Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 10, Officials of Royal Commissions of Inquiry 1870-1939. Originally published by University of London, London, 1995.
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This book lists the personnel of most British Royal Commissions of Inquiry appointed between 1870 and 1940. For reasons of space it omits the members of the various Commissions appointed in connection with International Exhibitions, and into allegations of electoral corruption. Brief details of these are given in the appendices, and their members can be traced through the Parliamentary reports listed there. The starting date for the book is the point at which the previous listing in this series (fn. 1) stopped and the final date is the outbreak of the Second World War. The dating for other books in the series relates to the civil service reforms of the 1860s and 1870s, but these did not greatly affect the appointment of Royal Commissioners. (fn. 2) This introduction offers a brief summary of the procedures for appointing Commissions and the organisation of their work during the period, and largely uses material from the Home Office and Treasury files on specific Commissions held at the Public Record Office. It should be emphasised that this survey is extremely cursory; the relevant files are often incomplete and not fully indexed; and much material on Royal Commissions may be found within Departmental files which have not been consulted for the purposes of this book. Furthermore, since Secretaries and Chairmen frequently retained Commission papers at their discretion these may be held within various archives.
Royal Commissions occupy a distinctive position in the administration of the British state. Their members are not office-holders in the same sense as those who are listed in other volumes in this series, although individually they may have held civil service or government positions. Very few Royal Commissions had any enforceable legal powers; they could not compel witnesses either to appear before them, or to produce documents; they could recommend legislative action, but had no authority to implement it. (fn. 3) Yet they continued to occupy considerable amounts of executive and administrative time, and public money until well into the 20th century when they were largely replaced by other forms of ad hoc inquiry such as Departmental (fn. 4) and inter-departmental committees. There were also very many of them: over 130 Royal Commissions were appointed between 1870 and 1900; sixty-one between 1900 and 1914; and fifty-nine from 1914 to 1940, with an average membership of seven and a minimum administrative staff of three. The other forms of government inquiry were equally numerous; for example, there were about seventy Departmental Committees between 1877 and 1900. (fn. 5) Such inquiries were temporary, and although they operated within parameters set by the government, they were not departments of state. (fn. 6) In this sense each one was unique, and any history of them must necessarily be episodic rather than narrative, particularly since the contents of the surviving records are so inconsistent. (fn. 7)
Royal Commissioners held their appointment directly from the Crown, even though their members were invariably government nominees. The relative number of Commissions appointed during the period does not seem to have varied greatly under successive governments although overall there was a continued decline; for example, the Conservative administration of 1874-80 appointed twenty-seven while the slightly shorter Liberal government of 1880-85 appointed eighteen. Incoming governments did not normally suspend arrangements previously in place for the appointment of Commissions: for example the Royal Commissions on the Blind; Poor Laws; and Food Prices were issued within days of a new administration. Commissions were initiated by Government Departments, most usually the Home Office whose General Department (fn. 8) was always responsible for drawing up the Warrants of appointment. (fn. 9) These gave the full names, titles, and status of each Commissioner; the terms of reference; and the formal parameters of the inquiry. They were usually signed by the Home Secretary and by the Colonial or War Secretary in the case of inquiries relating to those Departments, (fn. 10) but were never issued until formal approval had been obtained from the monarch. (fn. 11) They were thus authoritative and imposing State documents, theoretically forming individual and direct contracts of temporary employment between monarch and subject, with the government, in the person of the appropriate Secretary of State, merely acting as intermediary. Any subsequent changes of either the personnel or the terms of reference occasioned a new Warrant, which was usually issued in a shortened form, although there seems to have been no consistent practice here. (fn. 12) When there were frequent changes of personnel, as in the Royal Commission on Natural Resources (no. 151), the successive shorter Warrants were consolidated into a more comprehensive document which reprinted the names of all serving Commissioners and the terms of the original Commission.
From 1870 all Commissions into English, Welsh and Irish affairs were issued by a Warrant under the Royal Sign Manual; (fn. 13) this was also the case for Indian Royal Commissions (nos. 85, 91, 137, 153, 156, 183, 187, 190, 195 and 198). The Colonial Commissions (fn. 14) appointed during this period were written under the Royal Sign Manual and Signet, apart from the Royal Commission on Malta (no. 203) and the Royal Commission into Australian Meat Exports (no. 159). (fn. 15) Scottish Commissions alone were inconsistent: some were issued under Royal Sign Manual, but others were issued under Letters Patent and countersealed in Edinburgh. (fn. 16) Before 1870 Dr Collinge has noted that there seemed to have been little coherent policy involved in the choice of instrument of appointment. From 1870 there does seem to have been a more consistent procedure although the reasoning behind it is obscure. Treasury and Home Office files often refer to notes on how to appoint Royal Commissions which were passed between different departments with the injunction, from the writers of various memoranda, 'Please return when done with'. It seems logical to assume that they rarely were returned, and officials generally relied on hazily remembered precedents when drawing up Warrants. (fn. 17)
The appointment of Royal Commissions was recorded in the London Gazette which published the Warrants in full and gave details of those Commissions appointed under Letters Patent. This remains the only complete official public record, although in most cases the full details were reprinted within the reports of the Commission. They are also preserved in the Home Office Warrant Books (fn. 18) and the Patent Rolls. (fn. 19) In the few cases where the Warrants were not reprinted, the omission seems to have been accidental rather than deliberate. However, in 1925 following a complaint from Lord Farrer (fn. 20) regarding what he saw as the needless inclusion of the Warrant in the ninth report of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments, Treasury officials referred the question to the Stationery Office who replied that 'There is apparently no Statutory obligation to insert the Royal Warrants of Appointment in the Reports of Royal Commissions'. (fn. 21) The letter went on to explain that there had been some correspondence with the Home Department regarding the procedure for semi-permanent Commissions such as Fine Art and Historical Monuments and that the Home Secretary had decided that their Warrants need only be included in their final reports and that 'It might be suggested to the Home Office that this procedure should in future be adopted in the case of all Royal Commissions, and an instruction to this effect might be incorporated in the "Instructions to Secretaries of Commissions and Committees".' (fn. 22) It was proposed to the Home Office that a list of Commissioners and a brief summary of their duties and powers should be substituted for the full Warrant, but A.J. Eagleston, replying for the Secretary of State, rejected any changes in the established procedure except in those cases which the Home Office considered suitable. Unusually the Treasury felt obliged to accept this.
Such exchanges over the activities of Commissions were common throughout the period, as both Treasury and Home Office tried to order matters according to their own criteria of control. The costs of staffing and housing Commissions were met from the Vote for Temporary Commissions, administered by the Treasury, (fn. 23) and although Commissioners were not paid, (fn. 24) they did receive expenses when their business took them away from home, and if overseas visits were required, the amounts could be large. The Treasury often insisted that terms of reference should be worded so as to ensure that Commissioners took account of the financial implications of any recommendations they were asked to make; and the need for domestic Commissions to make foreign inquiries was always questioned. Where there was a possibility that a Commission might want or need to go abroad Home Office practice was to try to insert the relevant clause into the original Warrant, since this avoided the need to obtain Treasury sanction at a later date. (fn. 25) The Warrants had a standard form of words which described the duties of the Commissioners, and if it was intended that they should pursue their inquiries abroad the wording was changed accordingly.
Treasury officials attempted to control Commissions from their initial stages, and expected to be consulted about both appointees and terms of reference before the Warrants were drawn up. The surviving Home Department files for the 1870-1900 period contain a number of instances where Warrants had to be amended following Treasury intervention, although there never seem to have been any objections to the choice of actual Commissioners. However during and just after the war years the practice of submitting Warrants seems to have lapsed or (understandably) Treasury oversight was less keen. A memorandum by B.P. Blackett states: 'I am to observe that this was formerly the normal practice, but it has not been invariably followed in recent years.' (fn. 26)
The form of the Warrant also had some implications for the appointment and responsibilities of Secretaries. The practice of naming them in Warrants almost ceased after 1910, (fn. 27) and although, as Collinge has noted, (fn. 28) their inclusion in Warrants is apparently arbitary, it did in some cases affect their legal position in disputes between the Home Office and the Commission. In the case of the inquiry into the premature publication of the evidence of the Commission into the Irish Land Acts (no. 97), the Home Office rejected the suggestion that the Irish government should make inquiry of the Secretary, Richard Cherry. It was pointed out that as he was named in the Warrant and that this was countersigned by the Home Secretary he was answerable to the Home Office and not the Irish government, thus his inclusion in the Warrant may have given him some protection in the inquiry. However it was made clear to Cherry and to other Secretaries in similar situations that they were responsible for ensuring confidentiality in the affairs of the Commission, even though it was equally accepted that they had little control over the actions of Commissioners. Following an earlier case in which the final report of the Commission on Vaccination had been published before its presentation to the Queen and Parliament, (fn. 29) it had been decided to reinforce the Letter of Instructions to Secretaries of Commissions and Committees which accompanied their Warrant or letter of appointment by sending a further letter when the report was nearing completion. Copies of the re-drafted letters are included in the file of correspondence relating to the Royal Commission on South African Hospitals (no. 105), but it is not clear how soon they came into use. From this time it seems to have been the practice to send a printed form of acknowledgement to the Secretary when he had submitted a report, which specifically forbade its contents being divulged 'until you have satisfied yourself by enquiry at the Vote Office of the House of Commons or at the Stationery Office that the document has been distributed to the members of both Houses of Parliament'. (fn. 30)
It was established protocol that the signed report was submitted to the monarch by the Home Secretary, and subsequently presented to the House, although the practice for submitting evidence was less clear, and may have resulted in some of the premature publication complained of by Members of Parliament and Home Office officials. The report presented to Parliament was often a dummy (i.e. a front cover only), (fn. 31) while the actual report was submitted to the monarch. In very rare instances a dummy was sent to the monarch, when approval was needed urgently in order that a report could be presented to Parliament before the end of a Session, but it was noted by Sir Godfrey Lushington (9 Aug 1888) that this was irregular. (fn. 32) However, much of the work of Commissions consisted of collecting and hearing evidence and this was usually presented before the substantial report with the Commission's recommendations. The convention was that volumes of evidence could not be presented without a report and Secretaries were evidently often unsure of the form such reports should take, sometimes reproducing the complete formal warrant with each volume of evidence and at other times submitting the evidence with only a covering letter to the Secretary of State. (fn. 33) It was not until 1907 that an attempt was made to establish a uniform procedure for the submission of evidence when it was stated that the Commission required only the opinion of Commissioners to be submitted to the monarch; evidence could be published at their discretion whether or not accompaied by a report, as could reports of their proceedings which did not include opinions or recommendations. The usual practice of publishing evidence with only a cursory report being sent to the monarch was seen as disrespectful, and the Home Office Instructions were amended to allow Commissions to publish evidence without a formal report. Subsequent economies further circumscribed the publishing of evidence, which ceased to be printed as Command Papers after 1922, and was thereafter published as non-Parliamentary Papers.
Both the Home Office and the Treasury had adopted formal Instructions for the guidance of Commissions, (fn. 34) but Chairmen and Secretaries were often unclear about procedure as so many matters were governed by precedent rather than by fixed rules. This reflected the ambiguous position of the Commissions themselves, since they were bound by neither the increasingly regulated civil service administration (despite the best endeavours of the Treasury), nor the direct scrutiny of Parliament. Because of the traditional view that each Commission, once appointed, was an independent body, the Home Office resisted any requests from Secretaries for a definite ruling in their internal procedures, offering only references to previous cases, and leaving any decisions to the Commission. (fn. 35)
The Home Office was usually much clearer about the lines of communication between Commissions and Departments of State. In general all requests and enquiries from Commissions were dealt with by the Commission Secretary and the Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Home Office as Commission Secretaries and Chairmen were often forcefully reminded. The Marquess of Hartington, Chairman of the Labour Commission (no. 77) wrote to the Secretary of State (fn. 36) wanting to liaise with the appropriate Home Office official over the appointment of Assistant Commissioners, but was told that in such matters the Commission is 'always silent'. Various precedents were quoted where a Chairman had recommended names to the Secretary of State who then obtained Treasury approval for the appointments which were formally made by the Home Office. Matthews noted 'Let the course followed be in future that the Secretary of State shall appoint Assistant Commissioners, taking into account the recommendations of the chairman of the Commission'. (fn. 37)
The method of appointment of administrative staff was similar, although there were frequent variations in practice, largely due to the lack of knowledge of procedure by successive Secretaries and the inability or unwillingness of the Home Office to make and keep a standard set of guidelines. Commission staffs were always temporary (fn. 38) and as their composition was not determined in advance, they could be large, especially for those Commissions which took many volumes of oral evidence. (fn. 39) The bulk of the correspondence between their Secretaries, the Home Office and the Treasury consists of matters relating to the appointment of staff. The Treasury was less concerned about the protocol of communication in these matters than the Home Office: one Treasury official noted that the Home Office had failed to endorse a set of proposed salary increases for the Labour Commission and that this was not correct procedure, but continued 'I attach little importance to it. The opinion of the Home Office is not likely to help us about Temp. Comm. Establishments' (abbreviated in original). (fn. 40)
The key appointment of a Royal Commission was that of the Secretary; he (fn. 41) was expected to liaise and mediate between all the parties involved in the Commission, with responsibilities that ranged from advising Commissioners on legal and technical details to the ordering of stationery. (fn. 42) The Treasury's view of the role of the Secretary is made clear in the first paragraph of their Instructions: (fn. 43) he was a Sub-Accountant of the Treasury and as such was directly responsible for seeing that the Instructions were carried out. From the 1870s Secretaries were increasingly recruited from the higher ranks of the Civil Service, although outside appointments continued to be made. (fn. 44) Chairmen were given considerable power over the nomination of Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries and the post was seen as one of patronage. (fn. 45) This is demonstrated in the correspondence between the Treasury, the Board of Agriculture, the Home Department and Herbert Lyon regarding the appointment of an Assistant Secretary for the 1893 Commission on Agriculture (no. 86). The Board of Agriculture proposed the appointment of Mr. R.F. Crawford and Sir R. Welby wrote to the Home Office to enquire if the Secretary of State would recommend the appointment to the Treasury. The reply from C. Deffell begins without preamble:
The Dept. has nothing to do with the appointment of a Secretary or an Assistant Secretary to a Royal Commission unless the appointment is made by the Queen, in which case the Warrant of appointment is made up here, after the name of the appointee has been submitted to H.M. and approved.
Frequently the appointment of a Secretary to a Royal Commission is a piece of patronage exercised by the Chairman, I believe, in which case neither the Queen nor the Secretary of State has anything to do with it.
The operation of patronage did not necessarily run counter to the practice of appointing civil servants since many Chairmen were or had been members of government or Ministers of State, and would thus already be acquainted with a range of suitable candidates from within the Civil Service.
Members of the Civil Service appointed as Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries were often seconded from their usual departments, and this could cause problems. The Treasury guidelines over payment were clear: if a person was already being paid from public funds they were to receive no extra payment for Commission work, apart from allowable expenses. (fn. 46) Thus the Treasury authorised a salary of £400 per annum for Geoffrey Drage, a barrister and one of the Joint Secretaries to the Labour Commission (no. 77), while the other, John Burnett, Labour Correspondent of the Board of Trade, was paid a gratuity of £250 per annum because 'My Lords assume that Mr. Burnett will continue to perform his duties at the Board of Trade'. (fn. 47) The secondment of civil servants was not always cheaper than outside appointments, and the Treasury frequently sought reassurance from Departments that the person would be able to carry out their departmental duties in addition to the Commission work, and that the original Department would not put in a request for additional assistance. (fn. 48) Despite the Treasury Instructions there were still instances of confusion over the status of such secretaries. (fn. 49)
Although the Instructions were characteristically clear about payment there was considerable ambiguity, or as the Treasury preferred to put it 'discretion', over the matter of gratuities. In 1891 Geoffrey Drage, Secretary to the Labour Commission (no. 77) requested a salary increase to give him £700 per annum; he was not granted the full amount but a file note by Sir E. Hamilton states that it should be intimated '(officially or privately) that when the work of the Commission is concluded we would be prepared to consider the question of a gratuity...'. (fn. 50) However when the Duke of Devonshire (Chairman of the Labour Commission) wrote requesting a gratuity of £500 for Drage, Sir J. Hibbert refused to sanction this on the grounds that it was unprecedented. (fn. 51) In a later case (fn. 52) the Secretary to the Commission on Health Insurance (no. 184), Edgar Hackforth, was similarly refused a gratuity, and it was suggested that a more suitable reward would be a C.B.E.
Administrative structures varied according to the size and terms of reference of the Commission, but in addition to the Secretary most Commissions employed at least one clerk and a messenger. (fn. 53) From 1870 staff below the level of Assistant Commissioner, Secretary, or Assistant Secretary were expected to show that they met the appropriate Civil Service qualifications for their post (fn. 54) if they did not already hold a relevant certificate of competence. (fn. 55) Some Commissions employed staff from outside firms, most notably shorthand writers, whose remuneration was also subject to Treasury controls. (fn. 56) As has been noted, there are many gaps in both Treasury and Home Office records for Commissions which means that it is impossible to do more than draw very tentative conclusions from those that survive. An examination of these does seem to indicate that while the Lords of the Treasury may have complained about the expenses of Commissions, (fn. 57) requests for staff were usually granted, albeit with much haggling over rates of pay. (fn. 58)
Women had worked in clerical positions in the Civil Service since the 1870s, and were first employed on a Royal Commission in this capacity in the 1891-94 Labour Commission. These appointments were justified on grounds of economy rather than equity: Drage's submission for the employment of two Lady Clerks noted that he had the names of several 'ladies ... of high scholastic distinction at the Universities. ...It would be impossible to obtain men possessing such qualifications at the salary of £150 per annum, the lowest sum for which they will undertake the work'. (fn. 59) This Commission also employed the first female Assistant Commissioners, one of whom, May Abraham, subsequently became the first woman appointed as a British government factory inspector. However, neither she nor her colleagues on the Commission, whose terms of reference were to investigate the relations between employer and employed, seem to have been aware of the tensions on the Commission's own staff, which came to a head with the summary dismissal by Drage of one of the clerks, Miss Wilson. (fn. 60)
It had been proposed that women should be appointed as full Commissioners on the Labour Inquiry. James Bryce had put down a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (fn. 61) asking if women had been considered as members. Mr. W.H. Smith replied that the Government had come to the conclusion that this was not desirable and that 'All interests will doubtless be fully represented before the Commission'. (fn. 62) When Bryce was appointed Chairman of the Commission on Secondary Education in 1894 he may have been instrumental in the choice of three women as full Commissioners: Lady Lucy Cavendish, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, and a leading philanthropist and supporter of women's education; Dr. Sophie Bryant, the first woman DSc of the University of London and Headmistress of the North London Collegiate School; and Mrs. Eleanor Sidgwick, (fn. 63) with her husband co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge and its first Principal. (fn. 64)
Appointments to Commissions reflected more general changes in ideas about political representation which accompanied the successive franchise reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The move towards appointing Commissioners to represent specific groups or sections of society changed perceptions of Commissions and their work. The traditional view of a Royal Commission was as the embodiment of values rather than interests; that the members were able to give impartial advice precisely because they were supposed to be above the sectionalism of political or social groupings. Thus when Sir George Campbell in his minority report on the Fugitive Slaves Commission dissented from his colleagues on the question of how far legal obligations were outweighed by social and moral duties, he was speaking for a set of values which although they might affect the lives of fugitive slaves were not a representation of their views. Neither Sir George nor his colleagues had ever been a fugitive slave, just as those Commissioners who reported on factory conditions had no experience of factory work, and such direct representation would not have been considered to be necessary or appropriate. However in 1887 Thomas Knipe, a tenant farmer, and member of the Irish Land Laws Commission (no. 63), refused to sign the majority report on the grounds that its principal recommendations were against the interests of the class he represented. (fn. 65) Trades unionists and members of Trades Councils were appointed to Commissions during the last two decades of the 19th century, although they were rarely men of very radical views. (fn. 66) From the early 20th century the representative nature of Commissions became more explicit, with some Warrants linking Commissioners to their sectional or national interests, (fn. 67) while members of others were acknowledged to have been chosen to represent particular organisations. (fn. 68) However neither Governments nor individual Departments favoured the universal application of representative principles: Alfred Mond (Minister of Health) summed up the case for a Royal Commission into London Government by insisting 'it is essential that no attempt should be made to have the various interests represented'. (fn. 69)
Most Commissioners continued to be chosen from a social or political elite, and were thus largely unafflicted by the class tensions that affected Knipe, and the changes in the nature of the Commissions were not reflected in a greater degree of dissent in their reports. Individuals and groups on Commissions produced minority reports or signed majority reports with reservations in much the same proportions throughout the period. The appointment of middle-class women (fn. 70) and working-class men was restricted to particular Commissions, and in general they continued to be dominated by lawyers, civil servants and businessmen, many of whom were also politicians.