HC Deb 05 August 1833 vol 20 cc327-36

Mr. Harvey moved that a new Writ be issued for the Election of a Member for the City of London, in the place of Sir John Key, who had accepted the Chiltern Hundreds.

Sir Henry Hardinge

said, the Motion which had been made would of course prevent him moving for the Committee of which he had given notice, as far as the breach of privilege was concerned. But the petition he had to present referred to two points; first, the breach of privilege; and secondly, the conduct of the Government in appointing the son of Sir John Key to the situation of Storekeeper in the Stationery office. He had no vindictive purpose whatever in view, and he should say nothing regarding the hon. Baronet in his absence, which he would not have said had he been present. The petitioners, twenty-six or twenty-seven in number, slated that they were engaged fairly in trade, and they complained, that by the late appointment of Master Key (a youth of eighteen years of age) to the office of Storekeeper, in which capacity he had to judge of the quantity and the quality of the goods sent in for the service of the Stationery Office, they were deprived of their chance of an equitable competition in their trade, as those duties ought, and could only be properly performed, by an individual of solid judgment and experience. This young gentleman filling such a situation, and his own father being a contractor for stationery, what security had the other portion of the trade that their wares would be fairly judged, or the public that their interest would be fairly and impartially considered? He looked, and it was the duty of the House to look, to the principle which was involved. If this young gentleman was only eighteen years of age, it was impossible he could enter into the bond required by law; and being so connected, it was nearly impossible that strict impartiality could govern his actions. He understood from the noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) that the young gentleman was no longer in office, and that neither the noble Lord nor Earl Grey was aware of his appointment. He could only, of course, suppose that Master Key had been appointed on the supposition that he had attained his majority; but, whatever were the circumstances connected with the case, it was absolutely necessary that the public should have a guarantee that it should not occur again. The petitioners prayed that their interests might be protected, in common with others. He felt compelled, in obedience to that prayer, and to the prayer of another petition, which he had to present on the same subject, to move, after they should have been received, for a Committee to inquire into the circumstances which led to the appointment of Master Key to the office of Storekeeper of the Stationery. The right hon. Baronet then moved, that the petition from certain stationers be read at length. The most important allegations in it were, that the Government contract for paper which amounted to 60,000l. was nominally with Sir John's elder brother, who had long since retired, and had now nothing whatever to do with business, but beneficially Sir John himself; and that Master Key had never been at the office since his appointment; but that his father attended every day, and superintended the reception of his own paper, which was unloaded from his own carts.

Lord Althorp

said, that, of course, the House would expect him to give some explanation of what had taken place with respect to this appointment. The custom of the office had been, that the person who had been appointed under the Comptroller, in the situation lately held by the son of Sir John Key should have been engaged in the stationery trade, and they generally had been persons who had not succeeded in business. On the late vacancy occurring, the Comptroller stated his wish that a younger man than those generally appointed might have the place as the persons formerly appointed were not always equal to the discharge of their numerous duties. Mr. Key was appointed, not in the belief that he was eighteen, but on the statement that he was twenty-two years of age. On his appointment the Comptroller did not mention that his uncle was the person who had anything to do with the contract with the Government, but on the appointment being made, the Comptroller took care that the article to be furnished under the contract should be inspected by another person. The Treasury, however, had not the least idea, from the beginning, that the contract was in the hands of the uncle of the person who had been recently appointed. The arrangement he had mentioned was made by the Comptroller of the Department. He need hardly tell Gentlemen opposite, who were well acquainted with the nature of these things, that he individually, had nothing to do with the appointment, and that he was not aware of any of the circumstances till yesterday or Saturday se'nnight, when a friend wrote to him to say what had taken place. He immediately represented it to the Board of Treasury; the consequence of which was, that the appointment was directly afterwards cancelled. Certainly nothing could be more improper than to appoint to such an office a connexion of the person who had the contract. And there was no person who knew what his duty was that would think of making such an appointment. When the application for the office was made, it was represented that the young man was of age, and the Comptroller had said, that he wished a younger man than those generally appointed to be in the office, and stated it to be his opinion they should not be more than twenty-five to thirty years of age. It had always been considered that a man connected with the trade should be appointed, and that reason had been urged with reference to Mr. Key. As soon as it came to the knowledge of the Government that circumstances of impropriety existed with regard to the appointment, that appointment was cancelled. If Sir John Key had retained his seat in that House, it would have been proper to inquire into his right to do so, but now as he had no longer a seat there, he (Lord Althorp) submitted to the right hon. Gentleman, whether Sir John Key, being liable to prosecution for penalties, it would be fitting in that House to pursue the inquiry at the present moment.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that it appeared to him that the most strange part of the whole proceeding was, the Motion making it doubtful, whether Sir John Key was still entitled to be a Member of that House. He regretted that Sir John Key had been allowed to vacate his seat, for if the vacancy happened at all, it should take place in execution of the law, and not in avoidance of it. If Sir John Key had been a contractor with the Government, his seat was void by the law; and they ought to have an opportunity of knowing whether it was so; and he ought not to be permitted, by the interference of the Executive, to avoid the question, whether he was a fit person to have a seat in that House. This House of Commons dared not refuse to inquire. If the statement made in the petition was correct, he would venture to say, that under an unrefomed Parliament no Government would have permitted such a transaction, nor any House of Commons have allowed it to escape inquiry. The Act by which contractors were prevented from sitting in Parliament was passed in consequence of that memorable resolution of Mr. Dunning in 1782—"That the influence of the Crown has increased—is increasing—and ought to be diminished." That Act contained provisions declaring, that no man entering into any contract for the supply of articles for the public use should have a seat in Parliament, and that no man in Parliament should enter into any such contract, and retain his seat; and it further declared, that "in every such contract, agreement, or commission, shall be inserted the condition that no Member of the House of Commons shall be admitted to have directly or indirectly, any share in the gains, profits, or benefits arising there from." Was that condition inserted in this contract? If so, after that could it be permitted that Sir John Key should become the contractor. That matter deeply affected the honour of the House, which was bound to inquire how such a transaction could take place. It appeared that the contract was nominally entered into with Mr. Muggleston Key, but really with Sir John Key. If it were possible to evade this Act of Parliament, and to permit the brother of a Member nominally to enter into a contract, while the Member himself was the virtual contractor, and would become entitled to all the advantages of the contract, that ought to be met by an immediate legislative remedy. In the petition presented by his right hon. friend it was stated that it was capable of proof that Sir John Key, being a Member of Parliament, was the real contractor; that that contract was for paper amounting to a sum of 60,000l.; that Sir John Key's brother had retired from business, and that Sir John Key himself supplied the articles, and was in daily communication with the Stationery-office on the subject. He repeated, that they ought to have an opportunity of knowing whether these were the facts, in order if the law could be so evaded, that they might apply a remedy. But superadded to all this was the statement that Sir John Key had got his son placed in that office, by which the quality and the quantity of the article furnished were to be ascertained. The noble Lord said that nothing had been stated at the Treasury of the age of this young man. That ought, however, to have been inquired into. It was the duty of the person at the head of the department to which he was appointed, not to acquiesce in that appointment, but to remonstrate against it on account of the young man's age; he should have made a representation to the Treasury, for although the youth was the son of a stationer, it was impossible that he should be practically acquainted with the business, any competent knowledge of which his age must have precluded him from acquiring. It was not sufficient to say, that his relationship was not known—his age ought to have disqualified him; he had to enter into a bond for the satisfactory performance of his duties, and it was impossible he could enter into any valid bond at that age. He knew nothing of these circumstances, except by the petition which had been presented; but he thought the House of Commons owed it to their honour and character to institute an inquiry, not for the purpose of obtaining penalties, but of ascertaining how such a transaction could have occurred and of preventing it in future.

Lord Althorp

trusted that, though he had already addressed the House, he might be permitted, after the attack which had been made upon the Government generally, and upon himself personally, to address the House again, and to explain the circumstances under which Sir John Key had obtained the office which had enabled him to vacate his seat. He would state the grounds under which Sir John Key had been permitted to accept the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. He admitted that, under existing circumstances, he did not view the granting of Sir John Key's application for that office quite as a matter of course; but he likewise felt that the effect of giving that office to Sir John Key would not withdraw him from the liability which, provided he was a contractor, he had incurred, of being prosecuted for the penalties to which every contractor was subject who presumed to sit and vote in Parliament, and that it would not place him in any better position than that which he occupied at the present moment. On the best consideration that he could give to the matter—and the House would recollect that he had not any long time given him for consideration—he was of opinion that no harm could accrue from giving to the hon. Baronet the appointment which had enabled him to vacate his seat. Now, the right hon. Baronet had attacked his Majesty's Government as if they had knowingly given this appointment of storekeeper to a young gentleman of the age of only eighteen years and a half.

Sir Robert Peel

No; I said that the Comptroller ought to have reported to the Government the age of the person appointed to the situation, and that the Government ought to have remonstrated against the order making the appointment, which it did not appear that they had done.

Lord Althorp

said, that he did not rise to defend the Comptroller, but the Government—for the imputation which the two right hon. Gentlemen had cast was cast upon the Government, and was cast upon the Government on this ground—that it had appointed an incompetent young man nearly connected with the contractor, to a situation, where he would have to control the contractor's supplies. He had not stated that the contractor had said that the young man's age was twenty-two. That representation had been made to Earl Grey when application had been made to him for this appointment. What he (Lord Althorp) had said was, that the Comptroller had not stated what the age of the young man was, and had not mentioned that he was in any way connected with the contractor. The Comptroller made an arrangement without any communication with the Treasury, by which the inspection of the paper sent in by their contractor was taken from the young man. He must add, that no person connected with the Treasury was aware that the contract was where it was, or that the young man was connected with the contractor. As to the appointment of a Committee, he had merely suggested that it was questionable whether the House ought to consider the matter as a breach of privilege, there being no longer a breach of privilege, in consequence of Sir John Key having vacated his seat. He assured the House that he had no wish to screen any party, and if any hon. Gentleman wished for inquiry, he would be the last man in the House to object to it. He appealed to the hon. and gallant Officer opposite whether he (Lord Althorp) had not written to him (Sir Henry Hardinge) that morning, and told him that he would not object to inquiry if it were demanded. He had only expressed a doubt whether, as Sir John Key, if he were a contractor, had rendered himself liable to heavy penalties for having sat and voted in Parliament whilst a contractor, it would be right to institute an inquiry into a matter which might afterwards become the subject of legal investigation. The tone which the right hon. Baronet had taken in the course of his speech seemed to assume that Government had done that which he admitted would have amounted to gross misconduct if they had done—namely, appointed the nephew of a pretended contractor, but as it was alleged the son of the real contractor, to an office overlooking the performance of the contract, for which he was moreover otherwise disqualified. He asserted, that Government had no knowledge of any such facts; and that from the very first moment ill which he became aware of them, he had said that they must be corrected, and that a change must take place in the arrangement.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that the assent which the noble Lord had just given to the appointment of the Committee was the very best answer the noble Lord could have given to the Motion. There was no reason why Sir John Key, because he shrunk from Parliament, should be allowed to get rid of the prosecution for penalties to which he had laid himself open by sitting and voting in Parliament after he had become a contractor. It was singular this first trait of a reformed Parliament—namely, that the brother of a Member of Parliament should get a contract from the Government, and then that contractor's nephew, the son of the Member of Parliament, should get a place where he had to judge of the mode in which the contract was performed, not for his merits, for they were unknown, but for his demerits, he being only eighteen years old, and without experience. How was it, he would ask, that this young man had got the place? Sir John Key had voted for the Coercion Bill, and for the Resolution which rescinded the vote of the House repealing the Malt-tax, and for those votes his son was rewarded with a place of 400l. a-year. This was a very extraordinary way for the son of a Member of Parliament, representing a popular constituency like the city of Dublin, to get a place. He had made a mistake—he did not think that the sons of the member for the city of Dublin had any great chance of getting a place. The son of the member for the city of London had, however, got a place. He contended that the present was a monstrous case, calling for examination and decided censure on somebody, and he was glad that the House was now going to examine who the parties were that deserved it.

Mr. Secretary Stanley

was exceedingly gratified that his noble friend had given his assent to a Committee of Inquiry, for sure he was, that the more inquiry was made into the circumstances of this ease, the more would it contradict and refute the insinuations of the two hon. Gentlemen. He thought that the vindication of his noble friend, and of the Government with which he was connected, was now complete. It was not for the Government to say, that gross misconduct had not taken place somewhere, and he (Mr. Stanley) was exceedingly gratified that by the inquiry which was now to be instituted, that misconduct would soon be laid bare and open. His noble friend had stated the case on behalf of the Government, and as he did ill all cases where he himself (Lord Althorp) was personally concerned, plainly and simply, and without any wish to gain a vote by ornament or eloquence; on the contrary, he had rather understated than overstated the defence of Government on this occasion. This was the individual ease of the Comptroller of the department. An application was made for an office in it by a gentleman who was represented to be twenty-two years of age, when, in point of fact, he was only eighteen. The office was filled up, and he trusted that the hon. Gentleman opposite would not consider it as a disqualification of the holder that he was a supporter of the existing Government. On the contrary, the Government had been frequently abused for not disposing of its patronage among its own supporters. The charge had been brought against the Government over and over again, and by no person more frequently than the hon. and learned Gentleman. He would admit, that an improper person had been admitted to the office. That person had not the qualifications which he was represented to have; he was only eighteen years of age—not twenty two as had been stated, and, moreover, he was not competent, either by his knowledge or his experience, to perform the duties of this office. As soon as this came to the knowledge of the Government, the party holding the office was informed of it. The appointment took place in the month of June, he forgot the exact day; on the 28th of July it was represented to the Government that the person holding it was only eighteen years of age, not twenty-two; on the 29th a communication was made by his noble friend to the Stationery-office, and also to Sir John Key; and on the next day Mr. Key resigned, and a Treasury minute, cancelling his appointment, was issued be for the single word had been uttered about laying all the circumstances of this case before the House of Commons. Here, was a complete vindication of the conduct of the Government. He was not there to inquire into the conduct of the Comptroller; he was not there to inquire whether he was cognizant of Mr. Key's age or not. The Comptroller was not an officer appointed by the present, but by the former Government. If he had not fulfilled his duties, he was responsible for it. For his appointment the present Government was not responsible. For the contract in Mr. Key's name they were responsible, but for cancelling Mr. Key's appointment, when they learned the circumstances attending it, they claimed their share of credit; and he rejoiced that his noble friend, in assenting to this inquiry, would bring all the circumstances connected with this transaction fairly under the consideration of the public. The hon. Gentleman had said, that Mr. Key was connected with one of the parties to this contract. Now, it ought to be recollected that the contract was not made with Sir John Key, but with his brother. It was also possible to evade the law by one person making a contract in the name of another, and it was matter of extreme difficulty to detect these evasions. Besides, it ought not to be forgotten that the contract was not matter of favour and appointment by the Government, but was decided upon legal tender and by public and open competition; and in this instance, as his noble friend said, the contract of this year was five per cent lower than the terms of the contract last year. This contract did not come either before the Government or before the Treasury—the lowest bidding was taken—and that bidding was in the name, not of Sir John Key, but of Mr. Jonathan Muggleston Key. Whether the Comptroller and the Gentleman at the head of the Stationery-office, ought or ought not to have been ignorant of the connexion between these two gentlemen—whether they ought or ought not to have reported it to the Government—whether the Comptroller should have remonstrated or not against the appointment of a youth of eighteen to the office of storekeeper, was not at present the question. The whole case was to be inquired into; though he thought that his noble friend was quite justified in doubting the propriety of bringing this case before the House of Commons, as the penalties for which Sir John Key might be sued were of heavy, indeed enormous amount. He rejoiced, however, that the House of Commons was going to take this question into its cognizance; and he was sure that, in spite of the imputations which had been cast upon the Government, it would go into the inquiry with clean hands, and come out of it with an untarnished reputation.

Lord Stormont

asked, whether Earl Grey, when he gave this place to the young man, was aware that the uncle of this young man was the person who had taken the contract?

Lord Althorp replied in the negative.

Petition laid on the Table.

Sir Henry Hardinge

declared, that it was not his intention to do anything by which Sir John Key could be placed in a more prejudicial situation than that in which he had placed himself at present. He should be extremely sorry that any inquiry in the Committee should bring before the public such proof as would be necessary to support a prosecution against Sir John Key for the penalties to which he had rendered himself subject if he had sat and voted in Parliament after he had become a contractor. His object was, to do justice, and if blame attached to any quarter, to let that blame fall where it was deserved. He did not intend to bring any accusation against the Government. He had said, that ignorance or carelessness might be attributable to them, but after the letter which he had received from the noble Lord, containing his disavowal of the transaction, he did not think that it would be fair to make insinuations either against the noble Lord or the noble Earl at the head of the Treasury. Whilst he was anxious to appear to do nothing vindictive against Sir John Key, he still felt that he had a duty to perform towards the petitioners; and that duty he must perform by moving for a Select Committee to examine into the allegations of their petition.

Committee appointed.