HC Deb 12 February 1856 vol 140 cc677-80

said, he begged to move for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the Act 22 Geo. III., disqualifying Contractors from being elected to, or sitting and voting as Members in, the House of Commons. The Act which he proposed to repeal had been passed in the year 1782, and it embraced within its grasp every person who might enter into a contract or agreement with the Government. In addition to being disqualified from sitting in Parliament, the Act imposed a penalty of £500 upon every person so disqualified every time that he sat or voted in the House, and it also disabled him from ever again holding any contract under Government. It must be admitted that those penalties were of a very stringent and sweeping nature, and, as an evidence of the wide scope of the Act, he might mention that since the meeting of the present Parliament several gentlemen had been unconsciously entangled in its meshes. Among these were the late Member for Carlisle and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Price); and Sir Samuel Morton Peto had been permanently disqualified from sitting during the present Parliament, by simply undertaking what was really an act of kindness to Her Majesty's Government. A yet stronger case was that of Baron Rothschild last year; and without pretending to be a lawyer, he must confess he could not see the distinction which had been drawn by the Committee appointed by the House to sit upon the matter, between a contract to supply a small quantity of goods and a contract to supply £16,000,000 of money. He always thought that the constitutional check upon malversation was to be sought for in the responsibility of Ministers, and not in Bills of Pains and Penalties. Besides, the Act was really quite useless to prevent that against which it had been aimed, for it was perfectly notorious that it could be evaded with the most perfect ease. All that was necessary to be done was, for the contractor to have the contract transferred from him to some other partner in his firm, and he would be held harmless. That was not a creditable state of things, and he thought that he had made out a case for the repeal of so anomalous an Act as that to which he had referred. On the part of the mercantile community he must repudiate all desire to enter into collusive bargains with the Members of the Government. In the Admiralty all large contracts were put up by advertisement for public competition, and he supposed the same rule was adhered to in the other departments.


said, he would offer no objection to the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, but in making that statement he wished to accompany it with an explanation in regard to the measure sought to be introduced. The Bill would have a double operation. In the first place, it would remove all doubt as to the liability of loan contractors to the penalties of the Contractors' Act. That question came before the Select Committee which sat last Session upon the case of Baron Rothschild. Great difference of opinion between high legal authorities existed in that Committee; but it was decided by a majority that loan contractors were not within the meaning of the Act. He would not himself venture to express any opinion upon that legal question; but he might be permitted to say that the Committee was perfectly right as to the expediency of the case. A great difference, in point both of law and fact, existed between loan contractors and other contractors with the Government. In the case of a loan the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as representing the Treasury on the one hand, and the contractors who tendered to him on the other, were in fact mere negotiators on behalf of the parties who ultimately engaged themselves to the contract—namely, the nation and the subscribers of the loan. It was well known that no authority was delegated to the Executive Government to contract loans upon perpetual or other annuities. All that the Treasury, as representing the Executive Government, could do was, to make with the person who came forward on behalf of an indefinite body of subscribers a provisional bargain, which afterwards might or might not be ratified by Parliament. Therefore, the words of the Act which imposed a penalty upon persons contracting with the Commissioners of the Treasury—for such were the terms of the Act—could not be held to apply to the provisional agreement thus made, which had no binding or legal effect until it was embodied in an Act of Parliament. But Parliament did delegate to the Commissioners of the Treasury, to the Commissioners of the Admiralty, and to the other bodies named in the Act, power to make binding contracts for certain limited purposes. For instance, if the Commissioners of the Admiralty wished to purchase a certain quantity of coals for the navy, the First Lord did not come down to the House and lay on the table a Resolution empowering him to do so. The business of the House would be endless if every time an executive department required to make a purchase of that kind it was necessary for its head to get a Resolution passed enabling him to enter into such a contract. Parliament had, therefore, very wisely delegated the power of making limited contracts to the different departments, while it had always withheld from the Treasury the power of pledging the national faith with respect to a perpetual loan. Now, he agreed with the hon. Member for Bridport that if any doubt existed as to the exemption of loan contractors from the Contractors' Act, it ought to be removed; and he should be quite ready to give his best support to any Bill having that object. But, at the same time, he wished to be understood as reserving his opinion regarding the position of other classes of contractors.


said, he thought there existed very great objection to the introduction of such a Bill. If any one read the debate which took place when the Act in question passed, he would see that the object and intention of the Legislature then was to guard against that species of contracts into which Baron Rothschild entered. The complaints of that day were that the Government, in making contracts for loans, gave great and unfair advantages to their own friends, and it was upon that point that the debates entirely turned. The times might now have changed, but that was altogether another question to the real object and intention of the Act by which those penalties were imposed. For himself he did not think that the Government of the present day would dare to give an advantage to their friends when they contracted for a loan. The other part of the Act deserved very great consideration before they acceded to the proposition of the hon. Member.


said, that if the hon. and learned Gentleman had studied the question upon which he had undertaken to enlighten the House, he would have found that he was utterly in error in point of fact, for Baron Rothschild had entered into no contract at all; while, if he had examined the Loan Act, which, with great deference to him, he begged to say, he had not read—[Mr. J. G. PHILLI-MORE: I beg your pardon; I have read it]—well, he was referring, not to the Contractors' Act, but to the Loan Act, which, he repeated, the hon. and learned Gentleman, in his opinion, had not read, or he would have seen that it amounted to a repeal of a portion of the Contractors' Act, exempting a person making a loan from its penalties. So far, therefore, as the present Bill related to loan contractors, it was altogether unnecessary; while, so far as it proposed to deal with the other and more general question, he thought it was a most dangerous measure. It might fairly be doubted whether the public interests would be consulted by permitting Government contractors to sit in that House.


said, he must beg to explain that he had not referred to the Loan Act at all, but to the Contractors' Act, which was to guard against the evils to which he had alluded.

The House divided:—Ayes 46; Noes 43: Majority 3.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. THOMAS MITCHELL and Mr. HANKEY.

Bill read 1°.

The House adjourned at half after Eleven o'clock.