HC Deb 14 July 1828 vol 19 cc1682-90

The Chancellor of the Exchequer having moved the second reading of this bill,

Mr. Hudson Gurney

rose to present a petition, which had, he said, been put into his hands, signed by upwards of five hundred clerks, in the various public offices, which he begged, previously to the right hon. gentleman's motion, for the second reading of the bill, to recommend to the attention of the House. The allegations of the petitioners were; first, that the measure would be a breach of compact; secondly, that it went to charge on a smaller number now employed, the Superannuations of a greater number of persons, who had been discharged on the reduction of the scale of the establishments; thirdly, that the labour of the reduced establishments, so far from admitting a diminution of their salaries, was now so very great, as rather to give them an equit- able claim for increasing them; fourthly, that the old practice of superannuation was confirmed by reports of this House, in 1786, in 1797, (Mr. Abbot's Report), in 1810, by Mr. Bankes's act, and by a supplementary act, which passed in 1811, when certain large funds, belonging to the clerks of the Customs and Excise, were taken by government, in consideration of the superannuations to which, by Mr. Bankes's act, they became entitled: that: in 1822, the Superannuation act was imposed; but with a clause of restitution to representatives, in case of death, which was omitted in the present bill: that in I the same year, a very great reduction took place, by Treasury minute; the effects of which these gentlemen humbly presume to think have not been sufficiently adverted to in this House; as it not only went to reduction of establishments, but to reduction of salary, and great reductions of prospective advantage.

Mr. Gurney

said, he understood there was one office, where there was an establishment of a hundred and sixty clerks, of whom only seventy-six were now retained: and that seventy-six would, under this bill, be charged their proportion for the superannuation allowances of those who had been dismissed. Under these circumstances, he trusted the right hon. gentleman might be induced to postpone the measure to another session for further inquiry, as it must be quite evident, emanating as it did, from a report of the Finance Committee, only that day put into the hands of the members, that it could not by possibility have received the consideration which a measure, pressing so hard on so large and meritorious a class of public servants, unquestionably merited. Indeed, he could not but greatly regret, in as far as he had yet seen, that the reports of the Finance Committee had gone to the reduction of the fair and reasonable remuneration of those public officers who performed efficient and heavy labour; many of them already with inadequate salaries, instead of having, on a more enlarged view of the financial state of the country, proposed the origination of any measure which had been likely to give any effectual relief. He had been one who had voted in the majority on the question of the Lieutenant-general of the Ordnance, on the statement of those who might be considered best able to judge of the necessity, of the continuance of the office; but he owned he had done it with doubt and regret, when he saw that the recommendation of the Finance Committee had been acceded to, in the unreasonable reduction of the salaries of those officers, who were more unequivocally efficient.

On the whole, he earnestly recommended to the House the case of those gentlemen whose petition he had the honour to present, as extremely worthy of the most weighed consideration, and he did trust the House, or rather the right hon. gentleman, on the part of his majesty's government—for with them it must be evident, the decision must rest—would consent to postpone the bringing in a bill of this nature till the next session, and the more so, as in that interval no great saving could be effected to the country.

Mr. Gurney

said, that in moving that the petition be read, he should wish it to be read at length, and presumed to request the attention of gentlemen to the statement of the parties immediately interested, as that statement would be found much more clear as well as more forcible than any thing that he could offer in its support.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

having withdrawn the motion for the second reading of the bill, the said petition, and also one presented by sir H. Hardinge from the clerks in the Ordnance Department, and one presented by Mr. F. Buxton, from the Clerks in the Excise, were brought up. On the motion, that the bill be read a second time,

Colonel Sibthorp

called the attention of the House to a respectable body of individuals connected with the Hackney-coach-office. Many of them had been upwards of twenty years in that office, and their interests would be materially affected by the operation of this bill.

Mr. Trant

was of opinion, that the measure would inflict great hardship on many deserving individuals.

Mr. H. Davis

expressed himself hostile to the measure. He thought the opinion of Mr. Burke a very just one; namely, that "parsimony was not economy, and that a good servant well paid was the most valuable and the cheapest." He regretted that the Finance Committee should at so late a period of the session have recommended a measure which, if carried, would be injurious to the character of parliament, seeing that the principle was founded in injustice. Every man entered office under an implied contract, that after the lapse of a certain number of years, he would be entitled to a superannuation allowance. Such was the existing law; but the present bill would operate as an ex post facto law, and deprive those who had been long labouring in the public service, of that provision which they had been taught to expect.

Sir R. Wilson

said, that to the operation of the principle prospectively, he had no objection, but he felt a very strong repugnance to its retrospective effect.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he was anxious to state to the House his opinions with reference to this question. He felt that he was placed in a very painful situation, but still he would not shrink from the performance of his duty. The House had appointed a committee for the purpose of revising the expenditure of the country; and that committee had almost unanimously declared, that such a measure as that which he had introduced ought to be carried into effect. Standing in the situation which he had the honour to fill, he should have been charged with a high degree of cowardice, if, after such a recommendation, he had refused to bring the measure before the House. On that account he was prepared to vindicate the bill, and to state the reasons on which the committee had come to their decision. The whole expenditure for the service of the country the committee found to amount to twenty-one millions, and of this five millions were appropriated to the ineffective service, including superannuation, pension, and retired allowances. The committee was anxious not to deprive the country of the active services of those who were engaged in the public departments, and they therefore turned their attention, to consider if it were possible, without any deviation from just principle, prospectively to diminish the expenditure for services that were passed. Of the five millions which the ineffective service of: the country cost, the committee found that nearly half a million was appropriated to the payment of the civil pensions, and this sum had been increased within a few years from 330,000l. to 447,111l. Finding that this sum was increasing so rapidly, they thought it their duty to recommend the measure before the House. He knew that the committee had balanced long between a reduction of the salaries, and this measure of making the officers contribute to their own superannuation. He for one opposed the reduction of salaries; because they had been paid in the year 1821, after the effects of peace had been fully felt, and the measures for restoring the metallic currency had been adopted. It was better, on the whole, he thought, and the least likely to affect the future prospects of the different officers of our civil establishment, to adopt this measure relative to their superannuation, than to alter their salaries. He felt the measure to be particularly severe; and he particularly regretted the necessity to propose it. At the same time, he must state, that the committee were not aware of that peculiarity in the situation of the Clerks of the Ordnance, as it had been represented by their petition. The committee were not aware that they had been regulated in 1825, and stood therefore on a different footing from those clerks whose offices had been regulated in 1821. There might, perhaps, be other gentlemen in a similar situation; and if the House should think it better to go over all the departments, and ascertain that there were no others under the same circumstances, so that the measure could be strictly applied on the principles of the measure of 1821, he should not oppose the decision of the House.

Mr. C. Grant

said, he disliked the bill on account of its retrospective operation, and was still mere opposed to it, because it would bring into action a principle never heard of before; namely, that those who spent their lives in public offices should provide for the wants of their old age out of the salaries which were granted to them as a remuneration for their present labours. It had always been a principle, recognized by the House and by the country, that those who had served the public well should not be deserted by the public in old age, in sickness, or distress. This was a wise, a politic, and a generous principle; and he must say that he did not like the words of the report of this most respectable committee, when they called money applied in accordance to this principle, a loss to the public. Public servants paid a large and usurious interest for the money thus bestowed upon them. With respect to military services, this principle was instantly admitted, and the money was cheerfully applied. And why not with respect to civil services, where there was not only the absence of that fame, and splendor, and renown, which in themselves constituted recompense for military service, but where there was as much intense devotion to the public cause, and as great a sacrifice of health and strength,— nay, even of life, as in military service? To adduce a single instance, he would mention the late Mr. Hill, who might as truly be said to have fallen a victim, to have died in the service of the country, as if he had met his death from the cannon of the enemy. Had they not seen in that House the gradual decay of intense energies engaged in the service of the country—the keeping away, because ill health would not allow of the fatigues, the returning to the labour night after night, the warnings by disease against such continued exertions; and had they not seen those warnings neglected, until the duties could be no longer discharged? It was much too important a question to be decided at the end of a session. It concerned all the civil servants of the government—a valuable class of men, without whose assistance, that government could not be carried on. He rejoiced, therefore, that his right hon. friend was willing to postpone the measure till next session.

Sir H. Parnell

said, that the chancellor of the Exchequer had stated accurately the course of reasoning followed by the Committee of Finance. They found that the charge for superannuation allowances had increased from 94,000l. a year in 1810, to 474,000l. a year in 1827, and that in the last three years the increase had been from 300,000l. a year to 474,000l. This was a progress of expense which seemed to the committee to be a fit subject of retrenchment. It appeared to the committee that all existing salaries were too high. They had been raised considerably some years ago in consequence of the depreciation of money, and now that money was restored to its former value it appeared to the committee that the public had a right to expect a reduction of them. There was no principle more true, nor one which had been more universally recognized by all Finance Committees, than that which laid it down, that the public ought to have its services performed at the least expense that was consistent with the performance of them in an efficient manner. Now, with respect to the salaries given in public offices, whether by making a comparison with what they formerly were, or with the salaries given in commercial establishments, it appeared to the committee that, according to this principle, they ought to be considerably reduced; but instead of recommending such a reduction, the committee took a course more favourable to the clerks, namely, that of proposing to reduce them by a small per centage in the way provided in the act of 1822. He was confident that the clerks had much better consent to this arrangement, than defeat it and thus make it necessary to examine more closely what ought to be the exact reduction which the public interests required to be made.—The argument of his right hon. friend (Mr. Grant) was wholly ex parte: he seemed to regard the clerks as the only body interested in the question: those who paid the taxes for providing the salaries were not taken into his consideration; but it was the duty of the House to watch over their interests—and to take care that no more money was taken from their pockets for salaries than was absolutely necessary. The argument founded on the merits and utility of the clerks would lead to adding to their salaries, if those circumstances alone were held in view. His right hon. friend could make out no case against the bill, unless he could shew that the present salaries were no more than sufficient to give a proper recompense for the services performed—but this he had omitted to do, and this, in point of fact, he could not do. While therefore his right hon. friend made himself believe he was taking a course founded on principle, he made the mistake of not selecting the right principle for governing his opinion.—If his principle was that of generosity towards a deserving class of men; a wholly moral principle, but the Committee of Finance were bound to govern their opinion by principles of Finance, and to take care that the public expenditure in salaries was no larger than the necessity of the case required. The committee were fully sensible how unpleasant and even odious a task it was, to diminish the incomes of individuals who lead a life of great labour, and who are justly deserving of great praise for the manner in which they discharge their duties: but when they compared the salaries of the clerks in the public offices with the incomes which other classes of public servants, and persons in commercial establishments receive for services equally important, and requiring full as much labour and trust, they could not suffer their feelings to induce them to neglect their duty, by allowing the present rates of salaries in the public offices to remain at their present amount. The committee had not permitted the salaries of those persons who fill higher offices to escape their vigilance, for in the only instance in which as yet they have had an opportunity of proposing reductions, they had done so, namely, in recommending the salaries of the principal officers of the Ordnance to be reduced from 1800l. a year to 1200l.

Sir J. Mackintosh

said, there appeared to be two very different views of the question, one of which had been painted by his hon. friend who spoke last, on the side of saving; and the other by the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. C. Grant), on the side of justice; and certainly the term justice might be applied to a case in which no less than three thousand persons were so deeply interested, and whose comfort and respectability depended so much on the turn this measure might take. It was very necessary that this comfort and respectability should be kept up, for it added, in no small degree, to the public welfare; and it was a remarkable thing, that every foreigner who had inquired into the subject had borne testimony to the fact, that there was less divulging of the secrets of office among the public servants of England than in any other state in Europe; and it was equally true, that within the last century there had been much less of fraud and peculation among the officers of the public than in any other kingdom.

Mr. Wilmot Horton

thought that, if there was an intention to do justice to the public clerks, it would be necessary to examine into particular cases; some of which stood on very different grounds from others; and this was one of the reasons why he thought it right for the House to pause before they came to any decision; but at the same time he would take upon himself to say, that a most disagreeable task had been imposed upon the Finance Committee, and it by no means followed that they had been wrong in their execution of it. As far as the measure was prospective, whatever the legislature should resolve upon, would, perhaps, be fair; but it should be remembered, that this bill was also retrogressive in its enactments; besides which it was founded on the bill of 1822, which had been repealed by parliament in 1824. According to his view the proposed measure was neither more nor less than a reduction of the clerks' salaries; and he certainly could not see any detriment to the public service, by the measure being postponed [hear, hear !].

Mr. Robinson

likewise supported the postponement of the measure.

Mr. Courtenay

thought that the Finance Committee had not had time to look into the merits of the subject. He had commenced life as a clerk in a public office, and in that situation he had had opportunities of seeing how business was done. He could not but say that, in some offices, there were some idle men. He considered, that the House ought not to fix the salaries at the minimum for which the labour could be done: if they did so, they could not expect to be either honestly or well served. They should in order to be well served, make the profession of the clerk respectable. He felt convinced that further inquiry was necessary.

The chancellor of the Exchequer then withdrew the bill.