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Government Measiircs and Private Business. 89
In selecting its measures it must always give a preference to those which are most desired, or most capable of being understood, by the people at large; and there will always remain outside the list of such measures a vast number of projects which, either from their technical character, or from their concerning only special classes of the community, or dealing with little appreciated though very real and pressing problems of government, have no chance of being promoted at all, except through the personal energy of private members. It is the great complaint among the more far-seeing statesmen of the present day, that the tendency brought about by the multiplication and crush of business in the House is either to defer indefinitely the schemes of private members as thus understood, or to interrupt them at some stage or other, so as to render legislation with regard to them impossible. In the formation of the most recent rules for the conduct of business in the House, the rival claims of the Government and of private members were kept in view, though it is yet to be seen how far they have been happily reconciled. Supposing all fear of intentional obstruction is got rid of, it would seem to be most undesirable to introduce any further restrictions than those which already exist in respect of such matters as speaking frequently in Committee, asking questions of Ministers, moving repeated amendments or adjournments, and the like; it being obvious that the Government of the day, by its command of a majority, by the confessed importance of its affairs, and by the corporate support it derives from all its members, can always do far more than hold its own. The new rules which have been tentatively adopted for expediting general business by restricting the right of members to make motions on
all kinds of topics at the time of the House resolving itself into Committee, are specimens of the sort of invasion of the rights of private members which is proceeding from the side, not so much of the Government, as of the business already recognised as being of public importance. Such rules, however, must be very elastic, and their ultimate form, if they attain any ultimate form, will probably be rather determined by the exigencies of the country at the time, and not by constitutional considerations.
What is known as the ' half-past twelve rule,' after being tried in several sessions, was adopted as a Standing Order on the 18th of February, 1879. The rule is that 'except for a money bill, no order of the day or notice 'of motion be taken after half-past twelve of the clock at 'night, with respect to which order or notice of motion 'a notice of opposition or amendment shall have been 'printed on the notice paper, or if such notice of motion 'shall only have been given the next previous day of sit'ting, and objections shall be taken when such notice is 'called.' On the last discussion of the rule, it was by no means unhesitatingly supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who represented the Government; and it is probable that on the whole the rule rather operates in favour of private members than of the Government. Members of the Government are likely to be more persistently in their places than average private members, and a vast quantity of formal Government business which is never seriously opposed might be delayed, under the new rule, by any single member of the House putting down his name as an opposer. The business of private members, on the other hand, can benefit very little from the absence of casual interruptions of this Character and Scope of Private Bills. 91
sort, as it has no chance of being successfully terminated without the overt support of a substantial and vigilant majority of members. On the whole, the rule betokens a salutary disposition to check an indolent, superficial, or servile mode of getting through its business, with which the load of modern legislation might be likely to familiarise the House.
One of the most practical forms in which the multitude of business before Parliament in modern times, and the perplexities attending its satisfactory discharge, are represented is to be found in that part of Parliamentary practice which relates to Private Bills. When it is remembered that one class of private bills covers almost the whole field of Government interference with burial-grounds, charters and corporations, churches or chapels, cities or towns, Crown, Church, or Corporation property, fisheries, gaols, gas-works, letters-patent, markets and police, and the other class includes almost the whole field of like interference with bridges, canals, railways, docks, drainage, embankments, harbours, piers, streets, turnpike roads, tramways and waterworks, it is seen at once that, while every other branch of legislation tends to become simpler through the acceptance of uniform principles, or to be superseded by the fact of its having been finally accomplished, there is an almost infinite field open in respect to private bills. They tend to become numerous as the arts and inventions which improve human existence become numerous, iind to grow intricate as the forms of human association and the fine gradations of competing interests increase in variety and complexity. There is a true and justly apprehended danger that, in no long time the business of so-called private bills will absorb the main attention of the two Houses, to the comparative neglect of questions of general policy, home and foreign, and at the expense of all the time and energy at the disposal of their members. And yet, in view of existing emergencies and well-established policy, the Houses can now neither refuse to legislate, nor—if they would prevent corruption, tyranny, and injustice of the most flagrant sort— withhold the employment of all resources required to enable them to judge wisely and administer skilfully. The question is thus raised to one of great constitutional importance, and the practical modes of dealing with it at the present time must here be adverted to in some detail. It concerns, in fact, not only the general functions of the two Houses of the Legislature, but the essential rights in respect of personal liberty, property, and liability to- taxation, of all members of the community. The right to govern, the mode of government, and the duties of the governed, are all involved. And yet the procedure with respect to private bills has hitherto almost escaped the notice of constitutional writers.
It does not appear that there has ever been any authoritative effort made to define what is a public and what is a private bill. Sir Erskine May 1 enumerates the chief cases which have occurred since 1828 in which a practical difficulty has been experienced in determining to which rank a bill belongs ; and while it is broadly understood that bills having in view only the particular interest or benefit of private persons or groups of persons,—as public companies, corporations, parishes, cities, or even counties,—rank as private bills, it is yet true that
1 Parliamentary Practice, chap. xiiv.
Procedure in the Case of Private Bills. 93
most bills concerning tbe metropolis have been treated as public bills; that bills concerning Edinburgh and Dublin have been treated as public or private according to their objects; that in 1839 three measures for improving the police in Manchester, Birmingham and Bolton were passed as public bills; that in 1856 a bill concerning the harbours of Dover, Ramsgate, Whitby, and Bridlington, and abolishing certain tolls and repealing local Acts, wa3 held to be a public bill; and that in 1861 the Bed Sea and India Telegraph Bill, which amended a private Act, was introduced and proceeded with as a public bill. The main distinction which governs the procedure applicable to the case of a private and of a public bill respectively is, that while, with regard to all measures whatever, the Houses do their best to protect vested interests, and to prevent unforeseen injury being inflicted on individual persons, in the case of a private bill the judicial or administrative aspect of the Houses is (at least in its earlier stages) the more prominent, and in the case of a public bill tbe purely legislative.
The standing orders of the two Houses with regard to private bills resemble each other in their general purport. Their provisions are extremely minute, and have to be rigidly adhered to by the promoters of the bills. The utmost pains are taken that every competitive interest shall secure a hearing, shall be efficiently advocated, and, in case the bill proceeds, shall be, if possible, compensated. Examiners are appointed to scrutinise the bill and the documents appended to it in their earliest stage, so that the time of the members of the House who form a Select Committee on the bill may not be wasted in discussing schemes which are inherently imperfect. Careful provision is made for the supply of