HC Deb 11 April 1808 vol 11 cc18-29

On the question for the third reading of the Bill,

Mr. Whitbread

said, that it had been the inclination of his mind to have opposed the third reading of this Bill, in order that the house might take another course, which would have appeared to him more suitable. Having however conversed much upon the subject with his hon. friends who sat near him, he had consented to give up his former intention, and not to oppose the third reading, fie must say however, that he conceived that that house was extremely tender and cautious of any difference with the house of lords, especially when it was recollected that the house of lords had now rejected a second time, a bill which had passed that house almost unanimously, on the recommendation of a committee specially appointed to enquire into the situation of the public finances. That committee had pointed out ways and means to the amount of 65,000l. annually, which was an object of important consideration. As the house of lords had twice rejected a bill which came from such strong recommendation, he could not but doubt very much whether they would adopt the expedient that was now proposed to them. He thought the conduct of his majesty's ministers was somewhat suspicious. The right hon. chancellor of the exchequer had suffered the bill to pass through that house without the slightest opposition, and afterwards, by his own confession, conceited with a noble lord (Hawkesbury) to move an amendment to it in the other house. He thought it not very decorous for the right hon. gent, to confess in that house, that he had connived with any of his colleagues to defeat the object and intention of a bill which he suffered to pass through that house without opposition. These circumstances made him very diffident of the success of the expedient that was now proposed, but nevertheless he should not oppose the third reading of the bill.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

maintained, that in conniving, as the hon. gent. termed it, with his colleague in another house, he had only been actuated by a wish, that the house of lords should not completely defeat a bill which had been approved of by that, house. He saw no chance of its passing the house of lords without the amendment which had been proposed. If there was any thing improper, to the ideas of the hon. member, in the suggestion of that amendment to his colleague, he could only say, that he was not aware of any such feeling.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

expressed himself decidedly hostile to the present bill, because it did not, in his mind, tend to remedy the evil it professed to prevent altogether. He considered it merely as a compromise made with a party that nobody knew, and which that house ought not to submit to. The bill in itself was certainly either good or bad. If it were good, is ought to meet the universal concurrence of the house; if it were bad, it was entitled only to general rejection. It ought however to be recollected that it was recommended by a committee especially appointed by that house to enquire into and take into consideration the state of the finances of the country, who had recommended the measure as a primary step towards making much more extensive and important reforms and retrenchments; and he did not perceive that it was opposed by any one, save those who were decided enemies to any reform at all-Taxes to a very great amount had been imposed on the people, and he allowed most properly imposed; because their safety, and security in every thing that was dear to them depended on it. No man should however tell him, that places could be suffered to be given to sucklings, without the greatest disadvantages resulting there from. The chancellor of the exchequer was supposed to have a considerable share of power over the king's conscience; and how could he in any reasonable way grant a reversion of that? He could not but feel hostile to the bill altogether; but the preamble was sufficient to make him so, for it went only to suspend that which he thought should be entirely abolished; and he was sure the country looked for something more effective than such a half measure. He called the attention of the house to the situation of the country—to the very heavy taxation to which the people were liable; and yet he was happy to say, there never was a period in the history of the country in which the people shewed a warmer zeal for its interests, or a more determined loyalty towards the existing government.

Mr. Fuller

thought the house was not in a situation to give an opinion of what gentlemen on the other side would be at; at one time they were satisfied with the bill, now they were dissatisfied. It was impossible to understand their meaning. They had talked a great deal about places in reversion, and of the necessity of shutting the book. Why had not the minister of the day, to whom those gentlemen were attached, who received 24,000l. a-year of the public money—why had not he been the first to shut the book? [Here there was a cry of name! name! which continued for some time, until—

The Speaker

observed to the hon. gent, that lie must see the inconvenience resulting from allusions to former debates.

Mr. Fuller

proceeded. He thought there never was a time so ill calculated to bring forward such a subject. When the country had a minister who set himself forward as an honest man, which he certainly was, he could not help considering an opposition of this kind as the most unprincipled that ever existed. They only wished to set themselves up in the places of the present administration. (Much laughter from the opposition side of the house.) 'As for you,' said the hon. gent., 'I have known you these thirty years.'

The Secretary

at War opposed the bill, as not likely to produce any good effect whatever. It had been held up as the corner-stone of a system of reform which he was much afraid could never be realized; and it was a duty which the house peculiarly owed to themselves, by way of supporting their own honour and dignity, not to hold out hopes which must inevitably be disappointed. He had no doubt but the Committee of Finance had great merit, not only in the diligence of their researches, but in the acuteness with which they were desirous of entering upon the investigation of the public expenditure; yet he was of opinion, that no false hopes or expectations should be held out to the people at the present moment.

Mr. Lyttleton

alluded to the expressions of Mr. Fuller, who appeared to suppose that in his characteristic coarseness he monopolised in his own breast the whole political honesty of that house. With respect to the bill, it was the peculiar province and duty of parliament to regulate and watch over the distribution of the public money; to sec that it was not lavishly expended; and to be frequent in the exercise of those functions, which as the representatives of the people, were vested in them by the constitution. At this most important crisis, any thing which related to public economy was not unimportant. It became the legislature to institute inquiry, to stop abuses, and to prevent, as much as lay in their power, prodigality. For these reasons, he, as one delegated by the people, could not approve of the middle course which the house were now pursuing in adopting this bill—a bill which savoured more of prudence than of spirit. The house had been told, that by passing the former bill they were entrenching upon the prerogative of the crown. The prerogative, however, he must contend, had increased fourfold to what it was in former times. Instead of the former bill being an infringement upon the prerogative, it was, in fact, a shield from encroachment. He for one was a firm friend to the prerogative; but he could not at the same time, forget that the constitution provided that this house should hold as sacred the rights of the nation. It was therefore the duty of the legislature to preserve and protect the one, and guard against the other. The hon. gent, then alluded to the speech of an hon. friend of his (Mr. Ward) on a former night; a speech which no panegyric of his could do justice to. With the sentiments contained in that speech he concurred, and with his hon. friend lamented to see the names of princes of the blood, recorded in opposition to the bill. He would not suppose that they went into the house other than as peers of parliament, nor that the votes they had given proceeded from any other motive than a thorough conviction of the injurious tendency of the bill. He must, however, deprecate the effect on the public mind. He would suppose a case: It might be said, that a faction existed, that that faction had in view no other object than to refuse a redress of grievances to the people. If it should be so said, and that it was the determined intention of that faction to nip the first appearance of reform in the bud, what would the people of England say upon reading the names of the princes of the blood in hostility to the measure of reform. The houses of parliament ought to be guided in their proceedings by constitutional principles. The princes of the blood, the nobles and chiefs of the land, would consult their own dignity by abstaining from opposition to the measure. He trusted that this house would be able to overcome the faction, to subdue, and finally expel them from all control over the responsible ministers of the crown; and that in so doing, redress of grievances might no longer remain a dead letter in the constitution; that the attachment of the people might thereby be cultivated; and that now, when it was most wanted, it might be secured.

Mr. Fuller

here arose again, and exclaimed, that the words imputed to him by the hon. gent, had not been spoken. He had never said he possessed all the hones- ty in the house—(Hear! hear!) 'I could' (said the hon. gent. with much energy), 'throw as much folly and thick headedness into his num-scull.'—(Order! order!)

Mr. Lyttleton

made some observations, in a good-humoured tone, by way of reply to the last speaker; in which he observed, that the hon. gent, was undoubtedly possessed of every quality which was either agreeable, convincing, or persuasive. (A laugh.)

Mr. W. Smith

said he would support the present bill, rather than run the chance of losing it entirely. He observed, with much irony, upon the polite, urbane, and gentlemanly conduct of the hon. member who had that night been so often declared out or order by the chair.

Mr. Willoughby

spoke in favour of the bill.—If, would reflect honour on the hon. gent. who brought it in; and, if passed by the other house, would also add honour on the administration under whose auspices it was carried.

Lord Porchester

thought it better that the bill should be read a third time, and then such modifications as might be deemed necessary could be proposed.—[The bill was accordingly read a third time.]—The noble lord then proposed certain amendments, with the view of reconciling the bill to what was originally in the contemplation of the house. He should deplore any difference of opinion between that house and the house of lords; but they surely did not ask too much of their lordships in requesting that they would suspend their opinion for a season, and grant to the commons a sort of armistice, till the grounds on which they differed were explained. They were not to go to their lordships as sturdy beggars, who, if they could not get their petition granted in one shape were ready to accept of it in another. What he proposed was, that the word prohibit' should be restored in the preamble of the bill, instead of the word 'suspended,' and that the words 'with the view to inquiries now pending in the house of commons,' also in the preamble, be omitted. The only other amendment he should propose was one limiting the endurance of the bill to six weeks after the commencement of the next session of parliament, which, being more in unison with the former proceedings of that house, would be conceding less on their part, and would be desiring less on the part of the lords. He concluded by moving one of his amendments.

Mr. Bankes

should be always ready to bring forward the present measure when he saw any chance of succeeding in it; but he did not pledge himself to agitate it at all times, whether success was to be looked for or not. He should prefer the bill as it stood to an address to his majesty, as he should conceive the concurrence of the other house in the present hill went to pledge them to the principle of the measure. He was satisfied with having the practice suspended in the mean time, and hoped the period was not far distant, when he should be able to do a great deal more.

Mr. Robinson

thought the country would find themselves disappointed in the public advantages expected to be derived from the measure, which would not take off a single burthen.

Mr. Tierney

observed, that a noble lord had said that he did not wish to go like a beggar, with a club and crutch to the house of lords. Now, it was his wish, that having before gone with a club to that house, that noble lord, or any other member of that house, should not now be sent up there limping upon crutches, and begging alms of them in the name of that house. It was his wish that they should continue to express their sentiments, not captiously, or in a vexatious manner, but boldly, manfully, and constitutionally, as they were warranted in supporting the consistency of that house; that they should go hand in hand with the wishes of the country; and if this mode of proceeding should be found to fail, that an humble Address should be presented to the throne, where they would be sure of obtaining success; where no dark intrigue or unconstitutional influence could intervene. Where places were useful, they ought to be granted in possession only, because then the possessor and his capacity were known; whereas, if a useful place was granted in reversion, an idiot might rise from his cradle to inherit the office, or the places might revert, as was lately mentioned by a worthy baronet (sir J. Newport) from the son to the father, and the reversion be delayed so long that the father would be incapacitated by age to perform the duties of the office. Gentlemen could hardly mean to urge that useful places ought to be kept in reserve, in order that they might be filled by fools or dotards. On the other hand, where the place was unnecessary, no patriotic man, no man in his senses, in fact, would advise that the country, in a time of extraordinary pressure, ought to be deprived of the opportunity of being relieved from that pressure by the abolition of such useless places. In common policy, therefore, the reversion ought to be put an end to in all cases. If the prerogative of the reigning king was even to be in some degree prevented from anticipating the resources of the royal estate, it was to be recollected that the legislature at all times owed a duty to whoever might he the successor to the throne—that they should see that the estate was not mortgaged, and its resources anticipated. Rather than that any compromise should take place, he should wish for the honour of that house that it should stand upon their Journals that they were consistent in their recognition of this principle of economy. If the bill should afterwards be lost elsewhere, the public might then have an opportunity of judging which branch of the legislature was best entitled to their confidence.

Mr. Stephens

opposed the amendment of the noble lord in toto. It had by no means been yet proved that the practice of granting offices in reversion was injurious to the country, and it appeared to him to be at least a very questionable assertion to contend that it was so.—He maintained that the language lately used in parliament was calculated to intimidate and dispirit the people from bearing up against the storms with which we were now threatened. Nay, it was calculated to exasperate them against ministers and their sovereign. These were times of uncommon difficulty and danger, and therefore the king's prerogative ought to be strengthened, instead of being curtailed; that his majesty might meet the common danger with increased energy. These were not times in which to harass ministers with frivolous and nugatory debates.

Sir Francis Burdett

combated the arguments of the learned gentleman (Mr. Stephens), who having rebuked others for the temper shewn by them in this debate, had himself exhibited more of what was peculiarly denominated temper, than he had often witnessed in that house. Indeed, the whole speech of the learned gentleman seemed to have proceeded from it, consisting chiefly of reflections cast upon persons no longer in office, and its whole scope and tendency seemed to have that in view, rather than the question, or any of those important considerations na- turally suggested by it. To this must be attributed the palpable defectiveness of the learned gentleman's reasoning; which appeared to him no less erroneous with respect to principles of politics than of law. The learned gent. had adduced the situation of Europe, and the circumstances of the times as arguments in favour of prerogative; even if this granting of reversions was an abuse, these were not times in which it ought to be restrained.—Was it possible we could cast our eyes over the map of Europe, or the page of its history for the last fifteen years, and still be advocating despotism, and putting our trust in standing armies? Should we never learn that an armed people, proud of, and devoted to liberty, was the only method of making a country unconquerable, and a government secure? What! was it any want of prerogative that made Austria, Prussia, Russia, and all the despots of Europe fall at the feet of France? Or was it the want of their subjects hearts that deprived them of energy and support; that left them in the hour of danger abandoned and forlorn? This should teach princes and states, that those who had been accustomed to 'crook the preg 'nant hinges of the knee' before one master, could as easily perform the same baseness before another; which consideration might put them out of love with flattery and fawning; and teach them, that despotism was not less impotent than cruel, not less marked by infamy than folly; nor more to be hated than despised.—He had learnt, not only from those great writers whose theory, as the learned gent, said, unfortunately differed from the practice of the constitution—he had learnt not only from them, but also from high prerogative lawyers, amongst others front sir H. Finch*, the high prerogative lawyer, in the high prerogative times of that high prerogative king, Charles the first, who lost his head for his prerogative, which he owed not a little to his high prerogative lawyers, that though the prerogative extended, as they said, to every thing, yet it could not extend to abuse, because, being in its nature for the benefit, it could not be exerted to the injury of the public. Why, then, the question was, were those reversionary places for the benefit or injury of the public? But, they were pointed out as a griev- * See Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England, vol. ii. p. 35. ous injury and abuse by the committee of this house. This house had adopted that principle, framed a bill acknowledging it, and abolishing it, but we were now to be told it was unpalatable to the lords, that we must yield it to their prejudices: but it concerned too deeply the honour and character of the commons, which he would not consent to yield to the prejudice or the pride or the corruption of the lords, against which he would oppose the privileges of the commons. Nor would he consent, that the commons, in a measure, no matter how small, of economy, of saving the people's pockets, of controlling public expenditure, should bate an inch of privilege, much less sacrifice the principle, which, in fact, was the whole of this bill. The hon. gent, who brought forward this bill, now proposed to be rendered totally worthless, by a compromise with ministers, (and for whom he certainly entertained a better opinion than he had been pleased to profess he entertained for him) recalled to his mind, upon this occasion, Bottom the weaver, who playing the part of Lion in pageantry before the court, and being excessively apprehensive lest he should cause any alarm, when he makes his appearance in his lion's hide, pops his head through a hole in the neck, and says, 'don't be alarmed, for I who 'act Lion am not Lion, but Bottom the weaver, don't be frightened, and if you were frighted,' twere pity o'my life, I'll roar ye as gently as any sucking lamb.'— The learned gent, who had just sat down, had expressed his disbelief of the existence of any unconstitutional influence exercised by irresponsible persons, and controling the responsible ministers. This influence, however, was felt early in the present reign, denounced first by my lord Chatham, and he believed the public was well convinced it did exist—a mysterious and malignant power whose hand, felt, not seen, had stabbed the constitution to the heart.—But of all the many curious circumstances which had attended the progress of this bill, nothing appeared to him more curious than the conduct of ministers about it: they were not for it, and they were not against it: to the court they apologized for themselves, saying— 'We are not against it, because it will do you no harm:' to the people, 'We are not strongly for it, because it will do you no good; we do not wish to delude you, the measure is trifling, (nugatory, said the secretary at war,) it would be deceiving and raising the expectation of the people, only to disappoint it; it would afford them no relief.' Now, he perfectly agreed as to the inadequacy of the measure—the smallness of the boon; but, it was a commencement of reform, it acknowledged the principle—the necessity; and therefore, he should vote for it. He would also observe, that it was the last drop that made the cup to overflow; that the people were full of grievances and sufferings, tossing and tumbling on the bed of sickness; that they at present turned their anxious eyes towards that house for relief—that they should beware how they disappointed them, and turned their eyes elsewhere in despair.— But, it seemed, that ministers objected to a measure so inadequate, so paltry, not worth the people's acceptance. They had better stomachs for reform—wanted something more substantial. He supposed they wished for some independent country member to get up and propose that the ancient undoubted right of the people to annual parliaments, chosen by themselves, should be restored—or that no person bribed, or who should be bribed by a place or pension should have a seat in the commons house — that the good old laws of the land, Magna Charta, Bill of Rights, and Act of Settlement, should be restored, by repealing all those unconstitutional acts which had nearly annihilated them; or some other proposition worthy to be entertained by an English house of commons. —He could not sit down without expressing his astonishment at the quarter from whence the opposition to this very moderate measure came,—from those who, for doing nothing, had received and were receiving large sums of public money, who ought to have been the very last to oppose it, or rather, who ought to have been amongst its most chearful patrons and promoters— even though actuated by no other motive than that which guided every prudent tradesman, and make him consider present security, as well as future gain. He would, and with no unfriendly voice, call upon those persons to consider, whether, by their opposition to this bill of Reversion, they might not produce bills of Resumption; whether they might not, by opposing this small commencement of reform, cause themselves speedily to hear sounds the most unpleasant, he should suppose, to their ears—for he would have them recollect, that it was not the first time in the history of this country that the necessity of the times, and the indignation of the public, had echoed through the land, resume and refund.

Mr. Windham,

did not think that the measure of abolishing Reversions would he so productive of advantage to the people as some of its warmest advocates seemed to suppose. The assertion of the hon. baronet, that it would be the commencement of reform, was to him no recommendation of it, knowing, as he did, the dreadful dangers which might ensue from misguided attempts at reformation, of which we had had sufficient examples in a neighbouring country. As to the corruption that was so generally asserted to exist among the higher orders, he contended that that corruption existed in an equal degree to the lower, and that the tree struck its roots as deep into the earth as it elevated its branches into the air.

Mr. Sheridan

should not have been provoked to say a word at so late an hour, by any thing but the extraordinary position which he had just heard from his right hon. friend. What! all corruption in the state was to be found only at the root! The people were the root, and from the people, then, sprung up all corruption! He must beg his right hon. friend to recollect that he had successively represented such a variety of places; whether the county of Norfolk, the city of Norwich, St. Mawe's, or Higham Ferrers, that even a memory like his, and such a known acquaintance with the constitution of parliament, could not well enable him to say of what place he was really the representative. His light hon. friend had chiefly insisted, that the root of corruption was to be traced only to the people. He would contend the very contrary. It was government that was the seducer; the people the seduced. The present question would put it to the test; and if his right hon. friend's principles were to be adhered to, it would only prove, that the drippings of the top of the tree were often the real cause of the branches of the branches, and the corruption of the root. Where root, branches, &c. all were undermined, could any fair fruit be after expected to blossom from such a ground?

The question being loudly called for, the house divided.—For lord Porchester's Amendment, 60; Against it, 112. Majority in favour of the Reversion Bill as brought in by Mr. Bankes, 52.—The Bill was then passed, and ordered to the lords.

Back to