HC Deb 20 August 1839 vol 50 cc452-65

On the Order of the day for going into Committee on the Bank of Ireland Bill being read,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, undoubtedly, the events which had occurred during the last month, in respect to the Bank of Ireland Bill, would impose upon him a task of no ordinary difficulty, and he feared he must add, also, of no ordinary responsibility. The difficulty in which the House was placed—he abstracted for the moment any difficulty which affected himself or her Majesty's Government—was of no common character. He should wish, before he adverted more distinctly to the resolutions of her Majesty's Government, and to the determination they had come to, to explain, at no great length, but to explain, nevertheless, the object the Government had, in the introduction of this bill. This bill affected the Bank of Ireland, the joint-stock banks in Ireland, and affected the British funds. So far as it affected the Bank of Ireland, it contained provisions to continue for a time certain of four years, and, in the event of Parliament not interfering to the contrary, for fourteen years, the present exclusive issue of notes of the Bank of Ireland, within Dublin and the metropolitan district, as at present confined by law to a circuit of fifty miles. During the progress of the discussion, and more especially in the debate which occurred on moving the resolutions, it was stated by many, that they thought that the interval of time between the present period and the possible remission of the arrangement with the Bank of England, might be advantageously and properly employed in an inquiry into the general principles of banking, and to determine, not only with respect to Ireland, but with respect to England, what were the principles on which it behoved that House to proceed. He had stated, undoubtedly, that he was far from affirming, and should be reluctant to affirm, that the arrangements proposed in this bill were those which ought to be permanently adopted by that House; but that he thought it most consonant with the sound principles of legislation, to make the termination of the exclusive privileges of the Bank of Ireland contemporaneous with those of the Bank of England, in order that the whole subject might be discussed at once, not as a matter affecting Ireland, but as a matter affecting the whole empire, and that whatever system of legislation it was desirable to adopt, should be applied to both parts of the United Kingdom. He was opposed, upon the introduction of this bill, by hon. Gentlemen: the first, who gave a notice, was the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilkenny, who objected not only to his proceeding, but who suggested a contrary course. His bill continued to the Bank of Ireland, subject to certain conditions, the exclusive issue of promissory notes, payable on demand, in Dublin and the neighbourhood. The hon. Member for Kilkenny laid down, on the other hand, as a position, that the banking trade, in this branch of issue, as well as in the other branches of banking, ought to be free; that free competition contained within itself a sufficient check against any abuse, and the hon. Member held out the case of Scotland as the example which ought to be pursued in respect to Ireland. He certainly should be making an unwarrantable trespass on the time of the House, if he were to enter again into the arguments on the bill, or in answer to those of the hon. Member for Kilkenny. The arguments on both sides were now before the public, and he was ready to abide by their decision. But it was evident that the antagonist principles contended for were irreconcilable. He had thought, that one of them was sufficiently disposed of early in the discussion, but soon after the question assumed a new aspect, and the House was called upon to view it as it bore upon Irish interests, and were urged to abandon it altogether, or to discuss it on principles peculiarly Irish. He had endeavoured as well as he could, and, he hoped, without any incivility, to argue against that view of the question, and to contend for the abstract principle; but it appeared, that he was to be met, not by reasoning or argument, but by a pertinacious course, the object of which was the delay and defeat of the bill. It had been met, not on its merits, but by a sort of mechanical opposition—a mode of operation, by which the best and most useful bill in the world might be defeated by a small majority. For instance, the Portuguese Slave Suppression Bill, which had passed the other day, might, if subjected to this mechanical opposition, have been defeated, and the just expectations of this country and of Europe have thus been frustrated. He knew it might be said, that such an opposition was all fair, because it was permitted by the forms of the House, but, except on one occasion this Session, he had never before known the forms of the House so applied. Before he proceeded to other observations connected with this question, he would state one fact which was much misapprehended. It was said, that this course of opposition was rendered necessary, because the Government had such a majority of official Members in attendance as would prevent a fair expression of the opinion of the House. Now, an analysis of the several divisions on the bill showed clearly, that on all those divisions, the majorities in favour of the bill did not consist of official men; so that if no official men had been in attendance, the same results would have taken place. Now, with respect to the bill, it was proposed to continue the Bank of Ireland Charter for four years, which might afterwards be extended to a larger period. The term of four years having been objected to by an hon. Member, he stated that he was ready to attend to any reasonable suggestion as to the limitation of the period; but afterwards that objection seemed to be given up, so that no blame lay with him as to the term of four years. It had been objected, that the bill would deprive joint-stock banks of many advantages which they ought to enjoy, and of the usual means of carrying on their business—that they could not sue and be sued. These and other advantages he was disposed to extend to them, and to give to those in Dublin, and also to the banks in Drogheda, Carlow, and other places, all the advantages enjoyed by the Bank of Ireland, save and except the power of issuing promissory notes payable on demand. As to the joint-stock banks of issue, he was prepared to give them such power as would enable them to carry on their business—to draw at not less than ten days, and for sums not less than 10l. These would have been considerable advantages to Ireland. To England the bill would have been also of much advantage. It would have procured the remission of a debt of 23,000l. a-year, and a funding of 900,000l. of Exchequer-bills now held by the Bank of Ireland, and on terms highly advantageous to the public. But, notwithstanding these advantages, it was fairly admitted, that the opposition made to the bill would be continued so as to render it impossible to carry it in the present Session. Under such circumstances, it became the duty of Government to consider what course should be taken. The Government had made a proposition to the Bank of Ireland, subject to the approval of Parliament; but, in the wish to carry out that proposition, it was to be considered whether they should yield to a mechanical opposition, and thus make a precedent which would be productive of most serious consequences at some future time. One suggestion was, that under such circumstances, there should be a call of the House; but passing by the inconve- nience of calling Gentlemen—many of whom had returned to their homes, and many gone to the Continent—he was satisfied that such a course would not bring any reasonable proportion of the Members who attended an ordinary call; but, as he said last night, even if 300 attended, he should, with the continuance of the same mechanical opposition, have to contend with the same difficulties as before, and that in the end he should not be in a better situation than before. Under these circumstances, he communicated with the Bank of Ireland. In justice to that body, of whom they had heard so much, and on whom so much abuse had been poured, he must say, from what he had seen and known of them, that a more honourable, a more disinterested, a more public spirited set of men it had never been his good fortune to meet in the course of his life. The Bank of Ireland was as well aware as he was, that under such an opposition as had been resorted to, it would be impossible to carry the bill this Session. To have altered the rules and forms of the House for the purpose of obviating the Opposition was a course which he could not think of recommending. Indeed, he was himself an advocate for retaining those forms, and particularly the power of moving adjournments; but as that was a most useful and constitutional privilege, the greater care should be taken that it should not be abused and prostituted to bad purposes. If he had proposed an alteration of the forms of the House for the purpose of obviating the opposition, he should have been open to still stronger objections than had been urged against him, and then the objection as to the late period of the Session, such as it was, would apply with still greater force. Then, he again asked, what was the alternative? Suppose the bill should not (as would now be the case) pass into a law, did those who complained of the monopoly of the Bank, believe that that monopoly would be lessened by the loss of this bill? Did those who complained of the injury done to the joint-stock banks believe that they would be benefited by it? Would the public gain by the loss of the bill? No; on the contrary, it would lose by it—it would lose 23,000l. a-year which the Bank of Ireland agreed to give up. Thus, then, upon the showing of the opponents of the bill, there was no ground, logically speaking, for giving it up. The only ground was the determination to oppose it. He would not now offer any further opinion upon that opposition, but would leave it to be judged of by the cool consideration of the commercial world, by whose decision he would be ready to abide. He would leave to the public to judge whether it would not be better for the commercial community, that the bill should not be withdrawn. But there was one difficulty which was insuperable as to any compromise. There were the 900,000l. of Exchequer bills which the Bank of Ireland held, and which the present bill proposed to fund. It would have created some difficulty to have that amount thrown upon the market, which the Bank had it in its power to do, and if it insisted on their being paid, it might have been necessary to raise a loan to that amount to pay them. The Bank of Ireland, then, had it in its power to throw many difficulties in the way of the Government. It might have said, "As you have not been able to carry out your own proposition to us, we now call on you to make good those engagements under which you already stand to us." That, however, would at the present time, be attended with great inconvenience to the public. What was to be done? The Bank of Ireland, with great generosity and public spirit, said, "We do not urge any claims of our own that would embarrass the public, and we shall be perfectly satisfied, that the Exchequer bills should be funded by you, not on the terms you have offered to the public, but on the less favourable terms of the Bank of England itself. Under these circumstances, reluctantly and against his own wish and inclination, if he had had the power of fighting single-handed with any number of opponents, he would not have given way, but would have endeavoured to continue the contest till the last moment; but he was bound to look to the convenience of the House and of the public, and though his wish was to go through with the bill in spite of divisions, he could not do so without calling for a great sacrifice on the part of the House. He, therefore, proposed to bring in a bill to continue the existing arrangement with the Bank of Ireland for the period of one year. He proposed this with the entire assent of the Bank of Ireland itself. If the Bank of Ireland, or those interested in its behalf, had taken another view of its duty, he should not have adopted this course; but he was justified in saying that the Bank of Ireland assented to the course, and the more gladly, because they were confident they were in the right; and if he had bad the power of carrying the bill, and had not been met and foiled by an opposition without example in this House of Parliament, and if, by sitting for a fortnight or three weeks longer, the bill could have been carried into effect as a law, it might have been suggested, that it had been forced through a reluctant House of Commons without adequate inquiry and discussion. The Bank of Ireland wished that the measure should be discussed at the earliest period of the next Session, and in the fullest House; and they would on such an occasion see how the "Ayes" and "Noes" stood. If he was asked why he took this course at the present moment, and why he did not endeavour to persevere, however ineffectual the attempt might be for some days to come, he would say, that if he thought he could thus attain the object, it would be something certainly but if he unnecessarily protracted the Session for a fortnight longer, the public might become more indifferent to the injustice of the opposition than if he were to leave the case as it stood. He, therefore, proposed, to let the bill pass through the committee pro formâ, so as to include in it all the amendments he proposed, that the people of Ireland might have the means of considering the bill in its most perfect state. He should, therefore, on Thursday next, re-print the bill and propose that the further consideration of it be postponed for three months. He should, in the course of this evening, ask leave to bring in a bill for continuing the Act of the last Session till the 1st of January, and for giving effect to the proposed funding of the 900,000l. Exchequer bills. These two objects could have been carried into effect only by the liberal conduct of the Bank of Ireland. He had been conquered, not by means of numbers, nor by argument, but by the force of a principle which, though legitimate, might be dangerously employed, and he forewarned the House and the public, that this precedent, to which he had been reluctantly compelled to submit, but which he, nevertheless, reprobated and condemned was one, which, if repeated, would call upon the House as a matter of necessity, to consider its own modes of proceeding, if it wished not to surrender its independence and the constitution of England to the dictation of any knot of five or six Gentlemen who chose to abuse the forms of the House for that purpose.

Mr. O'Connell

disapproved so much of the manner in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had closed his remarks, that he would imitate it as little as possible. He could not be angry at the right hon. Gentleman's blaming him for abusing the privileges of one of the Members of the House to prevent the establishment of one of the worst of purposes, that of a Minister of the Crown from presuming to dictate to the House at a late period of the Session without any reason. The right hon. Gentleman stood alone. He was in this singular predicament; he was the first Gentleman of any cabinet who for six or eight nights had not had one word of support for one of his measures from any Member of the same Cabinet. The whole of his succour had come from the other side of the House, and with that little eleemosynary aid, and as one Member of the Cabinet it was, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer assumed a high tone and ventured to speak of the opposition as mechanical. He would tie the right hon. Gentleman down by his own acts. He said that the country would lose 23,000l. in the next year. Why did he not serve notice on the Bank in 1838? If he had given notice he would have saved three times 23,000l. He had neglected to serve notice for 1838, 1839, and 1840. Notice ought to have been served. What predicament was the Chancellor of the Exchequer now in? He had placed himself in the power of the Bank of Ireland instead of having that Bank in his power. That was the position of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who assumed such a high tone, whilst he persevered in a neglect of duty. From the first, he had offered to give up his opposition, if any one would get up and say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had brought in the measure at a proper time. He had repeated the offer if such an assertion were made. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had not said that himself, and why should any one else say it for him. The right hon. Gentleman complained of a mechanical opposition unusual in that House; but no one had had the hardihood to assert that the period at which the bill had been brought in was not an unusal one. See how he illustrated his own course. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that he had brought in the bill at a time when a call of the House would not bring 300 Members together. Why a mechanics' institution of the worst kind would not invent such an anomaly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stood alone, and then he talked of prostituting the regulations of the House; prostituting the resources of the Government he should have said; and prostituting the situation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Three years had clapsed since committees had been investigating the subject; the last report was made a year ago, in July 1838. There was full information in that, and yet, without the least pretext, he lay by till the 2nd of August. And to talk to him (Mr. O'Connell) about precedents. Why, when some future Chancellor of the Exchequer would quote this precedent, he would say, "My measure is not half so bad as that proposed in former times, and yet you bring to bear against me a course of proceeding which was not taken against Thomas Spring Rice, the delinquent Chancellor of the Exchequer" as he would say then. The Chancellor of the Exchequer glories in his principles. Did he not admit the proceeding to be against principle. Did he not say that a monopoly could not be defended? Was not this a monopoly? And would he now come forward and say that it would be defended? This was a question of monopoly—the Bank of Ireland was a monopoly. The right hon. Gentleman had shown no cause for the measure. He said that the people of Ireland ought to be consulted. He agreed that they should. He knew that he was satisfying his constituents; he knew the opinion of Scotland pretty well; and he knew that the course he had taken had delighted the people of Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman would soon be sheltered in a safe haven, from which he might look down upon their struggles, and he trusted that he would never have to repeat his name except for some ancient recollection or another. As the right hon. Gentlemen had analysed the divisions on this bill, he would ask how many of those wished to destroy the ministry had voted in the minority against him? With a single exception there was no one in those minorities but those who supported her Majesty's Government. But then, said the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "The Bank of Ireland is a splendid thing—it is all generosity, and goodness, and brilliancy." He had not said a word against the Bank directors personally; he believed that there were not more amiable men in private life, but, with one or two exceptions, they were awfully bad politicans. They had the sanction of hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House, and he (Mr. O'Connell) gave them credit when he believed that they would not have given their support to the directors of the Bank of Ireland if they had been Liberal. If Mr. Roe was not a Bank director why was it? would he not have been a Bank director if he had not proposed him (Mr. O'Connell)? There was not in the whole community a more respectable individual—he had accumulated a large fortune, and he bore a most honourable character in all his dealings. When Mr. Guinness was made a Governor of the Bank, it was after he had deserted his old politics; he was a reputable gentleman of business, he was most respectable in private life, but he was a political renegade. And what reason did he give for big changed vote? A religious one? What bad the Bank of Ireland done for the public? Had the Chancellor of the Exchequr said anything as to their advantage to the public? They had accumulated property for their constituents; they were a perfectly solvent company. Why, the complaint against the company was, that they bad an unused store beyond any demands that could be made upon them. They made money for themselves, but they made it by a monopoly as against the public. Every shilling that they made was taken out of fair trade. Then it was said that the bill would do a good deal of good. Had they understood from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it would be six years before the Bank charter could elapse? He thought that the least the House could bate bees informed of was this. It would not end till twelve months after the first of August, 1844—six years, instead of the four years of which the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, that the bill in its amended shape ought to be printed. That was fair, and he (Mr. O'Connell) would give the right hon. Gentleman every facility for making his amendments. He would even now call the attention of the House to one of the clauses that was to do so much towards promoting the freedom of the banking trade. The marginal notes said, that banks issuing notes within fifty miles of Dublin might have houses of business there for all purposes, except the issuing and re-issuing of notes. See what that did. It did nothing at all for the joint-stock banks. It affected to give them the power of having houses of business, but they were entitled to them under a previous Act. This pompous security for the joint-stocks was worth nothing. There had never been a more unfounded complaint than against the opposition to this bill. It had prevented the passing of one of the worst of measures which it had not been attempted to vindicate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer accused him of repeating his arguments; he could not accuse the Chancellor of the Exchequer of that, for anything in the shape or argument had never escaped his lips in support of this monopoly. It was said that the Bank of Ireland resembled the Bank of England; it resembled it in name, but he believed that such a company as the Bank of England would not allow its name to be tarnished by the connection any longer, when they saw that the example of Scotland was to be overlooked, and that Ireland was to be trampled on as it had hitherto been. What had caused the wealth of Scotland? Scotland was not rich when banks were first established there; why did they not follow in Ireland the example which had succeeded in Scotland? They had the means of guarding against fraud or insolvency. In the next Session, in a fuller and more dispassionate House, he would call upon them to give to Ireland the same form of banking as Scotland, and which the Chancellor of the Exchequer would no more attempt to take away from that country than he would to remove one of the pillars of the Constitution. He would conclude by bringing forward his reasons for the course he had taken. No man had stated any substantial reason for it; for three years the Chancellor of the Exchequer had neglected his duty; committee after committee had sat to obtain information; information had been obtained; for twelve months the Chancellor of the Exchequer had not brought forward the bill; and when he did bring it forward, it was at a time when he had admitted that he would not have succeeded, even with the aid of a call of the House, in procuring an attendance of half the Members of that House. He had mighty divisions of thirty-five, thirty-six, and thirty-eight, and he talked of fighting single-handed. The troops on either side would not number twenty-three, and yet this hero of a hundred fights would exhaust his strength in a House numbering twenty-three at one time, twenty-five at another, and actually amounting to twenty-seven at another ! He (Mr. O'Connell) trusted, that when the question should be again brought forward, some Member of more talent, but of equal determination, would resist the attempt as he had done. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had himself broken down one branch of the monopoly which was now limited to fifty miles, and had once extended all over Ireland. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had broken that down, he had himself joined the joint-stock banks, by which, as he said, notes were coined and then he turned round and talked with ease about establishing the monopoly itself. He was sorry that the right hon. Gentleman had not given up the bill with something of a better temper, with somewhat of a less disposition to cast obloquy on others, when, if there were any crime, he was himself the criminal, without any excuse, and without any attempt at palliation. The spirit which existed in Ireland would prevent her oppressors from holding the ministerial bench. Long might that spirit animate her; and, as to this bill, he was content to appeal to the opinion of the people of Ireland.

Mr. Gisborne

said, that as far as he was concerned, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer had used hard words, he was aware that such an opposition could not be carried on without great inconvenience and much difficulty. During the nine years, however, that he had been in the House, neither the Government, nor any individual, had ever experienced any unfair opposition from him. The only inducements he had had for the course he had now taken were the interests of his constituents, and because he considered that the Members for Ireland were taken by surprise, and could not have a fair chance of resisting the bill. In his opinion, the minority were justified in taking that course, for no other full and fair course of opposition was open to them: and, however much he might regret being driven to adopt such a course, he did not feel that he was justly subject to the reprobation which the right hon. Gentleman had cast upon him.

Viscount Howick

could not refer to the statement that his right hon. Friend had been left unsupported by his colleagues, without distinctly denying the assertion. On the first night of the discussion the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Manchester, the nature of whose avocations, and whose business in the Government led him to attend to matters of this description, stated his reasons for supporting his right hon. Friend. He (Viscount Howick), for one, felt that after such a statement, it would have been impertinent in him to have added any reasons of his own for concurring in the same view; but he was in his place to divide when a division was found necessary. He felt also, that he would only have been playing the game of those Gentleman who wished for delay, if he had not left the argument in the hands of his right hon. Friend, and if he had attempted to join in the debate. The measure was brought forward by his right hon. Friend not in his individual capacity, but as representing the Government, and it was but just to his right hon. Friend, as well as to the Government, who would have been base if they had deserted his right hon. Friend in the manner complained of, if he did not make that statement. He entirely concurred in the opinion, that they had established a precedent of the most dangerous character. In his opinion the power of causing delay by moving repeated adjournments was a power which it was most valuable that the minority should possess, but which, if abused, must by some means be eventually lost. It would be lost if instances of its abuse became frequent, and he did believe that in the present case it had been greatly abused.

Mr. O'Connell

remarked, that the noble Lord had attributed to him what he did not say; he did not say, that the support of the Cabinet was not given to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was aware that the measure was supported by the Cabinet; but what he did say was, that not one Member of the Cabinet had spoken on the right hon. Gentleman's behalf. The noble Lord's interest in Ireland was known full well; it had been felt severely; and he at least ought not to have been the person to come forward upon the present occasion.

Viscount Morpeth

could assure the House, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had acted throughout not only with the full cognizance, but with the entire approbation of the Government, and he must say, that every part of the right hon. Gentleman's proceedings had been above board and sincere. In his support of this bill he had not expressed any opinion as to the permanent footing on which the Bank of Ireland ought to be placed, he had only promoted this bill, reserving his opinion on the general, till they should have an opportunity of considering the Bank of England charter and the whole monetary system of the two countries. The argument of the non-support of the right hon. Gentleman by his colleagues did not square very well with the argument, that the House was overborne by official votes.

Mr. Hume

considered that the argument of the hon. Member for Dublin, founded on the fact, that no other Cabinet Minister had spoken in support of this bill, and the statement of the noble Lord, that this was a Cabinet measure, were perfectly consistent. He considered the course which he had taken upon this question perfectly proper, and that the course which had been pursued by the Government was totally unjustifiable.

Mr. O'Connell

wished to correct a statement which he had made in the former part of the debate. He alluded to what he had said in reference to Mr. Guinness—namely, that he had voted against him on religious grounds. That Gentleman had seen a friend of his since that allegation had been made, and had declared that he had been guided by no such feeling. He, therefore, was quite willing to retract any observation which had fallen from him having such a tendency, and to express his belief that Mr. Guinness was incapable of proceeding as he had suggested.

Committee deferred.