HC Deb 03 August 1838 vol 44 cc979-86

On the motion, that the House resolve itself into Committee on the Pensions Bill,

Mr. Hume

said, that knowing the great interest which the public took on the subject of pensions, he was anxious, that any arrangement which might now take place should be such as to give that satisfaction which the public had a right to expect from this proceeding. He wished, therefore, to propose, that instead of proceeding with the bill now, the Chancellor of the Exchequer should, as a former Chancellor of Exchequer had done, take a vote for whatever was requisite to pay the pensions, and bring in a measure early next Session to settle the whole question. The advantage of the course which he submitted was this—that Members would have an opportunity of seeing what was done in Committee, and of judging of the claims of those who were allowed to remain, as well as those who were removed. He had no hesitation in saying, that he differed very much from many of the decisions at which the Committee had arrived, particularly those by which they continued pensions to persons whose circumstances and connexions, in his opinion, gave them no claim whatever to the bounty of the Crown. He was also of opinion, that time should be allowed to consider the opinion which it was said was given by the law officers of England and Ireland as to pensions granted by patent. This opinion declared, that these pensions could not be disturbed, though he had always thought, that the right of the Sovereign to make such allowances ceased with his life. It was not clear, also, whether the pensions to be granted by her Majesty were to continue for the lives of the parties or for the life of the Queen. As he had already said, he dissented from many of the votes of the committee, and one of the points on which they and he differed was as to the propriety of continuing their pensions to the sisters and daughters of Peers, whose demands he could not sanction, because he was disposed to apply, as far as possible, the same rule to them and to those of the humbler classes who sought relief under the Poor-law Bill. He thought it a violation of the principle which should regulate these grants, that they were given to those who had other sources of income. It should be recollected, that the parties themselves were not called, with one exception before the committee, and the abstract of each party's claim, given in the Report, furnished in many instances very meagre evidence by which to judge of his right to be continued on the list. On all these grounds, he should move, that the further consideration of this bill be deferred to this day three months.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he meant no disrespect to the hon. Member for Kilkenny when he said, that he never felt more astonishment than at hearing such a speech as that which he had just delivered, particularly when he recollected, that the hon. Gentleman was most sedulous in his attendance in the committee, not being absent a single day, and that he was a party to the Report, which was carried without a dissentient voice. There might be some ground for the argument of the hon. Member if the authority of the committee went for nothing; but when they sat thirty or forty days, and no effort was spared to arrive at the exact truth, he thought the report of that body to which the House had delegated its power should be decisive.

Mr. Harvey

did not mean to take part in this discussion farther than to ask a question. He saw, by the Report, that the names of the persons who were to have pensions granted them, were to be printed by the next Session. Now, what he wished to know was, Whether this was done, that Members might have an opportunity of challenging the grants, or merely with the view of giving information as to those who were the recipients of the royal bounty? Because, if it were for the latter purpose, it would be of no use; but, if for the former, it would meet the suggestion of his hon. Friend. He had not the pleasure of hearing the speech of the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) in introducing this subject, but he had the curiosity to read it, and he could not help thinking, that the right hon. Gentleman was too covetous in monopolising all the credit of having the inquiry instituted. Indeed, he had heard, that a public meeting was contemplated by those in the receipt of pensions, for the purpose of having their thanks returned to those through whose exertions a committee of inquiry had been appointed. Now, he must put in his claim for a share in this disinterested eulogy, because it could not be forgotten, that the right hon. Gentleman, Session after Session opposed inquiry, and that one of the arguments which he had unsuccessfully urged in favour of such a proceeding was, that some of the fairest forms, as well as the homeliest matrons would be saved from unjust imputation. He was quite willing to concede, on the one hand, that a great number had produced evidence well calculated to remove all suspicion as to the source of the grants, and as to the right of their continuance; but, on the other hand, there was no satisfactory evidence given which could induce the House to recognise many of those claims. Indeed, he was astonished, that any pension had been withheld at all; for with one exception (of the character of whose claim one might judge from the unanimity with which it was rejected), none of the parties were called on to produce any parol evidence. There was not a pauper who received his one or two shillings a-week, and whose name appeared on an union list which underwent the inspection of the guardians of the poor, who if written to to state the grounds on which the original allowance was conceded, and on what it was continued, but would make out as good a case as many of those reserved on the pension list had done. He admitted, that many had written very pleasing replies to the circular which had been forwarded to them, and in many instances very ancient pedigrees for family service and individual suffering, but in many instances he saw urged as a justification for the continuance of the grant, the fact, that the claimant had three or four brothers in the army, who for thirty or forty years passed through all the gradations of office. This might generally, be taken as a proof, that the party had no further claim on the bounty of the public, because those for an alliance with whom he claimed consideration had abundant opportunities wherewith to supply that accumulation which those who were prudent never lost sight of. But how many old and poor parochial pensioners were there; and how often did it happen, that the mother whose seven sons had enlisted, and who for a shilling a-day had undergone the fatigues of many campaigns, and sustained the glory of their country by their fall in its service, found her appeal met by this inquiry, "What is your present situation, what are your own resources, and what are your means of industry." The right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had imposed on those who were on the pension list an obligation to which he could not pretend any claim (though it seemed he had entitled himself to their gratitude by urging the necessity of inquiry), because the right hon. Gentleman was always to be found on the divisions of the committee in the majority where any pension was to be continued, and in the minority when the reverse was the case. It seemed, that the result of the inquiry was, that some had established their claims, there were others whose demands required further investigation, and there were others again whose names ought to have been altogether excluded.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

felt bound to give a frank answer to the question which had been put to him by the hon. Gentleman. The view with which he intended to lay the returns which had been referred to on the Table next year, was simply this, that the House might see whether the Government carried into effect the recommendations of the committee or not. The House had a right to see, that the recommendations of the committee were carried strictly into effect; and if there were any deviations from those recommendations, it was the duty of the hon. Gentleman to censure the Government for the course which they had thus advised. The hon. Gentleman was mistaken if he supposed, that he took any credit to himself in his first speech on this subject the other night for anything further than a desire to protect the just rights of the pensioners, and to perform his duty to the public. When the hon. Gentleman stated, that he had a right to share in the credit of having the committee appointed, he was too modest in pressing his merits on the attention of the pensioners, for his suggestion as to an investigation was not only adopted, but the very mode of writing to the parties to ask what were their claims, which the honf Gentleman had recommended was ollowed. Indeed, the inquiry was made stricter than the hon. Gentleman had proposed; for when the reply was not satisfactory, he, and in some special instances, the Chairman of the committee, wrote to the party to ask for further information as to their claims. There was, he was sure the hon Gentleman must admit, a wide distinction between granting a pension, in the first instance, and continuing it after it had been enjoyed for years. This difference was his justification for those votes of his upon which the hon. Gentleman had dwelt with so much earnestness.

Mr. Hume

did not think, that he had been treated with perfect fairness by the right hon. Gentleman, who stated, that he had acceded to the report of the committee, without adding, that he was to be found in the minority on many of the resolutions. For instance, he was to be found in a minority of three to ten on the question whether the daughter and sister of a Peer should be continued on the list, and also when the question was as to the continuance of the pension of a lady whose husband had 18,000l. a-year, and who left her 120,000l.

House in Committee.

On the first clause granting 136,000l. for the annual payment of pensions.

Mr. Hume

asked, whether the pensions granted during the reign of the Queen would be binding on the present Sovereign only?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the civil list of her Majesty had been settled wholly apart and distinct from the list of pensions. That was the recommendation of the Civil-list Committee, and that was the principle on which the late Committee had proceeded. In respect of pensions granted by her Majesty, he could tell the hon. Member, that in case of a certain melancholy event, to which he would not more particularly allude, they would again come under consideration. But those pensions to which the present bill referred had no connexion with the life of her Majesty in any possible respect.

Mr. Hume

said, that precluded the possibility of his agreeing to the measure. He wished to know whether there would be any objection to lay on the Table the opinion of the law officers of the Crown as to this bill. He was not satisfied with what had been done, and he appealed in justification of his dissatisfaction to the case of the pension of a certain marchioness, on which there was not a difference of opinion in the Committee, but that it ought to be struck off the list. But they were told that, as the law stood, could not be done.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, the principle of laying opinions of the law officers of the Crown on the Table of that House had always been much objected to. Besides, the cases to which the opinion of which the hon. Member had spoken referred were all stated in the Report, and they were by no means numerous. The case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman was, undoubtedly, one of those which ought to have been struck off, but the Committee felt, that to recommend its abolition in the present state of the law would be, to commit a violation of the rule on which all rights of property depend.

The Attorney-General

said, that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hume) was quite mistaken as to the common-law prerogative of the Crown in respect of grants of pensions. By the common law the Crown could alienate any of the real property and revenues of the Crown. That was the ancient and undoubted prerogative of the Crown, and that prerogative was only limited and restrained so late as the reign of Queen Anne, since which none of the English possessions of the Crown could be alienated beyond the life of the reigning Sovereign. There was no such restriction enacted with respect to Scotland until the reign of George 4th. But in Ireland the prerogative remained as before that date in regard of pensions. Such was the conclusion to which, with the assistance of his right hon. Friend, the Attorney-general for Ireland, and his hon. and learned Friend, the Solicitor-general, he had reluctantly come; but in that opinion he believed, that there was no lawyer in England, Ireland, or Scotland, who would not, without hesitation, concur.

Sir R. Peel

wished to say a few words in reference to the subject immediately before the House. The sum the Committee had to deal with was about 138,000l. The entire saving by compulsory reduction was 3,400l., or about 2 per cent. upon the whole amount of the pensions. The right hon. Gentleman opposite had very fairly stated, after the inquiry, that there was decisive proof that the power held by preceding Governments had not been corruptly exercised in granting those pensions. They might have acted with too much liberality, but the right hon. Gentleman entirely acquitted them of having perverted their power for the sake of influence or other corrupt purposes. The result of the Committee was, that there was to be a saving of 2 per cent. Now, considering that the uniform practice heretofore was, to have those grants revised by the Crown, but that they were now about to establish new regulations which would prevent the possibility of abuse henceforth—considering, likewise, that all the good they were to effect by reduction was 2 per cent. on the original amount, he must say, he wished, that the Committee had concluded their Report with a recommendation, that Queen Victoria should not, for the sake of that 2 per cent., be put in the disagreeable and painful position of being obliged to discontinue pensions not granted for corrupt purposes, but for which the holders had a fair claim. He thought it would be much more liberal and much more just, when they were establishing regulations for the future, that they should have secured what was past, and continued those pensions they were about to strike off to the amount of 2 per cent. Had the Chancellor of the Exchequer chosen to pursue that course, he (Sir R. Peel) would have voted with him whether in the majority or minority. He most assuredly would have done so. He had no difficulty in avowing his opin- ions on this subject, however unpopular they might be. He most certainly wished it had been possible for the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the close of this inquiry, as the index of her Majesty's feelings, to have recommended, that they should humbly represent to her Majesty, that upon the whole it would be better to adhere to the uniform practice of her predecessors in reference to existing pensions, and adopt whatever measures might be deemed necessary for the future.

Clauses of the bill agreed to. The House resumed.