HC Deb 15 August 1833 vol 20 cc705-9
Mr. Hume

said, that, pursuant to notice, he would now call the attention of the House to the warrant of appointment of Privy Seal in Scotland, and to the offices of Lord Clerk Register of Scotland and Keeper of the Signet. The office of Privy Seal was held by Lord Melville, that of Keeper of the Signet by the right hon. W. Dundas. Circumstances which had arisen since he had first given notice of this Motion had induced him to alter it, and he now intended to move,"That, in accordance with the Resolutions of this House, an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, that he will be pleased to direct an inquiry to be made into every existing sinecure office, or office executed by deputy, wholly or in part, by whatever tenure held, with the view of abolishing the salaries and emoluments of all those where public services have not been performed to deserve the same, and warrant their continuance or modification." This Motion was, as it was expressed, in accordance with Resolutions which had been lately carried by the House on the subject of sinecures. Besides, as the Government had made reductions with regard to some of them, it had as much right and equal power to deal in the same way with the whole of them. There were the filacers appointed in the King's Bench, whose emoluments should at least be greatly reduced, as the authority under which they were appointed was extremely doubtful. There were also various sinecure appointments in the Court of Exchequer, in the Court of Admiralty, and in the office of the Secretary for the Foreign Department, which should be reduced. There was the office of Clerk of Parliaments, held by Sir G. Rose, who had received in the course of the last five years no less a sum than upwards of 28,000l. for that sinecure office. The Government had already regulated and reduced some sinecures; why should it not apply the same principle to all of them?—in the case of the sinecure held by Lord Ellenborough that of Chief Clerk of the King's Bench, the nett receipts of which in 1831 were 1,852l.—the emoluments of that sinecure were, by Act of Parliament, reduced in the next year to 6,081l. At all events, there could be no doubt, that sinecures held at pleasure should be dealt with without hesitation. There were the sinecures of the Chief Justices of Eyre, two of which sinecurists were still living. The whole cost of those particular sinecures to the public, calculated at compound interest, had been no less than 49,000,000l. The only wonder was that our debt was not greater. There were the two Beresfords, Storekeepers of the Irish Customs (a complete sinecure), with 4,315l. per annum between them. He knew not for what reason such a sinecure had been given. It was plain, that it should be abolished. Then, there were Lord G. Seymour, and Hamilton Seymour, Esq., Craners and Warfingers at Dublin, with 1,251l. a-year between them. The office of Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland was held now by Lord Melville. In the year 1832, the emoluments of that sinecure office amounted to 3,000l. This appointment was made by the late King, when Prince Regent, in the year 1814, and it was doubted by the best lawyers whether he had the power to grant it, at least beyond his own life. Even if such an appointment had been granted by him when King George 4th, a doubt existed as to whether he had the power to grant it beyond the term of his natural life. Such was the opinion of many eminent Scotch lawyers. There was the office of Keeper of the Signet, held by Mr. W. Dundas; for that he received upwards of 2,000l. a-year, and he also held the office of Register of Sasines in Scotland, the emoluments of which sinecure, in 1832, amounted to 5,415l. It was the opinion of well-informed lawyers in Scotland, that those appointments had lapsed, for the reason he had already stated. He said, he would not trouble the House by going in detail through the long list which he held in his hand; but he was sure, that if he were to state the aggregate sum received annually by the whole of these sinecurists, the House would be astonished at the amount. The hon. Member concluded by making his Motion.

Lord Althorp

had, on several former occasions, stated his opinion, and he had heard no reason now to induce him to alter it, that it would not be desirable for that House or the Government to take away sinecure offices from persons who might have a life interest in them. He was quite aware, that, by a Resolution carried a few weeks ago, the House came to the determination that these offices ought to be reduced during the continuance of existing interests; but he should object to see the task of reducing them imposed on Government; for such a proceeding would be contrary to the principles on which the Government ought to act. He did not believe, that it would give such a relief to the public as would compensate for the injustice inflicted on individual; and, therefore, he could not give his consent to the Motion of his hon. friend. He was quite aware of the feeling which prevailed among the public on the subject of sinecures, and to any Resolution having for its object to prevent the grant of a sinecure, or to abolish all sinecures after the termination of existing interests, no one would be more ready than he to give his consent; but, he thought, that House would be acting upon a new and unfair principle if they touched those offices during the lives of the present holders. His hon. friend said, that the Government had, in some instances, abolished offices during the lives of the holders. That had been undoubtedly the case with respect to offices which were clearly offices held during pleasure; but the hon. member for Middlesex must be aware, that, though the words "during pleasure" were inserted in the patents of some of the offices to which he alluded, they were virtually, and had always been considered, offices held during life. He, therefore, did not think, that the mere insertion of these words in the patent ought to induce the Government to act in the way recommended by his hon. friend. He thought, that some in-uiry must be made with respect to the offices held by Lord Melville and Mr. William Dundas; but, though he differed from Lord Melville in politics, it was impossible for him to say, that the office held by him was not deserved by public service. Lord Melville had been in the service of the country for a great number of years, and was he not in possession of the sinecure office to which his hon. friend had alluded, he would be entitled to a pension under Act of Parliament. Nothing could be more unjust or more mischievous in principle than that Parliament should act towards persons who had held official situations, and who might either be in the receipt of pensions, or in the possession of sinecure offices, according to the political opinions which those parties entertained. For these reasons he felt it to be impossible to agree to the Motion submitted to the House; but if his hon. friend wanted information, he (Lord Althorp) had not the least objection to allow a Return on the subject to be made out, and laid on the Table of the House by the commencement of next Session. Under these circumstances he should propose the following Amendment:—"That an Address be presented to his Majesty requesting him to direct that there should be prepared, in order to be laid before the House at the commencement of next Session, a Return explaining the nature, tenure, and emoluments of all sinecure offices in the United Kingdom."

Mr. Cobbett

said, that on the present occasion he should neither vote for the original Motion nor the Amendment; because he thought it was the duty of the House to abolish all sinecures, without calling on the King for his assistance. The House had full power to do this, for it had often resumed grants made by the King out of his hereditary estates, and it could not be denied, then, that it had the power to resume grants of money extracted from the pockets of the people. But in this case the House was not called upon to take any thing away from individuals, but only to cease to give. If the Members of this House were not resolved to abolish sinecures, let them declare that. Let them add that declaration to the rescinding of the Malt-tax, and then their character would be complete. No less than 1,000 persons were lying in gaol for offences against the Excise and Customs' laws; and recently a man had been convicted in the penalty of 100l. and sentenced to a year's imprisonment for smug gling nine thirty-second parts of a gallon of brandy, ft was the House of Commons that inflicted all this misery, and yet it could not deal with Sir George Rose's sinecure, which had given him and his family as much as 300,000l. of the public money.

Lord John Russell

did not doubt the power of the House to take away these sinecure; but the question to consider was, not whether it was in the power, but whether it was in the justice of the House, to deprive the present holders of sinecure offices of the salaries attached to them. He could imagine that many persons possessing good practice at the Bar had been mainly induced to accept judicial situations in consequence of knowing that, though the salary attached to the offices might not be equal to their expectations, they would have the advantage of being able to give sinecure places to the children. Would it then be fair to take from the sons of any such persons the very sinecures in consideration of which alone those functionaries consented to give their services to the public? It was but justice to the present Government to say, that this was a question in which they had no personal interest. The sinecures alluded to by the hon. member for Middlesex had been given away by their political adversaries. He did not know of any power possessed by the present Government to confer a sinecure on any one individual; and their resistance to the Motion of the hon. Member proceeded, not from any desire to retain this particular species of patronage, which was indeed abolished for the future, but from a sense of justice. He thought the Motion of the hon. member for Middlesex an unnecessary anticipation of one given notice of by the hon. member; for Dublin for the next Session, and he looked upon it as a sort of attempt to filch a little popularity from that hon. Member.

Mr. Hume

withdrew his Motion, and Lord Althorp's Amendment was agreed to.