UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

British royal commissions 1935-1970 : a continuing instrument of governmental inquiry Smith, Frances Sandra


During the middle third of the nineteenth century, the British Government appointed an average of over six royal commissions annually. These commissions examined issues ranging from the use of child labour in factories to Malta and the Civil List. They played a significant role in what is now known as the 'Age of Reform', and during this period they developed a reputation for presenting reports which were both illuminating and useful. Unfortunately, since that time royal commissions have inspired only a very few of the more significant social and constitutional reforms. Used but infrequently, commissions have lost their reputation for constructive inquiry and are now known less for what they have accomplished than for what they have not. This study examines the British royal commission as it is used at the present time, and concludes that it is still a viable method of Government inquiry. The royal commission retains a significant role within the framework of the British Constitution and, used properly, can be an effective means of promoting consensus between the Government and the governed. There has, however, been a distinct tendency for Governments to misuse the royal commission -- to appoint them when they were unnecessary or to appoint them to forestall reform -- with the result that a number of recent investigations have been unsatisfactory. Of the thirty-seven commissions which have reported since 1935, sixteen were completely successful and fulfilled their constitutional role effectively. Seven presented worthwhile reports on which no action was taken. Seven submitted inadequate reports which, although their recommendations were carried out, failed to deal effectively with the problems they were studying. And seven did not complete their investigations or did so in such a fashion that their reports must be considered inferior and their recommendations unusable. Analysis of thirty-five of those commissions indicates that there is a significant correlation between some of the characteristics of royal commissions and commission success. From this analysis and from general consideration of recent commissions, the conclusion seems inescapable that unless the Government sets up a commission with the intention of acting on the basis of its report, the commission's chances of success are very slight. If, however, the Government intends to act on the problem under consideration, takes adequate care to appoint the most appropriate type of commission, and provides that commission with adequate funds and advice, the royal commission can fulfill its constitutional role successfully. Because the royal commission remains a viable -- albeit intermittent -- part of the British Governmental system, this study concludes that the Government, commissioners themselves, and Parliament should make every effort possible to prevent its falling into disuse. The increasing complexity of society makes it unlikely that the commission will ever again have the opportunity to initiate the number of reforms with which it has been credited during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, used effectively it may be able to retain its position within the British constitutional framework and to regain its reputation for constructive inquiry.

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