HC Deb 21 September 1841 vol 59 cc679-85
Mr. Ewart

rose to move the following resolutions, of which he had given notice: — 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 such committees would be promoted by diminishing the number of Members composing them. 2. That, with a view of attaining these objects, the number of Members composing committees on opposed private bills be reduced to seven. 3. That such seven Members be appointed by the committee of Selection, after the second reading of such bills. But that previous to such appointment, the committee of Selection do ascertain from each of such seven Members that he is willing to serve, and that he is, neither through his constituents nor himself, personally interested for or against the bill in question; and that in case he is unable to serve, or is interested as aforesaid, the committee of Selection do appoint some other Member to serve in place of him. 4. That the committee of Selection appoint no Member to serve on more than one such private bill committee at a time. He believed, that great ignorance prevailed with regard to the transacting of business by Committees on Private Bills. He believed the right hon. Baronet opposite had had many opportunities of seeing the baneful working of the present system of Private Committees; and he appealed to him whether reform was not to be desired in their machinery and construction. In the first place, these committees were appointed principally from the local connection with the subject, and therefore it was impossible that they could be altogether impartial, being interested either through themselves or their constituents. The system of canvassing that went on during the sitting of a committee, was at variance with the justice of the case under the consideration of the committee, and it was discreditable to the character of the House. The committees of the House of Commons were not only partial tribunals, but, from their size, inconvenient for accomplishing the ends of justice. They ought to be purified, and diminished in point of numbers. The remedies which he ventured to suggest, were, in the first place, to propose, that committees should be more nearly assimilated to judicial tribunals. How was that to be effected? By removing as far as possible all motives of partiality. His next desire was to increase the responsibility and efficiency of committees. A body of thirty-five Members had a much more divided responsibility than a body consisting only of seven Members. He proposed, therefore, to increase their responsibility by reducing the number from thirty-eight to seven. The House of Lords had reduced their committees from an almost unlimited number to five, and prohibited any Member, directly or indirectly interested, from sitting. In the year 1838, the Duke of Richmond was examined before the House, and his evidence would be found to confirm all that he (Mr. Ewart) had said. In the same year the present Speaker and the hon. Member for Lancashire, drew up a set of resolutions on the subject, which, having examined, he found to be essentially the same with those he now proposed. Not only were the suggestions he had made founded on reason, but they came before them sanctioned by the House of Lords, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Chairman of the committee of Ways and Means. How had those rules operated in the House of Lords? Why, it was admitted that they had done great good; and, with respect to that House, he believed they had rendered its committees more effective, and their proceedings much more beneficial. The hon. Member concluded by moving the resolutions of which he had given notice.

The question was put on the first resolution.

Mr. Estcourt

thought, that the principle laid down by the hon. Member was good, and he was not disposed to controvert it, but he thought he had taken a wrong mode of carrying it out. He would not deny—but that he entertained considerable respect for the opinion which he knew prevailed, not only amongst many Members of that House, but also very extensively out of doors—that in the con- siitution of committees on private bills,' the principle of representation ought to have due weight. Committees on private bills might be considered under two aspects; first, as judicial tribunals, and, secondly, as inquisitions. They had to inquire as well as to judge. If their functions had been purely judicial, he would accede at once to the proposition of the hon. Gentleman, but where the matters brought before them might possibly lead to extensive inquiry, it appeared to him, that a larger number of Members ought to be appointed than if their functions were purely judicial, more particularly, when, in the result of that inquiry, the constituents of the Members might be interested. So long as the committees had been constituted, as formerly, of a very large number of Members, belonging not only to the county interested, but to the neighbouring counties. So long as the Speaker's list had been very large, he would admit that considerable inconvenience arose from the canvassing of agents, but both those evils had been remedied during the two last Sessions of Parliament. He confessed he thought there was very great weight in the arguments of those hon. Members who desired to give that tribunal a representative character. As far, however, as he had been enabled to form an opinion, the amendments of last Session had given general satisfaction. If, after a fair experiment, which could not be afforded in a single Session, the objections urged by the hon. Member should be found to have gained ground, he would then be prepared to accede to his propositions; but as no discontent appeared as yet to exist, he thought that was not a fit time for the hon. Member to press his resolutions. If the same system was preserved in the present as in the last Session of Parliament, and if hon. Members would bind themselves to carry the arrangements into effect, he had no doubt that there would be a most satisfactory result—that no party would be disappointed, and no unnecessary expense incurred. Believing the motion was unnecessary and uncalled for, he should take the liberty of moving the previous question.

Mr. W. Ferrand

said, that he should support the resolutions, and if for no other reason, because the Members for Bradford had declared on the Hustings, that they would use their utmost endeavours to provide that town with good and wholesome water. This was said in reference to a private bill now before Parliament, and the object of which was to deprive him unjustly of some property, and take away part of the water that belonged to him.

Sir G. Clerk

hoped the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Wigan, would withdraw his resolutions, as it was not expedient that the House should, at this period, be called upon to go into the consideration of such a subject. The experiment of last Session had not been sufficiently tried, and that to exclude hon. Members from taking part in an investigation whose constituents might be interested in the subject matter of a private bill, as proposed by the hon. Member, would work positive injustice.

Mr. Ewart

said, that if the proposition he had made had been founded only upon his own opinion, he should at once assent to the recommendation of the hon. Member for Oxford; but as it was a case on which the public felt very strongly, and as many Gentlemen, of great experience, agreed in his views, and feeling, that, as the House had gone so far, they ought to go still farther, he should take the sense of the House on his motion.

Lord J. Russell

as the hon. Member has declared his intention of taking the sense of the House on his motion, I beg to say a few words in reference to the vote which I intend to give. I agree with my hon. Friend in much that he has stated with respect to the exemption from committees on private bills of local and personal interests, and if any scheme can be devised for giving to those committees a more judicial character, I shall support it. However, though I agree so far as I have stated with the hon. Member, I am not prepared to go the length of saying that local interests should be altogether excluded. I am not prepared to say that, admitting certain local interests, is not a mode by which more information can be obtained, and that more easily in a short time than in the more formal shape of witnesses could be obtained in a much greater length of time. By this mode, and in the form of discussion, more information might be obtained in a short time than in the formal way I have mentioned in a long time. I must, therefore, say, that although I shall vote for the previous question, I do not totally differ in opinion from the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to see still greater improvement effected in the system.

Mr. Aglionby

hoped to see the motion brought forward and discussed in every Session, until greater improvements were effected. While he admitted the right of a constituency to the services of their representative, yet they had no right to have that representative transformed into an interested judge. He thought the best plan which could be adopted would be lo allow the representative to attend before the committee, and give information where he happened to be connected with local interests, and he thought this plan would cause the House to stand higher in public opinion.

Sir R. Peel

was rather sorry that the hon. Gentleman was about to take the sense of the House on this question. In his opinion it would be much better to give a fair trial to the existing system. The public attention had been very strongly called to the mode in which private business was conducted in this House. There was a strong impression throughout the country that there were great abuses in the mode of conducting it. Nothing could tend more to lower the dignity and character of Parliament than an improper mode of conducting the business on private bills, and of conveying the impression that improper influence could be used in carrying them into effect or impeding them. Great improvements had been made under the suggestion of Lord Dumfermline and the present Speaker. It was better, then, to give the present system a fair trial, and not call upon a new Parliament, in which there were so many new Members, who had not yet had the advantage of seeing how the system worked. He did not think it advisable to take the sense of the House at the present moment. The hon. Member opposite (Mr. Aglionby) thought that the constituents had the right to the services of their representatives and that it was the duty of the latter to attend and claim to be heard. Now he had had some experience in these matters, and what, he would ask, must be the effect of this, in the case, let it be supposed, of a railroad: let it be supposed that it was the object to defeat the bill. There would then be the representatives of several counties and towns. Then, according to the assumption of the hon. Gentleman, they would be bound to attend, and have a right lo be heard; and then the object being to have the bill postponed, the decision of the committee must be delayed until it would be too late to proceed with the bill. The moment they admitted the right of those persons to be heard, they could not limit the time which they might occupy in speaking [Mr. Aglionby: one hour]. If they approved of the appearance of Members in the character of advocates and witnesses, with a view to sustain the rights of their constituents, the inevitable consequence would be, that the bill they opposed must be lost, and he defied a committee to come in sufficient time to a decision that could expedite the opposed bill through Parliament. If the parties appeared by counsel, there was a difficulty in restraining even them within reasonable limits. He had seen a dreadful consumption of time and waste of money in these matters. He had seen how difficult it was for chairmen to control counsel—how much more difficult to control Members, who would appear with a greater authority than could invest the character of counsel. The unfortunate committee, unless it showed symptoms of yielding to the opposition, would be soon reduced to a despairing quorum, even if they could get a quorum, and at last might throw up the duty devolved upon them in disgust. But then as to the proposal of excluding Members. If the House decided that the representatives of local interests should be prevented from attending committees, it would be indeed a very strong measure, and one that required serious consideration. The establishing of a disqualification or exclusion of Members was a very dangerous principle, and they did not know when once adopted how far it might be carried. After all, their best security must be the integrity of Members, controlled by public opinion. If they said that Members representing local interests should be excluded, they provoked them to assert a right, and to resist, on the part of their constituents, the rule they laid down, and he was very much afraid that they would bring on debates of that nature, by which much time would be consumed, and that the House always listened to with great impatience. He wished the new Members of the present Parliament to have the opportunity of seeing how the present system worked. If, on experience of it, they must despair of improvement, then the hon. Gentleman could come forward with a better chance, at a future time, of effecting the important changes that he now desired.

Mr. Ewart

would have no objection that the whole of his resolutions should be referred to the committee on private business. That would be a fair mode of compromise, and he trusted it would be acceded to by the right hon. Baronet.

Sir R. Peel

thought it was highly necessary that the present system should have a fair trial, which had not jet been had.

Mr. Ewart

was perfectly aware that the majority must be against him. Under such circumstances he would, therefore, not waste the time of the House by forcing a division. But he would continue to press them on the attention of the House so long as he had the honour of a seat.

Amendment and motion withdrawn.