HC Deb 15 March 1853 vol 125 cc246-52

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire whether the constitution of the Select Committees of that House might not be improved by diminishing the number of Members composing such Committees. At present Select Committees of that House were unfortunately constituted; because, in the first place, it often happened that there were conflicting Committees sitting at the same time, and Members of one of those bodies might be at the same time Members of another Select Committee, which rendered it impossible for them to give due attention to both. There were also Committees on Private Bills, which were an important part of the legislation of that House, and which frequently prevented a Member from giving his attention to a Select Committee; and the same hon. Gentleman might also be appointed on an Election Committee. There was another evil in the present system, and that was, that the House was in the habit of appointing certain Members upon almost every Committee; and it was impossible for them to subdivide themselves, as it were, so as to properly transact all the duties which thus devolved upon them. The hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume), for instance, was supposed to possess powers of infinite divisibility; and the same thing might be said of many of the Ministers and of the leading Members of the Opposition whose names adorned the lists of Select Committees of that House. It was impossible for all these hon. Gentlemen to do their duty; and their appointment excluded many most valuable Mem- bers who might with great benefit to the public give their attention to the various subjects of inquiry. It was the duty of the House to give to its younger Members an opportunity of mingling with those of more experience; but the present system shut out this class of Gentlemen, as well as others, of whose services the public were deprived. Again, he thought these Committees might beneficially be diminished in number. They had been reduced from a much larger number, namely, thirty-six to fifteen; and he believed that even a smaller number than this would be advantageous, and that the Committee, except in cases of particular importance, might consist of nine, with a quorum of five—a change which would bring about greater unity of action, and that greater degree of responsibility which always attended diminished numbers. The present mode of nominating these Committees appeared to him also objectionable, and he would suggest that they should be nominated by the Committee of Selection. He should be very sorry to impose additional duty on the present Committee of Selection, but he thought there ought to be something like a central body, who would know what portion of the House was still disposable, and how Members were occupied, whether on Election Committees, or Select Committees, or Committees on Private Bills. Altogether he considered it very desirable that inquiry should be made, and he, hoped, therefore, the House would agree to the proposition he begged to submit.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire whether the constitution and action of the Select Committees of this House might not be improved by generally diminishing the number of Members composing such Committees, and by making provision for their giving more undivided attention to subjects submitted to their consideration than they are able to do under the present system.


said, he concurred in most of the observations which had fallen from the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Ewart). Every Member who had taken a part in conducting the business of that House, must be aware of the evils of which the hon. Member had complained. But it was more easy to point out an evil than to suggest a remedy. The office which he had the honour to hold of Chairman of the Committee of Selection made him fully sensible of the difficulty by which the question was surrounded. He had sometimes moved for a Select Committee himself, and had never been able to get the exact men whom he wanted, and whom he knew to be best acquainted with the proposed subject of inquiry. Whenever the matter was one of party, the difficulty was, of course, much aggravated. He believed something might be done to remove it by lessening the number of Members appointed on a Select Committee; and it would be a good plan if the hon. Member would get a Resolution from the House that a Select Committee should not consist of more than seven or nine Members. Above all things, he hoped the House would never consent to repeat the very mischievous experiment which had been tried in the present year, by appointing two Select Committees, one consisting of thirty and the other of thirty-one Members. The number of Members in the House was not too large for the business which it had to transact. Owing to exemptions claimed upon various grounds, there were not more than 400 Members, at the outside, who were available for service on Committees. The pressure from private business was greater this Session than had ever been known in the House before; at least in his (Mr. Sotheron's) time. At the beginning of the Session there were eighty-five election petitions, of which forty had been disposed of, and Committees would have to be appointed in thirty or forty cases. Taking the lowest of these numbers at five Members to a Committee, there would be 150 Members required for Election Committees alone. Then came the Private Bills, of which there were 345 at the commencement of the Session, and 200 or thereabouts still remained to be passed. A Resolution had been come to in the other House of Parliament, that no Private Bill should be read a first time after the 5th day of July. The House, therefore, ought to be in a condition after the holidays to appoint Committees to deal with this large number of Private Bills. He had now shown that at this moment there was an amount of labour to be performed which required extra exertion on the part of the House. In conclusion, he would take the liberty of asking his hon. Friend who had called the attention of the House to the matter before them, whether it might not equally answer his purpose if he consented to withdraw the Motion for the present, in order to see what arrangements were in contem- plation, and then to take the whole subject at once.


said, he was perfectly ready to accept the suggestion of his hon. Friend who had just sat down, as to its being advisable that the Motion should not be pressed at that moment. He thought it would be better to make the Motion at a future time, and in more general terms; so that the Committee which should be appointed might not be confined exclusively to the suggestions contained in the Motion of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart), but might be enabled to offer other suggestions which would tend to facilitate the progress of business in that House. He quite agreed with his hon. Friend that it was highly desirable, now that there were so many subjects for the consideration of Committees, that the number of Members usually appointed to sit upon those Committees should be as small as possible. He hoped, at all events, that whenever his hon. Friend obtained the appointment of the Committee he was now asking for, he would set an example of the advantages of a small number, and that he would not propose a large number to consider the subject which he had brought under their notice that evening. It was highly desirable, also, that Members should be constant in their attendance with respect to the subjects which they might be appointed to consider. It often happened that Members were absent, without whose opinion and authority the Report of the Committee would not be looked upon as of as great value as it otherwise would be. That was a question, however, with which it was extremely difficult to deal effectually, and one which required much deliberation. Very often the day of the appointment of the Committee was early in the Session, and Members usually attended in very full numbers to hear all the evidence; and then about the middle of July, it being proposed by the Chairman to come to a Resolution upon the subject of investigation, out of the fifteen or sixteen Members who had been originally appointed, not more than seven or eight generally appeared. Four or five, therefore, formed a majority, and it was upon the opinion of those four or five Members that the House was obliged to frame its decision. He repeated, however, that the object which his hon. Friend had in view was somewhat difficult of attainment, and he hoped he would not press his Motion at the present time.


said, he thought the suggestions of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) deserved the serious consideration of the House; he (Mr. Rich) felt assured that there was hardly a Member of that House who had not observed how very hastily Committees were usually nominated. Almost all that the House saw of it was, that his right hon. Friend (Mr. Hayter) went round the House on one side, the whipper-in on the other side did the same, and the result was that the younger Members, who perhaps wished to serve on Committees, were passed over, and became disgusted with the business of the House. The object of his right hon. Friend (Mr. Hayter), he feared, was not to select the best men to serve upon Committees, but the Members most disposed to carry out his views. If a Committee of Selection, however, were appointed, its Members would be responsible to that House for the proper discharge of their duties, and those Gentlemen would be chosen who were best fitted to perform the office of Members of a Committee, and to transact the business which it was necessary to have despatched. What had been the working of former Committees of that House? Why, blue books had become almost a mockery in consequence of the great superfluity of matter which they contained. This circumstance was to be attributed to the constitution of the Committees, which did not enforce the regular attendance of Members, and which thus rendered the same evidence liable to be repeated over and over again in answer to the questions of those Members who were absent when similar interrogatories had been put on a previous occasion. He did not wish his hon. Friend should press the Motion, however, at that moment, though he sincerely hoped that he might ultimately succeed in the object which he had in view.


said, he thought the House was much indebted to the hon. Member (Mr. Ewart), not only for the Motion itself which he had brought forward, but also for eliciting the discussion that had just taken place on it. He agreed with him that the subject called for the very serious consideration of the House, and he agreed with him that it was desirable, and there seemed to be a concurrence of opinion in the House, that the number of Members called to serve upon those Committees should be lessened. With regard to the immediate measure before the House, he would suggest to his hon. Friend to postpone moving for the Committee till after he had placed himself in communication with the Committee of Selection and those Members of the Government under whose consideration the matter then was.


said, he was not quite sure whether the present mode of appointing Select Committees was looked upon as altogether objectionable or not. It might be very convenient that the number of Members upon those Committees should be diminished; but, at the same time, a large proportion of young Members should not be appointed to act upon them in all cases. Let them take, for instance, the affairs of India. Was it advisable, he would ask, that the Committee sitting to inquire into that important subject, being reduced to a comparatively small number, a considerable proportion of that reduced number should consist of young Members? Could a Committee so constituted have the same weight with that House as a Committee constituted in the usual manner? While it was proposed to confer advantages upon the one hand, evils, he feared, were likely to ensue upon the other. As a Member of the Committee of Selection, he wished to point out the difference that existed between public questions and private business. He did not know whether the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Rich) would have the Committee of Selection run over the House to ask Members if they would like to serve, as he had described was the mode at present; but, if so, not many Gentlemen would like to serve upon the Committee of Selection. At present hon. Members were invited to let the Committee of Selection know at what period of the Session it would be convenient to them to act upon Election Committees and on Private Bills. The Committee of Selection might think certain Gentlemen more competent than others to serve upon certain public Committees; but they could not be compelled to give their services without a different management. He should tell his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) that he, for one, could not enter into an inquiry upon the subject with any very sanguine hope of a material improvement being effected in the present system.


said, he wished that the inquiry should be extended not only to the Members who might constitute the Committee, but also to the subjects which should be brought under their notice.


said, if the hon. Member for Mahon (Mr. E. Denison) had been present when he (Mr. Ewart) had introduced the question, he would have been aware that he excepted very important Committees, such as those sitting upon the affairs of India, from the same regulations as those which he proposed for the appointment of those of minor consideration. In bringing forward his Motion his only desire had been to improve, as far as possible, the interior organisation of that House. He would at once yield to the suggestions made by the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell) as to the propriety of not pressing it prematurely upon the attention of the House, and would, therefore, postpone it until some more favourable opportunity of introducing it should present itself.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.