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Parliament—Public Business

Volume 202: debated on Monday 4 July 1870

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Observations

Sir, I wish to postpone the Order of the Day for the second reading of the Parliamentary Elections Bill from to night till Thursday week. I can confirm what my hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has stated with regard to Public Business. After questions of first urgency immediately before us have been disposed of, we hope we may be able to apply ourselves to the two Scotch Bills on the Paper—the Law of Entail Bill and the Game Bill. With regard to the Parliamentary Elections Bill, the future movements of the Government must somewhat depend on circumstances; but I am willing to hope as long as I can that we may be able to proceed with it. I cannot say I have any very sanguine hopes; but some hopes I shall continue to cherish till we arrive at the time when progress may prove impossible. I wish also to say that there are several other Bills, in addition to the two Scotch Bills mentioned, which we find it will be necessary to abandon—the Real Estate Bill, the Inclosures Bill, and the Turnpike Roads Bill, in lieu of which a Continuance Bill will be introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

asked if the Merchant Shipping Bill would be proceeded with during the present Session?

I think it probable that Bill will not be proceeded with. In reply to Lord JOHN MANNERS,

said, it was the intention of the Government to give a day to the Scotch Bills before proceeding with the Civil Service Estimates.

said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the unsatisfactory state of Public Business, very much, as he thought, from the practice of counting out the House. At this period of the Session it was only right that private Members should be afforded opportunities of clearing the Notice Paper; and hon. Members below the Gangway, being for the most part professional men and men in business, felt acutely the position in which they were placed, and considered that they had a fair claim to assistance in this matter at the hands of the Government. They had no chance of bringing forward their Motions unless the Government would take measures to insure a House in the evening after Morning Sittings. For his own part, he should like to see some alteration made in the present system. This was not the only obstruction of business. No later than the 17th of last month the proceedings in the House resembled a walking match at 2 o'clock in the morning, and he almost felt disposed to wonder that the thing had not got into the sporting papers. To put himself in order, he would conclude by moving that this House do now adjourn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—( Mr. Eykyn.)

said, he was able, in great part, to confirm what his hon. Friend (Mr. Eykyn) had said. He was in this unfortunate position—that he had had a Bill upon the Orders, and had come down to the House on three different occasions when he found that it had been counted out, and these three occasions had occurred since Whitsuntide. But he did not complain so much of the conduct of the Government as he did of the system of Day Sittings. Upon the occasions to which he referred the Government in each case had taken up the earlier hours of the day with Government Business. He thought that, after a Day Sitting occupied with Government Business, private Members who had Motions to bring forward in the evening ought to have the assistance of the Government in keeping a House. But he thought the time had come when the whole system of counting out the House ought to be considered. It struck him that the system was a remnant of barbarous times. ["No, no!"] At all events, it was very little in accordance with the reforms that had lately taken place in the procedure of that House, and the despatch of Public Business. To count out the House was a very proper protection to their constituents when public money was being voted; but that was the only time when the practice ought to be allowed. It was a practice which placed in the hands of a single Member a greater power than 38 others who might be present collectively possessed. The hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins), who was certainly very clever in the art of counting out the House, was here on Friday evening within two minutes after 9 o'clock, and he immediately called attention to the fact that there were not 40 Members present. If counting out were to be allowed at all, at least the Member who proposed it should do so from his place in the House, so that it might be known who it was that counted out the House.

said, as he had a Motion on the Paper on Friday when the House was counted out, he hoped the House would indulge him for one or two minutes. He had no complaint to make against the Government, though he thought the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hibbert), and other supporters of the Ministry who had Notices on the Paper, might fairly complain that the other day, when they had had a Morning Sitting for Government purposes, only two Members of the Government were on the Treasury Bench when the count-out took place. ["Five!"] There were only two when attention was called to the fact, though others might have come in afterwards; but he had not the honour of being a supporter of the Government, and, therefore, he could not ask them to keep a House for him. But though he had no right to complain of the Government, he thought he had a right to complain of a personal and political Friend. It was extraordinary, as the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hibbert) remarked, that on three occasions the House had been counted out by the hon. Member (Mr. Collins), and that on the occasion of the Bill which had been referred to, and of which his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Collins) professed to be a supporter, he had in the course of two hours made no fewer than 10 Motions for Adjournment, which did no good to anybody—except to those hon. Gentlemen who wished to stand well in the Parliamentary Buff Book, as it gave them an opportunity of making up their score. He was sorry the hon. Member was not present, as he had given him private notice of his intention to allude to his conduct; but it did appear to him that this was an extraordinary method of supporting a Bill. The hon. Member was an old Member of this House, and he (Mr. E. N. Fowler) was a young one; but it did appear to his unsophisticated mind that three counts-out and 10 Motions for Adjournment was a very peculiar mode of supporting a Bill. He did not know what the feelings of the hon. Member for Oldham might be; but were he in his place he should be tempted to apply to this conduct the lines which hon. Members would remember—

"Of all the evils which Heaven's wrath can send, Save me—oh, save me—from a candid friend."

said, as a young Member of the House, he must strongly deprecate the abolition of the practice of counts-out. They afforded the only relief to jaded Cabinet Ministers, and the only safeguard to private Members against the lengthy and wearisome speeches to which it had been his fortune now to listen to for 18 months, which he felt was 18 months too much. Counts-out, moreover, afforded the only protection against the crotchets of wearisome would-be legislators.

said, he did not rise to defend the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins), who was perfectly able to defend himself; but, after what had been said by the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hibbert), he must recall to the recollection of the House that the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Collins) invariably made his Motion that the House be counted out from his place in the House.

Sir, I think it only necessary to say that the Government have always acknowledged it to be their duty to make some effort on Friday evening for the purpose of securing a House at 9 o'clock. But it is not quite fair to adopt the doctrine of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Eykyn), who appears to think that, after sitting for 41 hours last week, the Government had nothing to do except to come bodily down on Friday evening for the purpose of constituting the necessary 40 Members. [Mr. EYKYN dissented.] The words went to that—that it was the duty of Members of the Government, as contradistinguished from all other Members of the House, to be here in their own persons even after a week of such labour as that. I was obliged to state at the commencement of this Session that not merely on Friday evening, but at all times, from causes connected in some degree with the improvements of locomotive arrangements out-of-doors, there would be increasing difficulty in keeping the House. I can state, on the part of the Government, that there have been a variety of occasions when not Public Business merely, but important Government Business, has been under discussion between the magical hours of half-past 7 and half-past 9 o'clock, when such has been the decrease of power—for there has not been any decrease of exertion on the part of the Government—that they have been indebted to the compassion of hon. Members for keeping a House. Of course, hon. Members will, to a certain extent, exert their own judgment and look at the nature of the Motions that happen to be on the Notice Paper; and if any want of interest happens to be felt in these Motions, or in such portions of these Motions as are likely to occupy a particular interval, that will tell very powerfully on the attendance of Members at the particular moment. I am very much disposed to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hibbert) that the subject deserves some consideration; but it is not quite accurate to say that the House was counted out upon three occasions since Whitsuntide after Morning Sittings; there have been two counts-out after Morning Sittings, and one which had not been so preceded. But my hon. Friend will bear in mind that a count-out of the House, especially on Tuesday, has been a practice that was apt to happen two or three times in the course of every Session. I do not disguise that it is our duty, within reasonable limits, to do what we can for the convenience of private Members. Undoubtedly, the attendance of Members of the Government on Friday night was not large enough to keep the House together; but it is fair to remember that they formed nearly a third of all who were present, and that they had sat the previous night till 2 or 3 in the morning. Considering that the Government is only an 18th or a 20th part of the whole House, I think that is no evidence of their remissness in their duty.

Sir, I think there is one point that ought to be considered, and that is the necessity of some considerable reserve in ascertaining whether there is a quorum or not when the House reassembles at 9 o'clock. I know from my own experience, when sitting at the other side of the Table, that when we had Evening Sittings at 9 o'clock there were several occasions on which there was an attempt to count the House almost before Mr. Speaker had taken his seat; and it was only from the practised tact of the right hon. Gentleman, which was beneficially exercised for the sake of the House, that the House was not counted out at that very moment. I am myself disposed not to change our rules and regulations, but to trust rather to the ability of the right hon. Gentleman who presides over us, and the good sense and good feeling of hon. Members. Still, I think this is a point on which there ought to be some reserve. I do not like to propose that, at the right time, it I should not be in the power of any Member to ascertain whether there is a quorum or not whenever the House assembles; but I think there ought to be an honourable understanding between; both sides of the House not to avail themselves of this privilege the moment that Mr. Speaker takes the Chair. Even if the pending discussion be interesting, I or likely to prove of interest, and even if there be a bonâ fide desire on the part of Gentlemen in considerable numbers on both sides of the House to be present, it is almost impossible to insure a House being made if practice so very sharp is followed. My own feeling is that I would rather leave it to the gentlemanlike instincts of both sides of the House than have any rigid rule upon the subject; but if an understanding were arrived at that a certain period, say a quarter of an hour, of grace was to be allowed—[An hon. MEMBER: Half an hour]—if a quarter of an hour of grace were allowed after Mr. Speaker has taken his seat before it is attempted to ascertain whether there is a quorum, there would be every opportunity of gratifying the legitimate wish for discussion, if such really existed, and any disagreeable incidents might be avoided.

The right hon. Gentleman relies for the success of his proposal on the good feeling of the House itself, a spirit which he has always conspicuously displayed, and against which I certainly have nothing to say. But the objection to the plan is, that Members relying on this quarter of an hour of grace may not come down until it has expired, and when they do arrive may find that the question before the House at the commencement of its sitting, possibly of great importance has, already been disposed of. I think if the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli) would say a friendly word in private to the hon. Member (Mr. Collins), who seems to be the chief culprit in this question, it might have a most wholesome influence. But the House must not forget that counts-out upon Friday evenings are a result of our own modern practice. In former times they rarely occurred; because hon. Members knew that if a count-out occurred before the Motion, "That this House at its rising do adjourn to Monday" had been agreed to, it inevitably followed that there must be a meeting of the House upon Saturday; and after it was agreed to the business was Government Business: the result was that counts-out on Friday night very rarely happened. My recollection of the matter is this—Thursday night was an independent Members' night, and they had the advantage of bringing forward their business before the House was exhausted, as it is at present on Fridays, by the labours of the week. Friday night, on the contrary, was a Government night, and there never was such a thing known as a count-out on a Friday. Unfortunately, however, hon. Gentlemen commenced the practice of raising debates on the Question of adjournment to Monday, as they do now on the Motion for going into Committee of Supply. Thus, the Government Business was put off till a late hour in the evening, and sometimes never came on at all—this created dissatisfaction; and the result was that Thursday was made a Government night, Friday being constituted a Supply night, and the Motion for adjournment got rid of; of course it was understood that the Government would make a House and keep a House. All this has been forgotten; and I certainly do not think we can expect hon. Gentlemen who have been sitting here all the week to come down early on Friday evening to keep a House. I am often astonished when I see my right hon. Friend at the head of the Government sitting in his place for so many hours, and when I think of the enormous amount of labour he undergoes. Indeed, one of the evils of the present time is, in my opinion, the tremendous extent to which we tax the physical powers and the intellects of our leading public men. Yet when we see our leading public men prostrated we are surprised to find that the human frame and the human brain will not stand so large an amount of work. If we were less exacting, both with regard to the length of the debates and the demands we are continually making on Ministers to bring in Bills on every conceivable subject, the public service would be greatly benefited, and we should have no more questions about counts-out, which are merely caused by the reaction of a fatigued House.

said, that under the present arrangements it was almost impossible for a private Member to carry an opposed Bill. He himself had introduced a measure at the early period of the Session, and it was read a second time before the end of March; but up to the present time he had failed to get it into Committee.

Sir, I think I ought to say a word in favour of the hon. Member who moved that the House be counted on Friday evening (Mr. Collins). If any hon. Gentleman will take the trouble to look at the Notices which were down for that evening he will not be at all surprised that the Motion was made.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.