HC Deb 27 January 1841 vol 56 cc125-34
Mr. Ewart

said, that the reform he proposed related to the judicial, not the legislative, character of the House. Nothing was more important than that that portion of its character should be pure. It nearly concerned the public that it should be so, and it nearly concerned the House itself. It must have struck every Member who had either personally attended, or become acquainted with the proceedings of committees on private business, that the constitution and character of those committees were capable of much amendment. The most obvious defect lay in their constitution, the number of their members was too great for responsible or efficient action. He proposed at once to increase their responsibility and efficiency by reducing the number of their members. But the most serious ground of complaint lay not in the constitution, but in the character of the committees. It had been, he feared with too much justice, imputed to those committees, that they acted frequently from local, sometimes from personal, feeling. He need not say how grievous such a charge was when made against the Members of that House, how much it would tend to lower them in public estimation. How necessary it was, therefore, that the ground for such imputations should be removed. Members might now be personally interested in the subject of a bill proceeding from their own neighbourhood, and yet they might form part of the committee on the bill. They might be locally interested through their constituents in the fate of the measure, yet they served on the committee by which that fate was decided. He appealed to Gentlemen who had sat upon those committees, whether after the committees had met, they were not often divided into several local parties and swayed by local influences. He saw several hon. Members near him who served on a committee last Session, which was prolonged for the space of about two months; he alluded to the Liverpool Docks Committee. In that case the contest became one of local opinion and local interest; and it was almost impossible, from the views taken by most respectable persons on both sides, for the members to separate and keep clear of those feelings of locality, which, to the noble Lord, the Member for Liverpool, on the one hand, and to himself on the other, rendered it so difficult to come to a conclusion. But this was only one case; such instances were almost innumerable. There was scarcely one hon. Member who had served upon committees, who had not reprobated this evil in a tribunal which ought to be strictly judicial, and should never be made to serve a local, much less a personal purpose, It had even happened that a subject, apparently local, had been converted into a political question. One political party had taken up one side of the question, another party the other. It had been surmised, for instance, that by the passing of a particular act, the number of voters belonging to one party would be diminished, or those of another party increased. Thus the question, from being purely judicial, became first a local, and secondly, a political one. The ends of justice were frustrated, the House did not do its duty, and the public interest was forgotten. Then the existence of these feelings in the committee gave rise to a system of canvassing out of it. An active canvass of members by the parties took place both previous to, and during the sitting of the committee—a system degrading to, and deprecated by, both sides. He therefore thought the time was come when they were called upon to vindicate the character of the House, and do their duty to the public. The public had not slumbered on this important question. There had not been many petitions on the subject from the people of England. But a reference to the journals of the House would show that there had been numerous petitions complaining of committees of the House of Commons from Scotland. He supposed that this circumstance was attributable to the clear sightedness and intelligence of the people of that country, which prompted them to enquire sagaciously and keenly into the conduct of those deputed to represent them. He found from the journals and reports of the House that petitions had been presented on this subject from Dunbarton, Ayr, Dunfermline, Forres, Glasgow, Greenock, Kilmarnock, Perth, and Wick. As the Perth petition at once corroborated and embodied his (Mr. Ewart's) own views, he would beg leave to quote it. The petitioners complain that, "instead of committees being chosen, like all other impartial judicatories, in respect to entire freedom from bias or connexion, the almost inevitable consequence of selecting Members from within the divisions where the measures originate, is either to bias the judgment of those called on to adjudicate between the parties, or to produce serious heart-burnings and differences between the Members of the committees and their constituents, that the Members should be limited in point of numbers: and that local connexion with the measures to be discussed instead of forming a ground of selection, should invariably be held the most cogent reason for disqualification and ineligibility." He now proceeded to develope his plan. They now had a committee of selection appointed at the beginning of a Session. He proposed, that, whenever a committee was required on a private bill the committee of selection should choose seven Members from among those gentlemen who were least interested, either personally themselves, or locally through their constituents, to act as a committee on the bill. By this provision he would endeavour to increase the purity of these tribunals. His next object was, by reducing the numbers, to increase the responsibility and insure a more regular attendance of Members. He did not come before the House without strong evidence on the subject (The hon. Gentleman then proceeded to quote, from the report of a committee which sat last Session, the evidence of a number of Parliamentary agents of great experience—Messrs. Hayward, Pritt, Bourke, and others—in corroboration of all his preceding statements, both as to the existence of the abuses of which he complained, and the necessity of the reforms which he proposed). In fact, the experiment which he suggested had been partly tried already and had succeeded. It was known that the committee of selection had lately placed upon committees on private bills, Members who were called "Selected Members." They were placed there, generally to the number of two or three, to counteract the partial tendencies of the rest of the committee. They had given great satisfaction to the parties in the cause, wherever he (Mr. Ewart) had been able to pursue his enquiries. The principle therefore of his reform was already admitted. He wished to carry it out. He wished all the Members to be "Selected Members." But he had not only the evidence taken before parliamentary committees to support the suggestion which he made, he had not only the fact that the experiment had been partially tried and had so far succeeded, he had also the satisfaction to find that the plan which he pro- posed had been adopted, and had succeeded in the House of Lords. It was well known to hon. Members about him that the House of Lords several years ago found the same reason to complain as the Commons did now, of their committees. They reformed the whole system; reducing the Members of their committees to five, and selecting those five from Peers neither personally nor locally interested in the question before them. He would not further advert to this part of the question, but refer hon. Members to the evidence given by the Duke of Richmond before a committee of the House of Commons in the year 1838 on this subject, which he (Mr. Ewart) had then before him. He felt convinced, that by the change which he proposed, not only would the tribunals to which it applied be rendered more pure, but that business would be better conducted, and the delays which had been hitherto to a very great extent caused during the sittings of committees by Members interested in the questions under consideration, would be put an end to. He said Members had caused delays, and it must inevitably be so, inasmuch as they were interested as partisans, and they acted with the spirit of partisans. Another advantage of the system he proposed was, that many excellent Members who at present were scarcely ever called on to serve on committees, would have their talents and their energies brought into action. If Members did not happen to represent places in some large manufacturing districts—if they represented an agricultural district or a rural town—they never served, except on some paltry bill for the diversion of a road, or the establishment of a turnpike. He would add that though by the plan proposed, Members interested through themselves or their constituents would be prevented from sitting as judges in the committee, they would have the power to appear as witnesses. In this character they might fully develop their views. His (Mr. Ewart's) plan would not exclude information, but it would exclude interest. And he would further add, that he should prohibit Members from serving on more than one committee at a time. He therefore called upon that House to adopt the amendment he proposed. The character of a public body, like that of an individual, was the first of all considerations. It nearly concerned the character of the House that the fountains of its justice should be pure: or, if not pure, as little contaminated as possible. He therefore proposed the following resolution, as the basis of his scheme:— 1. That it is expedient that committees on private bills should be approximated, more nearly than they now are, to judicial tribunals, and exempted, as much as possible, from all motives of local and personal interest; and that the responsibility and efficiency of committees of this House in general would be promoted by diminishing the number of Members composing them.

Sir George Grey

hoped the hon. Member for Wigan would not press his motion to a division, but would await the result of the improved system now in operation. He hoped the hon. Member would think his purpose was sufficiently answered in having brought the question before the House. If the hon. Gentleman did press for a division he should be compelled to vote against him.

Mr. Aglionby

said, it had been always thought most essential to have our tribunals as pure as possible from all private and local interests. This question was not a new one, but had been raised again and again before the House. It was necessary to have local information, but it was not necessary to have local interest—or if it were, the local interest he would have should be the same as that had by the House of Lords. It was admitted that no Member who had pecuniary interest could sit on a committee about to decide on some question that might affect it, and he could not distinguish between pecuniary interests and the bias and force imposed upon Members by the wishes of their constituents. The system adopted by the House of Lords was found to work very well, and he could not see why the House of Commons should be behind that noble House in reforming its private business. Sufficient time had been allowed for trial of the present system, The Speaker had had the honour of introducing many reforms, but many were still required.

Mr. Goulburn

hoped that hon. Members would take the advice of the hon. Baronet (Sir G. Grey), and not press for a division. It was a question of great importance. If he considered a committee of the House of Commons as a purely judicial tribunal, he might agree with the hon. Member for Wigan; but he did not regard a committee of that House as acting in an exclusively judicial capacity. His view of them was that a committee was appointed to do that which the House of Commons itself ought to do, but which for the convenience of public business was devolved to a selection of Members of the House to prevent the House being so encumbered with business as to be prevented discharging its duty to the public. He should as soon think of excluding any person from giving information as a Member of the House of Commons from a committee on a question in which he was locally interested. The hon. Member for Wigan's motion went to the point that no Member should serve on a committee who, through his constituents, was interested in the bill. Now that would exclude him from doing: that which was one of the objects for which he was returned, A Peer had no constituents to represent, and could have nothing but a local interest, therefore the House of Lords were bound to take measures to prevent their committees being formed by those who might be personally interested. He could not consent to adopt a practice, which, in his view of the duties of a Member of Parliament did incapaciate him from superintending the interests of those by whom he was sent to that House. The present system ought to have a fair trial, but at all events it was a subject of too much importance to be decided in so thin a House.

Mr. Warburton

could draw no distinction between the duties of Members upon public bills, and their duties upon private bills. Members were sent there not as the agents or attorneys of their constituents, but to consider the interests of the whole empire. No doubt the present practice was an improvement upon the whole system, but even now repeated applications were made from committees on private bills, in consequence of the requisite number of disinterested Members not attending for permission to proceed in spite of that non-attendance. He was of opinion that the sooner the present system was changed the better it would be for the public.

Sir G. Strickland

said, that if his hon. Friend pressed his motion to a division, he should certainly vote with him, because he was inclined to think the committees wanted further improvement. At the same time he thought his hon. Friend had not completed the plan he intended to adopt. He agreed that the committees ought to be kept as pure as possible from local interests. He thought that the plan proposed by his hon. Friend might be more fully worked out, and he would therefore wish that he would not call on the House to come to a decision without further consideration.

Mr. Estcourt

thought, that the hon. Member might more properly have introduced his proposition some years ago, when abuses existed in regard to committees on private bills, which had since been removed. The amendment had been made on various occasions, and some of them in the course of last Session. Besides, no system could obviate every possible inconvenience; and for his part he was of opinion that if they removed from private bill committees all Members who had an interest in them, they would only deprive themselves of the necessary local information.

Mr. Labouchere

hoped that his hon. Friend would not press his motion against the recommendation of the committee of last Session that the system then adopted should have a fair trial. The question whether committees should be exclusively official and divested of local interests was one of very great difficulty. That House could not separate its committees from the representative character of the whole body and render them strictly judicial, as were the committees of the House of Lords.

Mr. Pryme

considered it would be a great evil not to have local Members on the committees, and thought that a committee, constituted on the plan of the hon. Member for Wigan, might, with the greatest possible desire to do justice, commit gross injustice for want of local knowledge.

Mr. Hume

would ask the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge what he would think if he were to see a jury-box filled with persons having a local interest in the matter to be tried, and the cases of a jury and committee were exactly similar. He would admit, that it had been usual to consider Members were placed on those committees to do the jobs of their constituents. But that was an abuse which he wished to see done away with altogether. He would admit, that many abuses which had existed formerly in respect to the appointment to private committees, had been remedied, but that, was only a reason for getting rid of the remaining ones. He thought, that the time had come when there should be no more temporising, and would, therefore, support the motion of his hon. Friend. He, for one, would not be afraid to go before the country on this question, as he was convinced, that every honest constituency would say, that they would rather submit a question to a committee having no local interests, than be subjected to jobbing.

Mr. Rice

said, that it was frequently considered an advantage at quarter sessions and assizes for a jury to have local knowledge of the matter in dispute.

Mr. Ewart

, with every disposition to accede to the proposition of the right hon. Baronet, felt so strongly, that, justice and reason were on his side, that he must press the question to a division.

The House divided:—Ayes 22; Noes 24: Majority 2.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Stansfield, W. R. C.
Berkeley, hon. C. Stewart, J.
Bewes, T. Strickland, Sir G.
Blake, M. Strutt, E.
Brotherton, J. Talfourd, Mr. Serg.
Bulwor, Sir L Tancred, H. W.
Greene, T. White, A.
Heathcoat, J. Williams, W.
Hector, C. J. Yates, J. A.
Muntz, G. F. Ewart, W.
Salwey, Colonel Warburton, H.
List of the NOES.
Baldwin, C. B. Labouchere, rt. hn. H.
Barnard, E. G. Morris, D.
Briscoe, J. I. Noel, hon. C. G.
Broadley, H. O'Brien, W. S.
Bruges, W. H. L. Packe, C. W.
Buller, Sir J. Y. Plumptre, J. P.
Busfeild, W. Pringle, A.
Courtenay, P. Pryme, G.
Elliot, hon. J. E. Rice, E. R.
Freshfield, J. W. Richards, R.
Gordon, R.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H TELLERS.
Hinde, J. H. Grey, Sir G.
Hodges, T. L. Estcourt, T.
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