HC Deb 28 November 1826 vol 16 cc152-64
Mr. Littleton

rose for the purpose of submitting to the House certain Resolutions on the subject of Committees on Private Bills. They were, he observed, the same as those which he had submitted in the last session of the last parliament. It was not his intention, at present, to propose that they should form part of the standing orders of the House; but merely that they should continue in force during the present session, by way of experiment. If, at the end of that time, they should be found to have answered the object in view, it would be for the House afterwards to decide whether they should be enrolled amongst its general standing orders. As there were many members in this parliament who, he supposed, were not acquainted with the reasons which had urged the introduction of those resolutions in the last session, he would briefly state, that it had in that session been found necessary to provide some remedy for what was admitted to be an evil in the mode of carrying private bills through the committees. Complaints had been unsparingly made against the conduct of many members; and it was alleged, that very many of them had voted on committees where their own interests were concerned. He was aware that most of such complaints rested on very weak foundations; that they were frequently made by parties who had been foiled in the prosecution of improper projects; and sometimes were urged by professional men, who felt their character at stake by the course they had advised in the prosecution of those measures. Still, however, it could not be denied, that there were some instances in which members, either by the influence of personal interest, or by other causes, had suffered themselves to be warped from the straight line of their duty. This undoubtedly was an evil, and an evil for which it was necessary that some remedy should be provided. A private bill, it should be recollected, called for the suspension of some general law in a case alleged and presumed to be for the public good; and it therefore required the particular attention of the House, in order that no measure should obtain its sanction which was not clearly proved to be for the public advantage. The measures which he should propose were—[Here the hon. member went over the leading points of the resolutions with which he intended to conclude.] He then went on to observe, that, after the experience of the last two sessions, it could not be denied that some measure of the kind now proposed was absolutely necessary. He was aware that two other modes of remedy were preferred by some lion, members. One was, to refer each private bill to a select committee; and the other, to allow each case of abuse to be brought forward for a particular remedy. He did not think that either of those modes would correct the evil complained of. With respect to select committees on which it would be obligatory on the members chosen to serve, he thought it would be impossible to secure the attendance of a sufficient number of members, particularly where many members might be required. Some would be prevented by their professional pursuits, others by their official duties, and many by their age; but on the whole, so many causes would daily operate against attendance, that it would be almost impossible to make that mode of deciding of private bills effective. With respect to the other plan, of leaving each case of individual abuse to its particular remedy by the House, he thought it would be inefficient, as this plan had hitherto been followed, and yet, in the last two years, they had found the number of complaints daily increase. Should the course which he pointed out be adopted, no complaint of injustice could be without its remedy, for the party making it would have the power of appeal, and the case would be decided by the select committee, who would be acting in the nature of a jury, and in their decision the utmost impartiality must be expected. According to the present mode of making out the lists of persons to serve on private committees, there were two kinds of lists. Some consisted of fifty or sixty members, while others contained as many as two hundred. What was the cause of the discrepancy he could not state, but it was one which required amendment. He had known instances where a majority of the members in a committee on a private bill had a direct pecuniary interest in its success. What chance could there be that the parties coming before such a committee would be satisfied with their decision? To avoid any inconvenience from such a cause, his resolution would propose that one hundred and twenty members should be chosen on a committee; of these sixty should be chosen from the county and its vicinity immediately connected with the object of the bill, and sixty more from distant parts of the kingdom. This would secure an impartial committee. He would now propose the following resolutions:

"1. That the present distribution of Counties in the several Lists, for the purpose of forming Committees on Petitions for Private Bills, and on Private Bills prepared under the direction of the Speaker some years ago, has, from the great inequality of the numbers of members contained in such lists respectively, and from other causes, been found not to answer the object for which it was framed.

"2. That, with a view more nearly to equalize members, and to correct too strong a prevalence of local interests on committees on petitions for private bills, it is expedient that a new distribution of counties should be made, containing in each list, as nearly as may be, one hundred and twenty members; one half only, or thereabouts, to be taken from the county immediately connected with the object of the bill, and the adjoining counties; and the other half from other more distact counties of Great Britain and Ireland; and that the members serving for such counties, and the places within such counties, should constitute the committee on each bill.

"3. That Mr. Speaker be requested to direct a new distribution of counties to be prepared in such manner as shall be approved of by him, conformably to the principle of the foregoing resolution.

"4. That every committee on a private bill be required to report to the House the bill referred to it, with the evidence and minutes of the proceedings.

"5. That a committee be appointed, to be called 'The Committee of Appeals upon Private Bills,' which committee shall consist of all the knights of the shire, all the members for cities, and such other members as may be named therein; so that the whole number appointed to serve upon such committee shall amount to two hundred at least.

"6. That where any party interested in a private bill, who shall have appeared in support of his petition, by himself, his counsel, or agent, in the committee upon such bill, or where the promoters of a private bill shall be dissatisfied with any vote of the committee upon such bill, and shall petition the House, setting forth the particular vote or votes objected to, and praying that they may be heard, by themselves, their counsel, or agent, against such vote or votes, the House shall, if they so think fit, refer such petition, together with the report of the committee upon the bill, and the minutes and evidence taken before such committees, to a select committee of seven members of the House, to be chosen by ballot from the committee of appeals upon private bills, which select committee shall hear the arguments of the parties complaining of, and also of the parties supporting, such vote or votes, and shall report their opinion thereon to the House.

"7. That whenever a petition shall be referred to such select committee, complaining of any vote of a committee upon a private bill, the House shall fix a day whereon to ballot for a select committee, to which such petition shall be referred, upon which day, at a quarter past four o'clock, or as near thereto as the question: which may be then before the House will permit, the Speaker shall order the doors of the House to be locked, and the names of the members composing the committee of appeals upon private bills being written upon separate pieces of paper, and put into the glass, the clerk shall draw therefrom the names, until seven members of such committee who shall be then present, and who shall not have voted in the committee upon the private bill to which the petition refers, or shall not be excused by the House, shall have answered to their names; which seven members shall be the select committee to whom such petition shall be referred, and such select committee shall meet for business the following day at 11 o'clock, and continue to sit, dc die in diem, until they shall have reported upon the same; and that only one counsel or agent shall be heard in support of the petition of any one party.

"8. That no member of such select committee shall absent himself therefrom during its sitting, without the permission of the House.

"9. That the party or parties complaining shall, previously to the balloting for such select committee, deposit with the clerk of the fees, the sum of 500l., for the payment of such costs as may be awarded against him, her, or them."

Mr. Yates Peel

rose to second the resolutions, and observed, that great thanks were due to the hon. gentleman who had introduced them. If any member who was not in the last parliament had any scruple in voting for them, he could assure him that any change in the mode of constituting committees on private bills must be a change for the better. It might be said, that it would be improper to prevent members from coming in to vote in a private committee in which they had not heard the previous proceedings, seeing that they were allowed to do so in the House on important questions. He did not mean to justify one course by citing the other, but there was this difference between the two cases. In the committee they voted on evidence; while, in the House, they voted on argument. He could easily conceive that a man might not like to sit out a long argument, or what was worse, along speech without any argument at all; but he could not conceive the propriety of a member coming in and voting on the conclusive-ness or inconclusiveness of evidence which he had not heard. Recollecting what had taken place in former committees, he was convinced that the course now pointed out would be a great saving of time and expense to parties connected with private bills, and he hoped the House would consent to it as an experiment. If it succeeded, the resolutions could be made part of the standing orders. If it failed, they would not be in a worse situation than they were at present.

Colonel Davies

admitted that great inconvenience arose from the former course with respect to private bills, but the one now proposed would, he thought, be much worse, and therefore he would give it all the opposition in his power. First, with respect to the hundred and twenty members to be on a committee, he thought it would be extremely difficult to obtain that number, unless they resorted to the former objectionable course of having members named on different committees sitting at the same time. Last session, there were thirty committees on private bills sitting at the same time. How could such a number be provided for in the mode proposed? The hon. mover seemed to think that it would be extremely difficult to get a select committee oft each private bill. Now, to him it appeared that the difficulty would not be insuperable. They had frequently a great many election committees, and they found little difficulty in securing the attendance of members. But, according to the hon. member's resolutions, a person dissatisfied with the decision of a private committee might appeal, and the House had no discretion but to send it to a select committee, so that they were to have a select committee after all. It was propossd, that to prevent vexatious appeals, the person appealing should, in the first instance, deposit 500l. to secure costs, should the committee decide the appeal to be vexatious. This he thought was a course which the House had no right to adopt. It was, in effect, taxing the appellants to that extent; and if, as had been contended on a former evening, the House had no power to compel a petitioner to enter into recognizances, how could they compel him to deposit money? While he admitted that nothing called more loudly for remedy than the present course, with respect to private bill committees, he could not support the one now proposed, as he thought it would be worse than the disease.

Mr. Maberly

admitted that some remedy was necessary, but could not concur in that now proposed. He thought it would be absurd to prevent members from doing that in a committee; namely, voting on subjects which they had not heard discussed, which was ever permitted to them in the House.

Lord Althorp

observed, that it was agreed on all hands that the present system required amendment, and the question was what course ought they to adopt. It was said, that the better way to proceed would be by a select committee on each private bill. That, he admitted, would be an improvement on the present mode, but he thought it would be extremely difficult to procure as many select committees as the number of private bills would require. It was said that they had no difficulty in procuring election committees. That might be the fact; but those committees were not often required. If their appointment was to run through a whole parliament as frequently as committees on private bills, it would, he thought, be a matter of some difficulty to procure the attendance of members. As to the nomination of sixty members from the counties adjoining that with which the object of the bill was connected, he thought that with the addition of sixty from distant parts of the country, an ample security was given for an impartial decision, and that from such decision they would have very few appeals. Some of his hon. friends had objected to the resolution which required a deposit of 500l. from the appellant, but he conceived there would be no difficulty in getting such deposit from any party who thought he had a good ground of appeal, and the same reason which would induce him to make the deposit would make him assent to its application to pay the costs, should the committee so decide. Taking all the resolutions together, he did not mean to say that they established a perfect system, but he would vote for their being tried, satisfied that they would be found a great improvement.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

said, that as it was admitted that the present system of private committees was extremely defective, he thought the hon. member who had endeavoured to introduce some amendment was entitled to thanks, and he, for one, thanked him, though at the same time he did not think the remedy pointed out was such as the case required. Indeed, he did not see how the House, without passing a censure on itself, could sanction resolutions founded on alleged corruption in committees of its own members. He knew that in speaking of any thing which passed in the present parliament, he must be particularly guarded. He should be careful, therefore, of what he said of the living, but a much greater latitude was allowed him with respect to the dead. And, speaking of the late parliament, he would complain, and that loudly, of the conduct of some members of it, for their very unjust and partial conduct in a committee or a private bill. A petition had been presented from the corporation of London against the Equitable Loan bill, and it was referred to the committee on that bill; and though the preamble of that bill asserted that it would be a public benefit, and though the petitioners offered to prove that it would be greatly injurious to the trade of London, and had prayed to be heard by themselves or their agents, the committee at first decided that they ought, not to be heard; and on the singular ground, that the petitioners had no interest in opposing the bill. How different was such conduct from that pursued by the parliament of 1721, which had received the petition of the corporation of London, and allowed them to be heard by themselves or counsel, at the bar of the House against a bill of an objectionable character, as tending to injure the trade of the city! How different was the conduct of that parliament, which, on discovering the improper conduct of some of their own body, as connected with public companies, had, notwithstanding the solemn protestations of innocence of those members, and their loud calls for inquiry, expelled them from the House! The hon. member then proceeded to comment on the conduct of the committee in the last parliament, on the Equitable Loan bill, in having at first refused to hear him, on the part of the corporation, against the bill. After having decided that the corporation should not be heard, except on one point, they afterwards heard counsel and evidence in support of the bill. Then, one of their members stated, that as they had heard evidence on one side, they would consent to hear him, but it would be only as a matter of grace and favour. He got until the next day to decide what course he should take; but the next day he came down and protested against that being conceded to him only by way of grace and favour, to which he had an undoubted right. After this, he and those who attended with him were ordered to -withdraw, and some discussion took place in the committee. So confounded was he by the order to withdraw, and the objections that were taken to this mode of proceeding, that when he was again admitted to the committee, after an absence of half an hour, and was told that he was allowed to proceed as matter, not of right, but of grace and favour, he protested loudly against the injustice of the decision adopted by the committee, and determined not to open his case in an imperfect and mutilated state. He either had a right to be heard, or he had not: if he had a right, he was determined to use it uncontrolled; and if he had not a right, he was determined not to act upon powers which he did not possess. He, therefore, thought it expedient, considering the circumstances in which he was placed, to withdraw; not, however, without protesting against the injustice of the measure which had compelled him to come to such a resolution. Now, he would ask the House, what opinion they would form of the committee to which he was alluding, supposing it possible that the members of it were directors of the company against which he had been petitioning—that they held shares in it—that they sold them publicly and openly—and that they adopted all the artifices which were used to give to shares an exorbitant value in the market? The case which he was putting was not one of supposition, but of fact. Let the House but go into the committee which he had proposed, and he would pledge his life, his character, his reputation, and every thing that he held dear, that he would prove beyond all contradiction that it was so. The worthy alderman was proceeding to discuss the conduct of the committee on the Equitable-Loan-bill towards other petitioners, when he was called to order. He spoke under correction of the Speaker, and if he was out of order, he regretted it deeply; for the subject on which he was addressing the House was of great importance to the public. But he contended that he was not out of order. A proposition was made to remedy certain proceedings, which he had not called by the title of disgraceful, though some other members had applied the term to them. He was only telling the House what the conduct of one committee had been, and in so doing, he had given a striking instance of the injustice with which such committees too often acted. Surely, it was not a deviation from order to enter into a full description of an abuse, at a time when they were seeking to find a remedy for it With regard to the remedy proposed, he did not consider it adequate to the object in view; and he therefore trusted that the hon. mover would endeavour to devise something more effective. He considered that the exacting of 500l. as a deposit from petitioners, previous to the balloting for the committee of appeal, was a harsh and unnecessary provision. For instance, in the Equitable-Loan Company, which was put forth as a matter of charity, and as a check against the pawnbrokers, but which, in point of fact, was a measure of greater hypocrisy than any which had ever been previously brought forward—the petitioners against it might have spent 5,000l. in prosecuting their first petition, and yet, after all the injustice they had suffered, must have found security for 500l. more, before they could have applied for redress to a committee of appeal, which, in all probability, would act, to a certain, degree, under the influence of the former committee. He likewise contended, that the House ought to take care that its committees acted as much like juries as possible, and exhorted it to devise some measure which would prevent the repetition of such injustice in future.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that, though he was by no means so satisfied as the hon. gentleman opposite seemed to be, of the gross misconduct of the committees on private bills, still it was his intention to vote in favour of the resolutions of his hon. friend, as a precautionary experiment, for the present session, against any misconduct that might by possibility arise. He did not believe the committees on private bills to be that mass of corruption which some members asserted them to be. There might have been some cases, in which members who had not been present at the evidence, had entered the committee-room, and overwhelmed the voices of those who had been present; but he had not heard of any instance of gross injustice in their disposal of private property. The worthy alderman had said, that as the last parliament was dead he had a right to abuse it; but, though that parliament was dead, the members who composed it were living, and he, as one of them, must beg leave to vindicate its conduct. What the present parliament might turn out, he could not tell; but with the benefit of the worthy alderman's bright example, he had no doubt but that it would be much better than that of which he had spoken with so much reprobation. Though he he could not agree in every point with the proposed resolutions, he must repeat that he was not unwilling to adopt them as a precautionary experiment for the present session. His reason for so doing was not founded so much on the misconduct of the committees on private bills, as upon the standing orders themselves. He disapproved of the method of referring private bills to the consideration of a committee formed of the members of that county to which the bill applied, and the adjoining counties, because the number of persons on such a committee varied very greatly. In the case of the county of Derby, the number of members for that and the adjoining counties, to whom private bills might be referred, was 80. In the county of Warwick the number was 87; in that of Leicester 69; and in that of Staffordshire 66; and he believed that a case had occurred in which the proposition for a canal bill was referred to a committee, of which every member was either a director, or a person largely concerned in the canal. In the county of Devon the number was 168; in Wiltshire 194; and in Hampshire 234. So that the number of persons composing the committee on a private bill relating to Hampshire, was four times as great as that on a private bill relating to Staffordshire. That statement formed a sufficient reason, for adopting some arrangement better than the present, and would justify them in adopting the three first resolutions. He conceived that there would be great difficulty in obtaining select committees, if they were to be chosen like election committees. In the first session of a new parliament, supposing there were ten election committees, and twenty or thirty private bills, it would be impossible for the House to act. It was therefore better to adopt the remedy proposed by his hon. friend, which gave to any petitioner who conceived himself injured the liberty to appeal to another committee. He likewise thought it right that of the hundred and twenty members placed in each list, sixty should be connected by locality with the county which the bill affected, and that the other sixty should be persons who were not under the influence of local bias. He conceived that the most effectual remedy to the abuses incident to committees on private bills, would be by letting-the light of day in upon them; and that the appointment of a committee of appeal would in itself be a tacit correction of the evil complained of. He could not see how the long story which the worthy alderman had told them respecting the Equitable-Loan-bill Committee bore upon the present question; for he was quite certain, that if the facts which the worthy alderman had mentioned were correct, and had been stated to the House, he would have obtained an appeal against that committee. The worthy alderman had also objected to the deposit of the 500l. as a hardship; but he was strongly inclined to think, that if the worthy alderman had felt one half the indignation against the members of the committee which he had that night expressed, he would have gladly laid down the sum for the petitioners whom he had taken under his protection.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that though he had several objections to the proposed resolutions, he would support them until some better proposition was submitted in their stead.

Mr. G. Bankes

suggested the propriety of giving a power to wave that part of the resolutions which rendered it necessary to deposit 500l. before any appeal could be made from one committee to another. Unless such a power were vested somewhere, some parties must be seriously injured by the resolution.

Mr. Wynn

said, there was no analogy between election committees and committees on private bills; for the questions submitted to the first were mixed questions of law and fact, while those submitted to the latter were questions of policy and expediency. He did not believe that any such extent of evil as was now pretended had arisen from the misconduct of private committees; and he was of opinion, that they were oftener prejudiced against advantageous bills than biassed in favour of improper bills by unworthy motives. It had been suggested, that the nomination of the committees by ballot would often exclude from them useful local knowledge. He was himself' of that opinion, and would have great difficulty in believing that fifteen gentle- men of Hampshire could legislate easily on the local interests of Northumberland. He conceived that great advantage would arise from acceding to the resolutions. ' At present it was prudent to bring them in experimentally. If, upon trial, they ' should be found beneficial, they might be made standing orders of the House. The injury done by committees on private bills was not, in his opinion, great, but the scandal of them was extreme; for supposing the committees to come to a right decision, still, if it were seen that numbers, who had not previously attended, flocked in to give their vote, it never could give satisfaction to the parties defeated by it, and thus became detrimental to the dignity and character of the House.

The first eight resolutions were then agreed to. On the ninth being put,

Mr. G. Lamb

said, he much doubted the propriety of this resolution, and hoped the hon. gentleman would postpone it until it could be more maturely considered. He understood on a former evening, that one of the great objections urged against the resolutions of his noble friend (lord Althorp) relative to bribery at elections, rested upon the ground, that security was demanded before the parties complaining should be allowed to prove their case. The same objection, he conceived, applied to the resolution now before them. He knew not that the House had the power of enforcing any such resolution. If a litigious person were, after an award had been made, to bring an action against the clerk of the Fees, then the validity of this resolution would be subject to the decision of a court of law; a state of things which certainly ought to be avoided. For his own part, he could not conceive what right one branch of the legislature had to levy money in this manner; and therefore, he thought the hon. gentleman would do well to postpone the resolution.

Mr. Wynn

looked upon the proposition embraced by the resolution, as similar to a case of arbitration, where the parties contending agreed to abide by any order or award which might be decided on by those to whom the matter in dispute was referred.

The resolution was withdrawn.