HC Deb 17 February 1823 vol 8 cc127-36

The order of the day was read, for going into a Committee of Supply. On the motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair,"

Mr. Creevey

rose to express his surprise at the mode in which ministers now-a-days called upon the House for supplies. He believed there was scarcely a difference of opinion upon the state of the country; scarcely a denial that persons were every day falling from respectability, nay, from opulence, into absolute beggary; and yet the officers of the crown carne forward for supplies as a matter of course. He must really trespass shortly upon the time of the House, to compare the course which had been usual in days gone by—in days, however, when the royal prerogative had been by no means so well defined as at present, and when the burdens borne by the people had been considerably lighter;—he must compare the course adopted in those times with that taken in our days by the ministers of the crown. In the reign of queen Elizabeth, when sir E. Coke was speaker of the House, and when such men as lord Bacon and sir Walter Raleigh took part in the debates; in that day, sir Walter Midway, chancellor of the exchequer, on asking the house for a supply, expressed himself in the following terms:—"But, least that peradventure some may judge that the contribution granted by us now five years past, both frankly and dutifully, might suffice for many years without any new, I dare assure you, for the acquaintance that I have (though I be unworthy) with those her majesty's affairs, that the same hath not been sufficient to answer the extraordinary charges, happened since then, especially those of Ireland, by the one-half; but her majesty hath supplied the rest out of her own revenues, sparing from herself to serve the necessity of the realm, and shunning thereby loans upon interest, as a most pestilential canker, that is able to devour even the states of princes." The generosity of the queen in that instance was not less than the wisdom of the minister. But now, although we had a pestilential canker of eight hundred millions devouring us, ministers came down for money as though nothing were the matter. But, to give the House a second instance of the state in which such matters were formerly conducted, in the 38th of Elizabeth, upon a question of money, sir Robert Cecil brought forward the motion for supply; and sir John Fortescue, chanceller of the exchequer, in supporting the motion, after stating all the queen had done at home and abroad in defending her neighbours and her kingdom against the power of Spain, said—"Besides, when her majesty came to the crown, she found it four millions indebted; her navy, when she came to view it, she found greatly decayed; yet all this she has discharged, and, thanks to God, is nothing indebted: and now she is able to match any prince in Europe, which the Spaniards found when they came to invade us. Yea, she hath with her ships compassed the whole world, whereby this land is made famous throughout all places. As for her own private expenses, they have been little in building; she hath consumed little or nothing in her pleasures; as for her apparel, it is royal and princely, beseeming her calling, but not sumptuous nor excessive; the charges of her house small; yea, never less in any king's time, and shortly, by God's grace, she will free her subjects from that trouble which hath come by the means of purveyors. Wherefore she trusteth that every good subject will assist her majesty with his purse, seeing it concerns his own good and the preservation of his estate, and for these subsidies which are granted, now they are less by half than they were in Henry 8th's time."—Now, all this took place just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and at a time, therefore, when the people would probably have granted the queen any thing she could have asked. Why, when the ministers of the present day came to ask for supply, did they not come in the same tone, and with something like the same assurances; with statements of economy carried into practice, and promises of the abolition of grievances? When the agriculturists were involved in ruin—when they were suffering from the change in the state of the currency,—would it not be reasonable that at least every official salary which had been raised during the depreciation should be reduced to its original level? Was the landed interest, in addition to its other miseries, resulting from the sudden and unjustifiable recourse which was had to a metallic currency, to bear also the burden of salaries which had been increased on account of the former depreciation of that currency? Ought they not to be reduced, now that the currency had so far increased in value? This applied to persons of all descriptions who held places, from the highest to the lowest. These sinecures had been tolerated long enough. It was the duty of ministers to abolish them forthwith; and this they ought especially to have done, before they came to ask the House to vote fresh supplies. If the ministers of Elizabeth thought it their duty to preface their motion for supplies, with a communication that the grievance of purveyances had been abated, so much the more were we now entitled to relief, from the no less burdensome grievance of sinecures—that immense load, which, for the enjoyment of the privileged orders, was laid upon the other members of the community. It would have been far more consistent with their duty, if ministers had recommended the crown to sacrifice a part of its revenue to the wants of the people. No man living could tell what might be the result of the country's situation. No man could say whether the present distresses might not end in a conflict for the possession of property. Let any one look at the temper displayed at the county meetings which were daily taking place: let them look at the heart-burnings which existed between persons having opposite interests, and different descriptions of property. He knew of only one thing which could prevent a fatal termination to this state of things, and that was economy—strict and universal economy. If the crown would give up part of the civil list, he had no doubt that so noble an example would be followed by the most beneficial consequences. He was naturally led to ask the reason of the difference between the mode of granting supplies now, and at the period to which he had alluded. In the time of Elizabeth, the supplies had been considered as sacrifices on the part of the subject, which were to be appropriated to public purposes. The members, and those whom they represented, had one common object. The House of Commons had not then invented or discovered the means of applying the supplies to their own private benefit and emolument. A perfect revolution had been effected in this respect in the House and in the country. Eight hundred millions of debt, conquests in every quarter of the globe, with corresponding establishments, had placed the administration of the country in such a condition as could not have been imagined in the time of queen Elizabeth. The ministers of the crown had introduced the patronage derived from all these sources into the House of Commons. He did not state this invidiously; but it was the fact. It was known that ministers possessed the power of giving away all offices; and members very naturally thought their sons, their relations, or their friends, were as fit to fill them as other persons. This it was that had created a revolution in the character of the House; and this he maintained to be the true solution of the difference between the manner of asking supplies now, and then. To ask for them now, was only to ask members to help themselves, and to supply their families and friends. It was known to every one, that in the report of the committee relative to the offices of receivers-general, it appeared that two or three members had been scrambling for the same place. In the time even of Edward 1st, and in various subsequent reigns, there was a constant clause in all subsidy bills, that no member of the House of Commons should be a collector, whereas now, as had been just observed, we had it in proof, that the collection of the land-tax had become the regular patronage and property of this House. The constitution was now no longer composed of that equal and wholesome division of power between the King, the Lords, and the Commons; but between the minister of the crown and this House, one of whom held the power, and the other the patronage, of the state. Much was said of the splendor of the crown; but if it were to be compared with that which was displayed by queen Elizabeth, it would be seen that it was now reduced to a mere raree show. We heard of the king being ill or well, and of his making occasional excursions; but we had no satisfactory, no intimate knowledge of him. He was, in fact, a mere splendid annuitant upon his ministers; but, as for the sympathy between the court and the people, which had distinguished the era to which he had so often been compelled to refer, there was not a vestige of it left. Not only had this revolution taken place; but officers of state had been introduced, whose names had never been heard of before. The manager of the House of Commons was now talked of as familiarly as the first lord of the Admiralty: he was a recognized officer, and such a one as never could have arisen but from the cause he had stated. He would beg permission to quote to the House a speech of lord Bacon, on this subject, who, in that very place, had treated as a chimera the attempt to manage the House of Commons. It was delivered in the first year of the reign of James 1st, who, when he came to the throne, was much more anxious to obtain money than the House was willing to grant it to him. It was rumoured, that certain officious members had undertaken to get for the king the supplies he wanted. The debate was conducted with considerable heat, and the matter treated as a violation of the duty of the House. Lord Bacon, who was then the attorney-general, and sitting in parliament, made the following speech:—

"Mr. Speaker

;—I have been hitherto silent in this matter of undertaking, wherein the House is much enwrapped first, because, to be plain with you, I did not well understand what it meant or what it was, and I do not love to offer at that that I do not thoroughly conceive—that private men should undertake for the Commons of England! Why, a man might as well undertake for the four elements. It is a thing so giddy and so vast, it cannot enter into the head of a sober man, and especially in a new parliament, when it was impossible to know who should be of the parliament; and when all men that know ever so little the constitution of this House, do know it to be so open to reason, as men do not know when they enter into these doors, what mind themselves will be of until they hear things argued and debated; much less can any man make a policy of assurance what ship shall come safe into the harbour in these seas. There were undertakers for the plantations of Derry and Coleraine, in Ireland, the better to command and bridle those pacts; but for the ancient parliament of England, which moves in a certain manner and sphere, to be undertaken, it passes my reach to conceive what it should be. Must there be some forts built in this House that may command and contain the rest? Mr. Speaker, I know but two forts in this House, which the king ever hath—the fort of affection, and the fort of reason: the one commands the hearts, and the other commands the heads; and others I know none. Then for the king, nothing can be more opposite to his ends and hopes than this, for you have heard him profess like a king, and like a gracious king—that he Both not so much respect his present supply as the demonstration, that the people's hearts are more knit to him than before. Now, then, if the issue shall be this, that whatsoever shall be done for him, shall be thought to be done but by a number of persons that shall be laboured and packed, this will be rather a sign of diffidence and alienation, than of a natural benevolence and affection in his people at home; and rather matter of disreputation than of honour abroad. So that, to speak plainly, the king had better call for a new pair of cards than play upon these if they be packed; and then for the people, it is my manner ever to look as well beyond a parliament as upon a parliament; and if they abroad shall think themselves betrayed by those that are their deputies and attorneys here, it is true we may bind them and conclude them, but it will be with such murmur and insatisfaction as I would be loth to see. These things might be dissembled, and so things left to bleed inwardly; but that is not the way to cure them and therefore I have searched the sore, in hope that you will endeavour the medicine."—Now, that which lord Bacon had discussed as a mere chimera, had actually come to pass. The cards were now packed; that House was packed. His hon. friend, the member for Shrewsbury, had shown, by the report from that committee, which had been instituted upon his motion, that there were 79 members of the House who held offices to the amount in value of 180,000l. per annum. These members might be called the court cards of the pack, and in all committees of supply there would be found the same cards. But these, numerous as they were, were inconsiderable, compared with those who were bound to ministers by benefits, received by different parts of their families. If a list could be shown of all the persons who had applied for a share of the advantages of this patronage, and added to the 79 other persons, it would be seen that the majority preponderated so far as to render it vain to expect any relief for the necessities of the country. This, then, was the manner in which supplies were now voted. He would do all that the forms in the House would allow him upon the present occasion; and he would propose, by way of amendment, "That it be an instruction to the committee, that they do consider of the grievances of the people." This had been done, over and over again; and the right of discussing grievances before supplies, had been always asserted in better times.

The Speaker

having put the amendment, strangers were ordered to withdraw; when Mr. Creevey said, he should not give the House the trouble of dividing; but would content himself with recording his own sentiments upon the Journals, and letting his amendment be negatived.

Mr. Canning

said, he did not propose to answer what had fallen from the hon. gentleman, because he believed no one who had heard his speech, could understand any practical benefit which he had proposed by it. He did not mean, if the amendment had not been withdrawn, to have opposed it; nor should he have added another word, but for the mention which had been made of one exalted personage, whose name he could not use consistently with the forms of parliament. That personage had been singularly, and he thought unconstitutionally, introduced into the speech just delivered. He should have thought, that, in common justice, the sacrifices which had been made by the crown for a series of years, and the disposition which had been unceasingly manifested for the reduction of every unnecessary expense, deserved from the hon. gentleman very different treatment.

Mr. W. Lamb

expressed his surprise at the line of argument adopted by the hon. member for Appleby. It was most unsatisfactory and inconclusive to go back to the period when the privilege of purveyance existed—that privilege which gave to the agents of the monarch the right to seize, in every market or other place, provisions and other things necessary for the supply of the court; and which was, of all other branches of the prerogative, the most tyrannical and intolerable. Nothing could be more marked than the distinction between those times and our own. The Revolution had altered the situation in which the granting of supplies had previously been placed. Before that period, the crown had been possessed of large territories, from which it derived considerable revenues, and which could be made available in cases of emergency. The abolition of the feudal tenures had deprived it of this revenue, and had thrown it upon the liberality of parliament for the support of its honour and dignity. To hesitate to vote the supplies, would be to doubt the propriety of giving effect to the operations of the government.

Mr. Hume

said, that the state of the crown lands was one of those subjects which called for the attention of the House, and which ought to be looked to before the supplies were granted. They had been given up by the crown; and, by an act of the first of queen Anne, they had been placed apart, for the express purpose of relievin the burdens of the people. He did not complain of this change, which was really excellent; but he complained that, instead of producing between 40 and 50,000l. per annum, they were swallowed by pensions. The evil, however, did not exist in one department alone. He hoped some of the members of the Irish committee were present. By a paper then before the House, it was pointed out, that in the customs of the port of Dublin, the collection cost 84,000l. Mr. Richmond, judging what the expense of the collection ought to be, by that which was incurred in London, had recommended it to be reduced 42,000l., and that of the out-ports 35,000l., making a reduction of 77,000l. That report had remained a dead letter; and when en he had submitted certain propositions to the House on the subject, they had been negatived by a large majority. He held in his hand a practical proof how far ministers were inclined to continue an overgrown establishment. A committee, of which he had been a member, had unanimously recommended that 65 receivers-general should be reduced. To his surprise, a whole year had been suffered to elapse, without any practical benefit resulting from that recommendation. With respect to the sums paid to the distributors of stamps, the poundage amounted to 5 and 6 per cent, when it ought only to be at the rate of 2 per cent; and the public were made to pay 85,000l. when they ought only to pay 30,000l. He hoped his hon. friend would take the sense of the House upon his motion, in order to impress upon members the necessity of considering the grievances of the people, before they voted away the public money by millions.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

(Mr. Robinson) begged to remind the hon. gentleman, that the government had given its cordial assent to one of the measures of economy winch had been recommended, and had carried it into effect by an act of parliament. As to the first topic, that of the crown lands, the hon. gentleman was entirely mistaken. The revenue arising from them was regularly carried to account. He was no holder of crown lands, but he knew many individuals who were; and he would venture to state, that of all the severe landlords in the country, the crown was the most so. It was provided by law, that they should be let to the highest bidder. The last holder of the lease had the option of taking a renewal at the rate fixed on by a sworn surveyor; but if he refused, it was let by auction. It was impossible to make a lease of the crown lands a matter of favour in any instance. They certainly did not bring in so large a revenue as 40,000l., although he knew that in one of the reports, a hope had been held out that they might ultimately amount to that sum. But the hon. gentleman appeared to forget that a large portion of them consisted of forest land; and it had been recommended by a committee of the House, that the crown lands should be employed in the growth of timber for the use of the navy. The amount of the revenue of the crown lands had, during the last five or six years, been small; but this circumstance was capable of satisfactory explanation. A few years ago it had been thought advisable to appropriate the proceeds of the crown lands to building the new street in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly. The produce of fines and leases had been appropriated to the purchase of the sites of houses in the line of this street. The hon. gentleman might think this an improper mode of applying the money; but it was sanctioned by parliament, and no individual received the smallest advantage from it.

The motion was negatived, and the House resolved itself into the committee of supply.