons had, he could not help thinking, much higher functions to discharge. It was, in the first place, its duty not to accept as a matter of course the propositions of the Executive, but to discuss, examine, criticise, and, if expedient, even to reject them; in short, to subject them to the same ordeal as if they had emanated from a private Member. But the British House of Commons had a still higher function to fulfil, and one, if possible, still more important, and that was the initiation of those great reforms which were from time to time effected in our political system by allowing private Members to introduce and discuss them until public opinion had attained that maturity upon them which rendered legislation not only necessary but safe. There was not, for example, a single great measure which had become law in this country of recent years for which the way had not been paved by means of discussions in that House raised by private Members upon those very No- 161 tice-days which there seemed to be now be strong a disposition to condemn. The noble Lord the Member for London had only the other night reminded the House that he dated his connection with the question of Reform as far back as the year 1819. The agitation of Reform had begun in the House of Commons long even before that time, and he should like to know how many nights subsequently the occupants of the Treasury Bench had sat listening to those lectures of the noble Lord and his Friends on the subject, which enabled him to achieve, as a Minister, in 1832, the object for which he had, as a private; Member, laboured in 1819. It was by means of such discussions, raised Session after Session by private Members, that Governments were set in motion and great reforms accomplished. The measure, for instance, which stood first in point of importance in the Ministerial programme for the present Session—the Bankruptcy Bill—the noble Lord the Member for London had, when sitting on the Opposition side of the House, made to so great an extent his own as to give it a character of importance and urgency which had caused it to assume a foremost place in the Parliamentary scheme of every succeeding Government. The noble Lord the Member for Tiverton had most truly and properly stated in the course of his observations that evening, that time, though an important element in the transaction of the business of the country, yet was not the most important. He trusted, therefore, that the Committee, if appointed, would take care duly to guard the rights of private Members as well as the rights of the minority in that House. In the struggles of minorities, in the battles they had fought and the victories they had achieved, were to be found the best and truest tribute to our free institutions; by them was furnished the most glorious chapters in our constitutional and national history. In reference to the point of making further concessions to the Government with respect to the transaction of public business, he must say he thought the Executive ought to be dealt with in that particular by the same rule as private individuals, and vigilantly watched lest they might be found more slovenly in the preparation of their measures, and more tardy in introducing them, the more time was given them for the purpose.
After the word 'House' to insert the words
'and by a more careful preparation of measures, their early introduction, the judicious distribution of business between the two Houses, and the order and method with which measures are conducted.'
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."
§ MR. DISRAELI
—I am at a loss to understand what the grievance is that is complained of. The House of Commons has, in recent years, got through a great amount of business, and has, upon the whole, discharged its duties in a very satisfactory manner. Far from perceiving that it has shown itself unable to cope with the vast number of questions which have come before it for legislation, I can call to mind several instances in which it has exhibited a somewhat precipitate spirit in dealing with them — insomuch so that several Bills have been passed through the House which it has been found in the Sessions immediately subsequent to their enactment expedient to alter and revise. For my own part, I shall not take it upon myself to oppose the Motion of the noble Lord, and I am ready to admit that occasional criticism on our proceedings and forms may be advantageous rather than otherwise, as it has proved in former times. Circumstances change; the character of the business which comes before us, as well as its quantity, varies, and, no doubt, some of the regulations which exist for the due despatch of that business may from time to time be found to be obsolete, may with propriety be abolished, or so modified as to meet the requirements of an altered state of things. I myself served on two of the Committees to which the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has referred. Evidence was adduced before us by gentlemen of great experience as to the mode of procedure with respect to the transaction of public business in the Legislature of America, and in that of France when she possessed a Parliamentary constitution. The Committee, having heard that evidence, made certain recommendations, which were, I think, upon the whole, advantageous. I should, however, for my own part, be sorry to see any change introduced into the forms of the House which would tend largely to alter the mode in which our business is now transacted. I have frequently given expression to the opinion which the right hon. Gentleman has stated in terms so much better to-night—that the primary duty of the House of Commons is not to pass the mea- 163 sures of the Executive. The House, as a part of the Parliament, is the great Council of the nation. We are summoned here to advise Her Majesty as to the means by which the services of the country may be carried on, and to express on subjects which engage public attention the opinion of our constituents. These are our chief duties, which we must never fail to remember. The legislation of the Government is the result of a mature observation of that public opinion, and when laid before us in the shape of a proposed law it deserves and demands our attention. Hitherto, at all events, I think we have successfully shown that we are not inattentive to the claims of the Government upon our time. I cannot, however, give to the Amendment of the right hon. Member for Stroud the same approval which I do, generally speaking, to his speech. It implies a censure upon the Government relative to their mode of transacting business. The language in which it is expressed has been borrowed from the Report of one of our Committees, but the original authors did not presume to offer in the shape of a Resolution those critical observations which the right hon. Gentleman now wishes the House to adopt. As critical observations they may or may not be proper and pertinent; but to adopt them as the material of a formal Resolution is altogether another matter, and appears to me to be improper and inexpedient. I have no doubt the Government, like all their predecessors, have at times shown a want of skill in conducting the business of the House, and to the unskilful management of our business may be traced many of the objections of which we hear so much. But the noble Lord and his colleagues have at least profited by the experience of last Session, and there appears to be no prospect at present of measures of an unnecessarily comprehensive character being brought forward. Seeing, then, that there is a fair chance of our getting through our business in a manner which may be satisfactory even to the most hostile critic in or out of doors, I think it unnecessary to open our Session with a Resolution which certainly is not of a courteous character. If it merely amounted to a declaration that a "careful preparation" of measures would be advantageous, it might have been admitted as a general proposition; but it is unnecessary, and, in my opinion, altogether ill-advised, to bring forward a Motion that "a more 164 careful preparation" of measures by the Government is required. To resolve that a "more careful" preparation of measures by the Government is required would imply no light censure, and, not being founded upon any practical measure mentioned in the Amendment, appears to be unnecessary. I trust, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendment, but will be satisfied with the Motion of the noble Lord, because that Motion contains all with which the House can deal. We can deal with our forms and proceedings by Resolutions, but not with the discretion or ingenuity of Government. We cannot by a Resolution give tact to a Minister who is entirely destitute of that valuable quality, nor can we by a Resolution effectually restrain what is called unnecesary oratory. Let us confine our attention, therefore, to our forms and proceedings. I am prepared to vote for the Motion of the noble Lord, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendment, which—though he might not perhaps perceive it at the moment— in the opinion of many on both sides conveys an uncalled-for censure upon those who are intrusted with the conduct of affairs.
§ MR. BRIGHT
I concur in much that has been said upon this subject, but I cannot give my assent to the Amendment of the right hon. Member for Stroud. The Motion of the noble Lord at the head of the Government is, no doubt, according to precedent, and it is quite clear that no practical result could follow from the adoption of the Amendment. I presume the House would never think of passing a Resolution that the Government should not introduce a Bill after a certain day, or that a Select Committee of gentlemen out of doors should be appointed to prepare I Government measures, or that certain Bills I should be introduced into the House of Lords, and certain other Bills into this House. These, however, are the particular points to which the right hon. Gentleman referred in his speech, and which he has embodied in his Amendment. It is obvious that all that must be left to the custom of Parliament and the public opinion of the House, forcing intractable Members and slow Governments to take the course which suits the House best. I hope, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendment. At the same time, I think the noble Lord ought to tell us that the Committee will be at 165 liberty, whatever the order of reference, to give us all the assistance they can by recommending to the House any change in the mode of conducting business which they think may accelerate it. The great difficulty experienced in the management of public business seems to be this—that there sits on one side of the House about as many men as sit on the other, and that it is the acknowledged duty of the leader of the Opposition to prevent the Government doing almost anything. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bucks and his friends occupied the Treasury Bench there were Members on the other side who served them in the same way. Now, if the House be a fair representation of the people, if the population be so evenly divided in opinion that there can be no majority, business must necessarily go on very slowly, and only those things can be done as to which Members are agreed. That being so, we must wait patiently until either the Members of this House, or the people, have become intelligent enough to give a majority to one side or the other.
SIR GEORGE LEWIS
—I trust the House will not think my noble Friend has made his Motion either upon light grounds or for any object of the Government. The House will probably bear in mind that last Session there were several Motions presented to it upon the subject of its forms and proceedings. Early in the Session there were Motions made which gave rise to debates upon the mode of conducting business on Fridays. Near the close of the Session the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) moved a string of Resolutions proposing material alterations in the forms and proceedings of the House. Those Resolutions underwent discussion, but they were eventually withdrawn, upon the express assurance that a Committee should be moved for to consider the subject early in the present Session. Later in the Session my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe) made some other proposals relating to the forms of the House. He received a similar assurance, and upon that assurance he likewise withdrew his Resolutions. The House will see, therefore, that the Government would have been wanting to their duty, and would have failed to fulfil the promises they made last Session, if they had not submitted to the House a Motion of this sort. Certainly we do not submit it with any selfish view of our own. The House ought also to bear 166 in mind another fact—namely, that a noble Earl, a very distinguished Member of the other House, and a man of great Parliamentary experience, not only in that House but also in this, submitted to the House of Lords in July last a Motion to the following effect:—That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into and consider the best mode of carrying on the Parliamentary Business.That Motion—introduced in a speech which I recommend to the attentive perusal of every Gentleman who wishes to make himself acquainted with the manner in which the business of both Houses is conducted— was not pressed to a division; but it will probably be renewed in the present Session, and affords another strong reason why my noble Friend should make the Motion now under consideration. His wish is that the terms of reference should be as wide as possible, and that nothing which could properly come within the consideration of the Committee should be excluded from its attention. It seems to me that the words selected, namely, "the forms and proceedings of this House," are about as wide as it is possible to conceive. I know nothing which does not fairly come within their scope. Several of the points adverted to by the right hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Horsman) come within the description of the proceedings of the House. But the right hon. Gentleman says that description is inadequate, excluding various matters which the Committee ought to consider; and in order to supply the defect he resorts to one of the strangest expedients which ever came under my notice. He proposes to insert, as a subject of inquiry, the recommendation of a previous Committee. Well, now, I suppose we are all agreed that "a careful preparation" of measures is itself very desirable, and also that at an early period of the Session all measures the House can consider should be brought under their attention. But I do not conceive that this is a subject for inquiry before a Committee. It is a Parliamentary truism which we all admit; and to make it the subject of reference to a Committee, independently of all question of censure on the Government, or the choice of inviduous expressions, is quite superfluous and uncalled for on this occasion. I, therefore, think it my duty to object to the insertion of those words. I think the House will accomplish all it now seeks to attain by the form of words proposed by the noble Lord. I do not wish to anticipate the labours of 167 the Committee; but, inasmuch as my right hon. Friend has sought to make it appear that the Government have some peculiar interest in diminishing the time that is at the command of private Members, I wish to place before them what I consider one defect in the arrangement of Parliamentary business. If Government looked simply to selfish ends, they could have no interest in increasing the time at their disposal. Their labours are rather greater on those nights devoted to their measures than on those devoted to the measures of independent Members. The Government business includes not only Bills but the Estimates, all the financial measures which it is necessary for the Government to submit to the House, and which the House must dispose of before the Session can terminate. Well, now, the effect of the arrangement by which business is now conducted is, that out of five days in the week, three before Easter are entirely devoted, or almost entirely devoted, to the business brought before the House by independent Members, and the Government only command two nights in the week before Easter. It happens that in that early part of the Session the principal Government business brought before the House is the Army and Navy Estimates; then, on the two nights appropriated to Government business there is the power of making Motions on going into Committee of Supply. The Government have not, in fact, entire command of two nights. The two nights appropriated to Government business before Easter are to a very considerable extent diminished by Motions on going into Committee of Supply. To an official Member who comes down to the House to move Estimates it is a matter of indifference whether they come on or not—he must remain in the House; but to independent Members, who come down at six o'clock, expecting the Army or Navy Estimates to come on, it is very different. They find a debate going on about some Indian rajah or some island in the Pacific, or any other subject wholly unconnected with the Estimates. That to them is a great inconvenience, because they do not know how long the debate may last. They may go away for a couple of hours; they return, perhaps, at nine o'clock to make a speech on the Army Estimates, but they find it then too late. This is of perpetual occurrence, in consequence of the way in which the Estimates are often brought on. It is not correct, as the right hon. Gentleman states, that only one Mo- 168 tion can be made on going into Committee of Supply. A series of Resolutions can be moved or observations made, occupying a long time, and it is only when a division takes place that the rule to which the right hon. Gentleman alludes is called into operation. The consequence of the way in which we arrange matters before Easter is that a large part of the legislative business is thrown forward to June, July, and sometimes August; and every one knows how the pressure then operates, requiring that all the powers both of mind and body should be taxed to the utmost, and what great inconvenience arises from that cause. This was the subject to which Lord Derby called particular attention in the House of Lords last Session; and if the House will permit me I will read one sentence in which he summed up the great objections to the present mode of conducting the legislative business, by which a large number of Bills is thrown into an advanced period of the Session.The House of Commons, having one stage more for every Bill than your Lordships, and originating a greater number of Bills, the Government having only two days for the conduct of the Government business, those two days being greatly occupied by Motions in Supply, and those Motions being liable to interruption and great delay from the introduction of other subjects, the time for legislation at their disposal may be regarded as almost nil, and the result is that the number of Bills which received the Royal Assent before the end of July is comparatively small. From the year 1848 to 1860, but not including this year, the average number of Bills that received the Royal Assent up to the end of July for each year was 61, while the average number that received the Royal Assent from the end of July up to the end of August was also 61; that is to say, the number of Bills passed in a month when there is a very small number of Members of either House in attendance is equal on an average of years to the number that received the Royal Assent in all the five preceding months of the Session."—[3 Hansard, clix, 2134.]That is the summary Lord Derby gives of the effect of the present mode of arranging Parliamentary business. The remedy he recommended was that Bills should be continued from one Session to another, and that a Bill which passed one House one Session might be taken up by the other House in another Session without going through all its stages in both Houses. Whether that remedy is practicable I do not stop to inquire; I only say that the effect of our arrangement with regard to the transaction of Parliamentary business necessarily is to throw a very large portion of it to the very end of the Session, and 169 that any general Resolutions with respect to the early introduction of Bills will be perfectly barren until some time can be afforded for the consideration of them. Last year the Government measures were introduced quite early in the Session, but they were postponed night after night and week after week, and the constant complaint of Members was that they did not know when they would come on. If Government introduced measures for which no time could be found, what would the right hon. Gentleman gain by his formula for the early introduction of them? It is quite clear you cannot lay down an inflexible rule on this subject. Something must be left to the discretion of the Government for the time being. If the Government of the day do not transact the business of the House in a becoming and creditable manner the House has the remedy in its own hands—not the remedy of inserting a few insignificent words in a reference to a Committee, but a more stringent remedy, the ultima ratio, in such cases, must be resorted to. I trust the House will not think it necessary to insert the words of the Amendment, but that they will agree to the Motion as originally proposed by my noble Friend.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
said, that since he had himself been the first to direct the attention of the House to this subject last Session, and had laid a Motion on the table to the effect that no debate should originate after one o'clock in the morning, he would ask the House to permit him to say a few words. He felt greatly indebted to the noble Lord at the head of the Government for redeeming the pledge he gave last Session that he would recommend the appointment of a Committee to consider the best mode of expediting public business. They had been nearly worn out by long sittings at the close of the last Session, when fifty Orders of the Day sometimes appeared upon the paper. Many Members had found themselves physically incapable of giving their attention during the number of hours required at the close of the Session. He also felt indebted to the right hon. Member for Stroud for his observations, for, although the terms of his Amendment, if adopted, would narrow the subjects to be submitted to the Committee, which he was sure was not the intention of the right hon. Gentleman, his remarks pointed to one of the great difficulties to which they were exposed—namely, the lateness of the period at which measures were introduced 170 by the Government for the consideration of the House. He agreed with the opinion that had been expressed, that it was of no use in introducing business in either branch of the Legislature when there was not time to consider it, and that it was useless to call upon the Government to proceed with their business before Easter, if the small number of days allotted to Government business precluded them. It was a growing practice for the House to expect the Government of the day to introduce almost all legislation of importance, and Ministers were constantly blamed for not either originating or taking up many measures of public importance. He did not say that this reflected credit upon the independent Members of the House, but it was a fact. It was necessary, therefore, to consider whether before Easter greater opportunities ought not to be afforded the Government for getting their measures forward. The right of making Motions on going into Committee of Supply should not, however, be further restricted; for any overstrained rule for that purpose would certainly force hon. Members to seek irregular occasions for discussion, of which the prolonged and irregular discussions on Fridays afforded an illustration. The great object was to enable the House to discuss the most important measures with the largest possible number of its Members present, and without taxing human strength beyond its powers of endurance. The nights appropriated to the Government should be kept sacred for their business; and the Government, on the other hand, ought not to encroach on the day set apart for private Members. It was chiefly owing to the non-observance of that principle that the labours of last Session proved intolerable to the senior Members. He would not recommend the attempt to fix an arbitrary limit to their debates; but the Committee might fairly inquire whether it would not be more conducive both to the dignity of the House and the health of its Members if no new debate was allowed to originate after one o'clock in the morning.
§ MR. MONCKTON MILNES
thought the House must be grateful to the right hon. Member for Stroud for showing, by irresistible logic, that the acceleration of public business could not depend solely, or even very largely, upon the forms of the House. During the last twenty years the time allotted to private and independent Members had been considerably curtailed, and yet the evil was now so patent, that another 171 investigation was demanded. That proved that they had not much to expect in the way of expediting public business from the Committee now moved for by the First Minister. He very much agreed with the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire that the business of that House was, on the whole, managed with great skill, and almost as well as the nature of a popular assembly would permit. The means of obtaining increased despatch were really to be found in quite a different direction. A joint Committee of both Houses might be able to bring the business of the two chambers into such a train that they might at the same moment be going on with the most important measures instead of, as at present, throwing so much of the work upon the one House in the early part of the Session, and leaving so much to be done by the other just before the prorogation. He trusted the proposed Committee would in no way put impediments upon the freedom of debate. It was most important that they should preserve their characteristics as a great Parliamentary Assembly, quite irrespective of their legislative functions. Last year there was, perhaps, a greater abuse of the liberty of discussion than ever before existed in that House; yet the remedy was not to be found in a mere formal Resolution, but in the sense and judgment of that assembly. The House had in its hands the strongest of all remedies, if it thought fit to apply it. Their gratitude was due to the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass), who, in a speech to his constituents last autumn, laid before the country statistical evidence as to who really caused the business of the House to be delayed. Now, when he found fifth on the hon. Member for Derby's list of culpables, the name of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), who himself last year showed such extraordinary eagerness to abridge the freedom of their debates, he confessed he was greatly astonished. That right hon. Gentleman would, no doubt, be a member of the proposed Committee; and it was to be hoped that the revelation of his own transgressions would calm his zeal on this subject, and lead him to reflect that it was the main duty of that House to maintain its functions as representing the opinions, feelings, and wishes of all classes of the people of England, and not to degenerate into one of those mere legislative machines of which they had examples in neighbouring countries.
§ SIR JOHN PAKINGTON
Sir, I think that both the right hon. Member for Stroud and the hon. Gentleman who spoke last have rather lost sight of the practical question raised by the Motion before us, namely, how this House is to conduct the business of the country. I hope, after what has passed, that the right hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendment. I confess that, in giving my assent to the Motion of the noble Lord, I am disposed to go rather further than my right hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire. As a Member of this House I feel greatly indebted to the Government for making this proposal, to which I have no hesitation in giving my most cordial approval. At the same time I must say the House of Commons has received rather more blame than it deserves for the legislative failures of last Session. I apprehend the noble Lord's Motion is much founded on what then took, place; but the great cause of those failures is to be attributed to the Government rather than to this House. They were very much due to the programme of the Ministry; for when they called upon us to consider a French Treaty, a most complicated Budget, a Reform Bill, and a Bankruptcy Bill of 500 clauses, all in one Session, their experience must have taught them that such a thing was simply impossible. Again, the first fortnight of last Session was lost because the Government had not their measures prepared. I am free to admit that they have avoided these errors this year, their present programme being much less ambitious, and their projected measures being apparently ready for the meeting of Parliament. But I must express a feeling in which I know not how far hon. Members on either side of the House may agree—namely, my great regret that the noble Lord has this year departed from the precedent established last year in respect to the period for the reassembling of Parliament. I, for one, sincerely wish that we had been called together fully three weeks earlier than we have been, and I see no reason why that was not done. The inconveniences which this Committee is intended to remedy are various; but surely one of the great evils which we all wish to correct is the intolerable length of the Session—an evil not only injurious to individual Members of this assembly, but hurtful to the public interests. I believe our Sessions might be much abridged if we were to meet soon after the Christmas holydays, and that 173 arrangement might, in my opinion, be easily made. I have thrown out this suggestion before. Parliament was summoned last year a fortnight earlier than this, and I had hoped that that was only the beginning of an improved practice which would be continued. The real object of this Motion is for a Committee to consider whether our forms for conducting business may not be amended. Some hon. Gentlemen have praised the manner in which our business is conducted. Without intending to offer any disrespect to the House, I must say I cannot concur in their eulogiums. I do not deny, for it is notorious, that we do transact a great amount of public business; but I do think it might be transacted much better. There are three great evils of which there is constant complaint. The first, is that there is a great waste of time—a waste more fairly ascribable to our form of proceedings than to the conduct of individual Members. Secondly, nobody denies that every year there is a great deal of business left undone; while, in the third place, everybody knows that of the business which we do a very considerable proportion is hurried over in the most indecorous manner in the month of August, after a large number of Members have left town. We have every year a ceremony, which has become a kind of bad joke, but which seems rather to indicate a want of attention on our part to the business of the country. Every July we have the First Minister coming down to the House to propose what is termed "the Massacre of the Innocents,"—that is, to state what are the Bills of that year which it is proposed to abandon. I have long considered this, which has become an annual ceremony, to be nothing more than an avowal on the part of the House of Commons that it is unable to transact the business of the country. I have been of opinion that for many years the immensely increasing business of the country has outgrown the forms of our proceedings, and that we ought to revise those forms, in order that we might be able to transact the business of the nation in a more satisfactory manner than we do at present; and I am convinced that these forms might be simplified and modified and greatly improved without inflicting injury or encroachment upon the just privileges of individual Members. So strongly was I impressed with that conviction, that I moved for the Committee that sat in 1854; and I only wish that the Committee which the noble Lord pro- 174 poses now to appoint will deal with the important subject referred to in a less cautious—I might almost say, in a less timid spirit—than that which characterized the Committee over which I had the honour of presiding in 1854. That Committee did less than nothing. In order to show, however, that the recommendations of Committees are not conclusive as to the proceedings of this House, I may mention that one of the few Resolutions agreed to by the Committee of 1854 was, "That the House at its rising on Friday do stand adjourned until the following Monday, unless the House shall otherwise order." That is one of the subjects to which the noble Viscount had adverted, and we know how that recommendation has been acted upon. I may say, without disrespect, that the Committee of 1854 was not at all disposed to make much alteration in the forms of the House. They passed eight or nine Resolutions, referring mostly to very trivial matters. I submitted a long series of Eesolutions—some thirty or forty—pointing out changes which I thought could be made; but the Committee would scarcely entertain them. That was no doubt my fault in a great measure for the manner in which I had prepared them; but I can only say that every proposal which I made had received the previous consent and concurrence of the distinguished Speaker who then presided over us—the present Lord Eversley. The evidence of the right hon. Gentleman tended to support my Resolutions; and in a subsequent conversation, when I told him how fruitless had been our Committee, and how indisposed the Members of it had been to make any changes; he told me that I must not be discouraged, as the same thing had happened to him in the early part of his Parliamentary career, and he had subsequently seen every one of the changes he had proposed gradually adopted by the House, and he said that I should be, in all probability, long enough in Parliament to see all my Resolutions carried into effect. My belief is, that when the Committee enters upon this business, they will be astonished to find how simple and moderate were the changes which were refused in 1854, and I hope the Committee about to be appointed will proceed in a bolder spirit than their predecessors, and that they will not hesitate to propose such changes as will enable this great assembly, without encroaching upon the freedom of debate, or the privileges of individual Members, to transact the business of the 175 nation with greater despatch, and therefore with greater satisfaction to the country than at present.
§ MR. T. DUNCOMBE
said, the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, had gravely asked whether the forms of the House might not be much improved, and the answer must be decidedly, "Yes." The whole difficulty lay in a small compass, and he would ask the right hon. Baronet whether he did not think a great deal of the time of the House was wasted, and often by Members sitting in the vicinity of the table, in making long speeches about nothing at all? Somehow or another, they often heard of arrangements being made, against all the rules of Parliament, that Mr. So-and-So should follow such a Speaker. How those arrangements were he could not say, but he thought it would be better if the Member who first caught the Speaker's eye were allowed to address the House—for he thought the privileges of independent Members had been encroached upon by the kind of arrangement he had alluded to. Now, it was proposed to have a Committee of twenty-one; but he fancied that so numerous a Committee would leave the question pretty much where they found it. Twenty-one Members would not do as well as nine or eleven practical men who understood the business of the House. If there were to be two Committees, there was one branch of the inquiry which he thought should not be intrusted to the Gentlemen who were to sit upstairs, and that was with regard to Bills pending in that and the other House just before the prorogation. Lord Derby, on the 19th of July last year, made a most rational and sensible proposal to the House of Lords, that a Committee should be appointed for the purpose of ascertaining how the Parliamentary business might be better transacted. The noble Earl on that occasion said there were, on the 19th of July, fifty-eight Bills in various stages before the House of Lords, nine of which had been set up that very day, and forty-five Bills in the House of Commons. It was impossible to deal satisfactorily with such an amount of business at that season, and the noble Earl proposed to consider some plan whereby Bills not finally disposed of at the prorogation might be taken up in the ensuing Session at the stage to which they had arrived. But what was the answer of the Government? It was said it might be right to appoint a Committee to examine the subject, and the Commit- 176 tee had better be a joint one; but the House of Commons was at that time in such a state of irritation about the Paper Duties that it would not be safe for a Committee of the two Houses to meet together. Surely that apprehension of Lord Granville must have been wholly groundless, for he (Mr. Duncombe) had never known the House of Commons to humble itself more than it had then done. The Chancellor of the Exchequer pocketed the insult, and the paper duties too, and up to the present time the insult and the paper duties existed. The noble Lord at the head of the Government did propose some Resolutions about the privileges of the House of Commons; but the Paper Duties were not mentioned in them, and when posterity came to read those Resolutions it would be at a loss to know to what they referred. Thus Lord Granville's apprehensions were founded upon quite imaginary dangers. He (Mr. Duncombe) thought Lord Derby's suggestion deserved their consideration, and that a Committee of the two Houses might usefully be appointed to consider whether a prorogation ought not to be an adjournment, and not an abandonment of unfinished Bills, and whether those Bills might not be re-introduced in the next Session in the stage which they had reached in the past Session. Then, again, much time would be saved if hon. Gentlemen carefully considered whether the subjects they brought under discussion were of public interest, and, if so, whether they were introduced at the proper time. He had been often asked to bring forward matters upon the question of adjournment, but he said "No;" if he brought it on at all it would be as a substantive Motion. Other Gentlemen did not adopt that rule, and thus sometimes the question of adjournment had been left open until eleven o'clock, in order that one Gentleman might make a speech about China, another about France, a third about India, others about Austria and Italy; and the Foreign Secretary must be a sort of Colt's revolver, for he had often five or six questions to answer when he rose. He had himself, at the close of last Session, given notice of a Motion on the subject of the questions asked on the Motion of adjournment of the House. But the noble Lord did not think it right to discuss the suggestion in the absence of so many hon. Gentlemen who had gone to the moors; and he, therefore, promised to move for a Committee to inquire into the question early this Session. That promise the noble Lord had now 177 fulfilled. But he (Mr. Duncombe) thought that eleven would be a better number for the Committee than twenty-one.
concurred with the hon. Member for Finsbury that a Committee of nine or eleven would be better than a Committee of twenty-one; but however the Committee might be constituted he thought the subject would come down from the Committee much in the same state in which it stood at present. He had heard nothing in the various suggestions made that had not been already frequently discussed. The House had the regulation of its business in its own power, and to get it done at a reasonable period of the Session it ought to insist on the Government bringing in its Bills as early as possible. The Irish Members were especially interested in this being done. They suffered most severely from the practice of the Government introducing Bills at the end of the Session. There were often forty or fifty Orders of the day on the paper, and if an Irish Bill were at the bottom of the list, as somehow generally happened, the Irish Members were obliged to remain till three or four in the morning. Their constitutions must be stronger even than those of the English Members to bear it. The noble Lord would recollect that on one occasion last Session, they were reduced to seven, and — like Seven Wise Men—they went home to bed. Again, much time was wasted in discussing Motions that were sure to be withdrawn. He intended during the present Session to oppose the withdrawal of any Motion after it had been discussed. But he would make an exception in favour of the Amendment the hon. Member for Stroud had just proposed. There ought to be some means adopted to shorten speeches, particularly those from the front Government and Opposition Benches. Some recognized Members of the House appeared to think they were at liberty to speak for three or four hours, and that they were not to be voted bores for so doing; while other Members, if they attempted to speak only for a few minutes, were cried down immediately. A practical mode of putting a stop to the waste of time by long speeches would be to make it a rule of the House that when any Member had addressed them for a quarter of an hour the Speaker should put it to the House, as a Question, whether it would hear that hon. Member any longer or not. He believed that any one could condense all he had to say of any 178 importance into a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. It was seldom that a Gentleman whose ideas had been ventilated in the House for one or two hours obtained more than a column in The Times of next morning, and he would find that it contained the whole of his ideas, expressed more clearly and in much better language than he had himself used. Such a rule as he suggested would never prevent the fullest debate, for if it was an interesting speech on an interesting subject the House would never refuse the permission to proceed with it.
§ COLONEL FRENCH
said, that if the statement of the hon. Member for Fins-bury were correct, and the instruction to the proposed Committee did not embrace the point as to continuing Bills from Session to Session, he did not think that Committee would do any good. In the first place, there was a complaint on the part of the Government that they had not a sufficient number of days. But the Government always had the remedy in its own hands. He did not remember a case in which, having stated that they required more days for the transaction of their business, the Government had been refused. There could be no opposition on the part of the House to the early consideration of the Estimates. Then came the abuse of the right of asking questions on the adjournment of the House from Friday until Monday. This abuse had sprung up with the connivance of successive Governments. It was originally contrary to the rules of the House itself. Friday was a Government night, and it sometimes had found it convenient that the business should be delayed, or not gone into. It then did not move the adjournment at the close of the sitting, but early in the evening. The consequence was, irregular discussions arose on the Motion. If the adjournment were moved at the end of the evening, these interruptions could not take place. He should not, however, oppose the Motion for a Committee.
§ MR. SLANEY
said, he highly approved of the Motion, and hoped that the Amendment would be withdrawn. He quite concurred with the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Pakington) that the business of the House had far outgrown its forms. He hoped the Committee would consider whether a vast portion of those private Bills, the number of which was increasing every year, in consequence of the increasing 179 prosperity of the country, might not be got rid of, as the House had got rid of the numerous private Bills which used to be brought in for the enclosure of commons —namely, by subjecting the promoters of those private undertakings to inquiries on the part of properly appointed Commissioners, as to the nature of the works they wished to accomplish, and then passing one general Bill at the close of the Session which should apply to all those undertakings which had received the sanction of the Commissioners.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question pat, and agreed to.
§ And on the Monday following it was ordered. That the Select Committee on Business of the House do consist of Twenty-one Members.
§ Committee nominated:—
§ Viscount PALMERSTON, Mr. DISRAELI, Sir JAMES GRAHAM, Lord STANLEY, Sir FRANCIS BARING, Sir JOHN PAKINGTON, Sir GEORGE GREY, Mr. WALPOLE, Mr. BRIGHT, Mr. SOTHERON ESTCOURT, Sir GEORGE LEWIS, Mr. HARDY, Mr. EDWARD PLEYDELL BOUVERIE, Colonel WILSON PATTEN, Mr. GREGORY, Mr. MAGUIRE, Mr. DUNLOP, Mr. KER SEYMER, Mr. MASSEY, Mr. DEEDES, and Mr. WILLIAM EWART:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Five to be the quorum.
§ House adjourned at a Quarter-before Nine o'clock.