HC Deb 03 May 1830 vol 24 cc329-40

The Chancellor of the Exchequer moved that the House resolve itself into a Committee of Supply.

The question was put, that the Speaker leave the Chair.

Mr. R. Gordon

said, that any observer of the proceedings of the House, not thoroughly acquainted with its constitution, might sometimes be surprised at the manner in which Members voted away the money of their constituents. Most hon. Gentle-men, when the question of Supply came before them, took their departure, and the few who remained yawned, and exhibited other unequivocal symptoms of weariness, amounting to something very like disgust. The observer, under these circumstances, would find it difficult to reconcile what he saw with that boasted sympathy of the representative with the wants and wishes of the people, which was attributed to the House by its too zealous admirers. He was led to this observation by the sort of official sneer with which the useful labours of the hon. member for Aberdeen were generally greeted, especially on a recent occasion, when he was almost censured for his activity—just as if activity in relieving the public burthens was not the most important duty of the Members of that House, and was to be construed into an imputation. But how the Estimates could be properly-investigated without patience and activity on the part of the Representatives of the people he did not know. Finance was certainly not a very inviting subject—it was difficult to frame an amusing argument upon questions of two and two; figures of rhetoric had little connection with figures of arithmetic; trope, figure, and metaphor, did not accord well with pounds, shillings, and pence, and eloquence never harmonized with calculations. Hence it always happened and would then happen, did he consent to the Speaker leaving the Chair, that the Estimates were usually discussed and examined by a select few: the same instances of abuse were quoted, and the same explanations offered, year after year, with as little advantage in the last as in the first. Over and over again it had been recommended that Ministers should recast the Estimates during the Recess, and over and over again they had politely stated that they would attend to the recommendation. This course would, no doubt, be adopted in the present Session; but as soon as it was at an end, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be sure to forget his promise, and next Session all would remain to be done over again, in the very same way in which it had been so often done before—the same financial farce would be repeated by the same actors, and probably with little variation in the parts. He therefore requested those who heard him to pause, in, order to consider whether it would not be a much wiser course to refer the Estimates to a Select Committee, by which they might be deliberately examined, if necessary, with the assistance and explanation of oral evidence. As it might be required of him to state some case, in order to show the necessity of such a proceeding, he would notice a few of the items in the Estimates; not because he would say, ex his disce omnes, but because he wished to show that there was some ground for further inquiry. He would take the first item of the first page of the Miscellaneous Estimates—"Public Works"—for which the sum of 32,000l. was now required, when only 28,000l. was asked last year. Thus in this happy year of retrenchment, economy, and relief from taxation, 4,000l. more were demanded than last year. Such an addition might perhaps be justified, and it might be described as intended to promote the national advantage, but the present was not a time to consider what was advantageous, or even what was useful, but what was necessary: and the point of absolute necessity ought always to be established before a single shilling was voted. An account had been laid before the Finance Committee of the charge for Public Works for three years—1803, 1828, and 1829.

In 1803 it was £40,000
In 1828 27,000
In 1829 28,000
and yet at this moment the sum was swelled to 32,000l. This was one item on which explanation ought to be given before a committee. Another circumstance deserved notice; a Return had been made of all houses or apartments occupied at the public expense, as the residences of public officers, &c. and the House would be surprised to hear, that including repairing, furnishing, &c. it amounted, in five years, to no less a sum than 125,688l. This was another item which he thought the people would not be grievously dissatisfied to see explained. Reverting to the head of Public Works, he might remark, that our national buildings were not remarkable for their good taste; it could not be said that they were ornamental as well as expensive; in fact, there was not a city of the world which was so disgraced as the metropolis of this country, both by the edifices themselves, and the silly cost at which deformity was purchased. Passing over the Estimates for the Harbours of Portpatrick, Donaghadee, and George 4th leaving these subjects to his hon. friend behind him, he would refer briefly to the expenditure for Windsor Castle. He was aware of the difficulty of dealing with that subject but he was also convinced that no one shewed more urgently the necessity of further investigation. The repairs had been commenced when what was called a God-send had been received from Austria, and Ministers really did not know what to do with the money. It was resolved, however, to apply part to the building of churches, and part to the repair of palaces; and 300,000l. were appropriated to Windsor Castle. It was then more than hinted that a larger sum than that would not be expended; and Lord Goderich, then Chancellor of the Exchequer said, that "He had no hesitation in saying that nothing was contemplated, or could reasonably be contemplated, with regard to Windsor Castle, which would cause the expense to go beyond 300,000l." When Lord Farnborough, then Sir Charles Long, was asked how it was possible to control the outlay, he had replied, that nothing was more easy, as it would be the duty of the architect to bring his estimate within a specified sum. What was the result? The original estimate of 300,000l. was first increased to 500,000l., and afterwards to 644,000l.; and in the year 1828, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer had observed, that 50,000l. more would be necessary to complete the undertaking. In the year 1829, Parliament was called upon to vote 800,000l. for the furniture and improvements of Windsor Castle. They were now called on for 900,000l., which was triple the original estimate, though Lord Goderich told them, at the time he made his motion in that House upon the subject, that he could not contemplate the possibility of increase. But that vote would not be the last, for it had been stated in the Finance Committee, that the sum required to make Windsor Castle a fit residence for the Monarchs of England would be 1,200,000l. Did not that, then, supply ground for minute and instant inquiry by a committee up stairs? He believed there were not many Members in that House, who allowed themselves to think, who did not feel the necessity of an inquiry. He would then proceed to the third point—the building of Churches in the West Indies. In the year 1827, 8,000l. was voted: in 1828—annus mirabilis—only 2,500l; in 1829, 5,000l. was granted; and in 1830, 6,000l. was proposed to be granted; that was another case which he conceived called for inquiry. He now proposed to come to No. 2—the deficiency of fees. His hon. friend, the member for Aberdeen had often called the attention of the House to the subject, and the Finance Committee had also done something, but not enough. In the year 1827 the fees of the Home Office amounted to 20,000l.the Foreign Office amounted to 8,000l.—those of the Colonial amounted to 3,700l.; these items were added together, and the sum divided. Now that, he thought, was an unfair and unjust arrangement, and one which he conceived required revision, and ought to come under the consideration of a committee. With No. 3 he would allow the Government to do as they pleased, with one exception—the Refuge for the Destitute; the charge for that was indeed only 3,000l. for the present year, but it had been 4,000l. and 5,000l. He did not quarrel with the institution, but he objected to its being supported at the expense of Government. It was generally found, when any establishment was supported for a time by voluntary subscription, that as soon as Government came to its aid with public grants, then private subscriptions began to fall off. The case of the Irish charitable institutions afforded the most striking confirmation of that assertion. No. 4 contained a most melancholy list, not one of the items of which ought to be passed over without a minute inquiry—every one of them deserving the most serious and deliberate attention. He could not go through all the particulars; did he attempt to do so he should only weary the House, but he thought that very circumstance afforded the strongest evidence that a Committee of Inquiry was demanded. There were the expenses of captured negroes, of commissioners for preventing an illegal traffic in slaves, of special commissions, and of Consuls-general to the new Stales of South America, all included in this list. To most of the items he should only allude thus generally; but the consular system, which was now placed upon a new footing, deserved some remarks. Instead of being paid, as heretofore, by fees, salaries were given to the Consuls, and for this purpose the sum of.30,000l. was demanded. Up to the year 1826 the total amount for Consuls was 49,000l.; it had since been increased, and it now was three times that amount. How long that system would go on it was not for him to determine; but he thought the statement of the fact strengthened the reasons he had already urged in favour of a Committee of Inquiry. Every person with whom he had communicated, preferred the old system to the new one, because it insured the despatch of business. The new system was adopted because the fees were in some cases enormous; but the proper plan would have been to regulate the fees. He now came to the last paper; he rejoiced that he had done so, and he had no doubt that the House would rejoice at that circumstance too. No. 5 involved the question how far the Colonies ought to pay their own expenses, at what time Sierra Leone should be abandoned, and various other questions of that kind; and he therefore wished to decline entering into any discussion about the Colonies; but the reasons which weighed with him in coming to that resolution, were the very reasons why a committee should be granted. The next point he should refer to, was the grant to the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts. In 1814, the grant was 3,600l. and from that period to the present it had gradually increased, until the grant now before the House amounted to 16,182l.; and the whole sum paid during a period of sixteen years was not less than 200,000l. for the propagation of Christian knowledge in foreign countries, and chiefly in our own Colonies. He objected to this the more particularly, because the established reformed religion was not, in many of our Colonies, the predominant religion, but the very reverse. Looking through the whole of those items, it was not to be questioned that they were such as demanded a Committee of Inquiry. Was such a course without precedents? Quite the contrary, numerous precedents might be found in its favour. A committee had been appointed to examine the Irish Estimates; why not the English?—the case was as strong for the one as for the other. This he knew, that when the committee did go into the Irish Estimates, jobs were discovered of which the Ministers themselves had not the slightest notion. He appealed to such of his Majesty's Ministers as were members of that committee, than whom, he cheerfully confessed, he never knew honester or more zealous members of a Committee. He appealed also to the Noble Lord who was chairman of that committee, if his statements on the subject were not well founded with respect to the extraordinary jobs discovered through the industry of the members of that committee? It had been suggested to him not to take the division on the general question of the appointment of a committee; neither did he propose to divide the House affirmatively or negatively with respect to particular votes, but when each in succession came before the committee, he intended to move its postponement, with a view to the whole being referred to a committee up stairs. He would not trouble the House then with any further observations, but he would call upon hon. Members, to ask themselves how they proposed to face their constituents, if they did not vote for inquiry into the Miscellaneous Estimates? The hon. and learned member for Clare whispered "Such of them as have constituents," which was a proper limitation. There was much justice in the remark, for many of them had no constituents, and it was to be observed that many of the supporters of his Majesty's Government were amongst the number of those who had none. Nothing could be more true than that amongst those supporters there was a sad scarcity of Members who had constituents. The hon. member for Westminster had called the present a good weak Government. But let it be good or let it be weak on this occasion, he did not care a farthing for the principle, so long as it acquiesced in the proposal he had made.

Lord Rancliffe

said, he would support the hon. Member in objecting to the items he had mentioned.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that his hon. friend had gone so much into details, that he thought it would be better to answer his observations on each item, as it came before the Committee.

Lord Althorp

concurred in the observations of his hon. friend, and thought that the principle upon which Government proceeded was wrong. Public works, if they were really required, ought to be carried into effect at once, and not executed piece-meal, from a false economy; on the contrary, if they were not required, they ought never to be commenced under any pretence whatever. By not attending to these principles, immense sums had been wasted. The Breakwater at Plymouth—a really useful undertaking—had, by being carried on through so long a period of time, been made unnecessarily expensive to the public. He agreed with the hon. Gentleman that it would be better to allow the House to go into a committee, postponing such items as were objectionable, for the purpose of its being examined into by a committee up stairs.

Sir John Newport

said, that he also concurred in the propriety of first going into a Committee of Supply, and then, referring every item of the Estimates that was in the least objectionable to a committee up stairs. The House had been repeatedly drawn into voting money, under the idea of doing things by degrees; and the consequence had been, that the extent of the work had turned out much greater than the House had any right to expect. Another strong ground of objection was, that money was frequently disbursed before any proposal whatever had been brought before Parliament. This had been very much the case with respect to the works of Canada, which had been carried on to an immense extent before Parliament heard anything about them. In other times suck conduct would have subjected Ministers to the severe censure of the House.

Mr. O'Connell

complained of the very heavy charges incurred in some of those Estimates. At a time when taxation was reduced in England, but when it was increased in Ireland, when great distress prevailed in that country, and was every day becoming more severely felt, it was intolerable that a sum of 160,000l. should be asked for works in Canada, and 100,000l. in addition to former grants for Windsor; while at the same time upwards of 300,000l. increased taxes were levied on Ireland. Under these circumstances, he would appeal to the House whether these Estimates ought to be voted without previous examination.

Mr. Hume

was of opinion, that a Committee of Supply was not the place for entering into the facts of a case; one assertion was always met by another, and nothing further could be got at. He contended that the sums proposed to be voted under the heads of the five numbers now to be submitted to the Committee, amounting to 1,625,000l., were grossly extravagant. The noble Lord had stated that the objectionable votes ought to be set aside and referred to a committee. He considered every one of those votes objectionable, and would have the whole of them set aside for examination. Last year, the Miscellaneous Estimates amounted to two Bullions and a half, which before the French war would have covered half the expenses of the country, with the exception of the interest of the Debt. The Civil Estimates appeared to him to be as extravagant as the Military, and he therefore contended that both ought to go to a committee up stairs. He thought the example set in this respect by the United States of America was worthy of imitation,—that of referring every estimate for a public work to a select committee before it was submitted to the legislature for adoption. The select committee had power to examine all documents, and the officers by whom the work was to be executed, and the result was, that no works were carried on which were not proved to be of great public utility. Here, however, an expense of nine millions and a half, under the Duke of Richmond, had been incurred, when it was not expected that the charge would have been one million. So at Sheerness, in the building of the Arsenal, a vast deal of money had been spent to no effect—or, as he should call it, wasted. Let the House sec what was the result of this difference of attention to the public expenditure. The United States, in 1817, had a debt of from 90 to 100 millions of dollars, of which, by good management, they had since nearly cleared off the whole, so that in two years they would be free from debt; but since 1817, our National Debt had remained unreduced. In his opinion, the whole Estimates ought to be divided into sixteen or twenty parts, for as many committees, in order that the House might have the benefit of their inquiries. At present the whole ceremony was a perfect farce, and it was a mere mockery to say that money was conscientiously voted. On occasions when such enormous sums were granted, it was difficult to obtain as many county Members as were present that evening, to vote about a mere private harbour bill. The fact was, that little or no attention was paid by the majority of the House to matters of public expenditure. Members took the items as Ministers proposed them, and it was not owing to the care of the representatives of the people that the expenses of the Government were not still greater. The country Gentlemen, who had the greatest influence in the House, were for the most part careless on such matters, and seemed to think little of their constituents. There were a few Members who endeavoured to obtain reduction, but of what avail were their exertions when the landed interest, which ruled that House, did not support them in their efforts? He hoped, as there would soon be a new election—[Cries of "Order".] He was quite in order. It was the hon. Member who cried "Order" who was disorderly. He was perfectly justified in alluding to a new election. We were now in the fifth year of a Parliament, which it was known was seldom allowed to sit longer than six years, and on an average not five; but come when the election might,—if that would suit the hon. Member better,—he hoped that those constituents whose interests were now neg- lected would bear in mind the conduct of their present representatives with respect to the expenditure of the country. After again pressing the advantage of previous inquiry on the Estimates, the hon. Member observed, that he would not oppose going into the Committee of the whole House, but he would object to every vote which he thought extravagant.

Sir M. W. Ridley

could not consent to the proposition of sending the Estimates to a select committee up stairs, because he thought the responsibility of Ministers ought not to be thus delegated to a body of men who were not responsible. Where inquiry was shown to be necessary on a particular vote he would not object, but he was opposed to the principle of sending the whole Estimates for inquiry, which ought to be presented to the House on the responsibility of Ministers. He was not disposed to follow the example of America, for from what he heard of the proceedings with respect to public works there, he was not disposed to think them very free from jobbing and corruption.

Colonel Davies

would be glad if his hon. friend (Sir M. W. Ridley) would point out any one instance of practical responsibility on the part of Ministers. Let the House look at the whole conduct of Government—at its foreign and domestic policy, carried on against the opinions of the people,—at Ministers coming down to that House, proposing and carrying any measure they pleased,—at their disregard for the recommendations of committees, and their continuance of appointments of which those committees had recommended the abolition—and then say what became of responsibility. When they thought themselves weak, then, indeed, they were all candour and deference to the opinion of the public; but when they saw any symptoms of division or doubt in their adversaries, then they speedily assumed again their tone of arrogance and defiance. Let them only look at the Lieutenant-generalcy of the Ordnance. Twice had a Committee recommended the abolition of that office, and still was it kept up, though he had no hesitation in pronouncing it a most gross job.

The House then went into the Committee of Supply.

Mr. G. Dawson

said, before addressing the Committee relative to the items which he should have the honour to propose to them, he would make a few remarks on what had fallen from his hon. friend (Mr. R. Gordon.) In the first place he had complained that those who opposed themselves to the Ministry were sneered at. Now he thought that the hon. member for Mont-rose himself must admit that that was not the case. He therefore abjured the insinuation that had been thrown out. With respect to his intended motion, to refer the Estimates to a Committee up stairs, he had laid us little ground for its adoption, and given as few reasons in its support, as he had ever heard for any proposition in that House. He for one would oppose it, because he concurred with the hon. member for Newcastle, that to send Estimates to a committee up stairs would be to give up the responsibility of Ministers; and if he had had any doubt on the subject, it would have been removed by his experience of what took place in the committee on the Irish Estimates, for he saw on that occasion that the items were not examined with half the care with which they would have been considered in a Committee of Supply. He was surprised at the want of accuracy of his hon. friend in some of the statements which he had made. He stated that in the first item of Estimate No. 1, the charge for repairs of public buildings, furniture for public offices, &c., there was an increase of 4,500l. since last year, and on this he laid great stress. He was surprised at this want of accuracy in his hon. friend. The vote was 32,575l. this year, but there was no increase from the last year's Estimate. He had not the Estimate of last year by him, but he had the Act of Appropriation, in which the sum was given.

Mr. R. Gordon

, interrupting the hon. Member, said, that to save him trouble, he would state, that he was right as to the increase, but was mistaken as to the date. He should have said increased in 1829, as compared with 1828.

Mr. G. Dawson

would state the cause of that difference: the increase over the Estimate of 1828 was from having added the amount of taxes for paving and lighting and watching the different public-offices and houses of Parliament. In reference to these objections, it was only due to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer to state, that since his accession to office, no public work had been undertaken of which an estimate was not previously made, in order to form a judgment as to the expenditure it was likely to induce. Since the year 1824, the Miscellaneous Estimates had been gradually declining in amount, and they did not now exceed 1,935,000l., in all, being a decrease of 310,000l. on those of 1829. The hon. Gentleman concluded, by moving that a sum not exceeding 32,575l. be granted to his Majesty for repairs, &c. of public buildings, for furniture, &c. for the various public-offices and departments, and for certain charges for Lighting, Watching, &c. defrayed by the Office of Works, for the year 1830."

Mr. R. Gordon

said, he could only repeat the statement he had already made, which was correct in every particular but one. He should have taken the year 1828 instead of 1829. The item ought certainly to be referred to a committee above stairs.

Mr. Dawson

observed, that a saving in respect to furniture for public-offices, and repairs amounting to 12,000l., had been made in the Miscellaneous Estimates of this year.

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