HC Deb 09 April 1838 vol 42 cc525-38

House in Committee of Supply.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he had only one vote to propose; and it was one which he earnestly hoped would meet with the assent of the House. It was a vote founded on the unanimous recommendation of the Pension-list Committee, who had applied their best and most anxious attention to the pensions which the present vote was intended to provide for, and who had made the recommendation after the most careful and effective consideration of the whole of those cases. The Committee had felt it their duty not to say a single word in their report that could directly or indirectly compromise the final question respecting these pensions; but the Committee, as far as their inquiry had gone, felt warranted in coming to an unanimous opinion that it would be the greatest possible hardship to the parties concerned if the Crown were not to provide for the payment of those pensions that were now just become actually due. He, therefore, begged to move that the sum of 33,500l. be granted to her Majesty for the payment of those pensions held by persons at the demise of the Crown, and which, if regranted, would have become due on the 5th of April instant; and which were charged on the civil list of his late Majesty, or on the consolidated fund.

Mr. Harvey

owned, that it was with no inconsiderable regret that he referred, even for a moment, to the subject of the Pension-list inquiry; because the manner in which his repeated efforts to bring those pensions fairly and dispassionately under the consideration of the Committee were defeated, and the manner in which that Committee was taken out of his hands had excited the strongest feelings within him. These feelings led him to refer to the subject with a great deal of pain; at the same time he thought it was due to those who had taken an interest in this question, both in and out of the House, that something more than the brief statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be made on the part of her Majesty's Government, to justify the course now proposed, more especially when it was recollected that the Chancellor of the Exchequer engaged, when the subject was formerly under consideration, that no further grant of pensions should be made until the Committee should have made a report in reference to the claims of these parties. He owned he was surprised that so much time should have been allowed to pass away before any report whatever was made to the House; but when the Committee recently applied for permission to report from time to time, he certainly anticipated something like an elaborate report from them. The Poor-law Committee, a kindred Committee which had been sitting concurrently with the pension Committee, had made a full report, containing all the evidence that had been taken before it; whereas the pension Committee had made a report of a few words only, having for its object the payment of all the pensions that would have accrued due this quarter, as if not a single pension were to be rejected. He thought it was due to the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should state something more at large the nature of the inquiries which the Committee had already made into these pensions, the present situation of those pensions, and the prospect which awaited them. It was singular, that although this Committee had been sitting nearly four months—being appointed the 12th of December—three days a week, yet the only result of their labours, as far as appeared either to the House or the country, was the brief report on which the present vote was founded. They had to examine into 900 cases, which necessarily classed themselves into different heads. There were first those respecting whose claims to a continuance of their pensions there could be no doubt, and yet no report had been made as to those persons. To some of these pensioners, therefore, this delay operated as a great injustice. These cases ought to have been reported to the House in the beginning; for he took it for granted that the Committee did not sit a week before conviction flashed upon the minds of its Members that at least some of these parties were entitled to a continuance of their pensions. It was due to those parties, therefore, that no time should be lost to rescue them from the mass of suspicion which was more or less thrown around the pension-list generally. Then, on the other hand, it was to be anticipated that on going into the inquiry determinedly there would have been found a great majority of these pensioners whose claims had originally no foundation in justice. That was a class on which the Committee ought to have reported their opinion, together with the names of the parties. He had been told, and he should like to know whether it were true or not, that not a single individual had been under examination before the Committee. The course which had been taken, it appeared was this:— The Chancellor of the Exchequer, having plenty of time on his hands, and being disinterestedly anxious to throw his mantle over those pensioners, took upon him to write to all of them requiring them to answer such questions as he in his tenderness for them thought fit to suggest; they of course giving such answers as suited best their object. The Committee upon these answers closed the cases of those who gave them, placing under the letter "A" those respecting which there was little or no doubt; and those under other letters of the alphabet respecting which there were great and grave doubts. As regarded the former, they ought long since to have been got rid of; as regarded the latter, they ought to have been examined, and all the defective claims dismissed. The Committee had done neither one nor the other; they had made no distinction between the creditable and the discreditable cases; those whose claims ought never to have been recognised, and those whose claims ought to have been recognised. And yet the right hon. Gentleman proposed a grant of a sum equal to the total amount of the pensions of all these persons. It might be supposed, that he was prepared to express his surprise at this; but quite the contrary. It was the realization of his anticipations, because he declared, as soon as the Committee was taken from his hands, that it was a proceeding based in delusion, and would end in delusion, and that as to its leading to a conclusion satisfactory and just, it was quite out of the question; and the proposition of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to-night was the first evidence in confirmation of that impression. He was quite convinced, from the manner in which this inquiry had been conducted, and in which he was satisfied it would be to its termination, that any person disposed to speculate would be a very great gainer if he were to underwrite the whole amount at five per cent. Out of the whole 140,000l. there would not be a reduction of 7,000l. From all the letters he had received and had in his possession touching the origin of many of these pensions and the present circumstances of the pensioners themselves, he was satisfied that scarcely half of them would stand the result of an honest investigation. Yet a demi-official circular, which had never been laid before the House nor the Committee, was benig- nantly sent to these parties, to which they of course sent answers most suited to their purpose, and upon these answers the claims of the parties, if not all retained, at least not one of them had yet been rejected. He made these remarks, not for the purpose of expressing any surprise at this course, or to justify his anticipation that the whole inquiry would be a political cheat. They had heard a gentleman at the bar to-night declare that he was filched out of his seat; and he would say, that he was filched out of his Committee, and he believed upon the same ground—political feeling. If that Committee had not been wrested out of his hands, he should have been able to have introduced such a body of evidence and to have brought the parties themselves under such close examination, that either by force of evidence or force of decency shaming persons out of their pensions, the result would have saved at least half the 140,000l. to the country. He did not think, considering the present state of the finances of the country, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could, at the present time, feel inimical to any saving. He believed the right hon. Gentleman's budget, when it was brought forward, would show, that there was no surplus. He believed that the right hon. Gentleman had been obliged to forego carrying into effect many useful objects on account of the state of the finances of the country not allowing him to make any reductions. Yet notwithstanding all this, notwithstanding the state of the approaching budget, the right hon. Gentleman came down to ask a vote from the House for the payment of these pensions. The Committee had been sitting four months, and had not come to a decision upon any one case; and they were now about to adjourn for a fortnight. There would soon arrive the Epsom races, after that Whitsuntide holidays, and what was still more imporant, the coronation, so that in all probability they would have but one more month for business, for he apprehended about the middle of June would close their political existence for this Session. What ground had the Chancellor of the Exchequer for believing, that the Committee could finish their labours in a month? But whatever might be the Chancellor of the Exchequer's opinion, this was not the sort of report that the country expected to receive. But ac- cording to the information he had received, there was an act of positive Injustice in this report. Some half-dozen of these pensioners, he understood, either from feelings of contrition or from being utterly incapable of parrying the interrogatories put to them, had had the decent sense of shame to forego their pensions altogether. Why should not the conduct of these persons have been made the subject of encomium in this report? He had thought it right, in order that it might not be said he was slumbering over what was originally his duty, to touch upon these topics, though he had done so with great disinclination. It would have been more satisfactory if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had given the House some insight into the labours of the Committee as far as they had gone; and some information as to what was likely to be the practical result.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he had confined himself to a few observations only in compliance with the wish of the Committee. Whilst the inquiry was pending, the Committee thought it would be the height of injustice on the part of the House, without notice, or without direct censure, to deprive the parties of those pensions which the present vote was intended to pay. He was prepared to justify the Committee for having taken that ground; because, whatever opinion might have been expressed by them in their report would necessarily have been expressed with reference to a partial examination of the subject before them, and that would have given rise to the inference that their future examination would not prove to be accurate. He spoke in the presence of many members of the Pension-list Committee, and he would appeal to them whether the hon. Gentleman was not in error in having suggested that this inquiry was meant by the Government, or by him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) as the Representative of the Government, to be anything like a blind or political cheat? He would put it to his hon. Friend, the Member for Kilkenny, to the hon. Member for Lambeth, and to the hon. Member for Derby, who were all members of the Committee, whether he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) had not, as far as any one could wish, applied himself to furnishing them with every tittle of evidence that they could require at his hands. He appealed from the hon. Gentleman who had not been present at the deliberations of the Committee to those Gentlemen who had, and let them say whether they agreed with the hon. Gentleman that there had been any attempt at concealment or of delusion on the part of the Government? He called on them to get up, and if they did agree with the hon. Gentleman, to expose the cheat. If they did not do this, then he thought the hon. Gentleman would see, that he had been misinformed as to the course of the proceedings of the Committee. The hon. Gentleman said, that he had addressed a circular letter to these parties. It was true he had done so. It was also true that no copy of that letter had been laid either before the House or the Committee; but the letter itself was perfectly notorious; it was published in every newspaper in London, and there was not a Gentleman on the Committee who had not an opportunity to see what the object of it was. It was lithographed and addressed to 900 persons, and it would have required more ingenuity than he possessed if that circular had contained any secret between him and those to whom it was sent, to have prevented that secret being divulged. The object of the circular was twofold. It was to do justice to the parties whose pensions were the subject of inquiry, and it was also intended to afford the Committee the requisite information to act upon; and he would appeal to the members of that Committee who were now present, to say in what position their inquiry would stand now if it had not been for that circular? if he had wished to make the Committee a mere political blind, he might have attended the Committee, and suffered them to begin at the first letter, and have conducted their inquiries to the last letter of the alphabet, by which the labours of the Committee would have been interminable. Instead of taking that course, he had endeavoured to procure them the best evidence he could. It was primâ facie evidence, he admitted; this the Committee knew, and acted accordingly, because they reserved all cases where further inquiry was considered necessary. Such had been the course he had taken, and he saw no reason to regret having done so. Let any Gentleman read the names of the Committee, and say whether there ever was a Committee over which the Government had less chance of exercising any influence. He would declare, then, that he had dealt fairly with the subject. The hon. Gentleman had made some observations to prepare the public for a result that would disappoint their expectations. Now, he had not the least doubt that the public would be satisfied with the result of the labours of the Committee. It was not for him to forestall what would be the result. He had no right to do that; his lips were closed. But as far as the public expected a thorough sifting and examination of the Pension-list, both in reference to the grounds on which the pensions were granted, and in reference to the position of the parties, he would venture to say they would obtain every satisfaction when the Committee should have made their report. The hon. Gentleman seemed to anticipate a much earlier close of the Session than he could venture to look forward to. But at whatever time the Session might close, he fully anticipated, that the Committee would not only have made their report, but would have brought under the consideration of the House and the public the whole details of the Pension-list before that period arrived. The hon. Gentleman expected, that a great majority of these cases would turn out to be such as to warrant their total rejection. He would not controvert that opinion; but he would call upon the hon. Gentleman to meet him on that ground when the whole evidence came before the House and the public. None of these pensions had been regranted since the reign of her Majesty. The Committee had recommended, that none should be regranted pending their inquiries; but in the meantime they determined that it was expedient that these payments should be made, because they did not conceive it would be just to a large class of persons, many in the greatest distress, among whom were some having the greatest claims for service, to withhold from them the payments which they had a right to calculate upon at this period. If he were at liberty to refer to some of these cases, he should be quite willing to abide by the hon. Gentleman's own opinion of the height of cruelty that would be exercised if they were to withhold from 800 or 900 individuals their only means, possibly, of meeting those engagements which they had contracted. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by appealing to the members of the Committee present whether he had exaggerated or misstated anything in respect to the proceedings of the Committee or the conduct of the Government in aiding them in their inquiries.

Mr. Hume

said, that the only thing which he regretted with regard to the Committee upon pensions, of which he was a Member, was, that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Southwark was not a Member of it. He would further observe, that had it not been for the information which the Chancellor of the Exchequer procured for the Committee, he could not hold out any hope that in the course even of the next Session they could have closed the inquiry. But for the course which the Chancellor had taken they would have been obliged to send for every individual whose name appeared on the pension list, many of whom were incapacitated by ill health or otherwise from attending, and some would be enabled to state very little indeed of the grounds upon which the pensions which they enjoyed had been originally conceded. He thought that the course adopted by the Committee was a proper one. He alluded to the classification of the claims. The first class was that of individuals about whose claims there was very little doubt, in consequence of the age of the parties and of other circumstances. The consideration of the claims of the other classes, about which further information would be required, was postponed. In a day or two the Committee would have concluded its labours with reference to the first class of claimants. Additional information would be procured by the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to the other class; and the Committee would then form its decision. From what he had perceived of the disposition of the Committee he thought he might state, that a very considerable portion of its Members were actuated by a desire not to continue burdens upon the public beyond what the claims of the parties, founded upon age and other circumstances, fully justified. "Although he was anxious at all times to save the public money, he was not willing to commit an injustice."

Mr. Hawes

had certainly seen the circular of the Chancellor of the Exchequer which had been alluded to: he had read it in the public papers. He concurred with the opinion which had been expressed, that this was not the time to touch upon the points of difference which might or might not exist in the minds of Members of the Committee; but being a member of the Committee, he must say, that the inquiry had been conducted with perfect fairness, and that all the information which the Committee required had been furnished. He would also take that opportunity of regretting that the hon. and learned Member for Southwark was not a member of the Committee. There was abundant time even for the hon. Member's name to be added; the Committee had not come to any final decision upon any case; they had only made a general classification, of which the hon. Member might soon make himself master; and if the hon. Gentleman would consent to become a Member, he would be proud to bring his claims before the House. The learned Gentleman had, however, used rather too harsh terms when he had talked about a political cheat, a delusion, and so on; for he thought that whatever decision the Committee might come to, whether they should satisfy the public mind or not, yet, if there were delusion, the hon. and learned Member must take his share of it, for the hon. and learned Member had held out to the public expectations which he, after acquiring some knowledge of the different cases, believed never could be realised. He hoped that the hon. and and learned Member would not take this opinion amiss, for he assured him that he only imputed the hon. and learned Member's mistake to public and political motives; and he, after the experience he had so recently gained on the danger of making any imputations, must trust to that constitutional love of freedom which existed on that (the Ministerial) side of the House, which was not to be found on the other side.

Mr. P. H. Howard

thought, that the hon. and learned Member had exercised a sound discretion when he brought forward this subject; for, however active the Committee might have been, they had certainly hitherto hid their light under a bushel—the natural result of the mistake of not putting the name of the hon. and learned Member on the Committee. The reason, however, on which the hon. and learned Member was excluded had now ceased, and he thought that the Government could not do better than to add the hon. and learned Member to the Committee; and he was sure that such a proposition would meet with the general assent of the House. He thought that an injustice was done when they superseded the labours which the hon. Member had bestowed upon the question, and when the hon. Member, who had sown the seed was not permitted to reap the harvest. He was glad that the hon. and learned Member had mentioned the subject, and he was glad that this was not to be a mock inquiry, for he could assure Ministers that there was no question upon which the public mind was so seriously bent as upon this.

Mr. Warburton

could only again express his wish that the hon. Member for Southwark would give his consent to act on the Committee, if chosen, for he was sure that, if he would consent to act, a large majority, if not the unanimous vote, of the House would agree to place his name upon it, and he was convinced that a report wanting the sanction of the name of the hon. and learned Member would not be satisfactory to the public in general.

Mr. W. S. O'Brien

, not having had an opportunity of voting on the former division, stated his cordial concurrence in the wish of the hon. Member for Bridport.

Captain Wood

, although he had not voted on the former division, would be most happy now to vote for adding the name of the hon. and learned Member to the Committee; but if the hon. Member took his advice, he would not consent to be placed on so fruitless and unjust an inquiry.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought that the observation of the hon and gallant Member was singularly misplaced, because the result of the present motion would be, to grant for one quarter the same amount to each individual as had been previously paid; and, in the second place, the observation was most singularly misapplied, when, although the lips of the Committee were sealed, there had been that night several indications of the opinions of individual Members which, so far from being adverse to the pensions generally, were strongly in favour of the claims of justice.

Mr. Wakley

differed entirely from the hon. Member for Middlesex as to the injustice of this inquiry, for he believed that a more strictly just inquiry had never been instituted by the House, and he hoped that the report would give satisfaction, not only to the House, but to the public. At the same time he feared that the vote which was asked of them that evening was only an unfavourable omen of the probable result of the ultimate proceeding: he feared that it would be protracted and useless. He cautioned the hon. and learned Member for Southwark against being led away by the dulcet tones which he heard on all sides. He found that there had been already four months' sittings, four months' labour, and four months' investigations of the Committee, and that the public had not been saved one farthing. What then was the object in wishing to place the hon. and learned Member in this Committee? It would remove him from the vantage ground which he then occupied as the censor of conduct of the Committee, and the critic on their proceedings; it would gag his mouth, and prevent his passing that censure which it was most likely their conduct would merit. He entreated the hon. and learned Gentleman not to give way to soft flattery, but to maintain the present position, and not on any account to become a Member of the Committee.

Mr. Maclean

was not astonished at the expression of the hon. Member for Middlesex. Hon. Members on the opposition side of the House had always thought that the inquiry was not proper, and that it would be fruitless, and their opinion had been strikingly borne out by the four months which had passed without any useful result.

Mr. Hume

said, that it must not go forth that four months had passed, and that nothing had been done. This was not the fact; many Members of the Committee had individually made up their minds, though not as a body, and it would only take two days more to finish the first inquiry.

Mr. Goulburn

was satisfied with the vote which the chairman held in his hands, and he was so without any alteration of the opinion which he had formerly expressed: to that opinion he still adhered; but when the labours of the Committee had terminated, it would be the proper time to discuss its conduct. The discussion that evening seemed to be entirely confined to complimenting the Chancellor of the Exchequer, by Gentlemen who, sitting three days a week with him, were well able to judge of his good qualities; and another part had been devoted to complimenting the hon. and learned Member for Southwark. Whether the right hon. Gentleman, or the hon. and learned Member would accept the compliment, it it was not for him to determine; but of course the hon. and learned Member must be extremely flattered with the universal regret at his absence from a Committee which seemed to be conducted with so much harmony and self-satisfaction, especially when he recollected the part taken by the right hon. Gentleman on a former evening as to his appointment.

Vote agreed to; the House resumed.