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But very few Bills are discussed at length on first reading, and inordinate talk on the second can always be checked by the closure ; it is the Committee stage which is the most open to abuse, and the most capable of reform. It has been said that the best Committee for business purposes is composed of two persons, of whom one is habitually absent; but it is going rather far in the opposite direction to expect the details of an intricate Bill to be discussed in a business-like fashion in a Committee open to 600 odd members, each of whom thinks he is as wise as his neighbour, and most of whom have to justify their existence to their constituents.
All the proposals for reform of procedure agree that there must be large devolution in the Committee stage. The trouble is to devise a method whereby the House will be able to delegate its work to Grand Committees without losing the control which it ought to retain over the details of important measures.
Nothing will be gained if the work done in Committee is done all over again in the House; yet the majority of the Committee, if left to themselves, may arrive at conclusions of which the majority of the House will entirely disapprove.
This difficulty, however, might be met to some extent if the practice were adopted of moving instructions to the Grand Committee, which was to deal with a Bill. Such instructions, strictly limited to questions of principle, would be brought forward on the motion for referring the Bill to its Committee.
For example, if that course had been taken with the Irish Land Bill, instructions might have been moved to the Committee “ that all lease-holders should get the benefit of the Act," and “to introduce a scheme for revision of judicial rents”; debates on which being kept to the principle would have been much shorter than those in which the phraseology of the Bill was actually altered, 80 as to cover the points named. Of course, on the Report stage, the House should have the opportunity of judging how the Grand Committee had carried out its instructions ; but it is a question whether, if dissatisfied, the House should proceed to deal with the Bill itself, with the Speaker in the Chair, and each member limited to one speech on each motion; or whether the Bill should be sent back for further amendment on points indicated to the Committee, which might then itself be strengthened by the addition of members who had shown themselves, in the debate on the Report, to take special interest either way in particular clauses.
Personally I am inclined to prefer the latter course, for there is so much work that can only be done by the House itself, that, in my opinion, the principle of devolution should be carried as far as possible; and there will probably be a pretty general feeling in favour of referring selected portions, at any rate, of the Estimates, also to a Grand Committee; if, indeed, there is not a disposition on this as on other points to go beyond the recommendation of Lord Hartington's Committee.
The annexed table, copied from the Pal Mall Gazette, shows at a glance the differences in the various proposals that have lately been made :
Sir M. H. BEACH. Sir W. HARCOURT.
Motion of Adjourn. 100 members General consent. As now-that is, 40 Previous consent ment. necessary.
of Speaker. Division by Show In all
If minority, less In all cases if of hands, Speaker likes.
than 40 (now if Speaker likes.
less than 20). Early Meetings and Closing. 2 P.M.-12.30. 2 P.M.-12.30. 3 P.M.-12.30.
2-12.30. Closure at Mid. Not proposed. Proposed by abso- By majority of 2-1. By absolute night. lute majority.
majority. Debate on Address.
Amendments' Com. Committee and
mittee and Report Report to be
to be abolished. abolished. Standing Com. All public bills Estimates included. All public Bills- Three Committees mittees. to be devolved. -5 Committees. 4 Committees. -law, trade, and
Taking the points enumerated in order, it may be said that Sir M. H. Beach's proposal as to Adjournments of the House seems, on the whole, the one most likely to work for the public advantage. The present rule can be made use of by small minorities for imposing on the House discussions for which it has no desire, and which cannot be closed without the attendance of 200 members; and there has been a tendency this session towards its abuse. I should not be satisfied to leave the power it confers in the hands of any forty members. On the other hand, to require the “ general consent” of the House would enable a few mischievous or obstructive members to prevent the discussion of a matter of really “urgent public importance.”
Mr. Smith proposed this year that motions for Adjournment should only be made with the previous consent of the Speaker; but in the subsequent debates on the Closure Rule, it was plain that the House was keenly alive to the danger of overweighting the Chair, and of placing the Speaker in a position which might expose him to imputations of partizanship; and a study of the motions for adjournment this session will show that the Speaker would have been placed in an invidious position if he had felt called on to veto any of them, though it is certain that the questions raised in some cases did not come up to the standard of “urgent public importance” which was contemplated when the rule was made.
Division by show of hands, or rather by members rising in their places, may seem a small matter, but when it is considered that the present Parliament has spent the equivalent of more than a fortnight's sittings in the division lobbies, its value will be appreciated. In a great many cases nothing more would be required, though it would obviously be necessary, in the public interest, to retain the power of recording the votes of members on certain occasions.
The weight of authority in favour of habitual morning sittings is overwhelming, now that Conservatives, Liberals, and Lord Hartington's very experienced and representative Committee combine to recommend them. The Committee differs from all three of the official proposals by recommending 3 instead of 2 for the hour of meeting; and, inasmuch as the Cabinets have proposed the earlier hour, it must be presumed that the later one, though not desired by Ministers or officials, is advised for the sake of the business and professional men, who are steadily becoming more numerous. in the House. To these it might fairly be said that if they cannot afford to give public business precedence over their private affairs, they had better stick to private life; but much depends in this on the course adopted with regard to “Private Business” and Questions. The House is seldom fuller than it is at Question time, and is seldom less profitably employed. Under a reformed system the time spent on preliminaries could easily be reduced by nearly an hour, and then 3 o'clock would answer every purpose that 2 o'clock would at present.
There are questions and questions. On 11th March, Mr. McCartan asked whether a policeman had struck a drum with a blackthorn stick in a street row; and hours are wasted every session over inquiries of no greater interest or importance ; so a good many people were astonished when Lord Hartington's Committee made no recommendation on this head, except as to questions without notice. It was understood that the necessity of presenting their report before the Dissolution of last year, prevented the consideration of this, among other minor points. I believe want of time was the reason of their silence, but, at any rate, it would be worth while to try the effect of filtering the questions through a Committee, and of printing the answers to them for circulation with the votes.
A fixed hour for the close of debate involves automatic closure; and experience has shown that it could never be depended on if the Committee's recommendation of a 2 to 1 majority were adopted.
One may reasonably hope that no future Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition will seek to prolong debate on the first reading of a. Bill beyond five nights. Four sufficed for that stage of the Home VOL. X.
Rule Bill last year. Be that as it may, few will deny that if ever the closure was to be used, there was a fair case for its employment in closing the debate on the first stage of the Crimes Bill on April 1st. Yet the debate then would have gone on for an indefinite period, if the House had been bound by the recommendation of Lord Hartington's Committee, or even by the less prohibitory proposal of Mr. Courtney ; for the proportionate majority was less than 3 to 2, though the House gave as decisive a vote as it often does in a regular party division, the Government polling nearly thirty more than a moiety of the members, which would have given them a majority of nearly sixty, even if every member had voted, and, in fact, did give them a majority of over a hundred, the figures being 361 to 253.
The delays of the two last sessions go to prove that the closure must be made easier of application if it is really to protect the House of Commons from obstruction. There are three dangers in its application: the danger of surprise, the danger of tyranny, and the danger of disorder. The last is averted by that provision of the Rule which allows the Chair to refuse to put the motion, and it was admitted in the debates last spring, that the existing numbers were adequate protection against either tyranny or surprise. In practice the protection of the existing numbers is so complete as to leave the majority still very much at the mercy of the minority. During the Autumn Session of 1886 in none of the divisions in supply was the majority over 200, while the minority never fell below 40. The use of the closure was, therefore, out of the question; and it is well known that this session it has been very difficult to keep a sufficient number of members constantly within reach, and that still more time would have been wasted had not the Conservative whips been most efficient, and their men most zealous. Since the rule was amended the closure has been used twenty-five times. On only six of these occasions did the minority exceed 150, and only four times was the difference between the minority and the majority less than 100. Surely, without any risk of either tyranny or surprise, the number required to closure an obstructive minority that may be as small as 41 might safely be reduced to 150.
But it is not only in the time and progress of debate that reform is needed; there is room for improvement also as regards the choice of subjects and continuity of discussion ; and much relief would be afforded if
(a) The House could choose for itself which it would discuss of the numerous Bills and motions brought forward by private members.
(6) If Bills brought to a certain stage one year could be taken up at the same in the next.
At present the precedence of private members' business is decided by ballot; and though the House, on a given Wednesday, may be ready and willing to discuss a measure for radical alteration in the system of private bill legislation, it may find itself condemned to debate a measure of no greater importance to the commonwealth than the Bill for giving a close time to hares. The only attempt on the part of any Government to meet this anomaly is Mr. Smith's proposal that after Whitsuntide public bills should have priority according to the progress they have made ; which is very good as far as it goes, but it requires to be supplemented by one of the plans proposed for making the progress of bills before Whitsuntide depend on public approval instead of chance.
Again, if a Bill fails to pass the whole of its stages in both Houses in one session, it lapses absolutely, and its promoters have to recommence from the beginning. There must be advantages in this system, or it would have been altered before ; but they are much less obvious than its disadvantages, and it would certainly seem reasonable that bills which had passed one House one year might be taken up in the other House the next; and that, at any rate, Parliament should be free to order that the consideration of bills which had made a certain progress should be renewed at the same stage in the next session, provided no dissolution intervened. For instance, the evils consequent on the nonrevision of the criminal law are certainly greater than any that would have arisen if that much-needed measure had been worked through Parliament piece-meal.
But reforms in this branch of Procedure, as in Questions, Limitation of Speeches, Closure, &.., though good as far as they go, only touch the fringe of the difficulty, which cannot be dealt with except by devolution to Grand Committees; and, before such a system can be put into working order, it is essential, in the words of Lord Hartington's Committee, that arrangements should be made to relieve the House of the duties now discharged by Private Bill Committees.
The change indicated is a very far-reaching one; it means that, for the future, legislation which empowers railway companies or other corporations to deal arbitrarily with the property of private individuals shall be investigated by judges, commissioners, or county authorities, instead of by that Imperial Parliament which has hitherto kept in its own hands the whole of the jurisdiction over such matters.
It would be easy to write at length on this subject, but it will be sufficient now to point out that the existing system is open to attack on other grounds than the demands which it makes on the time of members. The. Duke of Newcastle said, in 1845, that