§ Commander BELLAIRS
I desire to bring before you, Mr. Speaker, a question of the rights of private Members to ask questions concerning the actions of Royal Commissions or Commissioners and Committees. It will be within your recollection, Sir, that I raised this question on the 27th of November last year. At that time I had not given you notice, and, therefore, I did not use the considered precedents which I had in my pocket. On Monday I went to the Table, and asked to whom I should address a question concerning Mesopotamia—as to why Sir William Meyer had not given evidence before that Commission—and I was told that I could not address it to any Minister, nor could I address any question to any member of the Commission. The precedents which I rely on are scattered over a long period, from 1858 to 1872, and I will summarise them as briefly as possible. I have already sent you a copy of them. On 23rd March, 1858, a question was asked as to the recommendations a Committee intended to make. That question was addressed to the Chairman. On 12th March, 1868, a question was asked as to the progress a Commission had made, how often they had met, and such particulars as the member of the Commission could supply. On 30th June, 1870, a question was asked of a Member who some days before had presented a Petition, in which charges were made against a judge. A question was also asked of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Petitions as to the course they intended to take. My final precedent, which I will quote to the House, is of 25th May, 1871. A Royal Commissioner was asked:Whether it is the fact, that the gentleman entrusted with the drawing up of the report on the Pottery Department of the International Expedition of 1871 is a member or employé of one of the principal exhibiting firms, and, if so, whether the Royal Commissioners will allow the fact to be stated in the report on the subject.There was a very full reply given to that question. I quite recognise that asking 1323 questions of Commissioners is open to abuse, but Mr. Disraeli said, "There are no indiscreet questions, there are only-indiscreet answers," and I venture to say that the abuse which might result from this House not having any control over Commissioners might be even greater than the abuse of asking questions of Commissioners or Ministers.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
It is perfectly true that in old days there was not so much rigidity about questions as there is now. There were not so many questions, and it was not so necessary to be so strict. Fifty years ago there were only a very few questions asked in the House, and questions to members of Royal Commissions and even of Committees were no doubt permitted. The last precedent which the hon. and gallant Gentleman is able to quote is forty-five years old. During the last five or six Parliaments no question has been allowed to members of Royal Commissions or of Statutory Commissions or of Committees in this House, and the reason is pretty obvious. In the case of Royal Commissions, the Commissioners are appointed with the duty of inquiring and reporting to His Majesty, and it would be very improper if they gave information to this House before they had reported to His Majesty. The same may also be said with regard to Statutory Commissions up to the time that the Commission has concluded its labours and reported. It would also be very undesirable to extend the practice for this reason. It does not necessarily follow that there is any Member of the House on the Commission. It may be that now and again on some of these Commissions which are appointed there are Members of the House, but that is quite a fortuitous matter, and it is better, I think, to follow the rules which obtain with regard to our Select Committees. Once any matter has been referred to a Select Committee, no questions are permitted until the Committee has reported. Of course, when the Debate comes on, it will be open to the hon. and gallant Gentleman to put any question he pleases to any members of the Commission who happen to be present, but to allow questions to appear on the Paper addressed to members of Royal Commissions would be an innovation which would be quite contrary to the practice which has obtained for the last forty-five years.
§ Commander BELLAIRS
Is it not possible to make an arrangement by which one of the Ministers acts as a post office for the Chairman of the Commissioners and answers questions such as when the Commission is likely to report?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Take the very question which the hon. and gallant Gentleman wants to put. How would it be possible for a Minister to obtain an answer? The Commission is>functus officio. The Commissioners are gone. They are dispersed to the four corners of the country. They would all have to be summoned together again to consider the question propounded by the hon. and gallant Gentleman as to why a particular individual was not called. There might be half-a-dozen of them and it is really impracticable after the Commission has concluded its labours to call them together again for such a purpose.
§ Mr. LOUGH
I would like to ask for a little further information on one point. You said that the practice which obtained with regard to Select Committees in this House might be followed, and that the proper time to ask questions was when the matter came up for Debate. I wish to ask whether your ruling goes so far that no questions can be asked by this House with regard to Committees and Commissions which are not of that nature, but which have been appointed without the consent and sometimes without the knowledge of this House, and whose proceedings the Government may arrange shall not formally come up for Debate. I mean Royal Commissions or Departmental Committees appointed by the Government.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The Minister is responsible for the work of any Departmental Committee; with regard to Royal Commissions, as I have said, they are appointed by His Majesty, and it is their duty to report to His Majesty. Until they have reported, I do not think that questions should be permitted in this House to any members of such Commissions who happen to be Members of this House, and there is no Minister responsible. Questions are sometimes put to Ministers asking when a Royal Commission is likely to-report, and he ascertains the answer. Obviously, there is no objection to that, but it would be an objectionable practice to ask questions of members of Royal Commissions who merely by chance happen to be Members of this House.
§ Sir J. D. REES
In what respect does a Member of this House who happens to be a member of a Royal Commission differ so far as asking him questions is concerned from a private Member? I ask this question because in 1906 questions were allowed by you and were put upon the Paper addressed to private Members asking what action they intended to take in respect of Motions which they had upon the Paper. Perhaps you remember the facts.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
There is all the difference in the world. We have always allowed questions to private Members as to what procedure they intend to follow with regard to any Bill that they have introduced or with regard to any Motion of which they have given notice. That has always been permitted, and I hope it will always be permitted. The circumstances are wholly different with regard to the action of a Commission of which "they may happen to form part.
§ Sir COURTENAY WARNER
I want to ask how far your ruling goes. These Royal Commissions report to His Majesty, and for His Majesty's acts the Prime Minister and the Government are responsible. I want to know whether, if one of these Commissions acts notoriously in contravention of the general feeling of this House, ft would be impossible for any Member of this House to ask the Prime Minister a question as to the action of such Royal Commission?
§ 4.0 P.M
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I do not see how the House has any knowledge of the action of the Royal Commission until the Royal Commission has completed its labours and reported. When it has reported it is certainly perfectly open to any Member to ask questions in debate. All I am saying is that, during the sitting of the Commission, it is not open to Members to put down upon the Paper questions addressed to Members of the House who happen to be Commissioners with regard to their work.
§ Sir C. WARNER
I only wanted to ascertain whether we have the right to question Members of the Government who are responsible for the appointment of a Commission.