HC Deb 23 April 1861 vol 162 cc1010-2

MR. W. EWART moved the following Resolution in reference to the formation of Select Committees:— That the number of Members constituting Select Committees be reduced—except where it shall seem good to the House to extend their number—to seven or nine Members; and that they be named by the Committee of Selection, who shall choose such Members on account of their acquaintance with the subject submitted to their consideration, and shall adopt measures for insuring, as far as possible, the constant attendance of such Members in the several Committees. The hon. Member said that of late years the mode of conducting the business of that House had been very much improved. Formerly Select Committees on Private Bills consisted of Members all interested in the matter submitted to their consideration; but now no interested Member was placed on a Private Bill Committee, and the attendance of the Members of the Committee must he regular. It occurred to him that these regulations might be extended to other Committees; and the two leading objects which he wished to effect was to increase the responsibility of Select Committees by diminishing the number of the Members constituting them, and to insure, as far as possible, the regular attendance of the Members. These two objects had been attained by the reform introduced in respect of Private Bill Committees. There was a time when these Select Committees consisted of a vast number of Members; but the number had been reduced to fifteen Members, and he thought that it might be reduced still further with great benefit. He, therefore, proposed that Select Committees should consist of nine or seven Members. In order to insure the regular attendance of the Members of Committees he proposed that the Select Committees should be nominated, like the Committees on Private Bills, by the Committee of Selection, who knew well what Members were on Private Bill Committees, and who would be likely to be regular in their attendance. The Members appointed, might, perhaps, be asked to make a declaration that they would attend regularly. He would not, however, make a proposition to that effect on the present occasion, but would reserve the point for subsequent consideration.


confessed that he entertained doubts as to the policy of the principle on which this Motion was founded. That principle, as he understood it, was that the mode of appointment and the proceedings of Public Committees should be as much as possible assimilated to those of Private Bill Committees. Now, there was a wide difference between the nature of the questions referred to Private Bill and Election Committees and that of those referred to ordinary Public Committees. The duties of the two former classes of Committees were essentially of a judicial character. Their members, few in number, were chosen by the Committee of Selection, and required as far as posposible to be impartial on the question they had to decide; which was, moreover, generally a definite one. It was requisite also that they should have formed no previous opinion upon it. They were, likewise, called upon, in respect to private Bills referred to them, to declare that they had no interest in the matter of controversy. Under Standing Order 96 they were required to attend from day to day until they had made their Report, and could only absent themselves through sickness or by an Order of the House. Their position, in fact, was like that of jurymen impanelled to try an issue before a Court; the inquiry before them was conducted by counsel, who called and examined witnesses to substantiate their opening statements, the members acting merely in a judicial capacity. The same was the case with Election Committees, whose members would be entirely helpless, and could come to no conclusion but for the assistance of counsel. That was the basis of the elaborate, coherent, and, as it appeared to him, convenient code of rules which the House had established in regard to private Bills and the trial of controverted elections, and which was certainly a great improvement on their previous practice. The hon. Gentleman asked, however, why that system which worked so well was not extended to Public Committees. The answer was, that the two cases were wholly dissimilar. The business before Public Com- mittees was conducted entirely by the Members themselves, who had to call and examine witnesses, sift their evidence, and, in short, perform all the functions which counsel performed before Private Bill Committees. If, therefore, Public Committees consisted wholly of impartial men their investigations would be most unsatisfactory. Strong partisans on each side were knowingly and advisedly chosen, in order that truth might be elicited from the conflict of opposite, and it might be interested opinions. Indeed, in forming such Committees the avowed object often was to have different interests represented, and complaints were sometimes made that a Committee was unfairly constituted precisely because conflicting interests were not duly represented in it. It was also frequently alleged that Scotch and Irish Members were excluded. The practice, further, was to have some members of the Government and likewise some leading Members of the Opposition on every important Public Committee—an usage in favour of which obviously a great deal might be said. But if all these different elements were to be incorporated into a Public Committee, in order to secure its proper composition, how could the unhappy Committee of Selection attain that object if they were restricted to the choice of seven or nine Members? It appeared to him, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman, with the very best intentions, had confounded two things that were perfectly distinct. For these reasons, it was impossible to agree to his Motion.


thought it would he a decided improvement in the practice of the House, and would prevent a good deal of unseemly squabbling, if the Committee of Selection were left to choose the members of Public as well as of Private Bill Committees.


, in replying, said that he thought the effect of his Motion would he to invigorate Committees and improve their machinery.

Question put, and negatived.