§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)
proposed to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words, "upon this day six months." He said that the Bill was one of those which rose like spirits from the vasty deep, and required explanation. He should certainly show the House that this particular Bill required some explanation. In some eases, no doubt, as, for instance, in the case of enactments referring to friendly societies, it was necessary for them to be consolidated, for the assistance of the public; but it was not so important in Acts of this sort, because legal experts only were concerned with them. The so-called Consolidation Bills were commonly not Consolidation Bills at all. They arose in this way. A Department, when they had to carry into effect the wisdom of Parliament, embodied in a series of Acts, were confronted every day by new and sometimes great difficulties which they accumulated and presented to Parliament for removal. Then came what was called a, Consolidation Bill, and such was the ingenuity in Government Departments that they could persuade even his hon. Friend the Solicitor General that in change in the law was not a change in the law. Consequently, Consolidation Bills sometimes embodied changes in the law, not on the merits, but simply for the convenience of a Department.The merchant to secure his treasureConveys it in a borrowed name.Euphelia serves to grace my measure,But Chloe is my real flame.This Bill did alter the law. No Minister was responsible for the Bill, and that was 222 why the universal weightbearer, the Secretary to the Treasury, had to move the Second Reading, instead of some high legal authority: The Bill was introduced last year, and in speaking of it in the House of Lords on July 30th 1896, the Lord Chancellor said:—Nome years ago it was the practice to pass these Bills through the House of Commons with the simple, statement that they were Consolidation Bills.If the Lord Chancellor meant that these Bills had been exempt from the ordinary procedure of the House, he was entirely wrong. The Lord Chancellor continued:The Committee examined, word by word and line by line, everything that had been done in the wav of alteration. … It would not be possible to get Members of the House of Commons or of their Lordships' House, to go through this laborious and careful work, if it was afterwards to be east aside at the instance of any one Member who thought he would take an opportunity to amend the law where he thought it defective. If that system were pursued, it would be absolutely impossible to pursue this most useful work.…Whether any other system of doing this work could be contrived, or whether the Gentleman (who was not one of the six Members who gave their assistance) could do it better or not, the whole system must break down if Amendments were to be made on Bills of this kind, and it was hopeless to attempt anything like consolidation. This Bill of 93 clauses was not to become law because of this objection. It only showed what mischief might be done. If the practice were not suppressed by the action of the House, and in another place, he, for one, would hesitate to ask his noble Friends to waste their time on work which might be perfectly useless.… The House of Commons should take means to prevent so gross an abuse.It would be false modesty to affect not to know that the "any one Member" referred to by the Lord Chancellor was himself. [Laughter.]
§ *MR. SPEAKER
Order, order ! The hon. Member seems to be replying to a Debate in the House of Lords, which is out of order.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
It is out of order to refer to the Debate, and the hon. Member is not only referring to it, but is replying to a speech by the Lord Chancellor.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
said that to contend that, because the Bill had been examined by this Joint Committee, it 223 must therefore be withdrawn from the consideration of the House, was a contention against which he must protest. The mere breathing over the Bill of the magic word "consolidation," did not exempt it from the ordinary procedure. A Consolidation Bill was one which consolidated all the statutes relating to one subject; but this Bill did not fulfil that definition. It did not deal with the packet service, with the telephones, the telegraphs, or the parcels post. It only consolidated part of the law. The memorandum of the Bill claimed for it that it made "such alterations of the law only as are required for uniformity of expression and adaptation to existing law and practice, and does not embody any substantial amendment of the law." Surely the House of Commons ought to be allowed to form its own opinion on that subject. He would show that substantial amendments of the law were made. The memorandum of the Bill said:—It is identical with that which passed the Joint Committee last year, except that Clauses 27 and 32 have been altered so as to give effect to the repeals effected by the Public Health Act of last Session (59 and 60 Viet. c. 19), and words have been introduced in. Clause 74 to make it clear that the operation of s. 2 of the Public Accounts and Charges Act 1891 (54 and 55 Viet. c. 24) is preserved.The Bill of last year, which was said to be identical with this one, provided that, in spite of any other Act of Parliament, the fines, forfeitures, and other sums should be paid into the Exchequer. But it was then discovered by the Solons of the Committee, whose work was too sacred to be touched, that they had practically repealed the Act of 1891, which provided that all money directed by the Treasury to be applied as an appropriation in aid. should be so applied without bring paid into the Treasury. Section 2 of the present Bill gave the Treasury power to fix the rates and charges mi postal packets. That applied to all postal packets: and therefore it took away the express statutory right of newspapers to be curried for a halfpenny. Section 20, again, which prescribed certain rides for the registration of newspapers, now restricted the rules which were before general. Not only that, it provided that every page of a newspaper after the first 224 should bear the title and date of publication, wholly or in part. The words, "the whole or part of," were quite new. The decisions of the Courts were based upon the phraseology of Acts of Parliament, and the alteration of that phraseology might mean the destruction of u whole fabric of decisions of the Courts upon which the law was at present administered. That was one of the dangers of this Consolidation Bill. He did not object to consolidation. He objected to an advantage being taken of consolidation to alter the law, as in the case of the present Bill, and he protested against such action being coupled with the declaration that the House should not closely examine Bills of this character. Every Bill that came into the House should be subjected to the examination of the House. He had never known a Bill that had not left the House the better for that examination, and in the case of a Bill of this kind, with numerous provisions dealing with complicated matters, the most careful consideration was absolutely necessary. The Bill was presented to the House in the false guise of a Consolidation Bill. It was meant to further the small conveniences of an overworked and perhaps not very capable Department. He knew of no Department which was so continually construing Acts of Parliament, and was so absolutely incapable of doing it than the Post Office Department. He could give twenty instances of the incapacity of Post Office officials to construe Acts of Parliament, and as the Bill was introduced to relieve them of the difficulty of construing Acts of Parliament by altering the Acts to the way they wanted to construe them that he objected to the Bill.
§ MR. BARTLEY
seconded the Amendment. He thought the gradual consolidation of statutes was a valuable work, and that Bills having that object in view should be allowed to pass rapidly through the House. But the danger of most Consolidation Bills was that opportunity was taken to put, as the Departments thought, a certain number of things right, but which really amounted to amendments of the law. That was his hon. Friend's objection to the Bill, and he formally seconded his hon. Friend's Amendment in order that the House might have a statement as to the real effect of the Bill.
§ MR. H. C. F. LUTTRELL (Devon, Tavistock)
said his objection to the Bill was not so much that it left out things but that it consolidated faults. A fault was bad, but consolidated faults were worse. There was one fault particularly which he thought most objectionable. Under Clause 46 of the Bill the Postmaster General was to have power, with the consent of the Treasury, to purchase land for the purposes of the Post Office; and the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act was to apply. Under that Act it was possible for a man who was unwilling to sell his land to get 10 or 15, and indeed in some cases 20 per cent, more for his land because it was taken from him compulsorily. That was a most objectionable provision, because it was a direct incentive to a, landowner to refuse to give his land for any public or useful purpose. It was quite true that the interests of private owners of land should be safeguarded; but they should not encourage private owners to behave badly to the public; and he contended that by the application of the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act they were giving a direct inducement to landowners to behave badly to the public. He hoped, therefore, the Government would omit the application of that Act to purchasers of land under the Bill.
§ MR. HENNIKER HEATON (Canterbury)
appealed to his hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn to withdraw his opposition, to the Second Reading, in order that Amendments might be moved to the Bill in Committed The Bill afforded the first opportunity for many years of moving Amendments to the present Post Office law, and it was probable there would not be such a chance again for many years to come. He had put down several Amendments—one of which was that the Postmaster General should be a Member of the House of Commons—which he was sure would be acceptable to the people of the country, and under the circumstances he trusted his hon. Friend would not go to a Division against the Second Reading.
§ SIR ROBERT REID (Dumfries Burghs)
said the work done by the Joint Committee was exceedingly laborious and difficult; it was largely done by skilled draftsmen, and there were also skilled lawyers upon the Committee. The work must be in a certain degree imperfect—that much 226 should be conceded to human frailty—but every care was taken to prevent any mistake or any substantial alteration of the law. They might have to deal with from 20 to 40 Acts of Parliament in preparing a Consolidation Bill, and it was almost impossible to avoid infinitesimal alterations in the law. It was certainly necessary to alter the phraseology. He did not want to enter into any question which had arisen between the Lord Chancellor and an equally great luminary of that House as to whether the Lord Chancellor took the right view of what ought to be taken, in the House of Commons, but he did say all this work done by the Joint Committee was work of a character which could not be done there. This was work which ought to be tenderly regarded by both Houses of Parliament if it had been, done honestly, as it certainly had. His hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn complained that there had been an alteration in the law, while his hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock said they ought; to take this opportunity of legislating with reference to the Lauds Clauses Act if 1845. The hon. Member for Canterbury had hailed this as a splendid opportunity for altering the whole scope of the Post Office law, but if that course were adopted it was no use putting this irksome labour upon the Committee, and they had better give up consolidation altogether. He did not think Consolidation. Acts ought to be discouraged, on the contrary, he thought that the fault of our legislation was that we did not legislate scientifically. Every Member of that House had the right to propose Amendments to a Bill, and some Amendments were adopted ! under pressure or for Parliamentary reasons, without sufficient appreciation of the scope of the change which would be made in a particular Act. For his own part he should like to see the Houses of Parliament laying' down the principle as to what the law should be in a series of Resolutions, and leaving it to skilled persons to frame the law in accordance with those Resolutions, as was done in some foreign Legislatures. He was afraid, however, he could hardly look forward to so conservative an Assembly as our own adopting such a system. In the long Bill they were now considering he did not think the hon. Member for King's Lynn could point to any important change in the law. The point he had referred to 227 came before the joint Committee, und it was resolved to insert the words to which attention had been drawn in order to preserve the law as it existed. As to the right of a newspaper to be carried for a halfpenny, he did not think that was changed. He would suggest that in future a, list should be made of all those cases in which the Joint Committee considered they had altered the law at all, and that this list should be placed in front of the Consolidation Bill when it came to be considered by Parliament. But if they were to have Consolidation Bills criticised at length in that House, or if the complaint was to be made that they did not comprise desirable changes in the law, it would be a very great mistake to continue the system of consolidation. He hoped the House would not accept the Amendment, as it would be very unsatisfactory if all the labour of the Joint Committee were to be thrown, away.
§ MR. W. AMBROSE (Middlesex, Harrow)
said that, as a member of the Joint Committee since its commencement, and one of those most regular in their attendance, he thought it only right to say that he had never observed the slightest pretension or desire on the part of the Committee to alter the law. He could assure the House that they had been most jealous on every occasion to adhere to the rule that there should be no Amendment of the law. Such alterations as were involved in the piecing of one set of words to another wore, of course, absolutely necessary. The observations which had been quoted from the Lord Chancellor were made with reference to an Amendment that was upon the Paper of that House, and did not propose to point out that the Bill had gone beyond the lines of mere consolidation. When an Amendment to a Bill had been made—he recollected one such case—the special attention of the House had been called to it by the Report of the Joint Committee. He urged that the work of consolidation should not be mixed up with new reforms which might be desired.
§ SIR C. CAMERON (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
denied that the Bill would deprive newspapers of their existing statutory privileges. These they derived under the Act of 1870, and he did not find this among the statutes repealed in the schedule. It appeared to him that the proposal with regard to registration was 228 to secure that a registered newspaper should be deemed to be a newspaper for the purpose of any arrangement between the British Government and the Government of any British possession with regard to the contents. The effect of the Bill would be to define newspapers for international and colonial purposes.
§ MR. MAURICE HEALY (Cork)
said that Ireland had been greatly neglected in regard to the consolidation of the statutes applying to it, and he therefore appreciated all the more what the Government proposed to do in reference to Ireland. At the commencement of the Session the English Law Officers seemed anxious to improve the law by consolidating a series of Acts and enabling them to be more accessible. He appealed to the Attorney General for Ireland to take similar steps with regard to Irish statutes, but failed to induce him to do so. Chief Baron Palles, one of the greatest Judges in the United Kingdom, recently had before him an important question arising out of the Irish Poor Law. In his judgment he said he had had to consider a long tangle of statutes which ought to have been consolidated years ago, but, as they were Irish statutes, they seemed to be thought good enough for Ireland, and it was no one's business to set them right. Ireland only got the benefit of the consolidation of the law when the work was undertaken for the whole of the United Kingdom. As to separate consolidation of Irish statutes, there seemed to be little prospect of anything being done. With great respect to the hon. Member for Lynn Regis, Departmental Acts like Post Office Acts were the very class of Acts which most needed consolidation. Statutes of practical every-day importance, to which constant reference was made, and which lawyers had at their fingers' ends, did not need consolidation so much, and the absence of consolidation in respect to these was not felt so much. The Bill did not go far enough, but, as far as it went, it served a useful purpose. He agreed that where the principle of the law was altered, it should be done by statutory enactment. But a long series of statutes was bound to contain many absurdities and anomalies. There was no reason why these should be preserved and perpetuated, and it was right that they should, if possible, be eliminated. 229 The defining of what, a newspaper really was should be left in the hands of sensible officials. It appeared that newspapers, registered as such, prior to 1859 had privileges which newspapers registered since had not. The Post Office at Cork had refused lo accept as newspapers certain newspapers in that part of Ireland which issued literary supplements. At last, after many communications between the proprietors and the Postal officials, the word "supplement" was abandoned, and—hey, presto !—the Postmaster General accepted it. If any large change in the law were made, it should be done by the House as a whole, but he contended that those who carried out the consolidation of statutes were entitled to make alterations in detail and remove absurdities and anomalies.
§ *THE SOLICITOR GENERAL (SIR ROBERT FINLAY,) Inverness Burghs
agreed with the hon. Member for Cork as to the importance of the consolidation of the law being earned out, and hoped he might join in the appeal to the hon. Member for Lynn Regis not to press his Motion. ["Hear, hear !"] The question before the House was far more important than any which related to this particular Measure, for it really was a question of whether the House should elect to adopt a course of procedure which would absolutely put an end to the useful work of the consolidation of the statute law of England. He admitted that every hon. Member had a right lo criticise any Bill that came before the House, but at the same time he thought the common sense of the whole House would recognise that if such a right were to be exercised to the extreme limit, and every Consolidation Bill were to be submitted to minute criticism, they might give up the attempt altogether to consolidate the law of England. ["Hear, hear !"] The consolidation of statutes required that careful attention should be paid to the language. It was work which could only be done round a table, and it was preposterous to suppose that in a Committee of that House work of that kind could be done which could, however, safely enough be intrusted to a Committee whose duty it was not to alter the law, but to consolidate and avoid any substantial alteration of the law, and put the enactments which at present existed in such a form that they would be of 230 some practical use to any lawyer nut familial with the work of the Department who had occasion to deal with the subject-matter. ["Hear, hear !"] There was one portion of the speech of the hon. Member for Lynn Regis which he really must notice. The hon. Member said that Consolidation Bills were introduced from lime to time for the purpose of carrying out series of changes which the Department thought desirable. That was a statement to which he must give the most emphatic contradiction, and he thought that in making it the hon. Member must have been insensibly under the bias of the series of controversies he had with the Post Office in past days, in which, according to his own account, he was always right and the Post Office always wrong. [Laughter.] The hon. Member said it was mil a Consolidation Bill because it did not consolidate everything. Could anything be more absurd? They must proceed by degrees in consolidation. The Bill dealt with 20 Acts relating to the Post Office, and put them in a form which would be useful to all who had occasion to inform themselves with regard to the law on these matters. Extreme care had been exercised in regard to the Bill to insure that there should be no alteration of the law, which had been left substantially as it was before. ["Hear, hear !"] The hon. Member for South Islington seconded the Motion, but at the same time said he was keenly alive to the importance of consolidation, and should deeply regret that the House should commit itself to any course of action which would prevent the passage of Consolidation Acts. But the hon. Member must feel that if such a Motion as this were accepted by the House, the death-blow would be dealt to consolidation. The hon. Member for Islington suggested that they should have consolidation in the sense of reproducing the Acts as they were, treating them consecutively. Would not consolidation such as that be mere waste-paper? There would be a series of confused and fragmentary enactments, one after another, and the public would have to pick out from that heterogeneous mass what the law was. The consolidation which the public and lawyers who were not specialists desired was consolidation 231 which put together enactments in a shape, which could be read and comprehended by anyone not familiar with all the technicalities. ["Hear, hear !"] Again, the hon. Member for Devonshire said that extensive alterations ought to be made in the Bill, and that the House ought to embark on the consideration of the whole subject of the Lands Clauses Acts and the power of acquiring land for Government and public bodies, he asked the hon. Member whether he did not think the last branch of the inquiry would seal the death-warrant to any such measures of consolidation? The Bill might as well be thrown out on the Second Reading as exposed to the tire of such Amendments and such vital alterations as the hon. Member for Devonshire suggested. The Statute Law Revision Committee in these matters of consolidation was careful to avoid any alteration in the law, but it was no use reprinting old statutes exactly as they stood. Language in the year 1830 had not the same meaning as in 1897. The circumstances had changed, and they must adapt the language of their consolidation to the circumstances with which they were dealing. The Committee having charge of this consolidation had taken a great deal of trouble to avoid any substantial alteration in the law while putting together the enactments in such a shape as to be of practical use. He hoped the House would pass the Second Reading of the Measure, and not allow the useful work of statute law consolidation to be interfered with. ["Hear, hear !"]
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed for Thursday.