HC Deb 02 March 1835 vol 26 cc471-85

The Order of the Day was read for the House to resolve itself into a Committee of Supply. On the question that the Speaker should leave the Chair,

Lord John Russell

said, I rise in consequence of the notice which I gave a few days ago, that I should put a question to the right hon. Baronet on the rumours now, respecting a dissolution of Parliament. I hope, Sir, I hope I shall not be obliged to ask the question; but it is necessary for me to make some observations on the state of affairs, particularly as regards this House, before we go into a Committee of Supply. The House has shown by two votes that it is not disposed to adopt the propositions made by his Majesty's Ministers. In an Amendment to the Address to the Throne, it has called for measures of a more decided character than the advisers of the Crown thought fit to suggest in the Royal Speech, and it has declared that the only step yet taken by Ministers, namely, the dissolution of the late Parliament, was unnecessary and impolitic. As far, therefore, as the opinion of the House conveys a censure, it has fixed that censure upon that act of the present Ministers. I believe that no Ministers ever before stood in so extraordinary a situation, and I thought it right, two votes having passed against them, to call the attention of the House, before we go into a Committee of Supply, to the rumours that have prevailed, and to ask the right hon. Baronet if he had given any authority for these rumours? The rumours to which I advert imply that Ministers having advised his Majesty to appeal to the sense of his people, would not be content with that sense so expressed; but since the result had been adverse to their views and measures, they were resolved again to appeal to the sense of the people, and to endeavour to wear out and vex the country by repeated dissolutions. There have been rumours even of a more extraordinary nature, namely, that should Ministers think it adviseable to recommend his Majesty to dissolve this Parliament before the Mutiny Act shall have been passed, they would consider themselves authorized to maintain a standing army in time of peace, contrary to the known constitution of the country, and without the consent of Parliament. I admit, as the right hon. Baronet seems to indicate, that it is a very absurd rumour, and though it may have entered into the head of some sanguine projector, it is hardly to be imagined that any reasonable Minister would advise such a course. But whatever apprehensions I might have felt on the ground of these rumours, they have been in a great degree dispelled by the tenor of his Majesty's answer to the Address of this House. Although his Majesty regrets that this House did not concur with him in the fitness of the late dissolution, yet he adds that he "confidently trusts that no measure, conducive to the general interests, will be endangered or interrupted in its progress" by that event. Now, I cannot believe that Ministers would have advised the King to give that answer if they had in contemplation a Second dissolution, by which the progress of all measures of Reform conducive to the public interests would immediately, and of necessity, be delayed and endangered. Therefore, I will not ask the right hon. Baronet the direct question I had proposed to put to him; but unless I hear some contradiction from him, I shall conclude from the answer his Majesty was advised to give, that it is not the intention of Ministers to interrupt the course of the House, either in respect of the measures it may think necessary to adopt for the Reform of abuses, or in respect of the advice which, as the great council of the nation, it may feel called upon from time to time, to offer to his Majesty. With respect to the general question of Supply, I will not now enter into it, since the motion that will be submitted to the Committee is one more of form than otherwise; but I do think that we should not go far with the concession of Supplies, or commit ourselves incautiously by placing the public money in the hands of Ministers, before we have an explanation from them, after the adoption of the late Amendment of the course it is their intention to pursue. I must say that I do not agree with my hon. Friend, the Member for Middlesex, that it would have been fit and proper for Ministers to have advised the King to state, in his Answer to the Address, the nature of the proceeding contemplated with regard to Corporation and other Reforms: but I do think it will be necessary for Ministers very soon to inform the House. what course they mean to pursue, more especially as certain conversations are said to have passed in other parts of his Majesty's ancient palace of Westminster, which very much tend to increase the doubts I for one, entertain, whether the persons holding the highest offices of the State have really any sincere intention of proposing a Reform which would give the people that power and control over Municipal Corporations which they anciently enjoyed, and which ought now indisputably to be restored. My hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Edinburgh (Sir J. Campbell), has given notice, that if it be not the intention of Ministers to bring forward some effective measure, he will propose a Bill to the House, founded upon the Report of the Commissioners. I repeat his statement for the purpose of making all the Members aware whether Ministers do or do not bring in a Bill, that the House will have an opportunity of deciding whether the majority of its Members are bent upon that necessary reform of Corporations, to which the terms of the Amendment refer, and to which the wishes of the people are directed. In regard to another topic—the Irish Church—the right hon. Baronet stated, on the first night of the late debate, in answer to a question put to him, that it was his intention to lay the Report of the Commissioners upon the Table, but that we were not to expect any measure to be founded upon it by the present Government. No such measure being, therefore, to be expected, and having heard from the best authority, I mean from one of the Commissioners, that the first Report is soon to be expected, I beg to state that it is my intention, before the close of the month, to direct the consideration of the House deliberately to the whole subject of the Irish Church. I shall then take an opportunity of explaining the general course those who formed the late Cabinet were disposed to pursue, and the general principles upon which they intended to act. Before the close of the evening, I shall enter a notice to this effect on the books. I have stated what will be our course upon these two important questions, in order that the right hon. Baronet, either to-night, or at some future opportunity, may answer the call which think the House will, and must make upon him, by stating the course Ministers mean to adopt under these new and extraordinary circumstances.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, Sir, it is always my wish to give the House as unreserved an explanation of the course which I mean to pursue as a public man, as is consistent with my duty as a Minister of the Crown, and I do not require the additional time which the noble Lord offers me for the purpose of being enabled to answer the questions which he has put to me. In answer to the first, I inform him that, I have not felt it my duty, in consequence of the vote of the other night, to tender my resignation to the King, and that I do intend to persevere in the course which I consider it my duty equally to the King and to the public to pursue, and, notwithstanding that vote, to submit to the consideration of the House those measures on which his Majesty's Government have formed their opinion, and which they are prepared to introduce without delay. I am aware, certainly, that the House of Commons did, by a small majority, in an exceedingly full House—by a majority of 309 against 302, not pass a censure upon the Government, but did by a majority of seven, imply a difference of opinion with that Government as to the necessity of the late dissolution of Parliament, and did imply an apprehension, which I think was unfounded, that measures which would be conducive to the general interests of the country would be interrupted and retarded by the appeal which his Majesty had thus made to the sense of his people. But I do not believe, that the majority which came to that vote did mean to imply an opinion that it was tantamount to a vote for the removal of his Majesty's Ministers. There are many who concurred in that vote, who will nevertheless admit that I should not be acting consistently with my duty if I considered it significant of an opinion that I ought to retire from the post to which his Majesty has called me. Some hon. Members who voted for that Amendment, and who spoke in the course of the Debate, explicitly declared that such was not their construction of the vote. With respect to the Irish Church (for I shall take the several questions put by the noble Lord in the order which will make my answers the most intelligible, though not possibly in the order in which they were presented to me),I beg to say, that I intend to present to the House the Report which may be made by the Commissioners of public instruction appointed by the late Government. When I came into office, I ascertained that the Commissioners had applied themselves sedulously to the duties that had devolved upon them, that they had completed their inquiries in nearly one-half of the parishes in Ireland, and that they were proceeding to make them in the remainder. Under these circumstances, his Majesty's Ministers did not think it their duty, the Commission having been appointed by the Crown, to interrupt its progress. On the contrary, without committing myself to the adoption of the Commission, or of the principle of the measures which it may propose, I may say, with truth, that we have given every facility, for carrying on the investigation. The noble Lord has said, that I have declared that I will not found any measure upon the report of that Commission. The noble Lord has misunderstood my meaning. What I said was this, that I still remain of opinion, that Ecclesiastical property ought not to be diverted from strictly Ecclesiastical purposes. That is the principle which I have always maintained, which I still maintain, and upon which I am still disposed to act; but I do not preclude myself by that declaration from adopting any measures suggested by that Commission, if I approve of them, and should they not be inconsistent with that declaration. On the subject of the Corporation Commission, I do not know exactly to what conversations in other places the noble Lord alludes. I speak for myself, and of the course I mean to pursue. When the report of the Corporation Commissioners shall be presented (and I conclude that it will be presented in the course of a very short time, as we were led to expect it would have been presented at the conclusion of the last month, February)—I mean, when we are thus, put in possession of the principles which it contains, and the evidence which it brings forward in support of those principles, I mean, to give the evidence and the suggestions contained in that report the fullest and fairest consideration. I assure the noble Lord, that I have no lurking prejudice in favour of the abuses of Corporations. I cannot conceive what possible cause, particularly after the passing of the noble Lord's Bill, there can be either of a political or personal nature, to give me any assignable interest in the defence of corporate abuses, or in the opposition to measures intended to remedy abuses where they are proved to exist, and to take effectual security against their recurrence. But I think that it would be inconsistent with my duty as a Minister of the Crown, after reviewing the Report of the Committee of 1833, of which you, Sir, were Chairman, which states, that many remedies were suggested that would be fitting for small Corporations, and would not be fitting for large ones—that the most popular Corporations were not practically the most pure, that there were many points upon which further information was repaired, and with regard to which the Committee themselves were not able at the time to give an opinion—I think, I repeat, that looking at that report, it would be inconsistent with my duty as a Minister of the Crown, to pronounce an opinion or to enter into engagements on this subject at present. Surely the most natural and the most becoming course for me to pursue, is to propose, or promise nothing until I have had an opportunity of seeing the report of the Commissioners—of weighing the evidence, and of examining the nature of the suggestions which it contains. I have the honour of presiding over a Corporation; I will venture to declare that if the result of this Commission should be to prove the existence of any abuses, they will give their unanimous assent to any improvement that may be calculated to remedy them. I say, then, on behalf of the Corporation over which I have the honour to preside as high Steward, and with regard to all other Corporations I am as free as the noble Lord can be, free in respect to public engagements, free in respect to interested motives, personal or political, to give an unprejudiced consideration to any measure intended either to correct actual defects, or to conciliate towards them, more of public opinion and confidence. I am determined, however, to see the nature and extent of the abuse, and the nature and extent of the remedy, before I commit myself upon the subject. As to the last question, the first indeed in point of importance, though not of order—that with which we were threatened on a former day, but from which the noble Lord has himself receded—it seems to me very possible that in the interval the noble Lord has referred to a question put to Lord Grey in another place, on a similar subject, in the month of April, 1831. There were at that time general rumours of an intention to dissolve Parliament, and not without foundation, for the question was put on the 21st of April, and on the 22nd of April, the two Houses were dismissed. I find the matter thus reported. "Lord Wharncliffe said, as an allusion has been made by the noble Lord (Farnham) to certain reports that are in circulation on the subject of a dissolution of Parliament, I wish to ask his Majesty's Ministers whether there is any truth in the statement, that they have advised his Majesty to dissolve Parliament, and that it has been resolved to adopt that course? I ask this question, because, if I should receive an answer in the affirmative, it is my intention to adopt some measure in relation to the subject, and, I can assure the noble Earl opposite, very speedily. Earl Grey replied:—"I believe the noble Lord's question will be admitted to be one of a very unusual nature, and I can hardly bring myself to believe that when he put it the noble Lord expected an answer. But whatever the noble Lord's expectation may have been, I have only to say, I must decline answering the question." Now, if any rebuke, (continued the Chancellor of the Exchequer,) ought to be administered to the noble Lord, for having thought of putting such a question, or for extracting an answer to it, if put, it will, I am sure, be more palatable to the noble Lord to receive that rebuke from Lord Grey, than from myself. But I will be more explicit than Lord Grey. The noble Lord asks me whether I have countenanced the rumours that are prevalent? I tell him at once that by no act, and by no expression of mine, have I directly or indirectly sanctioned such rumours. I will tell the noble Lord, also, with equal fairness, that I never have discussed with any body the case hypothetically, in which another dissolution might be necessary or justifiable. I should think it disrespectful to the House of Commons if Ministers were to discuss such a contingency, and most unbecoming to hold out any menace to the House as to the possible consequence of any course of proceeding it might think fit to adopt. Therefore, in answer to that question of the noble Lord, I tell him at once that I am not responsible for the rumours, having neither originated nor sanctioned them. The other rumour by which the noble Lord has been disturbed, relates to the supposed intention of Government to govern by a standing army in case the House of Commons should refuse to pass the Mutiny Bill. This alarming report is, I trust, of very recent origin; for I can declare with perfect truth, that the first time I ever heard the whisper of it was from the lips of the noble Lord, and that like many other reports, which give uneasiness to weak and credulous persons, it is utterly without foundation. As to that other question with which the noble Lord threatened me the other day, but which he did not put on this occasion, though I came down fully expecting that it was the main object of his inquiries,—namely, whether or not I would pledge myself that the prerogative of the Crown in reference to a dissolution of Parliament, should not be exercised under any possible contingency, I will not take advantage of the noble Lord's forbearance and reserve, but will give him my answer though he has withheld his question. I have already stated that I never, directly or indirectly, sanctioned the rumours that have prevailed on the subject of future dissolution, and that by no act or expression of mine was any warrant given to them. I stated further, that it would be most unbecoming in me to fetter the discussions of the House of Commons by any, the slightest menace, of contingent dissolution, but I must, at the same time, say, Sir, that it would be equally unbecoming in me, as a Minister of the Crown, to consent to place in abeyance any prerogative, of the Crown or to debar myself by previous pledges from giving to the Crown, as a Privy Councillor and a responsible adviser, that advice, which future exigences of the public service might require me to give. I have thus endeavoured to give an answer to the various interrogatives put to me by the noble Lord, and I think I may venture to anticipate that my answers have quieted some of his alarms, and on the whole have been satisfactory.

Lord John Russell:

The right hon. Baronet has misunderstood me as to one point, when I stated the prevalence of certain rumours. I did not say that it was the intention of any Minister to govern by a standing army; what I meant was, that there existed a rumour that some persons thought they could justify keeping up the army without the Mutiny Bill—that there was a power inherent in the prerogatives of the Crown to maintain a standing army, and consequently that Parliament might be dissolved either this night or a fortnight hence. That was the whole extent of the rumour. I certainly must fairly admit that all I can expect of the right hon. Baronet is, that he should say that he has not given countenance to such rumours, and that he had not favoured any such threat. I cannot expect from him, and he will allow that I did not ask from him, any general declaration or pledge upon the subject.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer:

In order to remove every doubt or apprehension, I can only declare in the most unequivocal manner, that I never heard the subject of the prerogative of the Crown to continue the standing army without the Mutiny Bill discussed till to-night.

Lord Ebrington:

I wish to put a question to the right hon. Baronet on the subject of the Commissioners of Education in Ireland. Is it the intention of the present Government to make any change in the principles of that system of education, or will they be allowed to continue the same as under the Government of Lord Grey?

Sir H. Hardinge:

In reply to the noble Lord, I have to inform him and the House, that there is no intention on the part of Government to alter the system of education in Leland as settled by the late Administration. With regard to the amount of the estimate for the present year, I may mention that I believe it will be larger than last year. There has been some increased expenditure, and, speaking from memory, I apprehend that a larger sum will be required for the present year.

Mr. Spring Rice:

I beg to call the attention of the right hon. Baronet to the Committee on the military expenses of the Colonies appointed last Session, and to ask him whether it is intended to revive it? If so, the sooner its labours are recommenced the better, as we shall the sooner be in possession of the requisite information, and the sooner able to proceed effectually.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer:

I entirely concur with the right hon. Gentleman as to the propriety of re-appointing the Committee; and I hope, as he has excused himself from serving on the Committee for rebuilding the houses of Parliament, that it will be an additional reason with him for giving his valuable assistance to the Committee on the military expenses of the Colonies.

Mr. Hume:

I wish to ask the right hon. Baronet whether I understood him distinctly to say, in answer to the question of the noble Lord, that though on two occasions this House has declared its decided opinion against the measures of Ministers, he means to persevere in retaining his situation in opposition to the opinions of the general mass of the community? If I thought, that the majority in the House did not represent the majority out of it, the case would be different; but as I think, that the majority in the House does represent a very large majority out of it, I beg to know whether it is to be understood, that the present Ministers will continue to hold the reins of Government, although they will be unable to carry any measure without severe conflict? I ask this, because, after the recent appeal to the people, they have a right to expect steady Government, on which dependance can be placed as to the measures to be introduced, and as to the probability of carrying those measures. Are we to understand, that notwithstanding the decisions against him, it is the right hon. Baronet's intention to persevere, doubting that the opinion already expressed is the opinion of the majority? He must see, that the people of England have no means of expressing their sentiments, or of stating those sentiments to his Majesty, but through their Representatives; and what I want to know is, whether their opinions are to be set at defiance? If they are to be set at nought, it is impossible to say what unpleasant consequences it may not lead to. It may bring about a collision of a most disastrous kind. Governing against the wish of them ajority of the House is without precedent. Mr. Pitt, indeed, had a considerable majority against him and persevered, but then the people were evidently with him. That, give me leave to say, is not the case now. No doubt there are hon. Members on the other side, who are under a delusion upon this point; but as regards my constituents, I will venture, without the least hesitation, to say that three out of four are opposed to the present Ministers. I thank the right hon. Baronet for his frankness: it was what I expected of him, and I am pleased to find, that he has taken that course, as I trust that in the same spirit he will reply to the two questions I now beg leave to put to him—whether he con- siders the opinion of the House against him to be that of the majority of the people? or whether he waits until some farther opportunity has been afforded for ascertaining the general sense of the nation?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer:

When I answered the question put to me by the noble Lord, I stated simply a fact—that in consequence of the vote of the other night, I had not considered it my duty to tender my resignation; and I do assure the hon. Member for Middlesex, that in my situation I find it quite sufficient to dispose of practical questions for discussion and decision, without attempting to meet the hypothetical points and uncertain contingencies in respect to which he asks for an answer. I have not resigned; and I mean to proceed in the execution of my duty, by submitting to the consideration of Parliament the measures contemplated in the Speech from the Throne; but as to the course I shall pursue, or the course the House is likely to pursue, those are matters which must be determined by future events in respect to which I consider it utterly inconsistent with my duty to pronounce an opinion.

Mr. Hume:

I certainly cannot have made myself understood, because the right hon. Baronet speaks of some hypothetical case. I submitted no hypothetical case; I spoke of a matter of fact—that the majority in the House was against him, and that the majority out of doors was equally opposed to his measures. That is a fact. I am quite aware, that he would fain think otherwise; it is just upon the balance with him, whether he shall live or die—" the flickering flame dispenses fitful light," and we shall soon see it sink into the socket and expire with no very grateful odour. He may not like to look forward to his measures for tomorrow, but we, on the part of the people, have a right to know what is to be expected from him and his colleagues. The Motion for the Committee of Supply is a matter of form which must be gone through, and it would be improper to throw any impediment in the way of it; but the people are not to be told, that a certain body of men enjoy the confidence of the country, when it is known that they retain their places in defiance of public opinion. It is impossible, that they can thus carry on the Government with advantage to the people; and it will be for the Representatives of the people to consider whether, when next they are called upon for Supplies, they will place any sum of the public money whatever at the disposal of such Ministers. All collision—all that challenges the prerogatives of the Crown—is extremely dangerous, and ought never to be provoked, but if Ministers will not submit to a majority of the House of Commons, I should be glad to know whose fault it will be? It is quite true, that the decided opinion of this House, twice expressed, has been set at defiance. I know what the feeling is out of doors upon the subject, and I do not put a hypothetical question, but assert a matter of fact.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

—I appeal to the House whether I have shown unwillingness to answer any question possible for me to reply to. The House did come to a vote the other night implying a different opinion on the necessity of a dissolution of Parliament; the majority was 309 to 302; and looking at that vote, I say again that. I have not felt it my duty to abandon the post in which I have been placed, and that I shall proceed to submit to Parliament the measures mentioned in the King's Speech. If the hon. Member thinks, that Supplies should be refused to his Majesty, or that it is fit to obstruct the course of measures without reference to their merits, it is perfectly open for him to adopt that singular method of promoting the general welfare. It would, however, be quite absurd for me, by a preliminary engagement, to promise the House that I will pursue a certain course in certain contingencies, and on the occurrence of certain hypothetical cases.

Mr. Hume:

I am sorry to trouble the House again; but still I do not think that the right hon. Baronet and I understand each other. What I want to know is, whether he considers the determination of the House on the Address a vote of confidence, or of no confidence? He may decline to answer it; but we shall then draw our own conclusions from his silence.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer:

It would be quite absurd if I said I thought it a vote of confidence. At the same time, I repeat again, that I did not consider it a vote that implied even the opinion of the majority—a decided opinion of the majority—that it was my duty to retire.

Mr. Ewart:

I beg to ask the right hon. Baronet this question. Did he consider that the vote we came to the other night was not a vote of censure on the dissolution of the late Parliament?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer:

It may be my business to construe the Address, but I leave it to those who were parties to the Amendment to construe that.

Mr. Barclay

said, it had been asserted that the majority out of doors agreed in opinion with the Gentlemen who had carried the Amendment. Representing, as he had the honour to do, a large constituency, in a county closely connected with the metropolis, he could not subscribe to the assertion. He believed that the opinions of the people out of doors on the subject of the Ministry were nearly balanced, as were the opinions which prevailed within doors. He must say, that during the whole of his canvass, he had never heard any great lamentation over the loss of the late Administration. In his opinion, the feeling at present prevalent in the country was either Conservative or Destructive. He was convinced, that if the experiment were boldly and fairly tried—if the hon. Member for Middlesex would move a Resolution condemnatory of the present, or in praise of the late Administration—if the hon. Gentleman ventured to come boldly and openly to the test, he would soon find that neither the majority in nor out of the House was in favour of his views.

Major Beauclerk

said, that though he had no confidence in the present Government, because he did not believe that they would go far enough in the way of Reform to satisfy the people, vet he would give Ministers so much Supply as would enable them to go on till they had an opportunity of bringing forward their measures. He thought the country did not care for Whig or Tory, that people thought it little or no matter what was the name of the Administration, but looked rather to the measures that might be adopted. For his own part he had made up his mind that Ministers would not bring forward such measures as the country called for—if they would, they should have his support; but he repeated, that he believed Ministers could not make up their minds to propose such measures. If the present Ministry did not bring forward satisfactory measures, he was prepared to support a Ministry which would. He should only vote for a certain Supply, that Ministers might have the means of bringing before the House their measures; but if those measures were not satisfactory, he should feel it his duty to stop the Supplies.

Mr. O'Connell

wished to have what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet (Sir Robert Peel) on one point distinctly understood,—he alluded to the right hon. Baronet's statement with respect to the Temporalities of the Irish Church. He (Mr. O'Connell) had not a doubt as to the right hon. Baronet's meaning which appeared to him sufficiently explicit; but in order to remove all doubt from the minds of others, and to render the matter unequivocal, he now called the right hon. Baronet's attention to the subject. He understood the right hon. Baronet to say, that the Temporalities of the Irish Church should be applied exclusively to Ecclesiastical purposes; and by "Ecclesiastical purposes" he understood the right hon. Gentleman to mean purposes limited to the Protestant Established Church, and not connected with any other form of religion. Was he right in his interpretation of the right hon. Baronet's meaning?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

replied, that it was his intention to convey the meaning which the hon. and learned Member for Dublin had assigned to his words. By "Ecclesiastical purposes" he certainly meant purposes connected with the doctrines of the Established Church. He took this opportunity of reminding the House, that in a very short time the Report of the Commission of instruction would be presented, and that the measure proposed by Government for the adjustment of the Tithe question must soon be brought forward; and he put it to the House whether, with the information now before it, discussions on the Church Temporalities, with the amount of which they were not acquainted, must not be considered premature. He adhered, however, to his principle, that the revenues of the Church ought to be confined to purposes connected with the Establishment.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that he had construed the right hon. Gentleman's declaration precisely as it was now explained; be never had any doubt on the subject; but he wished that what appeared to him to be clear and unequivocal should he equally so to others. He did not wish to excite any discussion.

Mr. Henry Bulwer

asked, whether education was included in the "Ecclesiastical purposes" to which the Church Temporalities might be applied?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, it was his wish to afford every information in his power; but, considering the immense importance of the questions referred to, and the imperfect information before the House, he felt it to be his imperative duty to deprecate premature discussion; and, therefore, he could not go further at present than he had already done in his previous explanations and answers.