HC Deb 10 April 1818 vol 37 cc1291-5
The Lord Advocate

of Scotland said, he believed it was generally admitted that there were defects in controlling the expenditure of the corporations of the royal Scotch burghs. It was therefore his object to move for leave to bring in a bill to regulate the mode of accounting for the revenues of those burghs, and for the better regulation and control of the undue expenditure thereof. The measure he had in contemplation was one which would partially revive the obsolete laws of the country, which called the magistrates to account for the revenues in the court of exchequer. In addition to this, it would impose upon them an obligation to submit their, accounts annually, and that they should also be exposed to the burgesses to consider of the expenditure; and if they saw grounds of an improvident expenditure, they should have a right to complain. But this might not in certain cases prevent the misapplication of the funds by the magistrates, or from their entering into speculations by which dilapidations might arise. He should therefore propose that the court of exchequer, on the complaint of five burgesses, should have the power of controlling the actual expenditure. But in so thin a House he thought it would be better to leave the bill to speak for itself. He would therefore move, "That leave be given to bring in a bill, for the better regulating the mode of accounting for the common good and Revenues of the Royal Burghs of Scotland, and for controlling and preventing the undue expenditure thereof."

Lord Archibald Hamilton

congratulated the House, and still more particularly the country with which he was immediately connected, that at length, after numerous petitions had been presented, after various grievances had been stated, the learned lord admitted, what be fore he had uniformly denied, that the royal burghs had very just reason to complain of serious injuries. Scotland had now, for about thirty years, been requesting this boon of the House, and, during the whole progress of that time it had been denied that any evil, such as the learned lord's measure was intended to redress, did in reality exist. Last session the learned lord seemed to deny that there was any necessity whatever for the House interfering on this subject; and he could not now, after what had fallen from the learned lord, avoid expressing his joy, that Scotland had at length a prospect of receiving justice at his hands, and at the hands of that House. Of the nature of the bill itself he would not presume to judge; but the view the learned lord took of the subject was so different from that which he and the petitioners entertained, that he feared but partial relief would be derived from the measure. The petitioners complained, not merely that they had no control over the expenditure of the revenues of the royal burghs, but that they had no voice whatever in the election of those very magistrates who disposed of their property. That grievance, he supposed, the learned lord meant to leave wholly untouched. He regretted that the learned lord had so long delayed his measure. He (lord A. Hamilton) on the first day of the session had stated his intention of calling the House to a consideration of the subject at large; but he gave up his intention, in consequence of the learned lord stating that he had long had it in contemplation to introduce a measure of this nature, yet from that time to the present, a period of upwards of two months, they had heard nothing on the subject. He lamented that the bill was introduced at so late a period, when those who took a more extensive view of the subject could not possibly give it that attention which it demanded. The bill seemed only to embrace a part of the evil. There were two points which it did not pretend to remedy—the self election of magistrates in some cases, for life, and the dissipation of the funds consequent on that self-election. Now, if the bill went no farther than to call magistrates to account, it would not meet the root and source of the evil. The learned lord spoke of statutes that were not operative. Why were they not operative? Because they were overwhelmed by the corruption which marked the burghs in Scotland, and which now called for this measure. Corruption had long been continued; and from it, those abuses which the learned lord now meant partially to remedy had proceeded. He loped the learned lord would have the bill circulated among those, who, like himself, were deeply interested in the measure. In conclusion, the noble lord inquired whether the bill had been submitted to the judges of Scotland, as he understood it would be; and also what period the learned lord meant to give, in order that it might be circulated?

The Lord Advocate

said, that no one was responsible for this measure but himself. He had not submitted it to the Scotch judges, but after he had made a draft of it, he had consulted those persons from whose advice he was likely to derive assistance in order that it might not come before the House in a crude shape. He never said that he had long contemplated a measure of this kind. What he had observed was, that he had it in contemplation in the course of the session, to introduce such a bill. With respect to his doubt, that certain laws in Scotland were not in abeyance, he should only reassert the fact —[Hear, hear, from sir John Newport and lord A. Hamilton]. He could excuse the right hon. baronet, for being ignorant that by the law of Scotland statutes from desuetude might cease to have operation. But he could not extend the same indulgence to the noble lord who was a legislator for Scotland [Lord A. Hamilton, in explanation, said he had never disputed it, he had only regretted it]. As to the complaint that persons who felt themselves aggrieved were prevented from taking measures of redress by the delay of the present bill, it was utterly unfounded. It was in the recollection of the House, that he had stated in the first week of the session the limited nature of the object he had in view. That object was to enable the courts of exchequer to take cognizance of the accounts and expenditure of the burghs, but not to attempt any more general regulations. There was nothing, therefore, in the nature of his pledge which ought to have prevented the persons alluded to, or the noble lord as their organ from introducing a more extended measure, if they thought it necessary. The noble lord was mistaken in attributing to him the assertion, that the royal burghs of Scotland had nothing to complain of. What he had said he was still prepared to maintain, namely, that it was impossible to introduce any general measure to regulate the election of magistrates in the royal burghs, without abrogating the whole system of the laws by which they were at present affected. He thought that the bill, though it might not embrace all the objects that were to be desired, would at least produce some good effects. It would remove many alleged grounds of grievance, and take away the stalking horse, by which the noble lord, as well as others, were enabled to introduce the topic of parliamentary reform, upon occasions with which it had. no necessary connexion. His intention, with regard to the progress of the bill was to bring it in that night, and have it read a first time immediately. He would then propose that it should lie over for three weeks, after being printed; but if the noble lord had any wish for its postponement to another session, he would not press it upon the House, as he saw no reason whatever for precipitating the question.

Sir John Newport

hoped, that after the charge of gross ignorance made against him by the learned lord, not for what he had said, but for what he meant to say, he should be excused for offering a few words to the House. The expression of his countenance, for that was the only expression that had escaped him, was excited to some astonishment at hearing it stated by the learned lord, that a statute remaining on the Statute book might, under certain circumstances, be considered as not a law of the country. Notwithstanding the decision of the judges, to which allusion bad been made, he still felt that astonishment. He remembered having once heard an advocate in Ireland contend before a learned judge, that a law which still existed in the Statute book was become obsolete. The answer of the judge was, that the thing was quite impossible; that where a statute could be produced it was binding on the court. The judge to whom he alluded was the late lord Kilwarden. It would certainly be a most mischievous discretion entrusted to judges of courts, if they were to be allowed to determine what laws were binding and what were not. When the provisions of a statute became objectionable or unnecessary, the legislature alone had the right to annul them, and if it was the fact that any judges had declared an existing statute not binding upon their determinations, it was a subject for the consideration of parliament. As to the bill itself, it appeared to him an attempt to establish the right of control in the body itself over which the control was to be exercised. It was on their own application to courts of law, that their own abuses were now intended to be remedied.

The Lord Advocate

disclaimed any idea of imputing ignorance of the laws of England and Ireland against the right hon. baronet, but he was not acquainted with the law of Scotland. It was admitted by the legislature itself that statutes in Scotland had fallen into abeyance. One of the objects of the bill was, to give the burgesses at large a power to compel the magistrates, under a penalty, to lodge their accounts in the exchequer.

Mr. Finlay

was of opinion that the present bill would be of no use at all as a remedy against the evil complained of. When a burgess was told that his remedy was in a court of law, he would be very apt to say the remedy was worse than the disease.

The Lord Advocate explained, that his purpose was, that the accounts should be open to the inspection of the burgesses.

Leave was then given to bring in a bill. It was immediately brought in and read a first time, and ordered to be read a second time on this day three weeks.