HC Deb 09 April 1867 vol 186 cc1376-82

said, he rose to call attention to the control now exercised by the Secretary to the Treasury over the allowance of expenses to witnesses before Committees of the House. He stated that he was last year Chairman of a very important Committee, and at the end of the Session his recommendation respecting the expenses of witnesses went to the Treasury in due course. A difference of opinion arose between him and the Secretary to the Treasury on this subject. A witness might be summoned, say for Thursday, and it might happen that, owing to a longer time than was expected being taken up with previous witnesses, his evidence might not be wanted on that day. As Committees of that kind usually met only twice a week, the question was whether the witness was bound to remain in town until the following Monday or Tuesday, when the Committee might sit again, or was he at liberty to go down to the country? Who was the best judge to determine that? Was it the Secretary to the Treasury or the Chairman of the Committee? It seemed to him that it should be in the first instance the Chairman of the Committee, and if the Secretary to the Treasury differed from him, the matter might come before the House of Commons represented by a tribunal composed of the Chairman of Committees, the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, and two or three other Gentlemen of experience appointed by the House. In a particular case to which he was now referring, he, as Chairman of the Committee, had made a recommendation that a witness should receive certain expenses, but the Secretary to the Treasury, by the stroke of his pen, disallowed the expenses, and cut them down to the extent of about £2 10s. That was not a satisfactory position for a Chairman of a Committee to be placed in. He concluded by moving for a Copy of his Recommendation as Chairman of the Committee on Mines, and of the reply of the Secretary to the Treasury.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That there be laid before this House, Copy of Recommendation of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Mines in the last Session to the Treasury, with reference to the expenses of Witnesses examined before that Committee."—(Mr. Neate.)


said, he was not at all sorry that his hon. Friend had brought this matter before the House, because, although it referred to a small matter, the principle involved in it was great. He ventured to submit that in taking the course which his hon. Friend complained of, he had simply been fulfilling his duty and doing that which all his predecessors had done. Only the other day he had occasion to call the attention of the House to the heavy expenses entailed upon the public by witnesses being summoned to attend before Committees on days when they could not possibly be examined, and of witnesses being paid for a number of days when they had only given one or two days' evidence. His hon. Friend was not in the House on that occasion. He regretted this because, although he did not allude to his hon. Friend particularly, the Committee over which his hon. Friend presided was, he might say without any disrespect, a great offender in the matter then alluded to. The total of expenses recommended to witnesses who were examined before the Mines Committee, even after deducting disallowances, was no less than £462. A great number of witnesses were in attendance seven days, and were only examined one day; a few were in attendance eight days, and were only examined one; one witness was in attendance ten days and was only examined four; one witness was in attendance eleven days and was only examined two; one witness was in attendance ten days and was only examined three. He thought, therefore, that in this particular Committee very small care was taken to save the public money by providing that witnesses should only be summoned for such days as they were likely to be required. The first time that the expenses in connection with the Committee on Mines were brought under his notice was upon an occasion when an application was made to him to give compensation to a gentleman who had been employed as agent to keep witnesses together, and to arrange their evidence. He was then told that the Chairman of the Committee had employed a person as agent to ascertain who would probably be the best witnesses, and to settle the time when they should be summoned, much in the same way as was done in the case of Private Bills. Upon hearing this, he said that he did not consider that the expenses given in connection with this agent should be allowed. He knew of no authority for such proceedings. If the Committee required the assistance of an agent for such a purpose the Chairman should not have appointed one, but should have applied to the House for authority to that effect, and he therefore refused to allow the expenses claimed by the agent on that account. The next time that his attention was called to the subject was when the claims were sent into the Treasury on the recommendation of the Chairman of the Committee. On that occasion the officer in the department who dealt with these things pointed out that in the case of a certain witness from Yorkshire the travelling expenses had been charged twice. He (Mr. Hunt) said that this witness could only be allowed the expenses of one journey up and one journey down. It was then suggested to him that it was possible the witness might have been summoned twice; but upon inquiry it turned out that he had never been summoned at all. Being thus led into some inquiry, he pursued the investiga- tion a little further, and found that out of fifty-one witnesses examined before this Committee only eighteen had received summonses to attend. Had he done his strict duty he should have disallowed the expenses of all the witnesses who had not been summoned. He did not consider that every witness should be allowed expenses who merely tendered himself to the Chairman. The proper procedure would be for the Chairman to intimate to the Committee the witnesses whose evidence might be required; and should the Committee think it desirable to take their evidence summonses should be issued, and no expenses should be allowed to witnesses unless they were so summoned. Everybody knew that there were certain periods of the year when gentlemen from the country were anxious for a trip to London. These gentlemen found out that some subject was being examined before a Committee upon which they had some knowledge. They came into the Committee-room, sat down, and wrote upon a slip of paper to the Chairman that they were from such and such a place, and could give important evidence. Thus if this practice were encouraged, every person who could induce a good-natured Chairman to call him as a witness might get his expenses paid to and from London. Had he therefore, as he already remarked, acted strictly in this instance, he should have disallowed the expenses of all witnesses except those summoned in accordance with the recommendation of the Chairman. What was done in the case referred to was this:—the gentleman employed as agent for keeping the witnesses together took into his own hands the work of getting these persons to appear; and, although the Chairman did not sign their summonses, a claim was sent into the Treasury for their expenses. He went through the claims of these persons and disallowed such as he thought were irregular. The question raised by the hon. Member for the city of Oxford had been on more than one occasion inquired into by Committees of the House. In 1841 it appeared, from the inquiry then instituted, that the Treasury had always exercised a control over these expenses. An officer of the House, in the course of his evidence, distinctly stated that the only effect of the signature of the Chairman to the accounts of expenses was to give the Treasury jurisdiction in the matter and to transfer it into their hands. An officer from the Treasury was examined before another Committee in 1840, and he stated that he could see no advantage that would result from having the expenses of witnesses paid by an officer of the House of Commons, and that the check exercised by the Treasury afforded better security against abuse. That Committee reported upon the subject, placing no limitation upon the Treasury in dealing with the expenses of witnesses, but urging that the expenses should be curtailed by the Chairman of Committees. In 1848 the Committee on Miscellaneous Expenditure again recognised the control of the Treasury. It would thus be seen that the control of the Treasury in these matters had been recognised by the House, and that the House had never objected to the exercise of that control. He thought, therefore, that in the case now submitted to the House he had acted strictly in accordance with the practice of his predecessors. His hon. Friend stated, that upon remonstrance, the Treasury had allowed one guinea more to the witness whose second travelling expenses had been disallowed. That guinea had not, however, been allowed in order to meet his hon. Friend half-wya; but because, upon further scrutiny, it turned out that the witness might have justly claimed for another day's attendance. He hoped that the effect of bringing this question before the House would be to induce Chairmen of Committees to pay greater attention to the matter than they had been in the habit of doing. He would suggest that Chairmen should in no case send in a recommendation allowing expenses to witnesses unless they had been summoned. It was not right that persons coming to London should volunteer their evidence and then claim their expenses. Unless, then, the House should think fit to express an opinion to the contrary, he should continue the practice he had pursued since he had been at the Treasury, and endeavour to protect the public against exorbitant charges made in connection with witnesses before Select Committees.


said, that if witnesses were sent for, either by summons or by invitation, their reasonable expenses ought to be paid. The allowance for witnesses was very small, and when sent for from a great distance, such as Edinburgh, there was necessarily some delay, because they must be in attendance when called.


said, he wished to correct a misapprehension that the expenses of professional witnesses only were paid, since there was a special scale per diem allowed for tradesmen, mechanics, and others who might be summoned, and recommended by the Chairman to receive remuneration. The hon. Member for Oxford suggested that a Committee should be appointed to act as arbitrators when the Chairman of a Select Committee recommended a certain payment which was dissented from by the Treasury. He did not think that the appointment of such a Committee would effect any good. The amounts to be allowed per day had been laid down, and so far an established rule worked well; but the number of days that a witness need be detained in order to give his evidence must always be a matter of discretion with the Chairman of the Committee, who should make it a point to arrange business so that witnesses should be detained as short a time as possible. The best plan would be for the Chairman of the Select Committee to carefully consider the question and take care that no witness should be detained in town a day longer than was absolutely necessary. A Return of the payments made to witnesses summoned by the Select Committee on Trade in Animals showed how much could be done by the Chairman of a Committee, in the making of arrangements; for, although there were witnesses from all parts—even from the Continent—they were not detained more than three days, except one from Ireland, who was detained six days. The Chairman of a Committee was not absolute; his recommendation was liable to check by the Treasury; and it was not necessary to check the economy of the Treasury, because it was easier for the Secretary of the Treasury to be good-natured, and to consent to any recommendation submitted to him, than to put himself in the invidious position of refusing to accede to it. The only effect of appointing a Committee of arbitration would be that the Secretary of the Treasury would feel that if he put himself in the disagreeable position of refusing to sanction proposed expenditure his opinion might be overruled by that Committee, and he would incur the odium of the refusal without obtaining the result of promoting economy. There was sufficient check at present, for if the claim of a witness was excessive the Chairman of the Committee could refuse to recommend it, the Secretary of the Treasury could refuse to allow it, and if he erred in being too stingy or too liberal the last resort was an appeal to the House.


said, he would withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.