HC Deb 13 May 1824 vol 11 cc726-30
Mr. S. Worthy

presented a petition from the Clerks in the civil departments of government, complaining, that against the fair principles of justice, and the conditions under which they were admitted to serve the public, and against the provisions of an act of 1810, they were taxed to the amount of 5 per cent upon their salaries, for contributions towards the Superannuated Fund. The hon. Gentleman supported the petition, and declared the sense which he entertained of the injustice and impolicy of the act of 1822, under which this unequal tax was levied.

Mr. Calcraft

said, he took no blame to himself, as he had done all that he could to prevent the House from adopting the measure. He hoped that government would lose no time in taking off so oppressive a burthen from the shoulders of those who were so little able to bear it.

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, he had never approved of the measure. It was unjust, because it was a particular tax upon particular persons, with whose emoluments government could have no more right to tamper than with those of the army and navy, or any other class of persons. It was also unwise, because it operated to the changing of the tenure upon which the persons so taxed had been accustomed to serve. It went to give them a greater claim to retired allowances, than should ever be allowed to the subordinate clerks of the departments. Now, however, the mischief was done; and he was not prepared to say that he could devise any feasible measure for a substitute; though it would be very agreeable to him to hear that his right hon. friend was prepared with one.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that undoubtedly, it seemed a hardship to control the emoluments of those who were ill enough paid already, considering their merits and services; but, the House must look at the situation in which the question stood. In former times, the pay of the officers arose from fees, much more than from salaries. Those fees were very lucrative, and enabled the holders, by gra- dual promotion to the highest station in each office, to provide for their own retirement on the approach of age and infirmity. There were also minor sinecures at the disposal of government, with which long and useful service was frequently rewarded. Gradually both fees and sinecures were so reduced, that government had not sufficient means for that purpose. The practice then altered to the granting of retired allowances; which certainly did grow to a bulk which justified the interference of parliament. Government being thus reproached, had recourse to the act of 1810, by which it was certainly not intended to convey a prescriptive right to retired allowance. But then each department was left at liberty to settle the retired allowances of its servants, and a new grievance sprung out of this power, especially in the Customs and Excise, which again provoked the attention of parliament, and the enactment of which this petition complained was the result of the whole. It was not exactly the sort of hardship which had been described. The payers had their quid pro quo, in the claim to retirement; and as to the exclusive nature of it, there was a regulation of the very same sort which required contributions from the navy to the chest at Greenwich.

Mr. F. Buxton

said, it seemed very hard, after the reductions which had been made, that those regulations should be continued, by which the clerks were expected to continue their respective services for double the period formerly required, and that all the recompense they received in the way of superannuation allowance, should be from money which they had paid out of their own pockets. He had no connexion whatever with the petitioners, of whom he knew but three, and those only by sight. He trusted that their case would receive the consideration of the government, and that they would be restored to the footing on which they before stood, in 1818.

Mr. Secretary Peel

bore testimony to the ability, integrity, and fidelity of the persons spoken of. At the period of his coming into office as secretary of state, he found that the measure, against the effect of which the present petition was directed, had been agreed upon. He saw that if was intended to operate universally, and he could not, therefore, claim an exemption in favour of those who were to be employed under him. The House would recollect, that it was alone responsible for this measure; which was forced upon the government, and to which they could not object, as it contained a proposition to lower their own salaries.

Mr. Grenfell

said, that the sentiments of the right hon. secretary had his warm concurrence. He had long been of opinion, that the government officers, from the highest to the lowest, were very inadequately paid.

Mr. Watson Taylor

hoped, that the former decision of the House would not be suffered to prejudice the claims of the petitioners; but that justice would be done to a very deserving class of persons, who had endured considerable privation by the measure.

Mr. H. Sumner

said, the regulation had been adopted at a period when a very loud cry had been raised for universal retrenchment. In this and in other instances he thought it had been listened to unwisely and unjustly.

Mr. Hume

said, that the ground upon which the measure had been adopted, was the great increase which had been found in the superannuation list, and the amount of the expense which it brought upon the country. When the measure had been proposed, the late lord Londonderry objected to the clerks in public offices being left without any provision after age should have incapacitated them for further service. Upon that occasion, the House agreed that some provision ought to be made for them, and the regulations alluded to were adopted in consequence. He (Mr. H.) had himself proposed the 14th clause, by which it was provided, that in case of the death of any of these officers before he should be entitled to, or have enjoyed, the superannuated fund, the whole sums that he might have paid should be considered as his personal property, and handed over to his representatives. The superannuation system, therefore, was in the nature of a tontine, and was in no case a benefit to the public, but to the persons by whose contributions it was kept up. He thought the House ought not to suffer itself to be run away with by any fancied liberality, and should be cautious in undoing what had been done on very due deliberation.

Mr. Huskisson

would not have risen, but for the remark made by the hon. member for Aberdeen, respecting the increase in the superannuation list. That such an increase bad taken place at the period to which he alluded, was very true; but nothing could be more easy than to explain the cause by which it was produced. Under the former system which prevailed with respect to government offices, large fees were permitted to be received, and there was a considerable number of small sinecure offices which were at the disposal of those who had the direction of the various departments. These two sources furnished a provision for the clerks, when they were no longer competent to the discharge of their duties. Parliament, however, thought fit to abolish the fees and the offices to which he alluded; but no substitute was then provided for the aged clerks. Those who had the direction of them had the painful alternative of either seeing the public duty ill-performed, or of dismissing those who had once been highly serviceable, without the means of existence at an advanced time of life. It was necessary that they should be removed, and he asked if common humanity did not demand, that some provision should be made for such persons? This would account for the rapid increase of the superannuation list soon after the system was established; and the rapid mortality which followed it was the best proof he could give, that the persons admitted deserved the aid which was afforded them by it. Before it was imputed to the government of that day, that they had been lavish or wasteful in distributing this fund, it should be known, that the average number of years that the persons on the superannuated list had served the public was twenty-nine; and the average stipend was 94l. per annum. He would ask, whether this was a wasteful distribution of the public money? The total amount was a large one, but it had grown out of the circumstances he had explained to the House. Whatever the House might choose to do, he was sure that no persons could be more gratified than himself and his colleagues, if any further reward should be given to the services of those persons, whose merits and fidelity they had a daily opportunity of witnessing.

Sir T. Actand

hoped, that the hon. member for Yorkshire would be encouraged by the favourable reception of the petition, to bring the subject again before the House.

Sir T. Baring

trusted that the prayer of the petition would be agreed to; as he thought that the officers of the Crown were not sufficiently paid.

Mr. T. Wilson

said, he would take his share of the odium which attached to the measure complained of, because he thought at the time it was carried, that the interests of the country required retrenchment in every practicable shape. He should now be no less willing to give the alteration suggested his fullest support, if it should appear expedient.

Mr. Sykes

said, that two years only had elapsed since the House was pursuing a rapid race of retrenchment and economy, and he begged to ask what reason had been given, why they should pursue a contrary extreme? He trusted that the subject would be fully discussed before any alteration was determined on.

Mr. James

said, that when the ministers had taken off all the assessed taxes, he should be glad to concur in the proposal to reward more amply the public officers. Until then, the intended liberality would be ill-timed.

Mr. S. Worthy

intimated, that he should probably, at an early opportunity, introduce the subject in another form.