HC Deb 21 March 1825 vol 12 cc1090-7

The House resolved itself into a committee of Supply. On the resolution "That 160,000l. be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge of Civil Contingencies, for the year 1825,"

Mr. Hume

observed, that this grant was one of those which the committee generally voted on the credit of the minister, and on which members were obliged to confine their comments, rather to the expenditure of the past than to the estimate of the coming year. On looking at our diplomatic expenditure, of which part came under this grant, he was compelled to say, that it far exceeded what the country required. The country could not be aware of the sums which it annually paid to its residents at foreign courts: if it were, he was sure there would be a loud demand for its diminution. He could see a reason why it was formerly necessary for this country to have a resident at the different courts of the petty sovereigns of Germany; but he could see no reason why we should not withdraw them at present; since it was notorious, that those sovereigns had now no will of their own, but merely moved as the holy alliance pleased to direct them. Our diplomatic expenditure for the present year amounted to 300,000l. Now, for this extravagant expenditure we had no balance, no return; and therefore it was, that he called upon the committee to examine into its details. If, in 1816, when it was proposed to bring within bounds the diplomatic expenditure of the country, any one had said that the same rate of expenditure would be continued for five or six years longer, no body would have credited the assertion; and yet, such had actually been the case; for in the last seven years we had expended 2,060,000l. in payment of our ambassadors alone. Surely, some mode of retrenching this expenditure ought to be devised, in order to rid the country of some of the vexatious taxes which pressed so heavily on individuals. He complained of the manner in which the accounts of the diplomatic expenditure were intermingled with those of other departments of the state. For instance, in one class of the civil list, 226,000l. was annually charged for the expenses of our ambassadors. Now, in addition to this sum, bills were annually sent in from each of our residents, which readied a most unwarrantable amount. In 1792, they were but 5,900l. In 1818, they had reached 27,000l.; but, in the last year, they had reached the extraordinary sum of 80,000l. So that our diplomatic expenditure at present amounted to somewhere about 312,000l.; and this, too, exclusively of the 60,000l. which was now wanted for the establishments of our different consuls in South America. He had no hesitation in saying, that our diplomacy for the current year would, in some way or other, cost us 400,000l. He contended, that the right hon. Secretary for Foreign Affairs would consult the interest of the public, by withdrawing our ministers from the petty states of Germany. A fund would thus be created for defraying the expenses of our new diplomatic relations with South America; which, if they were not so defrayed, must ultimately become a burthen upon the country.

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, that the House had, in the year 1816, minutely examined the whole diplomatic branch of the public expenditure, and laid down a scale for its future arrangement. It was therefore by the result of that investigation that they ought to judge of the present establishment. He could assure the House, that he had guided himself by the scale then laid down, in all his arrangements, and had endeavoured, as much as possible, to make such retrenchments as could be made consistently with the public exigencies. With reference to the expense of the different public missions to South America, that was a completely new subject—one of such large extent, and as yet so unexplored, that it was premature to call upon him, either to say, whether any given sum in the shape of a vote should be deemed the utmost extent which the public would be called on to pay, or whether there might be a possibility of diminishing any of the missions already established among those new governments. He could, however, assure the hon. member, that he had carefully examined the allowances given in this branch of the public service, and was of opinion that they might be considered as regulated rather below than above the fair principle of remuneration. It was, he thought, quite clear, with reference to these new governments, that, if this country was disposed to encourage a close connexion with them, we must be prepared to meet the necessary burthens of the new expenditure arising out of such closer connexion. It was, however, as he had already said, a new and unexamined part of the public expenditure at present. As to what the hon. gentleman had said of seeking to defray the expense of this new part of the public service, by a retrenchment out of the diplomatic missions among the smaller states of Europe, he was quite surprised at such a proposition. The hon. gentleman must feel, that, in many of these missions to the smaller powers, there was involved a larger question than the mere expense of diplomacy, which would retard any wish of abandoning the subsisting diplomatic connexion with the minor courts. It was surprising to hear such a wish hinted from the hon. member; who was always the advocate of preserving the independence of this part of the lesser European confederacy, by the aid of British influence. Such a retrenchment as the hon. gentleman had alluded to, would amount, if carried into effect, to an abandonment of public duty. Indeed, he thought that the good-will of those powers was well purchased by the comparatively trifling expense of the diplomatic establishments which it had been their policy to maintain in them; and he could assure the hon. gentleman, that in the three instances in which he had reduced the expense of these missions, it had cost the British government great pains to convince the courts where reductions had taken effect, that it was not thereby intended to lower them in the estimation of Great Britain, or of the other larger states in Europe. With respect to the Paris mission, he was entirely confident, that the late ambassador would have been unable, without the aid of his private property, to have sustained the dignity of his diplomatic station out of the allowances which were assigned by the government for his use; and as to the present ambassador, with whose private affairs he was better acquainted, he could assure the hon. gentleman, that that noble lord would feel himself perfectly satisfied, if in addition to his allowance of 11,000l., he had not one half as much more, perhaps entirely as much more, to supply from his private fortune. He agreed in the propriety of selecting men of independent fortunes to fill such high offices; but he would add, that they ought not, by undue reductions, to make those offices unfit for others who might be called, without such private advantages, into the service of their country. He thought it was most desirable that the sovereign should be enabled to select the men best qualified to discharge those duties, without reference to accidental advantages, and always to have the office placed upon that proper scale, which would enable such persons to perform its functions in a becoming and honourable manner. He repeated, that he had always endeavoured to regulate this department with reference to the scale agreed upon in 1816; but he must say, that he did not think the mere mention of particular sums in its expenditure, with a circumscribed reference to particular and evanescent circumstances, was the proper way in which the country ought to estimate such matters, either with justice to the individuals, or with reference to the honour and utility of the public service.

Mr. Hume

said, there was another item to which he wished to call the attention of his majesty's government. He alluded to the item of 8,247l. for paying the expenses of the Spanish commission for investigating the claims of British merchants. Where were those commissioners? and what had they done?

Mr. Canning

said, that though he could not, perhaps, give as satisfactory an account of the progress of these commissioners as might be wished, yet he hoped he could explain both the nature and propriety, as well as necessity, of their appointment. Among other concessions which it had been found difficult to obtain from Spain, there was one that always had been of most difficult persuasion — namely, the tender of pecuniary compensation. It would be recollected, that a few years ago, many British ship-owners had incurred heavy losses, by captures made upon them by Spanish subjects, contrary to the law of nations. They naturally solicited the protection of their own government to obtain redress, and various applications had, in consequence, been made to the then Spanish authorities. After this course had been duly taken, and no proper redress afforded, the government felt itself called upon to issue an order to the British commander-in-chief on the West-India station, to make reprisals upon the commerce of the Spanish islands, to the amount of the British claimants; but it was thought reasonable, when this order was issued, and before it was carried into execution, that the government of Spain should be informed of the fact, before summary measures of redress were resorted to. This led to a further negotiation: in the first stage of which, the Spanish government conceded an acknowledgment of the principle of the British claims, and abandoned that denial of justice which was their previous ground. The matter was then referred, upon the admission of the principle, to a convention, which was to inquire into the specific extent of the losses, for the purpose of their eventual liquidation. During the preliminary proceedings, and before this convention was in progress of execution, the Spanish government underwent a change, and the king of Spain upon his restoration, annulled all the acts of the preceding government; but, subsequently, this single convention was again recognized: indeed, it was the only act of his predecessors which his Spanish majesty had admitted. The convention being thus resumed, the commissioners went to work, but slowly, from the peculiar circumstances under which they had to act. Months were lost before the king of Spain had appointed new commissioners; and he was sorry to say, that, even during the last year, the Spanish commissioners had been changed no less than three times. Notwithstanding these impediments to the execution of the convention, he was glad to state, that of the claims of Brit- ish merchants, estimated at upwards of 400,000l., nearly 200,000l. had been investigated and admitted, by the Spanish authorities—he wished he could add, paid; but money was not easily obtained of late in that quarter. That the whole of the claims would be acknowledged he had no doubt, and he did not absolutely despair of their ultimate adjustment. This object had never been lost sight of by the British government; and had been retarded owing to the untoward circumstances which he had already explained. As to the expenses of the commissioners, they would not be ultimately defrayed by the public generally, but by a per centage levied upon the amount of claims, which was the object of the investigation.

Mr. Hume

objected to the grant of 1,034l. to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, for cleaning and taking care of the monuments in that cathedral. He would submit to the committee, whether there was any possible pretence for making such a grant. The pretensions put forth by the Chapter were certainly of the most extraordinary description. They held, that they had a right to dispose of whatever monuments were placed in the cathedral. The public, for great national objects, had thought it advisable to expend some hundred thousand pounds in the erection of monuments to the memory of those who had achieved great actions, and had devoted themselves to the interests of the country, and the Chapter of St. Paul's arrogated to themselves the right of doing with the national monuments whatever their prejudices, their caprices, or their sordid interests might dictate. The pretensions of this body were certainly most modest. They would not admit that these national monuments, paid for out of the national funds, were in any respect public property; and assuming a right of ownership, they would not allow the public to see them, without paying a fee of admission. The contempt and indignation of the whole country at this paltry and arrogant conduct, had been expressed in every shape, by the press and otherwise; and as the public feeling had not, in the slightest manner, affected the conduct of the Chapter, he would take the sense of the committee upon this grant. He trusted, that the chancellor of the Exchequer would explain the grounds upon which the Chapter presumed to lay such a tax upon the community, and to what fund or account that tax was carried. Whatever might be the amount of this imposition, the principle of it was most odious, and reflected the greatest disgrace upon the body that levied it, and upon the government that permitted the imposition.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

expressed himself unable to account precisely for the application of this levy upon the public. It was incumbent upon the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's to maintain that cathedral in repair, and the keeping of such a building in repair was no small expense. Lately, the building had undergone considerable repair, and from its altitude, it might be conceived that the expense had been considerable. The charge of cleaning and keeping in good condition the numerous monuments in that public edifice was very large. It did seem to him, that the monuments of the country, placed in the great national cathedral in consequence of addresses to the throne, to commemorate splendid actions, ought to be open to the public at large; otherwise the very object of erecting them was defeated. At the same time it was not proper, because such monuments were placed in St. Paul's, that the Dean and Chapter should have imposed upon them the expense of keeping them in repair. However, he was not bound to be responsible for the manner in which the Dean and Chapter exercised their duty; and certainly he was very little inclined to take upon himself any such responsibility for their conduct with relation to the present subject. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster were bound to maintain the Abbey in a proper state; but he was very far from asserting, that they gave to the public the necessary facilities in viewing either the edifice or its monuments. He was aware that very serious complaints had been made in every direction upon this subject, and he was compelled to say, that when he had visited the cathedral with a view of looking at the national monuments, the exhibition had been conducted very carelessly, and in a manner that reflected no honour upon those who had the control of the arrangements. The whole system, at both cathedrals, was conducted in a manner that he by no means approved of: but he did not see that he had any power to require the Dean and Chapter either to reduce their fees, or to alter their management.

Mr. Hume

was happy to hear so well-deserved a chastisement bestowed upon the avarice of the Dean and Chapter. The explanation of the right hon. gentleman was not sufficient. They had ample revenues to keep up the church, allowances far beyond the intentions of the founders of any such buildings in any Christian community. They were literally wallowing in wealth. Why should the public be burthened with charges, on account of so rich a body of men?

Mr. W. Smith

said, it was indeed high time to take up this subject of the exhibition of public monuments in a more serious way; and, if no other way offered, he advised that it should be done by a committee of the House.

Sir J. Sebright

stated, that, whenever he had conducted foreigners through these splendid buildings, in order to shew them the monuments, so honourable to the country, he had felt thoroughly ashamed at the principle of pecuniary exaction established by the Dean and Chapter, and equally mortified at the whole system upon which these national exhibitions were conducted.

Mr. Hume

observed, that as the chancellor of the Exchequer had the power of putting a stop to the abuse by withholding the grant of the public money, his inserting this sum in the vote, was a proof that he encouraged the practice of an abuse, which he could not defend in the House.

The several resolutions were agreed to.