HC Deb 19 February 1847 vol 90 cc293-6

On Clause 1 being read,


wished to call the attention of the Committee to a subject which he thought of considerable importance, as involving a constitutional principle, which, as it appeared to him, would be in some measure violated by the Bill now under their consideration. A power had been given to the Government in the last Session to apply an unlimited amount of money from the Consolidated Fund to a specific purpose. It seems that under the necessity of the case, the Government drew the money from the Consolidated Fund, not for the purpose to which Parliament had sanctioned its application, but for promoting a set of works which had never been in the contemplation of Parliament. The Bill now before the House, however, was merely to render valid the acts of the Government; and it was at variance with all former legislation in cases where the law had been transgressed by the Government for the benefit of the community at large. In previous cases it had been the practice not merely to render valid the acts of the Government, but to indemnify the individual officers concerned in doing any acts contrary to the law. He might mention two instances in which this course had been pursued. On one occasion, when in consequence of a violent hurricane in the West Indies, the governors of those colonies, and the Government at home, thought it proper to admit provisions into the colonies in a manner not authorized by law, as soon as Parliament met, an Act was passed not merely to render valid the proceedings of the Government, but specifically to indemnify all those who had advised any act or done any act in violation of the existing law. In 1826, also, when an enormous rise took place in the price of oats, the Government thought it necessary, by an Order in Council, to admit oats contrary to law; and on the meeting of Parliament a measure was adopted, not only legalizing the act of the Government, but indemnifying all the officers who had been engaged in carrying it into effect. He considered, then, that, in the present case, Parliament having confided to the Government an unlimited power of drawing upon the Consolidated Fund, for a specific purpose, and Government having applied the money it drew under that authority to an object which had not been contemplated by Parliament — there was more than ever a necessity for indemnifying all officers who had acted in violation of the law. He, therefore, took this early opportunity of suggesting to the right hon. Gentleman opposite the introduction into this first clause of the words necessary to indemnify the individual officers who had acted contrary to the letter of the law, but in obedience to the commands of the Government. He also wished to call the attention of the noble Lord opposite to the circumstance that, in the Public Works Act of last Session, there was considerable ambiguity in the clause authorizing advances to be made by the Treasury. The first part of the clause provided, that the sums necessary for carrying on the works should be payable out of a fund limited in amount; so that, by this portion of the clause, the discretion of the Treasury was limited as to the amount to be expended. At the end of the clause, however, there were words stating that the Lords of the Treasury might direct the advance of the said several and respective sums out of the Consolidated Fund. The question, therefore, arose, whether the said several and respective sums mentioned in the latter portion of the clause, were the sums described in the preceding part of the clause; or whether the Treasury were to be empowered to draw upon the Consolidated Fund to an unlimited extent. The Government had construed the clause as giving them an unlimited power; but if those who agreed with him in thinking that their power was limited by the former part of the clause to the sum granted annually for public works, were right, it would be necessary to indemnify all the officers who had been engaged in paying out of the Consolidated Fund a larger amount than was sanctioned by law. It might also be a matter for consideration, whether, if it should appear that the Public Works Act of last Session enabled the Government to make unlimited advances, it was expedient to continue to them so extensive a power. It was a power which, he believed, had never been given to any Government before, and which he thought, on constitutional grounds, it was dangerous for Parliament to entrust to any Government. He begged to assure the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that he made these suggestions in no hostile spirit, or from any desire to interfere with the arrangements they contemplated; but he thought they ought to be cautious that, in a time of great public emergency, they did not consent to acts which, being in violation of the law, might hereafter be drawn into precedents, and involve a departure from all those guards and checks which were imposed upon the issue of public money out of the Treasury.


agreed that the questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman were of very great importance, and deserved the attentive consideration of the Committee. It was unquestionably of great consequence that, in providing for a period of public exigency, they should not do anything contrary to those constitutional rules and principles which it was of the utmost consequence to preserve inviolate. It was, however, unnecessary for him to enter at length into the questions the right hon. Gentleman had brought before the Committee, for they had already received the consideration of Her Majesty's Government, who were in the main entirely agreed with the right hon. Gentleman as to the course which ought to be taken. It was obvious that proceedings had been taken under the Public Works Act which were not only beyond the law, but against the law, and consequently that the present Bill, which was now merely a Bill to render valid certain proceedings of the Government, ought to be a Bill of Indemnity. With this view a clause had been prepared, which would effect this object, which it was the intention of the Government to propose to add to the Bill, and which, he trusted, would entirely satisfy the scruples of the right hon. Gentleman opposite. As to the other point to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred, he apprehended there could not be much doubt that the Bill of last Session gave an unlimited power to the Government of drawing money from the Treasury for the purposes of carrying out the objects of that measure; and he thought it would not be advisable to divest the Government of that power under the continuance Bill. It was impossible to say what sum might be required; the amount indeed could only be limited by the exigency of the case; and the continuance of the measure would be asked for merely until the public works which had been undertaken were completed.

Clause agreed to.

The remaining clauses of the Bill agreed to.

The House resumed.