HC Deb 26 February 1864 vol 173 cc1235-40

Select Committee nominated,

Sir FRANCIS BARING, Sir JOHN PAKINGTON, Mr. STANSFELD, Sir JOHN HAY, Mr. BAXTER, Mr. LAIRD, Sir MORTON PETO, Mr. GEORGE BENTINCK, Sir JOSEPH PAXTON, Mr. CORRRY, and Mr. CHARLES BERKELEY:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Five to be the quorum.


said, that his noble Friend had done him the honour to ask him to be a Member of the Committee, and if he could be of any use he would willingly give his service; but, at the same time, he could not consent to remain a Member of that Committee without expressing his regret that the Board of Admiralty had thought it proper to appoint a Committee at all upon the subject. The question of the dockyards was one which the Admiralty itself was quite competent to deal with, and could have taken into their own hands with the hope of a better result than by delegating it to a Committee. He did not quite understand what was the real scope of the inquiry, because the terms of the Motion were somewhat peculiar. The terms of the Motion were, to inquire into the state of the dockyards in England, and especially into some questions connected with Portsmouth. Now, he wanted to know why that special reference was made to Portsmouth, and in what respect were the inquiries to be directed more to Portsmouth than to any other portion of the dockyards. Then there was another point which he wished to suggest to his noble Friend. It had been suggested that it was hardly consistent with courtesy to put one Member for Portsmouth on the Committee without adding the other Member to it, and that objection was now met by the proposed nomination of Sir James Elphinstone; but, considering that this question, of great public importance, might very much turn on the interests, in a narrow sense, of the town of Portsmouth, he could not help throwing out a suggestion, whether it was desirable that any Member for Portsmouth should be on the Committee? His noble Friend told him, in the first place, that he would make it a small Committee, consisting of nine members. His own opinion was, that the inquiry would be much better conducted by such a Committee than by one of fifteen members. That, however, was a question entirely in the hands of the Government.


said, that the observations just made showed how difficult it was to meet the views of all Members of that House, though it was the desire of the Government to consult the convenience and wishes of hon. Gentlemen. As the right hon. Baronet had called in question the propriety of appointing a Committee, he would remind the House, that last year on the question arising respecting the enlargement of Portsmouth dockyard, several hon. Members observing that it was a matter of great importance, suggested the appointment of a Committee, and the Committee was appointed in deference to the opinions of hon. Members interested in the subject. It was very reasonable to ask for a Committee upon so important a scheme, that the details might be carefully examined, and he accordingly promised last year to nominate a Committee on the meeting of Parliament. It was natural that Members for Ireland should think that in making so great an improvement in the dockyards in England there was a port in the South of Ireland which might be advantageously adapted to the same purpose. He thought it fair that they should be represented on the Committee, and that the Committee should have the opportunity of recommending any modification of the proposal, or any other proposal connected with the subject, which might suggest itself as worthy the consideration of the House. He did not wish to confine the Committee altogether to Portsmouth, because he thought it quite possible, that if the Committee suggested the construction of a great basin at Portsmouth, they might also suggest some modification of the proposed basin and dock accommodation at Chatham. The Committee could examine the Government engineers, civil engineers, and the naval authorities, and give that careful and detailed consideration to the subject which one so vast and so important required; and which could not be dealt with in a debate in the House of Commons. With regard to the composition of the Committee, he certainly did think that a Committee of nine would, be more compact and perhaps better able to carry on the business. But hon. Gentlemen from the South of Ireland pressed strongly to have their views represented. He had chosen the right hon. Member for Tyrone (Mr. Corry), as one perfectly acquainted with the subject and interested in the sister country, but the Irish Members desired very much to have one of their number intimately connected with the South of Ireland. Then, again, with regard to the Members for the place, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Portsmouth (Sir Francis Baring), who sat behind him, would have willingly given up his seat, but he did not wish him to do so; and the other hon. Member for Portsmouth thought, that as the interests of the borough would be affected by questions of stopping ways and altering approaches from the sea, he ought to be present to watch over the interests of his constituents. He likewise proposed the addition of two hon. Members of independent judgment, whose names would be a guarantee to the House that they would watch over the proposed expenditure with very jealous eyes. It was under these circumstances that he had proposed to extend the number of the Committee.


observed, that what occurred had confirmed him in the conviction that the House ought to pause before they adopted the proposal before them. He quite agreed that it was very important that such a Committee should be watched by hon. Members desiring to control the expenditure which was to be incurred, because the expenditure on dockyards was a very serious item in the Estimates. He wished to put it to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, whether experience had not shown that a Select Committee was not the most economical tribunal which they could select. Generally speaking, a Select Committee entered upon inquiry with their minds directed to the importance of the object to be attained, and thinking very little of the expense. They were not under the control of the financial Members of the Government, and they usually recommended measures the reverse of economical. The question to be discussed was not only dock accommodation at Portsmouth, but elsewhere; and, when conflicting interests were represented, there was a natural tendency of human nature, however excellent, to end in a kind of agreement, "I will recommend your dockyard if you will recommend mine." He did not mean to say that the names on the Committee were the names of Gentlemen likely to fall into that course. But if that were done now claims for other places would come in, and they would get into the habit of delegating some of the most important functions of the executive Government to Committees. He thought that constitutionally that was very dangerous and likely to lead to very great evils. He felt so strongly on the subject that he suggested the matter should, at all events, stand over till Monday for re-consideration, being inclined himself to recommend the noble Lord to withdraw it altogether.


I think the right hon. Baronet who spoke before the hon. Baronet placed the matter on erroneous grounds. First of all, the House has determined that there shall be a Committee. That question is not under consideration. The only question is, of whom shall the Committee consist? It is said that matters of this sort ought not to be referred to a Committee of the House, but ought to be determined by the executive Government. That assumes that a Committee of this House has to determine what is to be done. But that is not all the functions of a Committee of this House. A Committee is appointed to investigate considerations which may lead either to doing or not doing anything. With regard to the dockyards, the Committee is objected to on the ground of economy. I do not think economy is the ruling and leading principle to be taken into consideration. The ruling and guiding principle is the advantage of the public service. The question is, not how cheap you can do anything, but whether it is of importance to the interests of the country that there should be dock accommodation at Portsmouth, Chatham, or Cork, or anywhere else. There seems here to arise considerations which must turn on matters of considerable detail, and to sift which, in the first instance, it is of importance a Committee should be appointed. The Committee will take evidence and make recommendations. Those recommendations are to be considered by the executive Government, and the executive Government, upon their own responsibility, will make thereupon such proposals to this House as they may think fit. The House then has the responsibility of the executive Government in determining what proposals shall be made, and they will have the advantage of the previous investigations of the Committee, who will have better information of the grounds upon which the decision is to be taken than can be found in a debate upon the Navy Estimates. Therefore, it seems to me that the course pursued is really the best course to enable the House to come to an ultimate decision, because, although the discretion of making the proposal rests with the Government, the final decision of that proposal—the Vote of money to carry it into effect—must rest with this House, and the House will be better able to come to a decision upon a clear understanding of the facts by a previous investigation, than it would by any statement of a department. It is said that: Committees will be appointed of persons who will say, "You recommend my dockyard and I will recommend yours"—a sort of bargain of jobs; but that is not the function of a Committee, nor is it that which the Members of this Committee will perform. Several questions will arise before the Committee—one of the public advantage and another of the local convenience or inconvenience; and it is quite fair, therefore, that the Members for the different places concerned should be there to represent the opinions of their constituents, and to say what are their local interests as contrasted with the interests of the public. Both parties should be represented, and I think, therefore, that my noble Friend has done quite right in putting the hon. and gallant Member for Portsmouth on this Committee. The Government will then afterwards have to consider, whether the local injury is sufficient to counterbalance the public advantage. The House has already determined to appoint a Committee, and the only question to be decided is, whether the persons selected are those fittest to serve on it.

House adjourned at a quarter before Twelve o'clock.