HC Deb 22 June 1857 vol 146 cc137-9

rose to put a question to the Speaker connected with the privileges of the House. He had always understood that a Committee of that House did not possess any power which the House itself had not; and he believed it would be generally admitted that no Member could be excluded from the debates unless there was some question under discussion personally affecting himself, while, even then, a Member was permitted to make a statement before he retired. As the House was aware, a Select Committee was appointed late last week to inquire into certain proceedings connected with the petition against the return for the borough of Rochdale. There were two forms in which a Committee could be appointed—namely, either as a Select Committee (as in this instance) or as a Secret Committee. If the House thought it advisable that an inquiry should be conducted in secret, it had the power so to order, and it had frequently done so. During the last forty years there had been some twelve cases of the House directing inquiries to be carried on in secret. Now, the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the circumstances connected with the Rochdale Election petition, without any knowledge different from that which, the House possessed when it appointed them—because they had not then taken any evidence—had thought fit to convert themselves into a Secret Committee. A great number of lawyers sat on that Committee, and therefore they had skilfully avoided committing themselves; they did not issue an order that no Member should be admitted, but they worded their notification in a peculiar way, to the effect that it was the opinion of the Committee that the public service would be promoted by the Members present being confined to those who had been selected to serve on the Committee. In common with other hon. Mem- bers he had been rather anxious to witness the proceedings, and knowing that the Committee had no right to exclude him he went to the Committee-room. He was received with great courtesy by the members of the Committee. It was perfectly competent for him to remain, notwithstanding the unanimous opinion of the Committee; and if they really believed, as he supposed they did, that the presence of any Member would have injured the public service, or prejudiced the inquiry, he thought they had but one course to pursue—namely, to adjourn till that (Monday) evening, and then apply to the House for further instructions. Under the circumstances, he had deemed it better to withdraw from the Committee-room. But he now took the liberty of asking the Speaker whether a Select Committee appointed by that House had power, either directly or indirectly, to constitute themselves a secret tribunal.


Sir, before you answer that question I hope you will allow me to make a suggestion to the House, as the Committee of Privileges did me the honour to ask me to preside over its deliberations. That Committee was perfectly well aware of the distinction between a select and a secret Committee. The hon. Member has said that he thinks the Committee was of opinion that its character ought to be changed, and that our duty was not to have proceeded with the inquiry but to have adjourned until the opinion of the House was asked as to whether it should be a select or a secret Committee. It is in the recollection of those hon. Members who were here late on Friday night, when this Committee was appointed, that the first thing proposed was that it should not meet till Monday; but, in consequence of a strong opinion expressed by various Members of the House, the unusual course was taken of appointing it to meet on Saturday. Many Members were apprehensive that if the Committee did not meet forthwith the ends of justice might be defeated. Under these circumstances the Committee met on Saturday. We were, of course, to a certain degree unaware of the nature of the evidence that might be given by Rothwell and Lord, who were the witnesses to be examined on that day. In exercising the discretion which the House intrusted to us we thought we should best carry into effect the view of the House by resolving that no person but a Member of the Com- mittee should be present during the taking of the evidence. We, however, did not presume to exclude any Member of the House. There were, as the hon. Gentleman has said, many legal gentlemen on the Committee, and I may answer for them—though, generally speaking, it is very unadvisable to attempt to answer for such gentlemen,—that they would not presume to exclude any Member from the room. The view which we took as to what was most conducive to the public service received, I think, a most remarkable confirmation, because all the Members—and there were not a few—who were not on the Committee, but who at first desired to be present, immediately assented to the propriety of our view by abstaining from coming into the room. They, in fact, showed no disposition to come in after they became aware of the opinion of the Committee. After the inquiry was terminated on Saturday we saw no reason why the same course should be pursued on Monday, and therefore the public, as well as hon. Members, have been admitted.


In answering the question put to me by the hon. Member as to the rule of the House upon this subject, I have to state that cases of late years have occurred, and that a very distinct ruling upon this matter has been delivered from this Chair by my immediate predecessor. On the 23rd of February, 1849, he stated that, according to the rules of the House, every hon. Member has the privilege of attending in a Committee, unless it be a Secret Committee. The usual practice has been that during the deliberations of the Committee other hon. Members have left the room. There have been instances in which hon. Members would not leave the room, and where, on the application of the Committee, the House has granted the power of excluding hon. Members. The rule, therefore, has been very distinctly laid down—and it was assented to by the House—that hon. Members are privileged to attend in Committees. Indeed, there does not appear to have been any difference of opinion between hon. Members and the Members of the Committee upon this subject. The hon. Member does not ask me a question as to an exercise of discretion on either side, and I therefore think it fitting to confine myself to announcing what is the rule of the House.

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