HC Deb 11 February 1834 vol 21 cc213-27
Mr. Robinson

said, he had felt it his duty to give notice of a motion for "an account of the sum or sums of money paid into the Exchequer, or otherwise received by the Government, out of the annuity granted by Act of Parliament, to Prince Leopold of Saxe Cobourg, since the accession of His Majesty to the throne of Belgium, specifying the time of such payments." It was well known that his Royal Highness Prince Leopold, previous to leaving this country in order to ascend the throne of Belgium, renounced, with some reservations, to which he would presently more particularly allude, the annuity in question. In the course of last Session, the hon. member for Monmouth asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether any sum had been paid into the Exchequer in consequence of his Royal Highness's renunciation; and the noble Lord's answer, though it did not appear to create much surprise in the House, excited astonishment in the country; for, from that answer, it appeared, that, although the Prince had, up to that period, been a year and a half out of England, the public had derived no benefit from his abandonment of the pension. He was anxious now again to call the attention of the House to the subject, because, although another year had elapsed, he was given to understand, that the noble Lord could give no other answer than that which he made to the question formerly put to him, namely,—that the country had not yet received any benefit from King Leopold's renunciation of his pension. It was not his intention to discuss the question of the right of King Leopold to retain the annuity after he quitted this country, and became the sovereign of an independent state; it was, indeed, unnecessary to do so, because King Leopold had, with some reservations, voluntarily abandoned the annuity. It was, however, his decided conviction, that King Leopold could not as an honourable man, according to the honest construction of the Act of Parliament, continue to receive the annuity after he ceased, by accepting the Belgic crown, to owe allegiance to the Crown of Great Britain. He might be told, that the Act simply declared, that Prince Leopold should be entitled to receive 50,000l. a-year during his natural life, without attaching any condition to the grant; but he (Mr. Robinson) contended, that the settlement on his Royal Highness was accompanied by another Act,—an Act of naturalization, by which he was obliged, on the occasion of his marriage with the Princess Charlotte, to take the oath of allegiance to the Sovereign of this country. It would be monstrous to contend, that King Leopold could retain his 50,000l. a-year after he bad ceased to owe allegiance to the King of Great Britain, and had become sovereign of an independent state, having separate, and, it might be, adverse, interests with reference to this country. The right hon. member for Tamworth, and a noble Duke in another place, passed the highest eulogiums on Prince Leopold upon the occasion of his renouncing his annuity; but when those praises were bestowed upon his Royal Highness, was it contemplated that three years should elapse before the country derived any benefit from the transaction? Under existing circumstances, he thought that the House and the country had a right to know what had been done with the money since Prince Leopold left the country. At present, the House had no security that the money had ever been appropriated in the manner suggested by King Leopold. When the Prince Regent sent a message to that House, respecting a settlement for his daughter and the prince of Saxe Coburg, the House consented to grant a sum of 60,000l. for the royal couple, with a reversion of 50,000l. a-year to the prince, in the event of his surviving the Princess Charlotte. So anxious was the country for the marriage of the Princess, that the Bill for the pecuniary arrangement passed through Parliament almost without observation. The noble Lord, who was then Prime Minister, admitted, that the provision was most liberal; and observed, that it would prevent the parties from involving themselves in those embarrassments which had fallen upon other members of the Royal Family. The present Lord Chancellor said, that he had some misgivings as to the reversion of 50,000l. to Prince Leopold, in the event of his surviving the Princess, but consented to waive his scruples, because he thought it might be painful to the Prince to descend from the elevated rank to which he had been raised by his marriage.* Reverting to the immediate subject of his Motion, he wished to ask the Government, if they had paid the 50,000l. * See Hansard, vol. xxxiii. p. 381. per annum since Prince Leopold ascended the Belgian throne, and if they had paid it, to whom it was paid. He would, however, read the letter which king Leopold wrote to Earl Grey, on the 15th of July, 1831, and which was read in the House of Commons by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, from which the House would see whether, or not, it had a right to expect any repayment. The letter was as follows:— Marlborough-house, July 15. My dear Lord Grey,—Before I quit the country, I am desirous to state, in writing, the intentions and views which I had the pleasure of communicating to you verbally this morning, on the subject of my British annuity. As sovereign of Belgium, it is not my intention to draw from this country any portion of the income which was settled upon me by Act of Parliament, at the period of my marriage. Your Lordship is, however, well aware, that, up to the very moment of my leaving England, I have maintained my establishments here upon their accustomed footing and that, consequently, there remain to be fulfilled and discharged pecuniary engagements, and outstanding debts, to an amount which it is quite impossible for me to state at the present time with precision. As soon, therefore, as I shall have accomplished the payment of these demands, it is my intention to make over into the hands of trustees, whom I will, without loss of time, appoint, the whole of the annuity which I receive from this country, in trust, for the following purposes:— I shall require my trustees to maintain, in a state of complete habitation and of repair, the house, gardens, and park, at Claremont: and further, to pay all the salaries, pensions, and allowances, which I shall deem a proper reward to those persons who have claims upon me for their faithful services, during my residence in this country. I shall, in addition, require them to continue ail those charities, and annual donations to charitable institutions, which have been allowed, or subscribed to, either by the Princess Charlotte or by myself, up to the present period. All these objects having been fulfilled, it is my wish and desire, that the remainder shall be repaid into the British Exchequer. I remain, my dear Lord Grey, most faithfully yours, LEOPOLD. On the very day that letter was read in the House, he had come down, determined to put a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, respecting the annuity of the Prince; but he was prevented from doing so by the most agreeable announcement of the letter to which he had just referred. He was glad it was so, for he certainly preferred the resignation of the pension as an act of grace, to its re signation as an act of compulsion. Carried away, he would frankly admit, by the heat of the moment, he joined in the general eulogium upon the Prince; but he should now also say, that, since then, his opinion had very materially changed. He did not at all mean to charge the Prince with a breach of faith. For the Prince personally he (Mr. Robinson) felt much respect; and for those connected with him, more particularly for one individual, he entertained the sincerest respect. He felt it was due to the Prince himself, after what had been stated in the public papers, and after what had been reported abroad, that the noble Lord should state if any of the pension had been paid, and, if so, to whom, since the Prince left this country. As to the conditions mentioned in the letter of the Prince, to which he had referred, no one could object to that, and which regarded the charitable bequests made either by the Prince or his Royal Consort; but as to the maintenance of servants, the Prince might have taken them with him to Belgium, and there provided for them, if he were so much attached to them. The Prince required, that Claremont and Marl borough House should be kept in "habit able repair," and the parks and gardens in proper order. But he should like to know, what was meant by habitable repair. For aught he knew, the keeping of these places might swallow up the entire pension. He should be also glad to know, who it was who was intrusted with the payment of the annuity? With respect to the "right" of Prince Leopold to receive the annuity, the hon. Member said, that some persons might, perhaps, be of opinion, that, though the strict letter of the Act of Parliament did not warrant its payment, yet it was in the "spirit" of the Act that it should be paid. Such was the argument by which the payment of the Russian-Dutch Loan was justified; but he trusted, on whatever ground the payment of the Prince's annuity might be defended, it would not be upon that. He would, however, have the House to understand, that he did not mean to attribute blame to any person. He was a great advocate for candour; and he expected to hear something respecting Prince Leopold's annuity—whether, or not, it had been paid, and to whom, and what guarantee the Government had for the appropriation of the money? 'Was the House to believe, that the Prince had contracted debts to the amount of 50,000l., or even to twice that amount?—for it was now three years since his annuity became payable into the Exchequer. For his part, he did not believe, that the Prince had contracted any such amount of debts; and the general impression respecting him was, that he was of rather parsimonious habits. He understood, that the debts which were to be paid, were merely those contracted during the current quarter, or half year, in which he had resigned his pension. When people spoke of generosity, let it be borne in mind, that the generous British nation had paid the Prince no less a sum than a million of money. He would say nothing of the situation of the Prince before he came to this country. He became the husband of the most cherished of England's Princesses; and, if for no other reason, enjoyed the respect of Englishmen. But there was, certainly, under the circumstances of the case, nothing of generosity in his having relinquished his 50,000l. a-year. He thought he had laid before the House sufficient grounds to induce them to acquiesce in his Motion; and would add nothing further, but conclude by moving it, as he had already read it to the House.

Mr. Hall

seconded the Motion, and expressed a hope, that, if the answer of Ministers should be unsatisfactory, the hon. member for Worcester would follow up his Motion by another; and if not, he would himself bring the subject before the House.

Lord Althorp

said, that he did not intend to object to the Motion; but, at the same time, after what had passed, it was necessary that he should offer a few observations to the House. The hon. Member had said, that Prince Leopold was supposed, during his residence in this country, to have been a man careful of his money; but the hon. Member must be aware, that, without being guilty of extravagance, his Royal Highness might, from the circumstance of making a purchase, or from other causes, have exceeded his income. The amount of Prince Leopold's incumbrances was not known at the time he wrote the letter to Earl Grey; and, in consequence of that circumstance, the persons whom he had nominated as trustees, refused to act; and, up to the present time, there were, in fact, no acting trustees. Previous to the meeting of Parliament, two letters on this subject had been addressed to him by Baron de Stockmar, the private Secretary to the king of the Belgians. These letters were dated the 2nd of February, and were as follow:— Marlborough House, February 2. My Lord,—I am commanded by his Majesty the King of the Belgians, to inform your Lord ship, that the pecuniary engagements and outstanding debts of his Majesty, in this country, are nearly liquidated, and will be entirely so on the 5th of April next; that, after paying the sum yet remaining to be discharged out of the April quarter, and providing for the necessary expenditure until the ensuing quarter becomes payable, according to his Majesty's communication to Earl Grey, previous to his quitting this country, there will be a large surplus, which will be paid into the Exchequer in the course of the month of April. It has been already communicated to your Lordship, that, in August, 1832, his Majesty was anxious to place the income under the control of the trustees, but that they declined beginning to act in the trust until his Majesty's private affairs in this country had been entirely settled. As the sum remaining to be liquidated can be now ascertained, it is my intention to address his Majesty's trustees, to induce them immediately to enter upon the trust; but should they decline to do so, until all the incumbrances are discharged,—that is to say, until after the 5th of April next, your Lord ship may be assured, that the first payment into the Exchequer will be made in April next; and from that period no impediment will exist to the trustees commencing their trust.—I have the honour to subscribe myself, my Lord, your obedient and humble servant, Baron de STOCKMAR, Controller and Private Secretary. To the Right Hon. Viscount Althorp, &c. Marlborough House, Feb. 2. My Lord.—In addition to the letters which I have had the honour of addressing to your Lordship this day, I think it proper to direct your attention to the circumstance, that the amount of his Majesty the king of the Belgians pecuniary engagements and outstanding debts, due at the time of his quitting this country, could not, as his Majesty then stated to Earl Grey, be ascertained with precision. They have been found to amount to nearly 83,000l. The current expenses of Claremont, Marl borough House, and the other payments re ferred to in his Majesty's letter to Earl Grey, amount to nearly 20,000l. per annum, which two items will account for the application of all the sums accruing from his Majesty's annuity, since his departure from this country. With regard to the annual payments last noticed, they will, in future, be met under the trust treated by his Majesty; and will be reduced in amount at the expiration pf the lease of Marlborough House, in 1835, and by other contingencies, such as the death of annuitants, and the probable diminution in the expenditure for repairs. How far this communication may be considered requisite on my part, according to the spirit of the letter under which his Majesty's income in this country has been, and is to be, appropriated, I submit entirely to your Lord ship's better judgment; and I have the honour to subscribe myself, your Lordship's most obedient humble servant, Baron de STOCKMAR To the Right Hon. the Viscount Althorp, &c. These letters contained all the information he could then communicate to the House. He would, however, take that opportunity of noticing an observation of the hon. Member, because it was one which, if left uncontradicted, might excite a very erroneous impression, and lead to a false estimate of the character of his royal highness. The hon. Gentleman intimated, that there was a report current—and he would not take upon himself to say, that the remark was not made elsewhere—that some of the annuity went abroad for private purposes, and that his Majesty drew from this country the means of paying his servants in a foreign country. He would distinctly state that such reports were unfounded—that there was not the slightest colour for them. Not one farthing, he was sure, was sent out of the country. It should be borne in mind that the right of Prince Leopold was established by Act of Parliament, that the annuity was his legal property, and that he could dispose of it as he liked; and his resigning it for the purposes which he specified was an act that, so far from deserving severe scrutiny, deserved praise. He was sure his late Majesty would scout the idea that the annuity should be made contingent on the life of the princess; and he was also sure that such a notion was not entertained by the Parliament that sanctioned the grant. He did not see, then, what fair grounds any one could have for attempting to take it away; and it was a proposition, he hoped, that would not be entertained by the House. The conduct of Prince Leopold was on all occasions highly respectable, and on this commendable. It was a natural feeling for him to keep the house in which he resided with the princess in this country. The repairs of it he was bound to pay for, and the expenses consequent on this must be considerable. Was it not, then, he would ask, a good feeling that would appropriate to this object a part of the annuity; and was it not an act of justice to leave him the means? The expenses would in a short time be considerably diminished. The lease of Marlborough House would expire soon, and that would be one considerable deduction from the expenditure. It was the duty of the prince to discharge the incumbrances that he had necessarily contracted in this country, and also to pay the annuities he had engaged to pay; and he could not imagine that the House would deprive him of the means of appropriating his annuity to such purposes. In April next a considerable sum would be paid into the Exchequer, and the trustees promised to act when that was done.

Mr. Cobbett

rose: The noble Lord said he hoped the House would not entertain the proposition of taking away the annuity, and said that it was secured to the Prince by law. If there was a law for giving him 50,000l. a year out of the pockets of the English people, there was (and he hoped the House would consider the fact) another law which prevented any one who was not a natural-born subject, or who was not naturalized, from receiving a pension from the country. Oh! but it was said that he was, on his getting the pension, made a denizen, that he became naturalized, and took an oath of allegiance. Granted that it was at one time so, could it be maintained that he was now a subject of the King of England? His allegiance was gone. He was no longer a subject, and the law absolutely prevented him from receiving his pension. It was such a law that gave the King of England his throne. The same principle which gave the one a right to the possession of his crown, took away his pension from the other. The interest of the King of the Belgians was different from that of the King of England. He owed him no allegiance. If there were a war between the two countries to-morrow, could it be said that the King of Belgium was a subject of the King of England, and should not go to war with him? Could Leopold go to war with his own sovereign? As he was no subject, then, he was not entitled, in law or justice, to his pension. And how stood the case as to equity? Prince Leopold had become a sovereign; he owed no allegiance whatever to this country; and how, therefore, could it be said, that this country ought to pay to him a large sum annually for his support? That was one way, but not the only one, of looking at the matter. They were everlastingly hearing of the encroachment and extreme onerousness of the Poor-rates. It was said, that the Poor-rates would eat up all the property of the country. Why, the half of the Poor-rates of a county, on an average, did not exceed in amount this pension, which was to be paid to a foreign Sovereign, and had been granted to him at a period when, and because, he became a subject of this realm. In fact, this pension was more in amount than the whole of the Poor-rates for the county of Huntingdon; and equal to double the amount of the Poor-rates for the county of Westmorland. It was monstrous, therefore, to talk of continuing to pay this pension, and yet to complain so bitterly as to the pressure of the Poor-rates. It would be some relief, certainly, to cut down this pension, as proposed in effect by the noble Lord, some 20,000l., or 30,000l. a-year; but that mode of proceeding would not be, in his opinion, sufficient; it would not be going far enough. Why should it not be abolished altogether? Oh! it was said, there was a house to be kept in repair. He asked for whom? It could not be that that house was to be kept in repair for a foreign king. Such a notion was out of the question, and therefore, he said, if there was a house that required keeping in repair, let the repairs be paid for out of the rent. Another point of view in which the matter ought to be considered was this:—The pension, at the present moment, amounted in reality to nearly twice as much as the Parliament which granted it had ever contemplated. That, in his consideration, looking at the equity view of the case, was a very important point. Then came the peculiarity of the time at which they were called upon to continue the payment of this immense pension. From one end of the country to the other, there were cries of distress; and the people required a reduction of taxation. The Ministers themselves, in the King's Speech, vouched for the distress of the agriculturists; and the noble Lord, when he was asked to relieve the farmer of the tax imposed on him for keeping a boy or a man who put a saddle on his horse, shook his head, and said, the exigences of the public would not justify the relief, however desirable; and it was most desirable. Indeed, the oppressive and vexatious character of that tax could not be appreciated except by those who were practically familiar with a farmer's life. And yet the whole amount produced by that tax, was not equal to that of this pension. Then abolish the pension, and the tax might be abolished too; and so some relief would be afforded to a class of the community now struggling with fearful difficulties. Surely, no person would longer contend, that this pension ought to be paid. He saw no ground for such a waste of public money; and he felt very much inclined to move an Amendment to that effect. He would not do so; but the Reformed House of Commons would not do its duty by its constituents, if it did not take measures to discontinue a payment that was not required or justified either by law or equity. Indeed so completely made up was his mind, that he hoped some hon. Member would move an Amendment to the effect he had stated, and it should have his support.

Colonel Evans

hoped, that, in offering a few remarks, it would not be supposed that he meant the slightest disrespect to the king of Belgium, because he would say, that as far as he knew of his Majesty's public character, he was entitled to the highest respect. The noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had stated, that this pension was granted by Act of Parliament. But he (Colonel Evans) believed, that this was an unprecedented case, for it was that of a foreign Sovereign receiving a pension from this country. He should, therefore, think, that if a new Act of Parliament were framed (as in the instance of the payment to Russia, in the case of the Russian-Belgic loan) the subject should be submitted to the opinion of the Crown lawyers with a view to know from them, whether, by the existing law of England, there was any such person as the Prince Leopold? He merely threw out this suggestion, because he thought it was a fair question to be raised, whether it was lawful to issue the money under the circumstances. Now, in respect to certain Hanoverians, who were pensioned by this country, he thought that there was a wide difference in their situation from that of many French officers who were still receiving pensions from England. Looking to the fact, that in the latter case many of the French officers were now employed by the king of the French, it might be subject for future discussion, whether their pensions should be continued any longer.

Sir Samuel Whalley

observed, that he had already given notice of a motion on this subject to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the application of this annuity of 50,000l., graciously restored to the people of England by the king of the Belgians; for, as it had been in effect surrendered to the country, the people ought to know what was the extent of the claims upon it. He was glad to learn from what had been said, that a large portion of the annuity, would at length go into the public Exchequer; but still he did not think that he ought to give up his Motion; and he would therefore move it as an Amendment to that then before the House. The noble Lord (Lord Althorp) had said, that the House of Commons would not, at the time of making the grant, have listened to any attempt to take it away on any contingency; but he would beg to ask whether, if such a contingency as that which had since happened, of Prince Leopold becoming the king of the Belgians, had, at that time, been anticipated, the House of Commons would not have limited the duration of the pension to the occurrence of that event; and if that would have been done, then, could there be any injustice in seeking the discontinuance of the pension, as that event had occurred? In the letter of Prince Leopold to Earl Grey, in 1831, his Royal Highness expressed his intention of retaining the annuity in his own hands, until all demands on it were paid off. But what demands could there have been on the annuity of his Royal Highness? It was well known, that the Prince had lived in that state, and had managed his income in that way which the natives of Scotland would call prudent; but according to the letters just read by the noble Lord, it would appear that, at the time of his leaving this country, his Royal Highness was much involved in debt, and that if he had not been raised to the throne of Belgium, he would, supposing that the debt were to go on at the same rate, be very deeply involved; thus adding another instance to that of a late Royal Duke, whose creditors had been defrauded of their just claims, by which a sort of stain was cast on the character of the whole Royal Family. The noble Earl, who had so warmly eulogized the conduct of the king of the Belgians, ought to see that the public should have the full benefit of his grant. He would now beg to move, as an Amendment to the Motion of the hon. member for Worcester, the substitution of the words of his Motion of which he had given notice for the 27th of March.

The Speaker

If I understand the hon. Member, it is his intention to substitute the words of his notice of Motion for the 27th of March for those of the Motion now before the House?

Sir Samuel Whalley

answered in the affirmative.

The Speaker

I apprehend, that, according to the rules of the House, the hon. Member cannot bring forward his Motion before the time fixed by his notice; he cannot, therefore, bring that forward as an Amendment which he could not submit as an original Motion.

Mr. Hume

had great doubts as to whether any person not a subject of the British Crown, was entitled to receive a pension from this country. The House, at the time the pension was originally granted, could never have entertained the remotest conception of the possibility of the contingency which had since then arisen. The House, therefore, in his (Mr. Hume's) opinion, ought most certainly to reconsider what had then been done. This would be only doing justice to all parties concerned in the matter.

Lord John Russell

did not rise for the purpose of taking any part in the discussion; but merely to say, that if doubts were entertained as to the legality of continuing to pay the pension, the hon. member for Middlesex would have an opportunity of raising the question on a future occasion. Although no direct charge had been made against the character of the king of Belgium, so much had been said on the subject of his expenditure, in the way of sneers and insinuations, that he (Lord John Russell) thought it necessary to say, that when he had relinquished his claim for 30,000l. out of the 50,000l., granted him by Parliament, it was unfair to refuse him the remaining 20,000l. He was sure, that when a regular Motion was made to withdraw this part of Prince Leopold's pension, the House would refuse to accede to it, and would take that opportunity of expressing its approbation of his honourable proceeding.

Mr. Gillon

was much surprised to learn from the statement which had that evening been made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the debts of the king of Belgium should amount to so large a sum, and he was sure the statement would excite great dissatisfaction in the country. He hoped, that when the matter came regularly before the House for its consideration, the question would then be decided, whether or not the pension to Prince Leopold should continue to be paid by this country.

Mr. Robinson

could not omit taking that opportunity of saying, that the answer of the Chancellor of the Exchequer was anything but satisfactory. He should like to know who were the parties responsible for the 135,000l. which had been expended in the manner pointed out. The noble Lord had said, that any proposition, if made, to deprive Prince Leopold of his pension, would be scouted by the House. He must admit, that many things were scouted by that House which were nevertheless just and proper in themselves. But, were they to be told, that such a proposition as that he had referred to, would, if made, be scouted by the House. He would ask hon. Members, whether, if such a circumstance, as the elevation of Prince Leopold to the throne of Belgium had been anticipated at the time the pension was originally granted, such a grant would ever have been made with the intention of its being continued after such elevation had taken place? A proposition to discontinue that pension when Prince Leopold was raised to the Belgian throne, had that elevation been foreseen, would never have been scouted by the House. If the country should be satisfied with the answer given by the noble Lord, he was not satisfied, and he hoped the question would soon be taken up by the House. Before sitting down, he must take the opportunity of saying, that as the trustees had refused to act, others ought to be appointed in their place, with security that the money should be duly appropriated to its destined purposes. The money might all have been pocketed. He begged, in conclusion, to disclaim all intention of using any unbecoming expression towards the king of Belgium in the remarks he had thought it his duty to make.

Mr. Hardy

was inclined to doubt, whether, according to the wording of the Act of Parliament, the annuity was payable after Prince Leopold became the Sovereign of a foreign State, in which he resided. By the first clause of the Act, the sum of 60,000l. a-year was settled on the Prince and Princess, but it was clear that that was intended to be given only while they remained in England. By the 2nd clause of the Act, the sum of 50,000l. a-year, which was part of the former sum, was to be continued to the Prince, but he presumed, not on terms different from those of the previous clause.

The Motion was agreed to.