HC Deb 07 February 1842 vol 60 cc120-6
Sir H. Inglis

moved the re-appointment of the select committee on the Library of the House.

Mr. W. Williams

wished, in connexion with this motion, to call the attention of the House to a practice that had prevailed for some time past in regard to the formation of select committees, and which certainly required amendment. The name of the hon. Baronet, the Member for Oxford, appeared on two other committees besides the Library committee, the appointment of which was to be moved for this evening. Now, there was no Member of that House, whose services on a committee were more valuable than those of the hon. Baronet, but he could not overcome physical impossibilities, nor could he give a due attendance on three committees at the same time. The subjects to which those committees had to give their attention were most important ones, particularly that of the committee on public petitions, especially as by the division that had just taken place, the House had refused to allow Members to advocate the petitions of their constituents, but had referred them, as their alternative, to this committee, who were to select such petitions as they deemed important, and order them to be printed. With regard to the printing committee, as it was necessary that all published documents should be read by them, in order that no scandalous matter should be allowed therein, the subject of the constitution of that committee became of the more importance, in order to insure a due attention. The practice of nominating the same hon. Members on several committees, went very much against die attainment of this object. In the United States, a different course was pursued. In the House of Representatives ten committees, for so many different subjects, were appointed every Session, and to them every question requiring investigation was referred. Those committees were composed of indifferent persons taken generally from the House, and in no instance was any one Member nominated on two committees. The consequence was, that they were enabled to devote their entire time to the subjects placed before them. But the practice of this House was very different. If a committee was moved for by a member of the Government, it was usual for him to nominate Members of the Government upon it, or their immediate supporters, and a corresponding number of Members of similar standing on the other side of the House, so that a great many of the most important committees were confined to a comparatively few Members selected from both sides of the House. In the ease of committees moved for by the individual Members, it was the practice for the mover to secure a majority of persons favourable to his views, and to select Members of the greatest ability to carry them out, the committees being completed with those on the other side also, who were most distinguished. The consequence of this was, that there was generally the least possible attention on the part of the Members of ch committees. When they made reports, they had no weight with the House, and they had not the influence they ought to have, either in the House or in the country. Many such motions were merely idle, to gratify some crotchet on the part of the mover, and not with any sound object to justify them. He had seen great unfairness practised on committees thus constituted, with a majority of Members favourable to the purpose for which the committee had been appointed. When questions were put that might elicit answers unfavourable to that purpose, he had known the questions over-ruled by the majority. In all such cases, the mover having the majority on his side, was able to carry everything. Surely, if some other system than this were adopted, it would be more advantageous to the character of the House.

Sir R. Inglis

said, perhaps he ought to apologise for not having prefaced his motion with any observation, but the fact was, that it had been usual to concur in that motion at the commencement of the Session without any discussion. It now, however, became his duty to offer a statement to the House. The observations of the hon. Member, however, applied more to the committees on petitions and on printing than to that which formed the subject of the present motion—indeed, with the exception of what the hon. Member had said on the subject of his (Sir R. Inglis's) name being on all of them, the whole of his observations had that application. Via he hoped the House would excuse him if, instead of waiting till those other committees were moved in order to make his remarks, he at once proceeded to reply to the hon. Member. He would beg to remind the hon. Gentleman that the practice he complained of no longer existed. Twelve or fourteen years ago, it was the case; the names of certain Members appeared on almost every committee. The services of his right hon. Friend, at the head of the Treasury, in particular were deemed of such value, even for half an hour, that there was scarcely a committee, fifteen years ago, to which he was not nominated. There were also some other names not so well entitled to the distinctions which almost always appeared on those committees, which were frequently composed of as many members as forty-two or forty-five. He had not individually objected to the practice; on the contrary, he felt that there were several advantages in having the larger number; but on the attention of the House being called to it by the hon. Member for Dumfries, then the Member for Liverpool (Mr. Ewart), it was ordered that no committee should be composed of more than fifteen members, and that no member should be nominated until he had individually given his assent; and that practice had been adopted since: though, with respect to the Library Committee, the number had always been sixteen. With regard to this Library Committee, its functions were extremely limited. Want of room prevented their buying more books, and there was consequently little or no duty to be done. He had, however, thought it his duty to submit the motion, as being one of the usual Sessional orders. With regard to the Committee on Public Petitions, he had undertaken to move for its reappointment in the absence of the hon. Member for Kendal, who was the chairman of that committee. He could only assure the hon. Member that he would be quite contented to withdraw from that committee, and to move that the name of the hon. Member be substituted. He had little inclination for so laborious and uninviting a duty; but as he had served some years upon it, his name had again been included. The third notice on the paper—that for the appointment of the committee on Printing—he moved for his hon. Friend, the Secretary to the Treasury, who could best explain why the committee was so constituted. He believed that it was, unless perhaps with one exception, exactly the same as last Session. From that committee, also, he could assure the hon. Member, he would be quite willing to withdraw.

Dr. Bowring

could not but attach very considerable importance to what had fallen from his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry. He was himself on the Public Petitions Committee for some time, and during that time scarcely more than two members ever attended upon it. The importance of this fact appeared to him to he much increased since they had been told, in the discussion which had just closed, that the petitions of the people received great attention from a committee specially appointed to take charge of them. Now, it had happened to him, time after time, to be the only member of that committee who had attended, and of so little importance did the business appear to be to others, that scarcely any member thought it worth his while to attend while the report was prepared, which was periodically laid before the House. The attendance on the Printing Committee, however, was much more regular, and scarcely any of the members were ever absent. He certainly thought that when committees of this kind were appointed, some pledges ought to be given by members that they would attend and discharge their duties.

Sir R. Inglis,

in reference to the statement of the hon Member, that the Public Petitions Committee was ill-attended, hoped he would not be misunderstood when he said that when he was chairman of that committee he certainly did not omit to read any petition that was referred to the committee. That was a most laborious undertaking, and one which lie would not go through again. He had now ceased to do so for some time. He did not mean to say that where, perhaps, there were thirty or forty similar petitions on the same subject, and in the same form, such as sugar, slavery, or other subjects of that sort, he considered it necessary to read every one, but he read every one which was distinct and original.

Dr. Bowring

did not mean to cast any personal reflection on the hon. Baronet, but he was sure he would not deny that the attendance had been very limited.

Mr. Ewart

concurred in the views of the hon. Member for Coventry on this subject. There were two questions involved; first, whether it would not be better that these committees should be nominated by the Speaker or some other competent person having a full knowledge of who were the most proper Members to be selected, instead of continuing the present practice of allowing the committees to be nominated by the Member who would afterwards be chairman; and secondly, what should be the number of the Members composing them. He believed that the reduction from forty to fifteen, to which the hon. Baronet had, referred, had been found to work well and for his own part he was the advocate of the principle of still further diminution, conceiving that as you diminished the number you increased the utility and the individual responsibility. If the number were reduced to seven it would, in his opinion, be still better; and he wished the same principle were applied to committees on private bills.

Motion agreed to, and Committee ap, pointed, consisting of the following hon. Members;—Sir R. H. Inglis, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir R. Peel, Lord J, Russell, Mr. Baring, Mr. W. Wynn, Mr. Rutherfurd, Mr. Shaw, Viscount Palmerston, Mr. Gladstone, Dr. Stock, Mr. Acland, Colonel Fox, Mr. G. Knight, Viscount Mahon, and Mr. Pendarves.