HC Deb 27 May 1830 vol 24 cc1148-55

A Message was brought down from the Lords, stating that their Lordships had passed a Bill, intitled "An Act to enable his Majesty to appoint certain persons to affix the Royal Signature to instruments requiring such signature," in which they desired the concurrence of the House of Commons.

Sir R. Peel

said—"Sir, in moving the first reading of a Bill intended to make a temporary provision for enabling his Majesty to affix his Royal Signature to those public instruments which require that formality, I must repeat, in concurrence, I am sure, with the unanimous feeling of the House, and of this nation, my deep regret at the circumstances which have rendered this application to Parliament necessary. It is, as his Majesty has informed the House by his gracious Message, on account of the indisposition under which he is labouring, painful and inconvenient to the King to attach his sign manual to the multitude of official instruments which require the Royal Signature to give them validity. I must at the same time state that, under all circumstances, when application has been made to his Majesty for his signature to any instrument, the completion of which was necessary to the public service, particularly instruments connected with the administration of justice and pardons, when it was thought fit to extend mercy to those who had received a penal sentence; on all such occasions, whatever pain or in- convenience affixing the Signature might have subjected the King to, his Majesty never suffered those considerations to stand in the way of his desire to facilitate the administration of justice, or to exercise his Royal prerogative of mercy, and to forward the due execution of the public service. I am sure that this House is animated by a unanimous desire to spare his Majesty the pain and inconvenience, if measures can be devised to effect that object consistently with the due discharge of the public service. I hope, consistently with that object, and with the prevention of all detriment or fear of injury to the public service, that the measure which is now introduced, is likely to be satisfactory. The present Bill provides that his Majesty may, by his Royal warrant or commission, to be signed with the sign manual, appoint one or more persons to attach a stamp to those instruments which require the Royal Signature. That stamp will be provided under the direction of the Lord President of the Council. There will be two stamps; one of which will bear the words 'George R.,' and the other, 'G. R.,' the initials only, for such instruments as are usually signed in that way. The Bill provides that the persons so empowered to affix this stamp, shall not be authorised to affix it to any instrument without a memorandum, specifying the nature of the instrument, and bearing the signature of at least three out of seven officers of State, who are named to be responsible for its application. Of those seven signatures, three, at least, must be attached to every instrument, as a certificate of its authenticity. The seven persons so appointed are the-Lord Chancellor, the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Privy Seal, the First Lord of the Treasury, and the three principal Secretaries of State. There is a provision in the Bill that no one of these seven officers so appointed shall act alone; and, in order to guard against the possibility or the supposition of any possible fraud, an oath is provided by the Bill, to be taken by the parties by whom the stamp is to be affixed. The stamp can only be affixed by the King's express command, and in the presence of his Majesty, and the party affixing it must attest by his own signature, that the stamp has been affixed by his Majesty's express command, and in the presence of his Majesty. These are the conditions which accompany the passing of this Bill. However temporary it may be in its duration—for it is proposed to limit the Bill to the end of this Session—and God grant that it may not be necessary to extend it longer—but in case it should become necessary to continue it for a longer time, then there will be a necessity of bringing the measure again under the consideration of the House; so that every caution possible has been used in this case. It is right that it should be so, because we must bear in mind that we are establishing a precedent which may be appealed to on future occasions. There is one other provision which I omitted to notice—namely, an express enactment that his Majesty may, at any time, attach his sign manual in the ordinary way to any instrument when he sees fit and convenient, and that such signature shall have the ordinary operation, notwithstanding the concurrent power given to attach the Signature in the other manner. His Majesty will, therefore, if he sees fit, exercise his Royal prerogative with his own hand. There have been various instances in the former history of this country, of the Royal Signature being attached in the manner proposed by this Bill. In the reign of Henry 8th more than one commission was issued, empowering persons to apply a stamp, instead of the Royal Signature or initials, and giving it equal validity with the Royal sign manual. In the reign of Queen Mary, also, the same power was given by Royal commission; and it is also recorded, on the authority of Bishop Burnett, that, in the reign of King William, a stamp was applied in a similar manner. But although there exist all these various precedents for devolving to individuals the power of affixing a stamp, by the authority of the sign manual, we have thought it the safer course to apply to Parliament in this way for its sanction. I could enter into a more detailed explanation if it were necessary, but from the circumstances under which this measure is proposed, from its temporary duration, and the caution with which it is surrounded, I should hope that the House will be unanimous in the desire to afford his Majesty this accommodation. It will be felt that it is extremely desirable that the measure should be passed with as little delay as possible, particularly on account of those public instruments which would now be pressing for signature, if it were not for the pain and inconvenience which the operation causes to his Majesty. At the same time I propose, that we should see the provisions of the Bill in print before it is finally carried. I shall move that it should be read a first and second time to-day; it can then be carried through its remaining stages to-morrow, and receive the Royal assent on Saturday."

Lord Althorp

said, that it must be the wish of every hon. Member present to do whatever was in his power to alleviate the sufferings of his Majesty, under the unfortunate circumstances in which he was placed. The only difficulty in the case was, the necessity of using great caution in establishing a precedent, which might be so important in its consequences. To the statement of the right hon. Baronet, so far as his own opinion went, he saw no objection. He only wished to suggest, whether it would not be proper, before the Bill was finally passed, to have some evidence that his Majesty was in such a state, as to render a measure of this nature necessary. It was to the possible abuse of the precedent hereafter that his hesitation applied. They ought to be particularly cautious to prevent any application of it without a sufficient necessity. He did not mean to object to the reading of the Bill at present, but before it was finally passed he hoped the House would have some proof of its necessity.

Sir Robert Peel

said, he was sure that when the noble Lord thought of the circumstances under which the Bill was proposed, he would not press his proposition. The House had his Majesty's distinct assurance, in his gracious Message, that he was labouring under indisposition which rendered it painful and inconvenient to sign the various official documents presented for that purpose. He entirely concurred in the opinion that it was necessary to be cautious in a step of this nature; but when the House had the Royal Message, saying that it was painful and inconvenient to his Majesty, he thought it would not be respectful to imply a doubt of the fact.

Lord Althorp

did not mean to press for any specific information. He merely threw out the suggestion.

Sir C. Wetherell

said, that there certainly were precedents of kings of this realm having, instead of their own hand-writing, used a stamp, impressed with their own hands; but no cases had occurred, he believed in which the King had issued a commission to authorise persons to sign for him by a stamp. It was necessary to advert to this distinction; if his Majesty used a stamp with his own hands the only difference was between the impression being made with the stamp and with the pen. The physical act was done in either case by the King himself. There was no difference, except that of the physical act being done by means of a stamp or of the King's hand-writing. He had turned his attention a good deal to this subject, and he found that one of the most learned writers and most sagacious antiquaries, (Lord Coke, in his "Institutes,") although he did not quote any one of these cases, in one passage evidently supposed that the Royal Signature could only be done by writing. Lord Coke, in defining the duty of the Clerk to the Signet, said, that it was his office to write out such grants as were passed, super scribed with the Royal Signature or sign manual. The case of Henry the 8th was prior to that time, yet this eminent writer evidently supposed that the Royal Signature must be made by the sign manual in the hand-writing of the King himself. Speaking of the abstract question it was difficult to say that the King's will might not be expressed by George Rex or G. R. yet undoubtedly the more efficient mode was the signature in hand-writing. He must, therefore, deprecate the proposed perversion of the constitutional mode of designating the Royal will by the King's hand-writing, because, if a change were made, unless a person were appointed to keep the stamp, there was no security that it might not be used surreptitiously, which could not be done in the case of hand-writing; surreptitious hand-writing could not be obtained, except by forgery. Undoubtedly a case of necessity would furnish a reason for substituting a stamp for the Royal hand-writing; but he must say that it did not appear to him that the securities proposed in the Bill were securities which would prevent the surreptitious obtaining of the designation of the Royal will by a stamp, as effectually as that object was precluded while the Royal will was designated by hand-writing. There was not in this Bill, as it now stood, any protection against forgery. He thought it would be proper that some provision of this kind should be introduced, because the sign manual was the original authority which put in motion all the subsequent formal acts, which were necessary to give authenticity to public instruments. He thought it would be useful to add a clause to make it forgery to counterfeit the stamp. As far as he could judge of the Bill, all the securities and guards necessary in the substitution of a stamp for the physical hand-writing of the King, were adequate in other respects; yet he thought it would not be improper to have an additional clause, to make it treason to counterfeit the stamp; and when the House should go into a committee on the Bill, he would propose a clause to this effect, "That, it any person or persons shall counterfeit the said stamps, or either of them, or the impression of them upon any warrant, commission, or other instrument, they shall be deemed guilty of high treason, and be punished accordingly." He had abstracted this clause from a Statute of Mary for a similar purpose; and he thought that the substitution of a stamp ought to be accompanied by such a security. But if it were not generally approved of by the House, he had no wish to press it.

Mr. Bernal

said, that there could be no danger arising from the precedent established in this case. It was admitted that no other measure could have been adopted in the present emergency. With respect to the danger of forgery, he thought that none could arise. As so many safeguards were provided, he could not conceive a scintilla of danger to exist. If he understood the right hon. Gentleman correctly, there must be the indorsements of three out of seven of the Cabinet Ministers, so that it would be necessary to forge not only the impression, but also all these different hand-writings. It could not be denied that the Government had, in this instance, discreetly fulfilled its duty. If the addition of the clause suggested by the hon. and learned Member would not delay the measure, he saw no objection to it; but he hoped that it would not be made the means of any delay of the Bill.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that he had not thought it necessary to trouble the House with any further details before, but there was a precedent for a commission to authorise a party to attach a stamp, instead of the Royal hand. It was in the reign of Mary, and it was really curious and remarkable how closely the precautions adopted on that occasion coincided with those provided by the present Bill. The precedent had only been discovered yesterday, after this Bill was prepared, and if the House had any curiosity, he would read it. The right hon. Baronet then read an extract from the 5th and 6th of Philip and Mary, which stated, that the Queen, in consequence of the great labour which she sustained in the government and defence of the kingdom, was unable, without much danger and inconvenience, to sign the commissions, warrants, letters, missions, and other papers, and she therefore appointed certain persons therein named, and gave them authority to seal the necessary instruments, instead of the Queen, at her command, and in her presence, and in the presence of the Archbishop of York, the Lord Chancellor, the Master of the Horse, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, and others named therein, or any two of them, and declared that all instruments so signed should be as valid and effectual in law as if they were signed by the hand of the Queen. This precedent had been discovered subsequently to the preparation of the present Bill; but it would be seen, that the precautions taken were the same. Indeed, the Bill went further than the precedent, because (a point which he omitted to mention before) it would be necessary that the instruments should be signed also in the presence of a confidential servant. The question of forgery had been considered; but, as the duration of the Bill was to be so short, and as it was environed with so many cautions, it was thought that forgery would not be possible, because the forgery of the stamp alone would not be sufficient. It would be necessary also to affix the names of all those who attested it. In almost every instrument there would be five signatures. Referring to the Regency Act, he did not find in it any provision making it treason to counterfeit the sign-manual—[Sir C. Wetherell said, he did not desire to persevere in his suggestion]. If it were necessary to continue the present measure after this Session, it would then be right to consider whether it would be desirable to make any additional provision to meet this point. But at present he did not think it was necessary, for the reasons which he had stated, and also as forgery was at all times subject to a high penalty at common law.

Mr. Lennard

begged merely to observe on the subject of the punishment of the forgery of this stamp as an act of treason, that he hoped the number of treasonable offences would not be extended.

The Bill read a first time.

Sir R. Vyvyan

expressed a wish that the Bill should be in the hands of Members as soon as possible, as some alterations might suggest themselves.

Sir R. Peel

said, that it would be printed by a very early hour in the morning.

Bill read a second time, and Committee appointed for the following day.