HC Deb 05 March 1840 vol 52 cc901-14
Lord G. Somerset

rose to move for certain papers relating to the appointment of Mr. Stevenson to the offices of commissioner of Arbitration, and commissioner of Excise; and in so doing said, he would briefly explain the reasons which had induced him to call for those papers. He was well aware that the motion he was about to submit to the House was not one involving great pecuniary considerations; it went rather to an inquiry into the inefficient and improper system under which the revenues of this country were conducted, than to any specific amount. It involved questions of a serious nature, touching public economy and public justice; and if he was correctly informed, the course which had been followed in respect to the case referred to in the papers, was so contrary to all the rules which had been laid down by the House and other authorities, and to all the practice recommended by every commission of inquiry into these subjects, that he felt it very difficult to bring himself to believe it. Indeed, if he had not heard from the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, that Mr. Stevenson had received a salary, both as commissioner of Excise, and a commissioner of Arbitration, the statement would have appeared quite incredible to him. As far as he understood the facts of the case, they were these:—For about two years Mr. Stevenson had been engaged in both offices, and for a portion of that period he had received the salaries of both these offices. When the commission of Arbitration was first appointed, it consisted of five unpaid, and three paid commissioners; they were Gen- tlemen connected with official business, and very competent for the duty they had to discharge, which was a most important one, the apportionment of the 20,000,000l. of money granted as compensation to the proprietors of slaves in the West Indies for their liberation. They were armed, therefore, with large powers; in fact, they were placed more in the position and authority of judge and jury than any other commission. He intended to make no complaint of the manner in which they had performed their task; he believed that they had given general satisfaction, and he had not one word to say against their decisions. The three paid commissioners were Mr. Lewis, Mr. Elwin, and Mr. Stevenson, up to the latter end of the year 1838, when one of the Gentlemen, Mr. Stevenson, was appointed a commissioner of Excise. It was natural to suppose that he would, on receiving that appointment, have taken his farewell at the board of Arbitration; but that did not turn out to be the fact. In the month of October, 1838, Mr. Amyot, who had hitherto been unpaid, received an intimation that he was to be a paid commissioner; and it was understood that Mr. Stevenson, whose removal had made the vacancy for him, received the fraction of salary due to him as commissioner of Arbitration. Subsequently, however, the appointment of Mr. Amyot, which had never been officially announced, it was believed, was recalled by Lord Glenelg. Last winter it happened that a sudden stoppage of the payment of the salaries of those gentlemen took place, and some inquiry took place, which led to the knowledge of the fact that Mr. Stevenson was to receive the whole year's salary, from October 1838 to October 1839, as commissioner of Arbitration. So that, in point of fact, he was in the receipt of 1,200l. a year as commissioner of Excise, and 1,000l. a year as commissioner of Arbitration, contemporaneously. Now, if rumour could be depended on, the right hon. Gentleman opposite had taken the same view of this subject as he did, and had made the most vigorous, though ineffectual, efforts to withstand the pressure put on him, to make him allow Mr. Stevenson the additional salary of 1,000l. It was a fact admitting of no sort of dispute, that the duties which Mr. Stevenson had to discharge were duties of a judicial nature. They consisted in determining legal questions—they consisted in the examination of witnesses—they consisted in balancing the value of separate pieces of evidence, do- cumentary, and other. This statement was not founded upon mere matters of opinion, or matters of conjecture; they were simple statements of facts, notorious in every quarter where the affair in question had ever become a subject of interest. Now, he wanted to know how any one could discharge such duties as those, and be at the same time constantly absent from that place, and that only place at which they could be discharged? It might as well be said that the judges of the courts at Westminster could walk in and walk out while an important legal argument was going forward, as that any person efficiently and properly discharging the duties intrusted to Mr. Stevenson, could be as frequently, and for as long periods, absent, as that gentleman was well known to have been. How could it be otherwise, seeing that he at the same time filled the office of a commissioner of Excise? If the services of Mr. Stevenson were so exceedingly valuable as a commissioner of Arbitration, why was he not kept exclusively to that office? Why was his time taken up, and his attention diverted, by the duties which belonged to the Board of Excise? He begged the House to consider the hours of attendance given at the places where Mr. Stevenson, according to the prescribed rules and regulations of his two offices, was bound to be present. In the first place, the hours of attendance at the Excise-office were from ten o'clock in the morning till three in the afternoon: secondly, the attendance at the office of the commissioners of arbitration was to be from eleven o'clock till four; the House then must see the obvious incompatibility of the two offices. If, as he had already said, the services of Mr. Stevenson were of such high importance in the one, why was he appointed to the other? It was clear that no person could, at one and the same time, discharge the duties of both. No man would attempt to say that the commissioners of Arbitration ought at any time to be absent from their posts. Was the right hon. Gentleman opposite, (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) prepared to assert that the Commissioners of the Excise had no duties to perform—was it not, on the contrary, a matter well known to the generality of the Members of that House, that the duties of the Board of Excise were peculiarly onerous? He need hardly observe, that it would be impossible for Mr. Stephenson to attend to both places at once; and it was equally unnecessary for him to say, that no Government had openly, at least, sanctioned such a combination of obviously incompatible situations. In the year 1833 the Board of Treasury expressly pronounced an opinion adverse to such a practice, and at the same period stated the ground upon which the salaries of the Commissioners of Excise were fixed at so high a rate, viz. the onerous nature of the duties which they had to perform. It might be liberal remuneration for a gentleman who held two offices, to receive for one 1,000l. a year, and for the other 1,200l., but the question was, how could he discharge the duties of both? There was rather a curious point connected with this subject, to which he should now take the liberty of directing the attention of hon. Members. The commissioners of Arbitration were, as the House knew, appointed under an Act of Parliament. Had the Board of Treasury attended to the express provisions of that act, the grounds of complaint upon which he rested his motion would, in all probability, not have arisen. If they had carried out, as they ought to have done, the provisions of that act, one very remarkable feature would be removed from the present case: the act declared, that annually an account should be rendered of the expenses incurred under the authority of that act. Now, no such account had, in the present instance, been rendered. He should not say, that the account was withheld for the purpose of effecting any such object as that which he now made the subject of complaint, but this he would say, that if a job were intended, nothing could be more favourable to its accomplishment than the circumstance of the account never having been furnished. He again would say that he imputed the absence of the account to no such motive, but nevertheless, he could not help noticing it as exceedingly suspicious; he did not accuse her Majesty's Government of withholding the account for the purpose of perpetrating the job, but he did accuse them of not complying with the clear and distinct provisions of the Act of Parliament, which had immediate and direct reference to the matter in question. The provision to which he had alluded, had been introduced for the purpose of checking the evil of which he then complained; the act regulated the salaries of the commissioners of Arbitration; it required that an account should be produced, and yet no account had ever appeared; the provisions of the act would, if they had been complied with, have prevented practically the payment of the double salaries. He could not help very much regretting that Mr. Ste- venson should ever have been induced to accept the second situation; it would have been much better if he had never taken the additional salary; but he hoped that this would be the last instance of one individual holding two offices so manifestly incompatible. As regarded the Board of Treasury, he could not but consider their conduct in this matter as a monstrous dereliction of duty. A great fault had been committed by the Board of Treasury, a great want had been betrayed on their part, of a disposition to prevent the needless expenditure of the public money; but there was more than that, there was an evident and undeniable disobedience of an Act of Parliament. If, when he had done, the right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should get up in his place, and tell the House that the whole accusation originated in, and was founded upon, a mistake, then he should reply, that the mistake must have arisen from the fault of the Board of Treasury—that fault being, their not having complied with the terms of the Act of Parliament. The Commissioners of Excise were bound to dedicate their time to the service of that department; all the time and attention which they could give to it, consistently with a reasonable care of their private affairs, and a fair allowance for recreation, the whole of their thoughts and exertions ought to be given up to the duties of their office; yet it was presumed that Mr. Stevenson had a quantity of spare time on his hands, of the value of 1,000l. a year, and accordingly he received for one year's salary as much as 2,200l. Never, since any attention had been paid by Parliament to the expenditure of the public money—certainly never within the last five-and-twenty years—had anything of the sort occurred. No doubt there had been instances of men holding more than one situation, but then they were situations in which the duties were small, and the emoluments small; therefore, the precedent which they supplied could be of no value in the consideration of such a case as that of Mr. Stevenson, who held situations so important, so lucrative, and obviously so incompatible with each other. Had Mr. Amyot, who received 800l. a year, been appointed to the office which Mr. Stevenson held, then there would have been a saving to the country of that sum of 800l. a year, his salary as registrar of slaves, which would have merged in the salary of 1,000l. He trusted that in thus bringing this question under the consideration of the House, it would be felt that he had done so without practising any exaggeration he trusted that when the papers were laid upon the table of the House, it would be seen that he was fully borne out in the assertion which he had made, that the course pursued by the Board of Treasury was in all respects inexpedient, and that in one particular, it was clearly in contravention of the express provisions of an Act of Parliament. The noble Lord concluded by moving an address for a Return of all persons appointed to be paid commissioners of Arbitration under the powers of the act 3 and 4 William 4th, c. 73; stating their names, the dates of their appointments, the salaries and emoluments to be paid to each of them, and the payments made to them respectively on account thereof; the dates of the said payments, and the authority under which such payments have been made. Return of any other office (if any) in the public service held by each of the said paid commissioners of arbitration; specifying the date of appointment to each office respectively, the salaries and emoluments payable, and the salaries and emoluments paid, in consequence of such other office; together with the dates of payment in each case. Copy of any warrant or warrants by which any payments may have been made to Mr. Stevenson, as commissioner of Arbitration, since the appointment of Mr. Stevenson to be a commissioner of the Board of Excise. Copies of any communications from the Secretary of the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, to the Board of Treasury, or to the Board of Arbitration Commissioners, in reference to the appointment of Mr. Amyot to be a paid commissioner of Arbitration.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, the House must be perfectly aware, as no doubt the noble Lord opposite was, that there could be no objection to producing the papers for which he moved, or any other documents connected with the subject which could afford the House the least information. He could not, however, but observe that the noble Lord, without the least reason to anticipate a refusal of the documents, argued the case before he procured the evidence. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) would necessarily be obliged to allude to transactions, the documents respecting which, were not before the House; but when the papers were on the table they would find every word which he intended to address to them fully borne out by the indisputable statements which those papers contained. As the noble Lord had thought proper to address them at such length, he must beg permission to make a few remarks upon what had fallen from the noble Lord. In the first place, no remuneration in the nature of salary had ever been given to Mr. Stevenson; remuneration was promised for the whole work, but not in the shape of annual salary. At the commencement of his labours their exact nature and extent could not be very precisely calculated. The commissioners of arbitration were to report from time to time, and the Treasury were occasionally to issue money in proportion to the work done. A sum had been paid to Mr. Stevenson for his labours in one year, which did amount to 1,000l., and in that sense only could he ever have been said to have received 1,000l., but he got no annual salary. It was no more than justice to say, that the labours of the commissioners of arbitration had been well and efficiently performed there was no one connected with the West India interest who would gainsay that statement; but, on the contrary, he was sure that the Members of that body would readily bear testimony to the truth of the observation. No men could attend more assiduously than they did to the duties of their situation, or give more satisfaction to the country. The duty which they had to perform, was one which required a legal education; they must, therefore, of necessity, belong to the profession of the law, and he must say that he thought the mode in which those gentlemen had conducted their proceedings in every way deserving the attention and perhaps the imitation of other courts of law. The transaction as to Mr. Stevenson was this:—In the year 1838 he was engaged in his duties as a commissioner of arbitration. In the autumn of 1839 the commissioners made their report, and applied for such payment on account as the Treasury might think proper to award. Two points then came before him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) for his consideration—the first was the state of the business before the commissioners; on that point he thought it advisable that a notice should issue, intimating that it was intended to bring the business before those commissioners to a speedy termination, and stating that they would close their labours on the 1st of January, 1841. The second point was, whether Mr. Stevenson should receive any payment as commissioner of arbitration, together with his salary as commissioner of Excise. To this he felt an objection and wrote accordingly to his noble Friend at the head of the Government, stating the course which he proposed to pursue; and so far was his noble Friend from remonstrating with him, as had been supposed, that he recommended him to proceed as he had proposed. He then sent for Mr. Stevenson, and stated to him that he did not consider it right that he should continue to receive emoluments for one office and a salary for another at the same time; and in the most honourable and creditable manner Mr. Stevenson proposed to continue his labours gratuitously. He naturally wished himself to assist to the last in bringing the labours of the board to a close—labours which had done him and those with whom he had been associated much credit. He (Mr. Baring) had then decided that Mr. Stevenson should receive the remuneration applied for in the year 1839, and certain dues for the remuneration of the commission, to act without further remuneration. If, then, there had been any impropriety in the transaction, it proceeded altogether from him, and not from Mr. Stevenson. He would proceed to state the grounds of his decision. The House must be aware that the duties which the commissioners had to discharge were of a most laborious character—they were remunerated in proportion to the importance and the severity of those labours. Mr. Stevenson had gone through the most burdensome portion of the work, and it was not fair to judge of his merits by the portion of time which had elapsed t he might be wrong in this view of the question, but he did think it ought to form a principal ingredient in the proper estimation of the whole case. He thought, also, that though Mr. Stevenson held a seat at the Board of Excise, it would still be better to continue him at the other board, than introduce to it a fresh commissioner, who could not be familiar with its duties or previous proceedings; who could not, therefore, be so well qualified as Mr. Stevenson to get through the remaining portion of the business before the board, and who must either sit there as a cipher, or impede its operations. Looking, then, at the labour to be performed, and at the advantage to the public from the continuance of Mr. Stevenson's services, he must say, that if he had the same question again to decide, he should come to the same decision, and supposing the appointment of Mr. Stevenson to have been made by the predecessors of the present Government in office, he still could not avoid taking the same course. It was never the practice of any Government to go back and deprive any gentleman of money to which, under such circumstances, he had established a just right, or disappoint any expectations which he might reasonably have been led to form. With respect to Mr. Amyot, he had been appointed by Lord Glenelg under a mistake, and the letter authorizing his appointment was immediately withdrawn. As had been before said, the commissioners sat as judges, they had legal questions to determine, and, without meaning the slightest disrespect to Mr. Amyot, he might be permitted to say, that not being a lawyer, he was unqualified, whatever might be his talents and attainments, to take a seat at the board of arbitration. It was further necessary he should observe, that the nature of the business at this board did not require constant attendance; when once a principle was laid down, it extended to a great many cases. It had been argued, that the office of a commissioner of Excise was inconsistent with that of a commissioner of arbitration; be knew not upon what principle such a position could be maintained. Lord George Seymour was first commissioner and chairman of the Revenue Board at the same time that he held the office of chief wharfinger of Ireland. Sir Francis Hastings Doyle was deputy-lieutenant of the Tower, with a salary of 300l., and chairman of the Board of Excise, with a salary of 1,700l. a-year, and that state of things existed in the year 1826, when the noble Lord who made the present motion was a Lord of the Treasury. There was also Mr. Greville, who held the offices of Comptroller of the Excise and Receiver of Taxes for Nottingham, and who was, moreover, Secretary for the Island of Tobago. He would not go beyond the department of the Excise; it was unnecessary to do so. He found that during the Administration of which the noble Lord was a Member, Mr. Finch Hatton was inspector of teas in the Excise, and also a commissioner of Stamps. Again, Mr. Jenkinson was registrar of Excise—that was, registrar of the decisions of the board when they sat judicially; also a receiver of Stamps, and Lieutenant of Dover Castle. There was also Mr. Wilimott, who was distributor of stamps in the Excise, with a salary of 1,000l. per annum, and also Receiver-general of the Post-office with 800l. a-year. All these transactions had taken place during the administration with which the noble Lord was connected. He trusted that the explanation which he had given would be considered satisfactory, and he was quite sure that when the papers were before the House, and it was found that it did not rest merely on his word, but that the arrangement was made on a Treasury minute, all doubt would be put an end to at once. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving as an addition to the motion of the noble Lord, for a return of the Treasury minutes relating to the payment of any sums of money to Mr. Stevenson as commissioner of arbitration since his appointment of commissioner of Excise.

Mr. Goulburn

observed that as there was no objection to the production of the papers for which his noble Friend had moved, he would not, on the present occasion, enter into any discussion upon the general merits of the case. But he could not refrain from expressing his surprise that his right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should have thought it necessary to complain of the statement which his noble Friend had made in support of his motion. If his noble Friend had merely brought forward the case, without stating the grounds for so doing, he would have been open to the accusation of having submitted a motion for which he could not make out a case. His noble Friend, therefore, was, in his opinion, fully justified in the course he had thought proper to pursue. His noble Friend had stated very explicitly and very accurately the grounds of the charge against the Government; and he must, with all respect, add that his right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had made a very feeble and insufficient reply. He would state his reasons for saying so. If he correctly understood his right hon. Friend's argument, he did not deny that it was the practice to allow to the commissioners of arbitration a certain amount of money on account in the month of October, and that when Mr. Stevenson applied to him, he having been appointed to the Excise commissionership in September, 1838, his right hon. Friend considered that he was entitled to a larger proportion of remuneration, because the business of the Board of Arbitration up to the middle of 1838, had been far more laborious than it could be from thence to the expiration of the commission. He thought this reply showed a sufficient reason for asking the grounds upon which the payment had been made. But the charge was not that the Treasury bad paid Mr. Stevenson for business done up to the middle of the year 1838—important as every one admitted that business to be. The charge was, that in 1839 Mr. Stevenson, having in the meantime discharged his duty as a commissioner of excise, the Government had made him a further payment as a commissioner of arbitration. That was the charge, and to that no reply had been given. The right hon. Gentleman, had told them that much inconvenience would have arisen if they had introduced as the successor of Mr. Stevenson at that subsequent period of the commission a stranger to the office. But Lord Glenelg had guarded expressly against that contingency when he appointed Mr. Amyot, who was a man of great ability and talent, and in every way a most efficient person, and who had, moreover, been for some time acting at the board as an unpaid commissioner. He therefore, thought with Lord Glenelg that Mr. Amyot was the person best calculated to supply the place of Mr. Stevenson; and, if he had been appointed, the country would have been saved a salary of 800l. a year. But that was not done, and Mr. Stevenson was retained in his office, and was then receiving the double salary. The right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer had endeavoured to get rid of the charge by a sort of tu quoque argument, in saying that the Opposition had done the same thing when in office. But the cases the right hon. Gentleman had quoted did not bear him out. Lord George Seymour had certainly held the sinecure office of Wharfinger of Ireland, in addition to the commissionership of excise. It was the custom when those large sinecure offices existed for them to descend in reversion to the children of the holders; and it was in that way that Lord George Seymour had held the office in question. Such was the custom at the period to which he alluded. He was not maintaining that that custom was correct, he was merely showing that the sinecure office which he had named had been given to the Hertford family—improperly perhaps—but like any other gift for length of service or some particular cause. And the principle had been recognised by the Legislature when they allowed compensation for the loss of such offices. But no analogy could be drawn between the cases of Mr. Stevenson and Lord George Seymour, because to the office which the latter held when he was appointed chairman of the Excise Board there were no duties attached. He had no occasion to go to Dublin to attend to the duties of his office there; he had, in fact, nothing to do. But if hon. Gentlemen opposite were now to make the holding of such offices by public servants in former days a plea for conferring upon persons a plurality of offices now, they would inflict a far greater evil on the public than it suffered under the old practice, because at that time the duties of the one office were sufficiently performed, but under the system the right hon. Gentleman would introduce, the duties of the one office would so interfere with those of the other, that it would be impossible for the officer to perform either well. With respect to Sir Francis Doyle, who had also been referred to by his right hon. Friend, the office of Lieutenant of the Tower which he held merely required that he should reside in the Tower during a certain part of the year. And he might argue that while residing there Sir Francis Doyle was very near to" his duties in the Excise-office. But it was also to be remembered that the Lieutenant of the Tower was an officer appointed not by the Crown, but by the Governor of the Tower, and Sir Francis Doyle had been appointed to that office by Lord Hastings who was the governor at the time. He would merely add on this point that Parliament in its wisdom had thought fit to abolish sinecure offices, and he would ask were they now prepared to establish a new precedent by giving to one officer two appointments and a double salary, when, as he maintained, it was absolutely impossible for that officer to perform the double duty. He would not enter further into the discussion of the subject until the papers should be laid before the House.

Mr. Hume

did not think the House was then in a condition to pronounce an opinion upon the subject. He thought, however, that if, as had been said by the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a commissioner of excise had sufficient leisure; to enable him to perform the duties of another office, it was a sufficient reason for reducing the number of those commissioners. There were now seven commissioners in the excise, and he (Mr. Hume) considered that three would be amply sufficient. He also thought that the number of commissioners of customs should also be reduced to three, and that the present number of stamp commissioners might also very properly be reduced by one half. There were now, he believed, in the three departments he had mentioned, twenty-two commissioners, he believed that nine would be sufficient, and was of opinion that the work would be much better done by that reduced number of commissioners than it was at present, for he had always found that the fewer the number of persons in any office, the more efficiently were the duties of that office performed. He believed that many of the appointments that had been made in the various departments of the revenue had been made on the ground of political influence, and not on the ground of fitness of the parties.

Lord J. Russell

thought that the noble Lord was mistaken as to the conduct of Lord Glenelg, in reference to his intention to appoint Mr. Amyot. The fact he understood to be, that Mr. Stevenson, having said that he did not think he could go on with the business as a commissioner of compensations if he continued to hold the two offices, that then Lord Glenelg sent the appointment to Mr. Amyot. He did consider that this was not the holding of a double office, but the appointment of a gentleman to a commission which had already gone through an immense deal of business. He would not enter into the question whether such services ought to be paid for or not, but he thought that his right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had given a very satisfactory answer on that point. Now the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Goulburn) seemed to think that, if a person had nothing to do, there was no objection to his holding two offices. It did so happen that this commission of compensation to the West India proprietors had been appointed on the recommendation of the noble Lord who was then Secretary for the Colonies It was well known that that commission had certainly performed its duties in a manner not only creditable to the commissioners, but in a very exemplary manner. In proof of this remark, the noble Lord read four extracts from an ably-written pamphlet on the subject of the labours of the arbitration commission, showing the multitude of claims that were received and disposed of between the years 1835 and 1840. Now, he thought when this had been the case, and they took into their consideration the delays which always arose in our courts of law and equity in respect to claims for compensation or disputed property, he thought Lord Glenelg had made a most judicious appointment in the person of Mr. Steven- son. He did not know what course the noble Lord opposite might hereafter take, but he believed it to be notorious that there were many persons holding two offices, some of them involving considerable duties; and he begged to assure the hon. Member for Kilkenny (Mr. Hume), who seemed to imagine that the public service was neglected, that, in respect to those who were placed in the subordinate situations in the public departments, he did feel sometimes, not that he had to reproach those persons for not giving a greater portion of their time to the public service, but that on the contrary he found their attachment to the public service was such that many gentlemen undertook a degree of labour which had frequently drawn from him the observation that they must be ruining their healths.

Mr. Irving

could not help giving his-testimony to the conduct of the three commissioners of compensation. He had himself received a variety of claims from the Crown colonies, the West Indies, and particularly from the Mauritius, all of which had been decided with a despatch and in a manner which was highly creditable to the commission. He knew that it had been under discussion to present a memorial to her Majesty's Government to represent that the remuneration which these gentlemen were about to receive was quite inadequate to the value and extent of their services; and if such a memorial were adopted, he should be glad to present it himself.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.