HC Deb 23 March 1836 vol 32 cc517-21
Sir Richard Musgrave

rose to move the second reading of this Bill. It had been already proved that where public works had been carried on, improvement to a very great extent had taken place in the condition of the people. He would not go through the evidence taken before the Commissioners on the subject—contenting himself merely by observing that the Report stated, that most important results had flowed from the carrying on of public works in the western districts of Ireland. The annual increase in the amount of revenue collected proved distinctly the vast improvement which had been effected in the condition of the people in that part of Ireland. He found also a corresponding increase in Cork, where, under the superintendence of Mr. Griffith, 60,000l. had been expended. The Report of the Committee of last year, of which he was a member, and which furnished the gratifying proof that there was a place where gentlemen of opposite political opinions could meet without political strife—also furnished a variety of valuable evidence. That Committee were unanimously of opinion that an improvement in the condition of the people had taken place under the system alluded to. It was, therefore, he conceived, their duty to remove every obstacle that impeded the further progress of that system, and to establish a kind of administration free from the difficulties that now existed, and from the mischief which resulted from the present grand jury system. He certainly thought that the rate-payer should have a voice in the election of sheriffs—indeed he was borne out by the expression of public opinion in stating that nothing could give satisfaction that did not confer that advantage upon those who paid taxes. The grand jury laws amounted, in number, he believed, to about 100, and seemed, in fact, to have been made upon the spur of the occasion, either to relieve some pressing want, and to impose upon the grand jury some duty which could not be so well performed by any other existing body in Ireland. This fact in itself shewed the necessity for a revision of the grand jury system. By a provision in this Bill it was proposed to vest the entire power and duty of taxation in persons to be elected by the rate-payers. A considerable part of the Bill related to compensation to be given for land required for public works. Another very serious obstacle arose in this respect. At present the entire of the county-rate was levied on the occupying tenant, who was also liable to the heavy expense of a second rate. The Committee of 1830 recommended that part of the county rate only should be paid by the occupying tenant, but that recommendation had not been carried into effect. Under this Bill it was proposed that part of that rate should be paid by the landlord. Committees of superintendence would be appointed in the counties for examining into the different charities in Ireland, and par- ticularly the dispensaries. The principal thing was the election of the County Board, which would be directly under the control of the rate-payers; but having explained the nature of the Bill on a former occasion, he was unwilling to trespass further on the House. He could assure the House that the Bill was drawn up by a gentleman of great experience and well acquainted with the working of the grand-jury system.

Mr. Fitzstephen French,

before he allowed this Bill to go through a second stage, felt it incumbent on him to inquire from the noble Lord opposite what course, in respect to its future progress, his Majesty's Ministers meant to pursue? He rather imagined they were not aware of the nature of this Bill; it was one of no trifling importance, its object being to supersede the grand juries of Ireland, to take out of the hands of the country gentlemen the administration of fiscal affairs of the country. It contemplated a change of too important a nature for Government to remain neuter on, if such a measure was necessary. He contended it was their duty to introduce it themselves, and to undergo its responsibility. They should not leave the responsibility of a measure, the effect of which would be to repeal 100 statutes, and to put the fiscal system of all the counties on a footing entirely and essentially different from that which at present existed, on any shoulders but their own. Let not the noble Lord be led away by assertion incapable of proof, no matter how often repeated. He would find on inquiry that much had been done for Ireland under a system it was so much the fashion to abuse, from its introduction to the present day—her means of communication had improved in a manner unexampled in the history of any other country, both as to their extent and as to the economy of their execution. He confidently asserted no system had yet been brought forward superior to it either in theory or practice; the noble Lord would probably learn with astonishment, that the sum levied for the making and keeping in repair the roads and bridges of Ireland, did not amount to more than 400,000l. It was true an outcry had been raised about the increase of the amount levied under the sanction of the grand juries; but for that increase the gentlemen composing these bodies were not to blame, it was occasioned by the numerous compulsory presentments sent down under the authority of that House, to be signed by the foreman as a matter of course, over the amount or expenditure of which the counties had little if any control; of such a nature would be the presentments for defraying the expense of the constabulary under the Bill which was now passing through that House. He was not desirous of pressing this matter now to a division, as his hon. Friend the Member for Water-ford had taken so much pains on the subject; nor would be enter on the details of the Bill further than to remark, that the only part of it which appeared likely to prove useful to the valuation of counties, was already in progress, under the direction of the Board of Ordnance; his chief object in rising was to draw from the Government some information as to what their intentions were.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that before this Bill proceeded any further, he wished to know whether his hon. Friend would have any objection to let it be sent to a Select Committee? The subject to which this Bill referred was one of considerable importance to Ireland, and although it did not go the length it proposed, yet he must confess it contained many most excellent principles and practical enactments. One of these would be the digesting of that incongruous heap of grand-jury enactments, amounting to upwards of 100 Acts, forty-seven of which were in existence, the others more or less repealed, some of them directly, and some in the worst possible way—by implication. In such a state the grand-jury laws ought not to be allowed to remain. Another advantage, and a very important one, was the reduction that would take place in taxation. The money levied every year in Ireland by means of grand jury presentments amounted to no less a sum than 900,000l. Of this sum between 400,000l.and 500,000l. were levied for roads and bridges alone, thus making the amount levied by grand juries equal to one-eighth of the entire revenue produced from Ireland to Government. This money was placed in the hands of irresponsible persons nominated by the High Sheriff, at his caprice or discretion, or sometimes a worse reason still. These men proceeded to tax the country. There was certainly an appeal given, but it was not from Philip drunk to Philip sober, but from themselves to themselves. He had no objection to leave to the grand jury the power of investigating whether a man was to be put upon his trial or not, but he did object to placing power of taxation in irresponsible hands. He thought that the best mode of legislating on these county assessments would be, by letting those who had to pay them have some voice in the election of those who had to tax them. He was convinced that that would be the best mode of reducing the county rates, not only in Ireland but in England too. He approved of a good deal of the principle of the Bill; and if his hon. Friend would send it to a Select Committee, he would give him every assistance in his power to render the Bill efficacious for the purposes for which it was designed.

Mr. William S. O'Brien

observed, that although he concurred to the fullest extent in that principle of the Bill which intrusted the local expenditure to those only who represented the rate payers, yet he could not agree in other portions of it; for which reason he now gave notice of his intention to bring in a Bill at the latter part of the present session for remodelling the present grand jury system.

Mr. Sharman Crawford

agreed with the hon. Baronet, that no measure for amending the grand-jury laws could give satisfaction in Ireland that was not based upon the principle of representation. This Bill he conceived to be most valuable in that respect, and in its alteration in the mode and principle of assessment. Assessment for county works should undoubtedly be thrown upon the landlord as well as the tenant—a most essential principle in order to give satisfaction in Ireland; and as a member connected with the northern part of that country, he could most confidently state, that there was no subject in which the inhabitants of the north felt at this moment a greater interest than the amendment of the grand-jury system. He could also state that feeling was not confined to Roman Catholics, but was participated in to an equal degree by Protestants. They were all, in fact, united in their call upon the Government for a measure of relief.

Sir Richard Musgrave

had no objection, hut rather wished, that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. Read a second time, and referred to a Select Committee.