HC Deb 28 March 1808 vol 10 cc1259-68
Mr. Bankes

rose to move for leave to bring in a bill to prevent, for a time to be limited, the granting of Offices in Reversion, or for joint lives, with the benefit of survivorship. Two principal reasons had originally actuated the committee of which he had the honour to be chairman, in recommending a bill of this kind to the consideration of the house. The first was an opinion that there was no utility in granting Offices in Reversion, but that it would be of infinitely greater advantage, both to the persons performing services to the state and also to the government itself, that an opportunity should be afforded, at the time a vacancy happened, of considering who was best qualified to supply it, than that it should be disposed of long before there was any prospect of a vacancy, thereby affording an opportunity to those in power at the time, of bestowing such offices on persons not meriting by their services any mark of public favour. The other was a consideration merely financial; it appearing to the committee to be advisable that the power of granting Offices in Reversion should be suspended, till they should have concluded their inquiries as to what offices were fit to be abolished, and what to be reformed. In what he should state to-day, he begged it to be understood, that he did not depart from any thing he had said when he first introduced this measure; he trusted the house would be actuated by similar sentiments, and would not so suddenly and lightly depart from what, in a former parliament, they had resolved unanimously, and in the last and present parliament had passed, though not unanimously, yet nearly so. He was one of those persons who wished to do all the good he could, where he was not allowed to do all the good he wished. Therefore, he should not to-day give any opinion on the first of the two points to which he had alluded, except merely to lay in his own claim to consistency in feeling his conviction of the propriety of the measure in no respect shaken. What he meant now to do, was to confine himself to the financial view of the subject, and to the giving time to the committee to report what offices should be abolished, and what reformed, before any additional grants in reversion were made. Another inducement which he had to proceed in this shape was, that it appeared to have been the opinion of persons in the other house, that such an alteration would have been advisable. He was at all times averse from agitating any question which might create differences of opinion between the two branches of the legislature; he would be willing even to sacrifice something, on such an occasion, to prejudice, where it was not connected with any general question. Harmony was peculiarly desirable at the present moment; and he hoped, that limiting the duration of the bill to such a period as would enable the committee to make their report, would have the effect of removing every objection which had been urged to it in another place. As to the question of prerogative, he begged to express every respect and regard for the feelings of the executive government; but, at the same time, he could not carry his deference for it so far, as to believe that any office in a free constitution could be established, but on account of the public service; and if, from accident, or change of circumstances, offices of duty became offices of sinecure, so that the establishment of other offices of duty became necessary, he could not agree that these useless sinecure offices ought, on that account, to be retained. It was but fair that the public should be assured that the money drawn from them was not lavishly experded in sinecure places, and it would be a satisfaction to them to understand that those places of duty which were retained, were far from being overpaid. It was chiefly sinecure offices which were granted in reversion. It was therefore the more necessary that the granting of them should be suspended, at least for such a period as would enable the committee to make their report. He concluded by moving for leave to bring in the bill for a time to be limited.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer ,

though he had no objection whatever to the motion of his hon. friend, thought it, but can did to state to him, that, in all probability he should feel it to be his duty to propose several amendments to the bill in its progress through the house. He agreed fully with the hon. gent. as to the expediency of preserving a good understanding between the two houses of parliament; and therefore, although he allowed that these were objects of such importance, that even the risque of a breach ought to be incurred rather than they should be abandoned, yet as he had always considered the present measure as of no very great importance, and had always so expressed himself upon it, he would rather oppose its production than ,admit it, were he apprehensive that such an unpleasant consequence would ensue. But it was probable the bill might be so framed as to answer all the chief objects of the persons most attached to the measure, and at the same time be exempted from opposition elsewhere. It was in that view he meant to recommend his amendments. His hon. friend had stated, and he wished it could have been stated more regularly, that an amendment to the last bill had been proposed in the committee of the house of lords, by which amendment he meant to be regulated in the construction of the present bill. Now, as that amendment had been negatived, to proceed upon it in the formation of the present bill, appeared to him to be the sure way of incurring the evil which it was so desire-able to avoid. One of the great objections also that had been made to the bill in another place, was that it destroyed a prerogative of the crown, without such a previous enquiry into a demonstration of abuse, as would warrant parliament in their interference. That objection, in its degree, must apply to the bill as it was proposed to be introduced by his hon. friend. There were two great objects which the house had in view in this measure; the first was to obviate improvident grants, by attaching immediate instead of remote responsibility to the advisers of those grants. To remedy this, he should propose a clause, by which no grant should be considered valid until it had been publicly announced in the London Gazette. The other great object which the house had in view was, that their expectations of any reform or retrenchment resulting from the report of the Committee of Finance should not be disappointed For this purpose, it was his intention to propose that for a limited period, every reversionary grant should be subject to abolition, or any alteration that his majesty, with the advice of parliament, might think proper to make in it. These propositions would, in his opinion, meet the views of his hon. friend, and might at the same time relieve the bill from the danger which had hitherto been so fatal to it. With respect to the pensions mentioned by his hon. friend, it would be found on examination, that they were chiefly in the revenue departments, granted to persons grown old in the exercise of their official duties. He was convinced that they were of a description which the house would never wish to abolish; but this subject would more properly come before them when the report of the Financial Committee had been presented.

The Hon. J. W. Ward ,

after having stated the benefits which the adoption of this measure would afford, observed, that the principal cause of his regret at its having been lost in the other house was, that it showed that that branch of the legislature was not disposed to assist the house of commons in redeeming the pledge which they had a few years ago given the people to enquire into and to reform public abuses. That their lordships had been actuated by the sincerest wishes for the public advantage, he would not deny; but he certainly did not think that the wisdom of their decision corresponded with the purity of their motives. He was ready fairly to own, that he did not look upon. economy as a means of considerably alleviating the public burthens. But although it would not do so much as some expected, and as all wished, it would be consoling for the house to reflect, that under the present circumstances of the country, when the people were called upon for such extraordinary sacrifices, every thing had been done by the legislature to prevent an unnecessary aggravation of their hardships. There existed in the country a description of persons encreasing with the weakness of the country—persons unconnected with any party in parliament, but whose great object was to decry parliament altogether. The leaders taught, and the followers believed; that parliament disregarded the interests of their constituents. This was a danger daily augmenting; the only way of meeting it was, by a conduct that should not only be free from guilt, but also free from suspicion; by adopting measures that should show unequivocally the disposition of parliament to correct public abuses, and to reduce the public expenditure. For this purpose it was most desirable, that the principle of this bill should be recognized by parliament. It would indeed be most unfortunate, if the great aristocracy—if the heriditary counsellors of the king were so much misled, as to refuse to make this recognition. That misfortune would be much encreased, if certain illustrious personages, to whose splendour the house of commons had lately contributed so largely, should be so misguided as to take part against a measure not directed against the prerogative of the crown, but simply having in view the methodising—the regulating, and, if possible, the diminution of the public expenditure. It had been supposed, that because the bill had not much intrinsic importance attached to it, the public was but little interested in its fate. The contrary was the case. This circumstance rendered the rejection of it more odious, as it shewed that it was the principle which was rejected. We had witnessed prodigious revolutions in the state of empires; some monarchies had been totally uprooted; others had been shaken to their centres. He wished that those persons who were most deeply interested, would examine the history of these awful changes. They would find that they had been uniformly preceded by a strong desire in the people for reformation and retrenchment, and by a stubborn, proud, obstinate resolution, in the princes and nobles of the land, to resist that desire. He anxiously hoped and sincerely prayed, that this country was far from being placed in such circumstances; but he must say, that if any one line of conduct was more favourable than another to the views of those who were the advocates of revolution, it was precisely that line of conduct which had lately been adopted by the upper house of parliament. Adverting to the objections to the bill, which had so suddenly flashed upon the mind of the right hon. gent. opposite, he observed that this circumstance suggested to his mind very serious reflections on the nature of the influence under which that right hon. gent. and his coadjutors acted—an influence as destructive to their own dignity, as it was to the interests of the people. They were ministers, and no ministers; they were subject to be thwarted by a secret but irresponsible power. They had the title without having the privileges of office. He professed a respect for the abilities of some of the ministers, and was surprised how those to whom he alluded (looking at Mr. Canning) could possibly so far demean themselves as to submit so completed to this influence; for it appeared from the paper in his hand [the extract from the Lords' Journals], that the ministers were not the confidential advisers of the crown. Among the many strong objections to the present ministers as a body, there was this serious one, that they had contributed in almost an unprecedented degree, to the increase of the power of the secret faction; and they now reaped the fruits of their conduct in the degradation of office. He was no friend to the present administration; but such as it was, while it did last, he wished it to be invested with the power which belonged to it, and that it should not be degraded by a subjection to court influence. He cordially supported the motion; if he had any objection to the proposition of his hon. friend, it was, that he did not submit the bill in a shape as nearly resembling the former one as was compatible with the. rules of parliament.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

explanation repeated, that in his opinion—an opinion which he had before expressed in the house, the measure was, not of considerable importance. The amendments which he had described he should propose to the house for the express purpose of endeavouring to carry into effect more securely the objects in view.

Mr. W. Dundas

professed to entertain the highest respect for the Committee of Finance, but he could not help thinking, that the rights of the crown ought to be held equally sacred with the rights of the people, and that by sanctioning a bill of the nature of that now moved for, these rights would be essentially invaded, for the circumstance of its operation. being restricted to limited time, did not at all change the obnoxious nature of its principle. Whether it was to be of perpetual or only temporary duration, it was equally an infringement of the legitimate rights of the crown. The hon. gent. who had supported the measure, talked as if he had been arraigning the other house of parliament in rejecting the former bill for sanctioning some enormous abuse, or for usurping some prerogative which did not belong to it; whereas no abuse had ever been proved to exist, and the house of lords had merely exercised a right which was vested in it by the constitution. He gave it as his opinion, that the bill, either in its for- mer shape, or that in which it was now proposed to frame it, Would not tend to relieve the burthens of the people in the slightest degree. No person had a right to call in question the motives by which any member in that house was influenced in his parliamentary conduct; but he declared, upon his honour, that he acted most conscientiously in opposing a measure, the tendency of which was to take from the power of the crown, when it was not shewn that in any one instance that power had been abused.

Mr. Ponsonby

made an apology for troubling the house, after the most admirable speech which had been made by his hon. friend (Mr. Ward), but after what had fallen from the hon. gent. who had just sat down, he could not refrain from making a very few observations. The hon. gent. had talked as if the prerogative of the crown was something independent in its own nature, and granted entirely for the sake of the reigning prince, without any reference whatever to the community over which he reigns. The hon. gent. also contended, that no abuse of this part of the prerogative had been proved. Mr. Ponsonby admitted that the Committee of Finance had not entered into any details of abuses flowing from the exercise of this prerogative, but he appealed to the understanding and information of every person who heard him, whether any part of the royal prerogative had been more abused than that of granting offices in reversion. The hon. gent. had reprobated the doctrine, that the house of commons was entitled to interfere with the prerogative of the crown, as a doctrine which, if once admitted, would reduce the constitution of the country to a mere shadow and pretence. Parliament had often interfered, and he hoped that parliament would continue to interfere with this prerogative, as often as the occasion called for it, and that it would always take care that the royal prerogative was exercised for the good of the people. Mr. Ponsonby admitted that there was considerable weight in what the chancellor of the exchequer had said, of the propriety of guarding against any thing which might tend to create a serious misunderstanding between the two branches of the legislature. But he reminded the house, that they were the constitutional guardians of the public purse, and that in this capacity it was peculiarly their duty to watch over every thing connected with the public expenditure. The power of granting of offices in reversion, certainly, therefore, ought to be subject to their controul. Nor did he really think that the danger which the right hon. gent. seemed to apprehend was seriously to be dreaded; for he was convinced, that if that house acted with spirit and vigour, the house of lords would see the propriety of concurring with them in any measure which might conduce to public economy. He was willing to give the right hon. gent. credit for his assertion, when he said, that he did not mean to thwart the object of the bill; at the same time, he could not help expressing his opinion, that the suggestions of the right hon. gent. if acted upon, were calculated to produce very bad effects. That clause which the right hon. gent. meant to propose, providing that no office should be granted in reversion without notice thereof being given in the Gazette, could serve no good purpose whatever. For, if it was meant to give parliament an opportunity of interfering, any ministry for the time being could easily prevent this interference by giving this notice at the conclusion of a session of parliament, or in the interval of a prorogation. As to the motion immediately before the house, he certainly did not object to it, though he did not think that it went far enough. If, however, the house did not do all the good that it ought to do, it would to him be some consolation if it did all the good which it could do; and he hoped that there would be the same unanimity now in agreeing to a bill for a limited time, as had been formerly manifested in passing a bill for an unlimited period. He was happy, also, that the chancellor of the exchequer had announced his intention of proposing certain clauses to be introduced into the bill, were it for no other reason than that these clauses would enable the house and the country to form some notion of what really Were the sentiments of his majesty's ministers upon the subject, of which they were now completely ignorant. From what, had fallen from the right hon. gent. in the progress of the former bill, it might have been inferred that ministers were favourable to it; but from the minutes. of what had passed in the house of lords, a different conclusion might fairly be drawn.

Mr. Biddulph

thought that the proceedings of the house of lords upon the former bill, went upon a principle which was unfavourable to all reform; and the clauses which the chancellor Of the exchequer had this evening announced his intention of proposing, would not, in his opinion, tend in the smallest degree to remove the objections of those who had disapproved of the former bill, on the ground of its infringing the royal prerogative. The quantum of good to be obtained from the bill had also been much too lightly spoken of, When it appeared that certain persons possessed Offices in Reversion to the value of 20,000l a year, it would not be easy to convince the people, burthened as they were with taxation, that every thing had been done which ought to be done in the Way of economy. From the habits of some gentlemen, it was difficult for them to form an adequate idea of the sufferings of the people from the necessary taxes that they were obliged to pay. But if they had been accustomed to witness the distress of poor people, whom he had had occasion to see appealing against the property tax, he did not believe that they could have manifested so much aversion to a measure the economical results of which, though they might not be very considerable in their amount, would tend at least to alleviate the pressure of these burthens in the minds of those who were subjected to them. Not the least recommendation of the present measure to him was, that it was the commencement of a system of reform, which might be pursued to a much greater extent than many gentlemen seemed to be properly aware of; and as a proof of what might be expected from it, he quoted the advantage which the public had already derived from the inquiry of the finance committee into the affairs of the Bank, by which taxes were spared to the amount of 200,000l. a year; though he conceived that that was not more than one half of the benefit which, under all the circumstances, might have been fairly expected.

Mr. Hawkins Browne

considered the present Bill to be valuable as constituting a part of a general plan of reform, which he hoped would be pursued with zeal and constancy. He had seen what the people suffered from the burthens of necessary taxation, and while he lamented and sympathised with these sufferings, he had had great pleasure in witnessing the patience. with which they were supported. It was most desirable, however, that both houses of parliament should concur, for without an agreement of the two branches of the legislature, no Plan, however beneficial, could be carried into effect. He did not mean now to express any opinion respecting the clauses, which it was the intention of the chancellor of the exchequer to propose. If they were consistent with the object of the bill, they should have his Support, and if they were inconsistent with this object, he should vote against them,

Sir R. Salusbury

said that the bill should have his warm support.

Lord Porchester

contended, that the clauses which the chancellor of the exchequer had intimated his intention of proposing would go completely to defeat the object of the bill; but as they were not before the house, he declined entering into a particular discussion of their merits. He deprecated the idea of the house of commons being deterred from doing its duty, from an apprehension of displeasing the other house of parliament. Neither could he agree with those, who thought that the object of the bill was so unimportant as had been represented, when it was recollected, that the late chancellor of the exchequer for Ireland had stated that it was impossible to carry some measures of reform in that country into effect, from the circumstance of some improvident grants having been made of Offices in Reversion. He thought also, that it would be much better for the house directly to negative the present measure, than to render its operations ineffectual by indirect means.

Mr. Bankes ,

in reply, expressed a hope that the chancellor of the exchequer would give sufficient notice of the precise nature of the clauses which he meant to propose, and also of the time when he meant to propose them. As far as he now understood them, he was of opinion that their. tendency went completely to disappoint the object which he had in view in moving for the bill.—Leave was then given to bring in the bill.

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