HC Deb 09 June 1809 vol 14 cc960-6
Mr. Foster

moved the order of the day for the third reading of the Irish Revenue Regulation Bill; and the question having been put that the bill be now read the third time,

Sir John Newport

rose to resist a clause in this bill, to which he thought it impossible the house could give their final assent, if they were aware of its object. It was no less than a grant of full amnesty and indemnification to all the excise officers in Ireland, who had for a series of years past, in direct violation of their duty and their oaths, been plundering the revenue of that country (as appeared from the Reports of the Irish committee of inquiry) of no less a sum than 850,000l. a year, by taking bribes from the distillers for conniving at their evasions of the duties upon their manufacture, and thus combining and colluding with them to defraud that revenue of which they were the sworn and confidential officers. If such a clause were allowed to pass, he was sure it would so far operate as a sanction and encouragement to fraud, as to create a necessity for another clause of indemnity in a year or two hence.—The reasoning upon which the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland supported this clause upon a former night was, that the salaries of the excise officers in Ireland were inadequate to their maintenance, and therefore exposed them to the temptations of bribery to betray their duty; but that their salaries being now raised, there were of course to be no more frauds in future. But he (sir J. Newport) could not admit for a moment that fraud could be justified upon any such plea in a revenue officer, guilty of a violation of his oath and his trust, which would be scouted in any court of criminal judicature, if offered in excuse by a highway-man, or a housebreaker, where no trust was reposed. The right hon. gent. pleaded the notoriety of such frauds in almost every branch of the revenue, as a necessity for this indemnification; and a recent instance had occurred in the house, by which it was shewn that an officer in high situation (Mr. Hill) was not only indemnified for past offences, but sanctioned and encouraged by still higher promotion, though his guilt was established by his own confession: and now came this clause to extend indemnification to the whole corps of such delinquents. With such a clause the bill would be a statute of pains and penalties against the public, and of protection to malefactors; for one clause in the bill denounced the most enormous penalties against any person who should offer a bribe to a revenue officer; and yet it concludes with a clause to indemnify all revenue officers who had taken bribes in the most flagitious way for betraying their trust, in direct violation of a bill which had passed the house so recently as the year 1806, expressly to prevent such frauds. No parliament, he declared, had ever passed such an amnesty as the present; and if the house should now sanction by its protection a class of men, guilty in numberless instances of such flagrant transgressions, such proceeding must be fatal to the public interest, and highly in jurious to the public morals. The right hon. baronet concluded by moving, "That instead of now, the bill be read a third time this day three months."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

hoped, that as the objections of the right hon. baronet were directed solely against a particular clause in the bill, he would be content to take the sense of the house upon that clause, instead of opposing the whole bill.

Sir John Newport

had no wish to defeat the whole bill, and was satisfied to rest his opposition upon the final clause.

Mr. Foster

denied that the clause was intended for such a purpose as that of screening defaulters. It was merely a clause in compliance with a conditional promise made to certain officers, of whose guilt there was no practical proof to be obtained, but who, on the condition of indemnity, had fully acknowledged the facts, and explained how a repetition of such fraud might in future be prevented. He had himself repeatedly stated to the house, that the pay of the excise officers in Ireland was too small for their maintenance, and consequently exposed them to the temptation of bribery from brewers and distillers, over whose works they were placed in the way of their duty. Such were the temptations held out to them, that they had not the fortitude to resist: and so universally and notoriously did the traffic prevail amongst every description of excise officers in every part of Ireland, that the frauds upon the revenue were to an incalculable amount. This appeared upon examination before the Commissioners of inquiry in Ireland. It was, in fact, so generally the usage, that the excise officers conceived there was no crime, or breach of duty, in a matter at which they supposed their superiors connived in consideration of the known inadequacy of their salaries to their maintenance. It was recommended by the Commissioners of inquiry, as the best means of rendering those officers honest and faithful for the future, that their salaries should be increased; and as the defalcations were almost universal, and committed almost without the consciousness of criminality, it was proposed, that an amnesty should be given for all that had passed, upon the strong assurance that under the increased salaries, no such acts should take place for the future: or if they did, that they should be instantly followed by dismissal and the severest penalties. What would be the obvious consequence of rejecting this clause? Why, that these men would be placed in the power of those very brewers and distillers, at whose frauds they had heretofore been induced by bribery to connive, and who might again drive them to new connivances and frauds by the threats of prosecutions, fines, and penalties for former acts, the proofs of which were in their power, and thus render the bill nugatory, and expose the revenue to a repetition of all those frauds it was intended to prevent.

Mr. Horner

expressed his astonishment, that a British house of commons should be called upon to pass such a clause; but he was still more astonished at the motives for it urged by the right hon. gent., namely, the universality of the offence in every department of the revenue of Ireland; but, most of all, at the circumstance of continuing in their places, and remunerating by advance of salaries, the very officers who, in breach of their trusts and of their oaths, had been one and all, avowedly and for a series of years, defrauding the revenue, and combining and colluding with others to defraud it. Was there no possibility of finding any other men in Ireland with honesty and ability enough to fill the place of these men? If such a fact were possible, but which he could not believe, then there should be men sought in some other part of the united empire.

Mr. Foster

explained, by saying, that these frauds were not. chargeable on all the branches of the revenue, but merely on the excise; that the act of 1806 limited the time of prosecution for all crimes designated there, to three months after the fact; that the indemnity proposed by this bill came down no lower than January 1808; and that for all such offences since committed, the parties would still be liable to a prosecution.

Mr. Bankes

was astonished at the introduction of the clause before that house, so contrary as it was to every principle which a British parliament had been used to respect and maintain. He regretted that it should have the support of his right hon. friend the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, and begged to ask what the house would think if such a clause were proposed in that house, to indemnify and protect the excise officers of this country, if it was known that they had entered into combinations to defraud the revenue? These latter would have been instantly dismissed to a man, and others found to fill their places. He was surprized to hear from the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland, that persons who had been guilty of these frauds, were not only retained in their situations, but even their salaries had been raised, in the hope of securing their honesty and fidelity for the future. This he conceived to be a project totally hopeless; and he should have preferred, for the public advantage, their instantaneous dismissal, and the filling up their places with other men, however simple or moderate their abilities, against whom at least government had no experience of their dishonesty, to the continuance of men whose crimes for a series of years were avowed and even vindicated, and sanctioned by those whose peculiar duty it was to watch over the revenues of Ireland. Of the affairs of that country he was sorry to say, that the more they were investigated the more loudly they seemed to call for the correcting hand of that house. It was not wonderful that the people murmured at the increase of taxes, if that increase arose not from any necessity founded on the inadequacy of the taxes already imposed, but to make up for the frauds of revenue officers, who, instead of being dismissed and punished, were retained and indemnified.

Sir Samuel Romilly

expressed his wonder that such a clause should receive the sanction of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, contrary as it was to all the principles usually respected in that house. It was unsupported by any precedent in former amnesty bills; for it went to extend pardon not only to the comparative few who appeared to have acknowledged their guilt, but to the thousands who never make any acknowledgment at all; so that the house had no mode of measuring the indefinite extent of criminality which they were called on to vote. It was a direct attack on public morality, and held out encouragement to the revenue officers in England, to commit the like offence, for surely it was quite impossible the right hon. gent. would follow up with pains and penalties, the same class of persons in England for frauds on the revenue, in violation of their trust, or even against poor wretches defrauding the revenue, otherwise having no place of trust, but equally pleading the inadequacy of their incomes to the support of their families; while the revenue officers of Ireland, notoriously, and for a series of years, guilty of such frauds, were to be indemnified, protected, retained in their places, and ameliorated in their circumstances. He trusted that house would never disgrace itself by the adoption of such a clause.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

was somewhat surprized at the indignation assumed by his hon. and learned friend at this clause, after the explanation which had been given; and spoke at some length in support of the clause upon the same ground as Mr. Foster. No man, he said, could for a moment seriously suppose that the clause was intended to sanction corruption or criminality, but merely to prevent the recurrence of similar abuses, without that inconvenience to the public service which the immediate dismissal of all the excise officers in Ireland must occasion.

Mr. Calcraft

spoke of the clause in the strongest terms of reprobation, and asked, would the right hon. gent. venture to propose such a clause to that house in protection of the revenue officers of England, if they had been guilty of such crimes? He was a good deal astonished at several of the measures which had passed that house in relation to Ireland, since the administration of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer for that country commenced; but he owned this proposition surprized him more than all the rest, supported as it was by the speech and vote of the right hon. gent. (Mr. Perceval). To continue those fraudulent officers in their places, not only indemnified and protected, but rewarded and encouraged, was beyond every thing he had ever witnessed; and this, too, upon the pretence that men could not be found in Ireland to fill their places. He could not credit the assertion; he knew of no extraordinary talents it required to do the duty of an exciseman. But if no men fit to do these duties were to be found in that country, they should be imported from some other. It was ridiculous to suppose that men in the habit of living by their frauds, at four or five hundreds or thousands a year, could be rendered honest by the addition of thirty or forty pounds to their salaries.

Mr. Marryat

gave ministers credit for the best intentions in supporting this clause, but thought they would be woefully disappointed in the result. In relation to the continuance of those fraudulent officers, with the hope of reform, he should be guided by the old proverb; "Never trust a reformed drunkard with the key of the cellar."

Mr. Hutchinson

said, that the doctrine in support of the clause went to libel the country. If it went abroad, it would give an idea that there were no honest men to be found there; and if the members for Ireland did not condemn it, they would deserve the reprobation of their countrymen.

Mr. Croker

defended the clause, and said there was no alternative but an immediate dismissal of all the excise officers in Ireland, and the abandonment of the revenue. He would not have voted for it, if it was to defend corruption.

Mr. Babington

said, if he thought the clause would prevent corruption, he would vote for it; but could it be supposed that men who had been in the habit of receiving large sums from the distillers, and living up to it, would leave their habits for the advance of their salaries? It was contrary to all human probability, and was not to be expected; he Should therefore give the clause his negative.

Mr. Windham

was ready to admit, that if the fraudulent officers must necessarily be retained, the clause ought to pass of course; but he denied the necessity, and consequently must oppose it. Not only did he reprobate the idea of indemnifying men who had so grossly betrayed their trust, and defrauded the revenue, but that of retaining those men in their places, after the avowal and proof of such fraud. It taught those men to laugh at government, to set them at defiance, to believe that government could not do without them, and, of course could not dismiss them; and, under such feelings, was it to be expected such men would, for a trifling increase of salary, forego the temptation of gaining five times as much by fraud? and what sort of picture was this to hold out for their brother revenue officers in England?

The question being loudly called for, a division took place, when there appeared:

For the Clause 41
Against it 47
Majority against Ministers —6

Mr. Whitbread

said, that it appeared from papers on the table that the Storekeeper of the Magazine in Hyde Park never filled any military office, and he also understood that he was in possession of a sinecure office. He trusted that he would be removed before the next session: if not, he should feel himself obliged to make a motion to that effect.