HC Deb 16 May 1808 vol 11 cc289-300
Mr. Wharton

brought up the Report of the Committee of the whole House on the Claim of Mr. Palmer. It was read a first time. On the motion for the second reading,

Mr. Bankes

rose. He said he should ill discharge his duty, as one of the guardians of the public purse, if he did not declare that, in his judgment, the present was one of the most extraordinary and unjust grants of the public money he had ever witnessed. He was convinced the house had been surprised into the vote they had given. There were many opportunities, however, still remaining for a reconsideration of the question, which he hoped would not be omitted. He thought the present occasion would convince his right hon. friend opposite (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) of the impropriety, as his majesty's concurrence was required where grants of public money were applied for, of lending that concurrence in cases where he was convinced that no claim ought to be sustained. He was by no means convinced, that any bargain had ever been entered into; and on this head, he thought the house was equally bound to take the word of Mr. Pitt as of Mr. Palmer. But, supposing there had been such a bargain, and it was proved that Mr. Palmer had been guilty of the charges laid against him, and, on account of which, his situation had been forfeited, he asked, if it was possible to maintain that his misconduct had not divested him of the emolument as well as of the office? Though he did consider Mr. Palmer as having been a useful servant to the public, yet he was of opinion he was already sufficiently recompensed, and he should therefore resist the present unjustifiable and extravagant demand.

Mr. Windham.

It seems desirable that previous to any remark on the subject before us, notice should be taken of an opinion which, however foreign from the merits of the question, may have considerable share in influencing the decision of it: namely, that this is a question on which those who vote on one side or the other may be considered as voting on principles of party. On what grounds this idea should be taken up, or how the ministers should be fond of countenancing it, I am at a loss to discover. In respect to the fact, and so far as regards myself, I declare I came into the house the other day not knowing that any question upon this subject was to be brought on, and equally ignorant of the part, which any of those with whom I usually act, were likely to take. This may, surely, be received as reasonable evidence, that the support given to Mr. Palmer by any gentlemen on this side of the house has not been the effect of concert, or of an opinion that they were required on this occasion to act in a body. For the views and motives of those who wish to convey this impression, though it is easy to understand, how the reduction of the question to a question of party may contribute to the decision, which they are desirous of producing, it is not equally easy to believe that they should be willing to purchase, this advantage at the price of representing a question on which the minister was beat, as one that had been decided on party principles. Had we attempted to set up such a conclusion, they would have ridiculed us, and justly, as laying claim to a triumph, to which we could have no pretence. I leave them to chuse between a confession of the weakness of their influence, and an admission that the merits of Mr. Palmer's case are so strong, that With all their influence, they are unable to resist them.—Another topic not less extraordinary, is that which has been broached by an hon. gent. (Mr. Banks) of the want of proper notice, and of the house having been taken by surprize. I know not what is to be deemed a notice, if an intention distinctly announced and formally entered, and resting in the Order Book during a period, I believe, of seven weeks, is not to be taken as such.—Both of these, it is plain, are points, which, though calculated to have an influence upon the decision, have nothing to do with the merits of the case. The last of them also, viz. that of the want of notice, is new: but, excepting that, nothing has been urged in the present debate, that was not fully under the consideration of the house at the time when the question was before discussed, and when the opinion of the house upon it was formally taken.—For the sake of such gentlemen as were not then present, it may be proper to observe, that the question was discussed upon two distinct grounds: first those of a bargain independent of its merits, and secondly, those of the merits independent of any bargain. It is to be remarked, that a decision in the affirmative on either of these grounds will carry the question in favour of Mr. Palmer; and that the union of the two, which is in fact the case, is by no means necessary to establish, his Claim, though it cannot fail to give to it redoubled force, and to leave the rejection of it, could such a decision be conceived to be adopted, more entirely without excuse. The existence of a bargain is not denied, and of a bargain so constructed, as to make it impossible that the public should suffer by it. It may be added, so constructed likewise, as to make it nearly impossible to conceive how it should be capable of being forfeited. A bargain by which a person is paid only in proportion to the service he does, though it may originally have been an improvident one, as giving him a larger proportion of the benefit to be received, than with proper precautions he might have been willing to accept, is a species of bargain by which, when once made, the public can never be a loser, and which one does not well understand how the individual contracting it can ever forfeit. It is not contended indeed directly, that the bargain in this part of it has been forfeited. But it is said, 'We cannot distinguish how much of what 'was to be given to Mr. Palmer was given 'on the footing of compensation and how 'much for future service. When he had 'forfeited, therefore, as it is agreed he did, 'what was intended as engagement for 'future service, we deem upon a rough 'calculation, that what remained to him, 'was worth no more than what we now 'offer' It might be sufficient to say, that the calculation here referred to, was a most unjust one; and that admitting the line of distinction, between what was given as a reward and what was intended as wages, to be ever so difficult to be traced, it could never be conceived, that what was left for reward after deducting all that could be construed as payable for future service, was no more than is now pretended. But this difficulty is a mere pretence. Nothing, one should think, could be more apparent to any one who did not chuse to be blind, than that the part assigned as reward and remuneration was the percentage, and the part intended as payment for future services, the salary. The only doubt could be, whether the principle of reward for the past did not extend even to the salary, just as it happens in a thousand instances, that an appointment to an office is the reward of services already per- formed: but it is a strange perversion indeed, to suppose, that when, in exchange for a plan communicated to the public by an individual, and brought forward by him in the first instance at his own risk and expence, an agreement is made granting him as a reward for, or as the price of, his invention, a proportionate part of the clear advantage, which it should produce to the public, the subsequent appointment to an office should change the nature of the bargain so made and completed, and silently superinduce a condition, by which his bargain should be forfeited in consequence of any misconduct which would have the effect of forfeiting the office. The very circumstance that part of the percentage was given up when this appointment took place, and given up in consequence of that appointment, is proof conclusive, even could any doubt be entertained, that what was not so given up, continued precisely on the footing on which it had previously stood.—What miserable quibbling, therefore, would that be; even if, after all, the inference could be made good; which by a strict construction of particular phrases, and by the aid of rules of interpretation not professing to give always the true sense of the instrument, though useful possibly to be observed upon the whole, would establish a conclusion, obviously repugnant to the intentions of the parties, and to the real and substantial equity of the case? Is it thus that the legislature of a great country would wish to deal with an individual, at the very moment when the country was enjoying to the full extent the benefit of his invention, and with no intention to give back any portion of it, though they were denying to him the proportionate advantage which they had before agreed to, and which they would be willing to repeat, were his invention still to be purchased and could be obtained upon no other terms?—I will not go again into the examination of the letters to Bonnor, which, one might be sure, would be again brought up; nor consider how far those letters, culpable and indefensible as they were, might admit of some excuse. It is sufficient to say, that they are nothing to the present purpose: that though they are sufficient, and more than sufficient, to set aside the appointment, to justify and to demand the revocation of the salary and of the office, they did not touch the allowance which had been given in the form of a percentage, and as the price of the Plan that had been commu- nicated. This price is what Mr. Palmer claims, and this is what he has still, as he had formerly, a full right to.—The censure passed by the hon. gent. near me (Mr. Bankes) on the conduct of the chancellor of the exchequer, does not require to be adverted to as affecting the merits of the case, which it can in no degree vary: as a matter of general doctrine, I can by no means bring myself to assent to it, seeing that the direct effect must be to place in the arbitrium of the chancellor of the exchequer, what ought to be submitted to the judgment of the house. The cases in my opinion can be but very few, in which a chancellor of the exchequer ought to exert the delicate and dangerous privilege, even though he may be possessed of it, of withholding from the house the power of exercising its own judgment.—The plea of lapse of time, urged also by the hon. gent. near me, is of another sort. Though it does not, in one sense, affect the merits of the case, that is to say, the justice of the Claim, it makes part of the question which the house is called upon to consider. I shall only say, that however good the objection may be on the part of many individual members, of the hon. gent. for example or of myself, it cannot well be adopted by a house, which in the instance of the duke of Athol, to say nothing of the general merits of that case, did not scruple to revise a transaction which had passed 40 years before, and which had been sanctioned, not by an order of the lords of the treasury, but by a solemn act of the three branches of the legislature.

Mr. Fuller

strongly supported the Resolution, and compared the conduct of Mr. Palmer's Deputy, who had revealed his confidential correspondence, to that of Judas Iscariot, who sold his master.

Mr. Rose

was of opinion, that this was the most exceptionable demand he ever knew. If the house agreed to the Report, they would reward a public officer for great and manifold misconduct. In the year 1799, the question had been decided against Mr. Palmer, by a majority of 112 to 28; but now, without any additional evidence on the subject, the house were called upon to do that, which would shake their honour and character more than any thing within his recollection.

Mr. Stuart Wortley

said, that major Palmer's powers of persuasion had, on a former evening, made him a proselyte; but that, on a better understanding of the case, he now came prepared to make his retrac- tion. The situation which Mr. Palmer held was granted to him not only for services done, but to encourage him in future. If he was now entitled to the 2½ per cent. he was therefore entitled to the 1500l. a-year also, and to the place itself. Having accepted of that place, he could not have no other document of his agreement but it, and by it he must be bound. He therefore opposed the Resolution.

Mr. Long

complained that very few questions had been put to him by the Committee, though it was in his power to throw considerable light upon the subject; and contended that the percentage on the Revenue of the Post Office was granted to Mr. Palmer only during his continuance in office.

Sir Tho. Turton

—After the very ample investigation which this subject underwent upon a former evening, and the decided sentiment which the house by a very large majority then expressed upon its merits, I little expected to find the discussion revived upon the present occasion with an increase of acrimony, yet without any addition of argument.—I can assure the House that unlike the hon. member behind me (Mr. Stuart Wortley) I rise not to avow myself a proselyte to any argument I have heard either within or without doors, or to express my repentance for having given a vote on a preceding night, in favour of the just claims of a meritorious individual, which the house in its justice, and to its eternal honour, has recognized.—Sir, I was much surprised to hear the hon. gentleman state, that Mr. Palmer's powers of persuasion had made him a proselyte, but that on a better understanding of the case, he came prepared to make his retraction.—Sir, I shrewdly suspect that the authors of the hon. gent.'s proselytism are not far off, and that their arguments, too often irresistibly persuasive, have made him a proselyte from the truth and justice of the case; but I care little by what cause this effect has been produced, sure I am, it will not be general amongst those who come to discharge their duty without respect of persons, and of such I am satisfied the maj6rity on a former night were composed. Sir, I must confess I did not expect to hear myself, in common with two thirds of the house, stigmatized with gross ignorance and mistake in the discharge of my public duty, and formally put upon my defence, for a vote which I had given conscientiously and according to the best dictates of my judgment. The hon. gent. (Mr. Bankes) who has chosen to make this unexpected and extraordinary attack upon either the understanding or the integrity of 137 members, not being able to satisfy the house by argument of the justice or opposing this Claim, turns round upon the members of the Committee who made the Report, and is determined to wreak his vengeance, and exhaust his ill temper, on them and their labours. Sir, I had the misfortune (in his opinion, but the honour, in my own) to be a member of that Committee, and I will venture to advance in extenuation of its alledged offences, that it was a committee unusually numerous and well attended; composed of gentlemen in all habits of life, and professing different political principles; that many among them, until this unlucky slur upon their discretion and probity, were not suspected to be deficient in common sense; and I may at least be allowed to say, without presumption, that they were punctual and indefatigable in their attendance; that they omitted no care or pains by which the truth could be ascertained; and that after every practicable devotion of their time, and sacrifice of their attention, they agreed upon a report perfectly satisfactory to their own consciences, and which they were really vain enough to hope would have proved equally satisfactory to the house, and even to the fastidiousness of the hon. gent. Sir, the members of that Committee would indeed have cause for regret, if the hon. gent., in the delivery of these very liberal sentiments, could be considered as the organ of the house; the vote of this night, like that of the last, will, I trust, prove that he is not so; that it is only his individual opinion, which, however respectable, he will excuse us if we deem not infallible. With respect to the form or diction of the Report, so severely commented on by the hon. member, I can only say it is unfortunate that we had not the aid of the judgment and literary talents of the hon. member in preparing it, as it might then have been more worthy the place for which it was destined. I can only hope, that when the long expected report shall at length arrive from that Committee over whose labours the hon. gentleman himself presides, we shall receive a luminous document worthy his superior genius and accuracy, which may serve as a beautiful and unerring model by which all future committees may be enabled to reform their inaccuracies, and accommodate their conduct to his code of propriety of language and siatement.—Sir, we are next told, with infinite gravity, that the vote of Thursday night ought to be rescinded because the house was taken by surprize upon that occasion!—In the name of common sense, what does the hon. gent. mean by surprise?—Was not the day appointed by the minister himself, and was there not a notice of full six weeks given of that day? I never recollect any measure urged upon the house with less appearance of precipitation, or upon which every member has been enabled to form a more cool and deliberate judgment.—Indeed, this is an objection so palpably ridiculous, that I can only suppose the hon. gent. meant by it to give us an agreeable proof of his fancy, by raising an argument where any other person would have despaired to find one.—Another hon. gent. (Mr. Long) has insinuated to the house, that the report of the Committee is indeed but little to be relied upon, because he could have supplied them with a vast deal of intelligence upon the subject of their enquiry, which they either disdained, or neglected to apply for, when he offered himself as an evidence before them. I fear it is the misfortune of this hon. gent. to possess a singularly treacherous memory. I wish before he had committed himself by such an assertion, he had looked at the printed report of the Committee, which is now in every member's hand; he would there have seen, that when his evidence was taken, it amounted merely to two or three loose remarks of no importance; and that when the Committee had put every question they conceived to be of consequence, the hon. gent. was expressly asked "whether there were any points "remaining upon which he could afford "information," that he as expressly answered "he had no further intelligence "to give." Assuredly here is convincing proof that the hon. gent.'s memory must either have failed him wonderfully at the time his evidence was taken, or that it must have played him a slippery trick upon the present occasion; the hon. gent. has no alternative but to sacrifice one of his contradictory assertions to the other, and in either case I consider his misfortune as very much to be deplored.—It has been suggested, that some portion of the Post Office Revenue has arisen, since 1793, from circumstances independent altogether of Mr. Palmer's Plan; and it seems in consequence apprehended, that a larger remuneration may be granted than Mr. P. is fairly entitled to.—In reply to this objection, I beg to inform the house that the Committee fully took into consideration the amount of encreased revenue which arose from other sources than those of Mr. P.'s creation, and that they made every allowance and deduction on that account before they presented their Report. As to the repeated argument in respect to the amount, if the Claim is established in point of justice, I must again insist that its magnitude ought to be no argument against its entire fulfilment; it is an argument which encreases our demerit, whilst it adds to the amount of Mr. Palmer's Claim.—Sir, I shall detain the house no longer; there is no argument to reply to, only mis-statements to correct; the claim of this gentleman is indisputable; you have already recognized it; the sense of the house has been taken on it; to-night I am well assured it will be again expressed with similar, or encreased effect.—I have never given a more conscientious vote than the one I gave on the same occasion. I shall repeat it to-night, confident that the independence of the house is with me, and the sense of the country no less so.

Lord Milton

was surprised at the inconsistencies of the gentlemen on the opposite side; for instead of arguing on the bargain, which they all admitted, they flew to the misconduct of Mr. Palmer while in office. The impropriety of Mr. Palmer's conduct in office he was not a supporter of, but he would submit, that the conduct in office had nothing to do with the original bargain, and ought not to interfere with the present question. Why did they not meet it when it was before the house for the first time, and put a stamp on it? That would have shewn the public Mr. Palmer had no claim; but instead of doing so they gave it a half assent, a half dissent, and at last threw it by and got rid of it by moving the previous question. There had been a vast deal of obloquy thrown on the Report of the Committee; he saw no argument adduced to warrant it. He believed the Committee consisted of as honourable and as good men, without exception, as the house could produce. He could not pass over the subject without saying, that the Committee had been hardly used.

Mr. Sturges Bourne

argued, that the opinion of the Committee was not entitled to much credit, because the evidence upon which that opinion was formed was not given; and that the question having been decided by a former house of commons, should be considered as having been set finally at rest.

Sir Francis Burdett.

—Sir, I have examined the merits of this case, and bestowed the greatest attention upon every argument brought forward, both for and against Mr. Palmer's Claims: and so far from their having shaken, they have confirmed the opinion that I before entertained, of the justness of Mr. Palmer's demands.—Sir, when I observe, upon the one hand, the greatness of the benefits, and remark upon, the other, the smallness of the craved reward, I really am astonished that ministers should hesitate for a single instant to comply with Claims founded on an undeniable contract, and supported by services, which have exceeded the most sanguine hopes.—But, sir, I must at the same time, congratulate his majesty's ministers on the acquisition of a virtue, of which I never before observed in them the least trait. And I shall be extremely happy if they remain under its influence on future occasions, instead of pensioning worthless objects, who have done their country far more harm than good. I scarcely know how to answer the arguments of the right hon. gentlemen on the opposite side, for they so perpetually shift their ground and change their position, that it is almost impossible to ascertain where they intend to make a stand. First, it is a bargain, then it is not a bargain; and after all they seem doubtful, whether this is a bargain, or a remuneration. Now, I think it immaterial which it is, for if it is a contract, beyond a doubt it should be performed; and if it is a remuneration, surely 50 shillings cannot be considered too much to give a man, who gives you 100 pounds. Here the public has, and is receiving profits to the amount of millions! For this stupendous engine is at this moment actually in motion, and will be so as long as the kingdom shall exist; and while it does, it's benefits must increase. For the numerous and incalculable advantages arising from this plan, I think the country can hardly ever make an adequate return to Mr. Palmer; for the fatigue, anxiety, disappointment, and loss of health he has suffered, they never can, I am certain.—Sir, I am not in general very ready to place implicit confidence in the Reports of Committees; but when I consider the impartial and able gentlemen that composed it, and that Mr. Palmer could have no influence over them, besides that which the injustice he has been treated with, must excite in every honest man, I think it is a Report which is entitled to every kind of confidence and respect; and my opinion of it's fairness has received additional strength at hearing from an hon. baronet (sir Thos. Turton,) that all fair deductions have been made on account of that proportion of the increase of the Post Office Revenue which might be attributed to causes not immediately belonging to Mr. Palmer's invention.—Sir, the hon. gentlemen have talked a great deal about the letters written by Mr. Palmer, but I cannot conceive that they have any reference to the question which now occupies the house; if there is any weight in them, it can only apply to the office and the salary; to the claim to centage they are quite foreign.—Sir, that hon. gent. said, that this question was decided in 1799; but I really believe he must mean that as a joke; for what decision could be expected by an unprotected individual opposed by a powerful minister, or what choice could Mr. Palmer make, when he was told, "you shall "either accept my terms or nothing."—And yet, this was the decision the hon. gent. alludes to. As I am sure there is no honest man in the country who would not willingly contribute towards the discharge of a debt like this, I shall vote for it whenever it shall be brought forward.

Mr. Holford

defended Mr. Pitt's bargain, and contended that if that great man had felt it to be improvident, he never would have shrunk from acknowledging it.

Mr. Marryat

contended, that the agreement between Mr. Palmer and the public had been cancelled by the very improper conduct of Mr. Palmer in office. It was his opinion, that the Revenue having materially suffered by Mr. P.'s dismissal, was an argument against him, and that he ought to suffer by the loss.

Mr. Sumner

dwelt upon the imperfect evidence of the report; and moved that the debate be adjourned till to morrow se'nnight, with a view to refer it back to the committee, with an instruction to the committee to take further evidence. The house divided: the numbers were,

For the Adjournment 87
Against it 137
Majority —50
A long conversation then took place on the subject of the coarse which it would be most proper for the house to adopt after the determination of this night.

The Speaker

informed the house, that it appeared to him, that the regular mode of proceeding would be for the accounts of the Net Proceeds of the Post Office Revenue up to the present period to be laid before the house; the amount of money which was to be paid to Mr. Palmer, as a remuneration for the time past, could then be ascertained from those documents, and voted in a Committee of Supply. The consideration of the annual sum which the house might think fit to order to be paid in future, must also, he believed, originate in a Committee of Supply. When a Resolution was agreed to on that subject, a bill might afterwards be brought into the house pointing out the fund from which it was to be taken, and legalizing a particular course of distribution or appropriation as usual in similar cases.—The Accounts were then ordered to be laid before the house. After which the Report was agreed to, and Mr. Palmer proposed, that on Friday next the subject should be referred to a Committee of Supply.