HC Deb 29 July 1840 vol 55 cc1074-8
Lord J. Russell

rose to move that the Regency Bill be read a second time. Her Majesty had thought it due to the interests of the country, that she should call on Parliament to provide for a contingency which he was sure, if the wishes and prayers of her people were to prevail, we should have no reason to dread. But as it was, no doubt the duty of Parliament to provide for the exercise of the Royal authority in any contingency, and as they were then called on to make provision for that purpose, the question for the House to consider was, in what manner they might best provide for the government of the country, in case of the termination of her Majesty's life, while she left an offspring under that age at which princes or princesses are considered fit to exercise the Royal authority in this country. In stating the provisions of the bill now before the House, it would not be necessary for him to enter into any detail of what was done in other similar cases, except in a single instance. The precedents on the subject were, generally speaking, unsatisfactory, having been for the greater part made the occasion of much party difference, and the provisions being generally encumbered with stipulations and provisos extremely doubtful in their effects. The only precedent on the subject to which Parliament could look with satisfaction, was that which it was proposed to follow in the present bill—namely, the provisions of the Regency Bill in the year 1830, introduced into the other House by Lord Lyndhurst, then Lord Chancellor, and cordially supported, not only by the Government of which that noble and learned Lord was a Member, but also by the Government which succeeded. That bill provided simply for the exercise of the Royal authority. It was a bill which received the cordial sanction of both Houses, and met with the general concurrence of all parties in the country. The principle of that bill was to provide as fully as possible for the exercise of the Royal authority while that authority was in the hands of a regent. This was the principle stated by Mr. Fox, in the discussion which took place on the regency question in 1788, and the same principle was stated fully and strongly by Lord Lyndhurst in 1830. It was desirable, as that noble and learned Lord said, that when they bad the Royal authority somewhat diminished by not having the name and title of the sovereign, they should not have that authority (which was considered necessary for preserving the balance of the constitution) further limited by Parliamentary restrictions or regulations. For that purpose, and in order to keep the Royal authority unimpaired, he conceived it necessary, in the first place, that it should be exercised by one individual only. It was obvious that the division of authority amongst a council of regency, especially where some of them might, and must be, persons of the highest rank, would only tend to weaken and enfeeble the Royal authority. It was therefore proposed in this bill, that the power of the regent should be placed, not in a council of regency, but in a single person. Then as to the power of the regent, it was not proposed to limit or restrict it, except in those cases in which it seemed absolutely necessary so to do—those being the cases of the succession to the throne, and the preservation of the Church as established by the Act of Uniformity, in the reign of Charles the 2nd, in England, and afterwards in Ireland by the Act of Anne, and subsequently by the Act of Union with Ireland, as fully as it was in England, and likewise the Church of Scotland, as established by law. There was also a limitation of the power of the regent, with respect to his marriage under particular circumstances, but those were the only limitations which the bill contained as to his power. The only remaining question to be considered was, as to the person in whom this power was to be vested. According to the precedent of 1830, that authority was vested in the surviving parent, and, according to all reasonable and natural considerations, the surviving parent, to whom a child of tender years; would be most dear, would be the person to whom the guardianship should be confided. Such being the precedent, and such being the decision to which he had reason to hope Parliament would come, with respect to the guardianship of the heir to the Crown, it seemed to him most desirable that that guardianship should not be divided from the Royal authority, but that that authority should be exercised by the surviving parent. They were then supposing a case which might unfortunately happen, of the termination of her Majesty's life, before any issue of her Majesty might attain the age of eighteen years. It was therefore proposed, in this bill, that the Royal authority should be vested in his Royal Highness Prince Albert, the present consort of the Sovereign. It appeared to him that this was the most proper and most constitutional mode in which, in such an unfortunate event as he had alluded to, the Royal authority should be exercised. But he again would repeat his most fervent prayer, that the provisions of this bill might be rendered unnecessary. It was, however, incumbent on Parliament to provide for such a contingency. He knew of no better mode of making such provision than that adopted by the other House of Parliament, with the consent of all parties, in conformity with the precedent of 1830, which, in his opinion, was most consonant with the due maintenance of the monarchy, and with the best interests of the country. He had now only to move, that the bill be read a second time.

Sir R. Peel

begged to express his most hearty concurrence in the prayer offered up by the noble Lord, which he was sure was in unison with the feelings of every Member of that House—thai it might please Almighty God to avert the contingency for which this bill was intended to provide, and to make the enactments of the measure of no other effect than of being necessary to provide for every contingency that might happen. In the provisions of the bill he cordially concurred. It was founded altogether on the precedent set in 1830 by the Government, of which he was at the time a member, which was introduced by Lord Lyndhurst, and to which it would have been his (Sir R. Peel's) duty to have asked the sanction of this House, had he continued in office. The bill of 1830 might have been brought in at an earlier period; but the Government gave itself time for the most full consideration of the question, and gave it their fullest support when carried on by their successors in office. He concurred in the principle of the bill, which constituted a sole regent unfettered by a council, or by restrictions of any kind, save those essential ones mentioned by the noble Lord. As to a council of regency, he thought that the best council would be found in a responsible ministry. He concurred in the policy of not fettering the regent by any restrictions, and he also concurred in the principle of not attempting to provide against every possible contingency. Nothing was so unwise as to go beyond the necessity of the case, by attempting to foresee—an attempt that must be ineffectual—every contingency that could arise, and to tie up the hands of future Parliaments by making provisions for remote contingencies, such as the unfortunate demise of the regent. It was unwise to make provision for a contingency so exceedingly remote, and which would be much better provided for by the Parliament in being at the time when the necessity arose. He must also say, agreeing as he did in the principle of supporting a sole regent, unfettered by any council of regency, that he thought Parliament had done wisely in giving the guardianship of the future sovereign to the nearest relative, and in not separating from it the functions of the regency. That was the principle on which he, and the Government of which he formed a part, acted in 1830, with respect to the Duchess of Kent and her present Majesty, then Princess Victoria; it was then considered that the mother had the deepest interest, not only in the custody of the child, but in the mode of administering the Government, and it was the principle on which they proceeded when, in contemplation of the possibility that the Queen Dowager might have been pregnant at the demise of the late King, they provided that in case of the birth of a posthumous child, Queen Adelaide should have the guardianship of the child, and should exercise the functions of regent. He had only to state, therefore, that the bill had his most cordial concurrence, and would conclude as he began, by expressing a hope that the contingency contemplated by the measure might be averted by the favour of Divine Providence.

Mr. Freshfield

concurred in the provisions of the bill, but wished to call the attention of the House and of the noble Lord, more for the purpose of obtaining information than of making any objection to the state of things which might exist, if at the death or disqualification of the regent, Parliament should be prorogued, or should be dissolved, and no new Parliament assembled. All the precedents down to 1830 had provided for this contingency. The case of an accession was provided for, but he was not aware of the existence of any authority to assemble Parliament in case of the death or disqualification of a regent. Why should not some provision for this contingency be inserted in the present bill? He broadly admitted, that in the bill of 1830 no such provision was made, but he did not know what inconvenience would arise from introducing it. In the precedent of 1811, when his Majesty was incapable of exercising the Royal prerogative, they had been obliged to resort to what certainly appeared a very crooked proceeding, although he admitted it was justified by the circumstances of the case. The two Houses of Parliament authorized the great seal to be put to a commission without the sign manual, and the commissioners appointed by that commission gave the Royal assent to the Regency Bill. At the time, the proceeding was much objected to, and particularly by hon. Members on the other side, who preferred an address to a bill. It was thought that the contingency should have been provided for by a general law, and that the President of the Council should be authorized to supply the want of the sign-manual in such a case. This could not be considered a fanciful objection, when it was remembered that in the act repealing the attainder of the Duke of Norfolk, the want of the sign-manual was made the ground of repealing that attainder.

Bill read a second time.