HC Deb 24 March 1828 vol 18 cc1304-10
Sir James Graham

said, he rose for the purpose of requiring some information with respect to the object of a motion which was made by the hon. member for Dorsetshire, between twelve and one o'clock on Saturday morning. The hon. member on that occasion moved for a select committee to inquire into the state of the Public Buildings in the Department of the Office of Works, and into the application of part of the land revenue of the Crown, under certain statutes. He certainly expected, that the hon. member would have stated the reason which led him to institute such an inquiry. His surprise was therefore very great, when the hon. member made his motion, without assigning a single reason for it, or pointing out the precise object which he had in view. He hesitated at the moment, as to whether it was his duty to ask for an explanation; but believing that nothing unsatisfactory would result from the committee, he did not deem it necessary to say any thing in opposition to the motion. But a little reflection had convinced him that it was necessary to come to a right understanding of the motives which had induced the hon. member to move for a committee. He certainly was of opinion, that this subject would naturally come under the inquiry of the Finance Committee, Promises had been made of a reduction of expense in this department; but although those promises had not been kept, yet he believed the public were content to wait for the result of an inquiry, to be instituted by the Finance Committee, with reference to this subject. In those hands he thought the inquiry to which he alluded should have been placed, and he was prepared to contend against any change in the tribunal before which the investigation ought to take place. It would be invidious to anatomize the materials of which the hon. member's select committee was constituted. But he would say, that four of its members, either by the offices they held at present, or by their recent connexion with office, were open to a peremptory challenge, and two of them would stand in a peculiarly strange situation—that of sitting in judgment on their own conduct. The hon. member for Dorsetshire had said, that the committee was not constituted for the purpose of inquiring into the money expenditure, but only into the style of architecture adopted in the repair and erection of palaces, and to consider whether any trees had been improperly cut down by Mr. Nash. He certainly congratulated the hon. member, and the Master of the Mint, on the escape which they had made from the erroneous labours of the Finance Committee, by undertaking what he might call the trifling labours of the Select Committee, for which the hon. member had moved. He, however, feared that the Master of the Mint and the chief commissioner of Woods and Forests, backed by the majority of this committee, would extend the inquiry, and force the committee, against the better judgment of the hon. member and of other gentlemen who were placed on it, to go into the question of expenditure. They might take a glance at that subject, to stifle a more rigorous inquiry before the Finance Committee itself. A favourable report might be given as to the expenditure; and, in consequence of that slight inquiry, the subject might be overlooked by the Finance Committee. Now, he wished to guard against this. He was desirous that the subject should be left in the hands of the Finance Committee, and that it should not hereafter be urged, as a reason for not submitting it to the investigation of the Finance Committee, that an imperfect inquiry had already taken place before an unfit committee. Such a proceeding should not be an obstacle to a fair and full investigation of the expenditure. He stated this fairly, openly, and honestly, because he was anxious to guard himself against that which was not unlikely to occur. Perhaps the hon. member would have the kindness to state what limits were to be laid down for the labours of this Select Committee; and it would be satisfactory also, if ministers would declare what their views of this case were.—Hereafter, he hoped, notwithstanding what might be done by the Select Committee, that the Finance Committee would inquire into the whole question of the Woods and Forests Department, and also into the expenditure of the Crown for the building of palaces.

Mr. Bankes

said, that his reason for not entering into an explanation on the former occasion was, because he was not aware that any was required. As to his having made his motion at so late an hour he could not avoid it: if he had postponed his motion to Monday, it was very doubtful whether he could have brought it forward. After listening with great attention to what had fallen from the hon. baronet, he could not see what the object was for which the hon. baronet wished him to give an answer. The hon. baronet seemed to complain of his having taken a particular subject out of the hands of the Finance Committee. Was the Finance Committee to embrace every subject of inquiry before the House? Was it not competent to every member to take up any particular subject, if he thought it could in any other way be more fairly considered, than it could be before the Finance Committee? Did the hon. baronet know what a mass of business was at present before the Finance Committee. He was not aware that the subject to which his motion referred would come before that committee. He did not think that they would have time to entertain it before the next session. The hon. baronet had objected to the manner in which the committee was constituted, and there seemed to be a sort of oblique insinuation, as if he had moved for the committee, for the purpose of screening some individuals whose conduct was likely to be overhauled in the Finance Committee. Now, what purpose had he to answer—what advantage was he likely to receive in moving for this committee? What benefit would it be to him to screen persons who were guilty? The hon. baronet asked what was the object of the committee? There were two principal views connected with the formation of the committee—one related to the public expenditure, and the other to national taste. Both were fit objects for the consideration of parliament. If they saw a large ex- penditure going on for the purpose of ornamenting the country, surely it was worthy of the House to see that it was applied to proper purposes. It was not, he contended, a trifling or a useless labour, to preserve the character of the country for taste, by bringing those subjects under the consideration of the House. Surely, the subject of their public buildings ought to be brought under the attention of parliament. Before now, buildings demanding a large expenditure had been undertaken wholly unknown to that House, and had never been brought under its notice until a large expense had been incurred. They had known 30,000l. or 40,000l. to be spent, in the first instance, without the cognizance of the House; and then they were obliged to go on and accomplish the work. The House had been kept too much in the dark on this point. Let them look to the Custom-house. No less a work than that had gone on, and the House was not informed of it until the foundations were laid; and they all knew how they were laid. If the Select Committee entertained the question, there was nothing to prevent the Finance Committee from applying themselves to it, as part of the national income. It would be for the Select Committee to consider how far certain works had been proper and necessary, and how far it would be right to put a stop to any of the plans now in progress.

Mr. Arbuthnot

said, that as allusion had been made to him, it became necessary for him to state that he had nothing to do with the formation of this committee; but he would, as head of the Woods and Forests Department, do every thing in his power to give effect to the inquiry. He had no desire to screen himself from any investigation. He had only to ask the committee fairly to do its duty. He should not have been placed in his present office if there had been any thing in his conduct that would not bear the strictest scrutiny. If it were allowable for a man to speak of himself, he would say that twenty-one years ago, he had obtained, not through great connexions, nor by ministerial influence, an income under an act of parliament, fully equal to that which he now possessed. He might also be permitted to observe, that on the present occasion he had not sought for office.

Sir J. Yorke

said, it appeared to him very extraordinary, that, after they had been told that the Finance Committee could not terminate their labours this session, his hon. friend should have subtracted six members from that committee. As to the public buildings, they were certainly a sort of hobby of his hon. friend, and no doubt he presided over the public taste very judiciously, but then his hon. friend had a manner which was directly against economy; for he was in the habit of saying, "I don't like the building you have erected here; take it down, and put up another." He was therefore sorry that there had been no explanation of the reasons for abducting six members from the Finance Committee.

Mr. Bankes

said, that the committee for which he had moved would only sit on two or three days in the week, when the Finance Committee were not sitting.

Mr. R. Colborne

said, that when they saw the encroachments which were daily making upon the park, it was high time that there should be no doubt as to the intention of government. He had seen numbers of trees railed round, and it appeared to him to be intended to cut them down. He thought these were fair objects for the investigation of a committee. The Treasury board had very little leisure to bestow upon such subjects, and he had never known a chancellor of the Exchequer who did not pray to be released from such an addition to his labours. It was, therefore, become absolutely necessary to have a committee of some kind, under whose authority the matter might be fairly investigated, and who might be able to apply some timely check to the present extravagant proceedings. They saw every where extensive and costly buildings erected, as it was supposed, upon regular estimates, but when they were completed it frequently turned out that there had been no estimate at all. Much good might arise from an inquiry. At all events, he deprecated any attempt to take these things out of the hands of a committee, in order to place them under the control of the office of Woods and Forests.

The Hon. G. A. Ellis

said, he wished to take that opportunity of putting a question or two to the first commissioner of Woods and Forests. First, he wished to know whether it was intended to cut down the north row of trees in the Mall in St. James's park? It would be in the recollection of the House, that in answer to a question put last session, it was affirmed, that government would keep to the inten- tion it originally held of not removing those trees. He owned he entertained great doubts upon this subject, from perceiving the railing which had been placed round the trees, and which was a most extensive encroachment. He had, indeed, understood that Mr. Nash, the architect, intended to raise a bank, covered with shrubs, in order to hide the dead wall which was an unseemly object. But, if that were all that was in view, the railing ought to have been on the north side, and the benefit of the shade of the trees given to the public. It was rumoured, too, that Mr. Nash had said that parliament did not sit all the year round, and it would be seen what would be done when parliament was not sitting. The other question he had to ask was, whether there was to be an opening into St. James's park, opposite Waterloo-place? A foot-way entrance here was so evident an improvement, that he should not have put the question if it had not been rumoured that Mr. Nash did not wish there to be any such opening.

Mr. Arbuthnot

denied any responsibility on the score of the execution of the plans for the improvements in the park; for though they were sent to his office, they were proceeded on after he left it. Both from the government and Mr. Nash he had received the most positive assurances, that it was not intended to cut down the trees in the Mall. He did not think it quite fair to talk of encroachments upon the parks. When he had waited upon the king to take his commands upon the plan of improvements, his majesty expressly desired that a carriage road should be opened from Pimlico to Storey's Gate, that the whole of that part of the park where the cattle grazed should be opened to the public. Upon the subject of the foot-way through the buildings at Waterloo-place, it was not in his power to give any answer. He believed there was no such path in the original plans.

Mr. Herries

said, that when a question was put to him last year, he had stated distinctly that it was not the intention to cut down any of the trees, except one which projected so as to interfere with the wall. At that time, the plan shewing the new alterations was before the House; and there was no intention on the part of the Treasury to make any alteration in it. He had even taken the trouble to see the architect; for the purpose of ascertaining if he understood there was any latitude allowed him in carrying the designs into execution, and he had been distinctly informed, that there was no such latitude, nor no intention to alter what was originally proposed. While on his legs, he would allude to the abduction, as it had been called, of some members from the Finance Committee. But he did not think that abduction at all inconsistent or absurd. For, as this part of the public expenditure was to be brought under the consideration of the Finance Committee, that committee would be the better prepared to deal properly with it, if a few of their members were employed in arranging the subject for the consideration of all of them. He did not think any detriment could ensue from the committee being preceded in their labours by the labours of a few gentlemen selected from among themselves. With respect to the word "suspicious," he did not know in what sense the hon. baronet meant to apply it. If the hon. baronet meant to say that because he was connected with government he would take steps to cloak or conceal any part of the system—if the hon. baronet supposed him capable of going into any committee to which he should be appointed by that House, to be instrumental in crushing or misleading the inquiries of such committee, the hon. baronet imputed to him conduct of which he was totally incapable. He would report, as freely as any hon. gentleman not connected with government, and as honestly as the hon. baronet himself would, if he were a member of the commission.

Sir J. Graham

disclaimed any intention to impute improper motives to the two right hon. gentlemen.