HC Deb 15 July 1851 vol 118 cc789-95

begged to move that the number of Members composing Select Committees, except under certain circumstances, be seven; that the Members appointed to serve on Select Committees be selected by a Committee of Selection; that it be the duty of the Committee of Selection to choose only such Members to serve on Select Committees as may declare their ability to give their regular attendance at such Committees, and that the Committee of Selection ascertain this fact from such Members beforehand; that it be an object of the Committee of Selection, in the formation of Select Committees, to combine a due proportion of the younger Members with the more experienced Members of the House; and that three Members be held a sufficient quorum of Members for Select Committees. About fifteen years ago a change had been made in the constitution of Committees in that House. Previously they used to consist of thirty or forty Members, few of whom were in the habit of attending. On a Motion of his (Mr. Ewart's), the Members were reduced to fifteen, every Member's name being attached to whatever question was put by him in Committee, so as to fix his responsibility. The resolutions which he now had the honour to propose might be said to resolve themselves into two principal points: first, that the Committees should be rendered more efficient by a reduction of the Members composing them; and, secondly, that they might be made more just by enforcing, on the part of the House, the constant attendance of Members of those Committees. They had found the reduced numbers work very well on Private Bills, and he did not see why they should not work as well on Public Committees. At present the attendance of Members was not regular; and, therefore, some means should be adopted to enforce their attendance. A return had been moved for by the hon. and gallant Member for Portarlington (Colonel Dunne) of the attendance of Members on Committees, which had not yet been laid on the table; but he believed it would be seen by it that out of 260 Members appointed to serve on these Committees, not more than 120 had attended.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That the number of Members composing Select Committees be reduced (except when special cause be shown, to the satisfaction of the House, for enlarging that number) to seven.


seconded the Motion.


thought the reduction of the Committees to seven Members would leave little room for the selection of young and inexperienced Members of that House to serve. He also considered there would be great difficulty attendant upon leaving the selection of Members to serve on Committees to a Committee of Selection. Already there was a Committee of Selection for Private Bill Committees, and that House reposed its confidence in the labours of that Committee, because its functions gave no scope for the operation of party spirit. The case, however, would be entirely different with a Committee of Selection selecting the Members to serve upon Committees appointed to inquire into questions of public and of national importance. It was necessary, for instance, that Select Committees on public questions should be formed with some reference to the political views of the Members. They must not only have the interests of the Government duly represented on such Committees, but also the interests of various parties in that House. The Committee of Selection, by whom the hon. Gentleman proposed that the Members of Select Committees should be named, would therefore necessarily be a body entertaining political and party considerations. He therefore doubted whether the House would like to take part with its power of nominating them in order to delegate its exercise to a Committee of Selection, for whose impartiality it would be difficult to obtain a satisfactory guarantee. Again, at this period of the Session it was hardly worth while to enter into the discussion of this Motion; but if the hon. Gentleman only brought the subject forward in order to have it considered between this period and the next Session, when it might be advisable to refer the whole matter to a Select Committee, then he should not object to give him his support.


thought no parallel could be fairly drawn between Private Bill Committees and Committees appointed to inquire into questions of public and national interest. In the case of the appointment of such Committees as the Income Tax Committee, or the Committee on the Army, Navy, and Ordnance Estimates, it would be quite impossible for any Committee of Selection to give satisfaction to both parties in that House by their nomination of Members to inquire into any great disputed question, on which strong feelings were naturally entertained on both sides. It was, he believed, the rule of that House that no Gentleman was obliged to serve on a Committee unless it had been ascertained by previous personal communication that there was a reasonable understanding that he would be willing to serve. Great difficulty had been found in the present Session in obtaining quorums on Committees; but he thought the evil would be increased by limiting in the way proposed the number of Members to serve on Committees. While on that subject, he might be allowed to suggest that every Member of a Committee who voted for or against the Committee's Report, should be required to attach his signature to that document accordingly. He concurred in thinking that an opportunity should be given to younger Members to make them acquainted with the business of the House by serving on Committees with more experienced Members. Whenever he had had anything to do with the nomination of a Committee, he always took care to select one or two young Members, in order that they might have an opportunity of learning their business; and he believed that that rule was not overlooked by other hon. Gentlemen. He agreed with the hon. Member for Malton (Mr. E. Denison), that this was not a question which the House could decide per saltum. They must have time to consider it, and it would be best to refer the subject to a Select Committee; but they wore, he hoped, too near the end of the present Session to engage in any new Committees.


was not prepared to hear so bad an opinion of that House expressed, as that no Committee of Selection which it could appoint would discharge its duties faithfully and impartially. On the contrary, he believed that there would be no difficulty in nominating a Committee capable of selecting in a satisfactory manner the fitting instruments for conducting any inquiry which the House might require to be instituted. When they talked of reforming the representation of the people, they ought not to forget the internal reform which they might effect within their own body. The hon. Member for the University of Oxford (Sir R. H. Inglis) might have selected some young Members to serve on his Committees; but the leaders of parties in that House had generally neglected to do so. Practically, the House bad surrendered the privilege of nominating members of Committees; and, therefore, he thought the ballot, or mere chance, would be better than the system which at present prevailed. He believed, if the returns moved for by the hon. and gallant Member for Portarlington were laid on the table, it would be seen that, during the present Parliament, very few Members had attended public Committees. The Members who served on Private Bill Committees were very unjustly treated; they were like the petty jurors who were forced to attend the Court all day, but never enjoyed the honour of serving on the grand jury. They were never allowed to serve on inquiries of public importance; and yet, while they were so unfairly excluded, there were frequent cases of some other Members being appointed to serve on several different Committees, all sitting simultaneously. The Committees of that House were of growing importance and interest in the government of the country, because there was hardly any public question which was not first considered and digested in Committees before it came to be legislated upon. For himself, he could say that he had been a Member of that House between seven and eight years, and yet he had never been called to serve upon a single public Committee. Believing the Motion of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) to be a great improvement upon the present system, he should give it his support; and he considered the period of the Session at which the subject had been introduced was most favourable for enabling them to make their arrangements and start with the new system at the beginning of the next year.


wished to state, in a few words, the grounds why he was unable to support a proposition to apply the same rule to the selection of Members to serve on Committees of a public nature as was followed in the case of Private Bill Committees. In Private Bill Committees the business was conducted chiefly by counsel, who brought the entire case under the consideration of gentlemen sitting in a quasi judicial character, and hearing the case brought before them; but the different course adopted in Public Committees made it necessary that there persons interested on both sides should be appointed, in order that the case might be thoroughly investigated, and at the same time it was necessary to put impartial Members on, so as to check the leaning of particular parties. This latter object would make it inexpedient to reduce the numbers as proposed. He was convinced that if the proposed plan were adopted, the conduct of the inquiries would not be such as to satisfy the expectations of the House. Whatever objections, therefore, might be brought to the present plan of appointing Committees, he was afraid that the proposal of his hon. Friend (Mr. Ewart) would lead to far greater evils.


said, that.though they had frequently changed the number of Members that should constitute Committees, they had never as to the mode of selection adopted the right course. At present, Members had not a fair opportunity of showing their talents for business, but the difficulty really was to get Members to attend. The object of Committees was to obtain information, and to get at the truth; but as at present constituted, their Committees were not found to promote that result. In a Committee of fifteen Members, it was difficult on the average to get more than six or seven to attend. He would therefore make it compulsory on every Member to attend; but he would not appoint a Member to sit on more than one Committee. He would have the nomination made so as to give a fair chance to every Member. In America the selection was made by the Speaker, who was held responsible for the appointment of the different Members. Party considerations never entered into the nomination of Committees in America; and he thought the same practice might be beneficially adopted here, as the House must have every confidence in the discretion of the right hon. Gentleman who filled the Chair. He would merely add that he thought a quorum of three Members was not sufficient. He agreed that younger Members should serve with Members of more experience, and he thought there would be no difficulty in doing that. He should propose the addition of these words to the Motion of his hon. Friend, "That no Member should serve on more than one Committee at the same time." He believed that the system which he proposed would be beneficial to the Minister of the day; for could anything be more discreditable than the badgering which took place a short time ago in the nomination of the Income Tax Committee? There never was a more fitting time for deciding the question than the present; for the proposed alteration might be made early next Session.


said, that this was an important question, and therefore, before they made a change they should be certain that the change would be an improvement. The great object was to have Committees whose report would carry weight with the House, and therefore, if there were Members who distinguished themselves by their information on particular subjects, he thought they ought to be appointed on Committees on which their information would be valuable, in preference to others. He was not opposed to anything that would be an improvement, provided he was certain that it would be an improvement.


in reply, said, that the proposition he had put forward was advocated in some of its parts by almost every Member who had spoken. The desirability of change was therefore admitted. It had been said that the time for this Motion was inopportune. He could not admit that; for if they made the change now, they would be ready to put it in practice at the commencement of next Session; whereas if he put off the Motion to the next Session, he would be told that the Private Committees were forming, and that his Motion was inexpedient. What he proposed would not have the effect of excluding the most competent Members from Committees.


said, that he could not consent to the proposition of his hon Friend, which went further than he was prepared to go. He would not, however, oppose referring the subject to a Select Committee, if the House entertained that proposition—though he did not think that such a Committee would have a great attendance in the present Session. But if the hon. Gentleman brought such a proposition forward early next Session, he did not think that either the Government or the House would say that the time was not a proper one for such a Motion because the Private Committees were in course of being formed.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.