HC Deb 26 February 1856 vol 140 cc1412-25

Order read for resuming adjourned De-hate on Amendment proposed to be made to Question [26th February], "That the Bill be now read a second time;" and which Amendment was, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words, "upon this day six months."

Question again proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

Debate resumed.


Sir, I am anxious to state to the House the course which Her Majesty's Government, on full consideration, have felt it their duty to take in regard to the measure now under discussion. Sir, that measure was proposed to Parliament upon a full consideration of the matters to which it relates. Her Majesty's Government felt that the burdens which now exist on shipping and on the industry of the country, by reason of the different imposts and duties to which this Bill relates, were matters deserving of the interference of Parliament, for the purpose of relieving the interests concerned from the charges and burdens under which we thought it unfitting that they should continue to labour. Sir, it was with that view that the measure now waiting for second reading was submitted to Parliament. In the discussion which has taken place, nothing has been adduced by those who have opposed the measure which in any degree tends to shake the confidence of Her Majesty's Government as to the justice or as to the policy of the course which we have pursued. This, however, is not the moment to enter into the arguments that have been adduced; but I think it right to inform the House that the opinion of Her Majesty's Government has not been shaken, either in regard to the question of right, or in regard to the question of policy. But, Sir, in the course of the discussion it was made manifest that in regard to the cases of the towns which will be affected by this measure, there are a far greater variety of different circumstances and complicated interests than, perhaps, Her Majesty's Government were at first led to suppose. These are matters which every hon. Gentleman will see we are perfectly imcompetent to deal with in a Committee of the whole House. It is impossible, in conducting a debate in a Committee on a Bill in this House, to arrange separate provisions in respect of peculiar cases, especially if certain provisions in such measure be neither satisfactory to the House nor just to the parties concerned. Now, this Bill consists of two portions; one more simple, the other more complicated; one relating to passing tolls, the other relating to differential duties and to dues paid to towns. It is, Sir, more especially with regard to the last of these two classes of cases that we found that there was a great variety of representations which were entitled, and very justly entitled, to be made by the towns that would be concerned in the measure. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Vice President of the Board of Trade has informed me, that within the last two or three days circumstances have been represented to the Board of Trade on behalf of the towns of Hull and Bristol that led that Board to think that special provisions ought to be framed for these particular cases. Well, Sir, these special provisions to exclude either or both of these towns would be matters of considerable difficulty to a Committee of the whole House. Considering then, Sir, the great difference of opinion that exists in this House with regard to the operations of that portion of the measure—considering that it is not the duty of Her Majesty's Government to call upon the House to bestow its time and attention in a manner the least likely to lead hon. Members to any just and satisfactory conclusion—Her Majesty's Government have come to the opinion that it would be more convenient to the House, that it would be more conducive to the public convenience and the interests of the country, and that we should be more likely to come to a clear understanding or a satisfactory conclusion on these points, if these complicated details with regard to differential duties and town dues were referred to the consideration of a Select Committee of this House. And, Sir, I hope that when such proposal is made the House will deem it right to adopt it. The matter is now in such a condition that it cannot rest as it is; and viewing the question, either as regards justice to the towns concerned or the satisfaction of the public, the investigation can, in my opinion, best be carried on, and a new Bill be best devised by, a Select Committee of this House. Well, Sir, for that purpose it would be useless for Her Majesty's Government to ask this House to carry on for the present the consideration of the Bill now before it. The course most respectful to the House and most consistent with the public interests would be for Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Bill now before the House, for the purpose of taking the whole question into consideration, and referring to a Select Committee those matters of complicated detail—those matters to which I have referred—that we may endeavour to see whether the more simple matter can be made so distinct from the other and more complicated one as to form a subject of a separate Bill for the consideration of this House. On these grounds, Sir, and feeling that it would be unbecoming of the Government to call on Parliament or on this House to carry on a discussion on a matter of such great public interest, without a probability of that discussion leading to any satisfactory conclusion, I therefore, Sir, propose to withdraw this Bill.


Sir, I have heard with satisfaction the declaration which the noble Lord has just made to this House on the part of Her Majesty's Government. I confess, Sir, that last night, after the discussion, when the character of the Bill before us was commencing to be understood, and when propositions so alarming were supported by the Member of the Government to which their advocacy was entrusted in a speech more calculated than any I have listened to in this House to disturb the public mind—to unsettle all that confidence in prescription which has hitherto been one of the most considerable sources of the stability and the security of property and order in this country—I felt it my duty to impress on the House the expediency of coming to a quick decision, and of not postponing to the day proposed by the noble Lord a resolution which I am sure would have been waited for with great anxiety by the public generally, and which it was not, in my opinion, to the public advantage to have delayed. Sir, I therefore hear with great satisfaction that the noble Lord has thought fit to withdraw this Bill; and remembering the debate that took place last night—remembering that although the Amendment to the Bill was moved by an hon. and learned Friend of mine who sits at this side of the House, none of the characteristics of party controversy were imported into that discussion—I think it is, indeed, a source of great satisfaction that the discernment of the House of Commons should have checked the introduction of such crude and ill-considered measures. Sir, I do not clearly understand the view which the noble Lord takes of the position of the Government with respect to this measure so introduced and so withdrawn. I understood the noble Lord to say that Her Majesty's Government would not have felt it to be their duty to introduce this important and comprehensive measure if they had not given it all the consideration which so considerable a project required; but before the noble Lord terminated his observations, I was at a loss to understand on what points of the Bill it was that Her Majesty's Government had expended the consideration spoken of by the noble Lord. The noble Lord says that the Bill consists of two important parts. The first part—that relating to the passing tolls—he spoke of as requiring one mode of dealing; and the second—that relating to local dues—the noble Lord spoke of as being the more complicated of the two. Now, Sir, I cannot think what there is connected with passing tolls that required very deep or prolonged consideration on the part of Her Majesty's Government. The subject is one that has long been considered and thoroughly understood—one on which this House has for a considerable period been prepared, I might say unanimously prepared, to deal. Why, Sir, I myself more than three years ago proposed a measure on the subject to this House, which measure, I may say, was, even at that moment of party excitement, received with general favour. Therefore, Sir, I cannot understand that this great consideration, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, was demanded by that portion of the measure which referred to passing tolls. But then it follows, of course, that this deep consideration, for which the noble Lord took credit, was given to the second portion of the Bill, which referred to the local dues. Yet we find them dislodged from that position also, for it appears from the speech of the noble Lord that upon all circumstances connected with local rates and differential dues the Government were in a state of hopeless ignorance till they had heard the debate which took place in this House last night. Why, Sir, it is but natural to suppose that the Board of Trade has given to this subject very considerable consideration. The Board of Trade is now represented in the Cabinet; till lately it was not represented in the Cabinet; but, at the present moment, we see the fruit of the happy circumstance of the Board of Trade being represented in Her Majesty's Cabinet. Her Majesty's Government mast have had the most authentic and authoritative information on the subject to assist them in this elaborate consideration to which the noble Lord has referred in so triumphant a tone. We are now told that it was only within a few hours of the discussion of this measure, introduced by the right hon. Member for Kidderminster, that some of the most important circumstances connected with differential dues were for the first time made known to Her Majesty's Ministers. Therefore, Sir, I ask, what came of that consideration—that severe and profound consideration, which, according to the noble Lord, this question received from Her Majesty's Government before the Vice President of the Board of Trade was fully authorised to introduce it to your notice? What, Sir, I want to know from Her Majesty's Government is, what portion of this measure received their consideration? I want it to be proved to the House that any portion of this Bill was so favoured. In the interests of representative government and for the sake of the reputation of Her Majesty's Ministers, I desire that they should be vindicated from the suspicion of having launched a measure of this vast importance without at least considering the bearings of the case, and without taking the trouble to acquaint themselves with the probable consequences of their project. At present, Sir, I am totally at a loss to understand whether Her Majesty's Government gave any thought at all to the subject. We have no information that any of those circumstances which in the discussion of last night were especially referred to as so "anomalous" and so "unjust," ever having occurred to the minds of Her Majesty's Government previous to the debate on the proposed Bill yesterday evening. We are now informed by the noble Lord that it is the opinion of Her Majesty's Government that a Select Committee of the House of Commons should thoroughly investigate this subject; but, Sir, if this subject has been thoroughly investigated and considered by Her Majesty's Government—as we are informed by the noble Lord it has been—what necessity is there for the House of Commons to be called upon to undertake the duties of the Government, and to be asked to do that which we should as a matter of course expect to see performed by the Administration of the country? I want to know, Sir, what is the use of a Cabinet—what is the advantage of the Sovereign having responsible Ministers, if those Ministers, plunging with rash precipitancy into a subject they have not cared to master, first bring forward crude measures, and then, recoiling from the consequences of public defeat, say, "We are unable to deal with the question; we call on the House of Commons, in the shape of a Select Committee, to fulfil the duties of the responsible advisers of the Crown." Why, Sir, this is the appeal made by Her Majesty's Ministers after they have brought forward a measure which has alarmed every possessor of property in the country. Was theirs, I ask, a light proposition? Ought such a proposition to have been made without grave deliberation; or, having been made, is it to be endured that the Government should not be prepared to accept the responsibility of their ill advice in a matter of such moment? They have recommended the House to deal in a most summary manner with the Municipal Reform Act—a measure of comparatively recent enactment, and one which has received the support and sympathy of great masses of the population. Was that a light proposal, or one of insignificant importance? Will it be said that it is the duty of a Select Committee of this House to usurp the duties of the Cabinet, and to superintend the legislation of the empire? For my own part, Sir, I pledge myself at this moment to no particular course on the subject of the noble Lord's proposition, but as far as present circumstances afford the means of arriving at a judgment, it appears to me that the suggestion to settle this question through the medium of a Select Committee is little less objectionable than that process of direct legislation which the Government has been compelled to relinquish. In such a proceeding I can only see the alarming characteristics and the disturbing consequences of the Bill which the noble Lord has been obliged to withdraw. The noble Lord tells us that what is needed for the satisfactory treatment of this question is ample information; but there I differ from him. Why, Sir, the noble Lord has ample information, and any one who has attended to the subject during the debate on this Bill must have ample information on the matters to which it relates. What we complain of, and what the country complains of, Sir, is, that the Government I have attempted to deal with property which I they had no right to touch; and I say that they have no right to bring the holders of; that property before a Select Committee of the House of Commons. But I will say no more on the subject, for I can only treat this proposition of the noble Lord as one which covers perhaps not disgracefully his retreat. I cannot, Sir, believe that after due deliberation, Her Majesty's Ministers, remembering all that has occurred in respect to this question, will continue to think that it is one which should be referred to a Select Committee of the House of Commons. Sir, having said so much on this subject there is another point to which I must advert before I sit down; and that is the general conduct of the Government with regard to the business of the Session in this and the other House of Parliament. When Parliament assembled, considering the critical state of our foreign relations, there was an anxiety—which I thought most creditable to the House—to ensure as much Parliamentary tranquillity as was consistent with the fulfilment of the public duty of Members on both sides of the House. Sir, I can fairly say, that so far as I was myself concerned, and also in dealing with any slight influence which I may possess, I did feel that, it was quite consistent with doing my duty as an independent Member of Parliament not to disturb the Government, but to allow them to concentrate their attention on the great and responsible objects which now, in the face of Europe, they are called on to fulfil. I have wished, Sir, as I am sure every one in this House has wished, to do nothing to damage the reputation of the Ministry. I have, Sir, been most anxious that we should not give foreign nations the idea that(the Government of Great Britain was a weak Government—a Government that had no resources on which it could permanently rely. I had hoped, Sir, that whatever there might be to reprehend in the general tone of our Parliamentary proceedings—that whatever may be the rumours of political strife in the Parliamentary world, we should, at least, show Europe that an English Minister, having to fulfil a great duty to his country, might rely with confidence on the sympathy and forbearance of a patriotic House of Commons. Such, Sir, was the hope I fondly cherished. But what has happened? Ever since Parliament commenced its sittings for the present Session—a period of about a month—feebleness, blunders, misfortunes, defeat, and discomfiture have been the lot of Her Majesty's Government. And, Sir, who has defeated them?—who has discomfited them—who has reduced them to this state of perplexity and humiliation? Not the Opposition—not their I own supporters. Themselves alone are the authors of their misfortunes—themselves alone have brought about a state of affairs which at the present moment is most deplorable and most earnestly to be deprecated. But, Sir, it is not in this House only that we mark the results of their infatuated policy. In another place what scenes have we witnessed? At a moment when the utmost forbearance was evinced towards them from both sides of the House, they must needs enter on a crusade against all the legal authorities of the land; and, taking advantage of the indulgence of their adversaries and the tranquillity of the political world, nothing would content them but wantonly and most unnecessarily to open a question which, had they been gifted with the most ordinary sagacity, they must have foreseen would lead to protracted controversy and profound excitement. What I charge against them is, that having a forbearing Parliament (cheers from the Ministerial benches)—yes, I repeat it, a forbearing Parliament, which would not even step out of its way to expose the blunders of the First Lord of the Admiralty—the Ministers would seem to have passed their time and employed their counsels in devising among them selves questions which could not fail to agitate and distract the public mind, and which they should have known could only end in their own embarrassment and discomfiture, and assuredly produce no benefit to the country. It is not merely that, most wantonly—as it appears to me—they created life peerages. I complain also of the conduct of the Government in the matter of the Report of the Crimean Commissioners—a document thrown upon the table of the House without consulting the proper official authorities, and in a manner which does not afford the slightest evidence of that forethought, caution, and prudence which we have a right to expect from men who assume the duties and the character of statesmen. What a piece of business you have made of it, with your life peerages, your Crimean Reports, and your Boards of Generals, to investigate the conduct of men whom you were bound in honour and policy to have supported! But this is not all. Not satisfied with attacking the constitution of the heriditary peerage of England, not satisfied with creating all this scandal about the officers of the army, you must take this occasion, of all others, to assail the municipal institutions of the country. Even though Her Majesty's Government were as satisfied of the soundness of their views on this question of the municipalities as they have declared themselves to-night to be; and even although those views were as right as I believe them to be erroneous, I still maintain that this was not a fitting season for taking the step which they have done. But this is not all. Another measure, I allude to the Police Bill, has been introduced by them, into this House, which is certainly not friendly to that system of local self-government which the majority of us will, I trust, always seek to uphold. Is this a proper season even for bringing forward that measure? Yet, night after night, these dangerous courses are adopted by the Government; and now we have a striking example of the consequences to which such conduct inevitably leads. Parliament has sat only for about a month; on both sides of the House there has been but one anxious desire to veil the weakness of the Government, if, unhappily, they are weak; and yet at a most important crisis in the history and fortunes of this country Her Majesty's Government have so skilfully managed their affairs that they have secured for themselves a startling defeat in both Houses of Parliament.


Sir, the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down began by saying that in the course of the discussion on the measure which was before the House last night a great abstinence from party spirit was exhibited; and I freely acknowledge that that statement is an accurate representation of what took place on that occasion. The grave questions then before the House certainly were debated by Members on both sides, who, while giving conscientious expression to the opinions they entertained, yet knew how to refrain from mixing up with that expression anything that savoured of mere party animosities. But I am greatly inclined to suspect, from the tone of the speech which we have just heard, that if the discussion of this measure had been continued to-night, and the right hon. Gentleman had taken part in it, it would not have been allowed to terminate in the exemplary and forbearing spirit in which it commenced. I apprehend that the address to which we have just listened from the right hon. Gentleman would have undoubtedly formed a part of that entertaining oration of which we have unfortunately been deprived by the premature suspension of this debate; and, therefore, I must be permitted to say that I think that oration would not have been wanting in as great an infusion of party bitterness, personal hostility, and appeals founded on topics totally extraneous to the immediate question under consideration as it has ever been my fate to listen to in any debate in this House. The right hon. Gentleman says he felt bound to interpose on this occasion in order to protect the reputation of Her Majesty's Government. I am sure the Government ought to be much obliged to him for the great magnanimity he has displayed in the discharge of that friendly office; and yet I regret that the vindication thus generously volunteered has not been so complete as to supersede the necessity which compels me to offer a few observations on the animadversions by which it was accompanied. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that my noble Friend at the head of the Government was guilty of great inconsistency in stating, that although the principles of the measure submitted for a second reading yesterday had been seriously considered by the Government before being brought under discussion in this House, yet, after the debate that had taken place, in which such a variety of opinions were expressed and so many particular cases were quoted, it would be advisable to refer a part of the question to a Select Committee. Now, Sir, I, for one, really see no inconsistency in that assertion. Is there the least ground for saying that this measure has been taken up crudely or hastily by the Government? What are the facts of the case? In the first place a Commission was appointed to inquire into this subject; and no man, whether he agrees with or differs from the Report of the Commissioners, will dispute that they were men whose character and ability fitted them to conduct such an investigation. Therefore, the Government did not undertake to deal with this question until it had been duly examined. I will ask, likewise, is the subject a new one to this House? Why, the very grievances that we are now considering have year after year been pressed on the attention of the House and the Government; and when it fell to my lot several years ago to propose the repeal of the Navigation Laws, I was repeatedly taunted for not coupling that great change with a subsidiary measure like the present, doing justice to the shipping interest. And it is, in fact, in redemption—a tardy redemption, I admit—of the pledges then given by me and other Ministers on that subject, that the Government introduced the Bill before the House. To say, therefore, that this measure, based on the principles which have received the sanction of the Government, is one which it was improper for them to lay before Parliament is a statement so extraordinary that I was astonished to hear the right hon. Gentleman make it. In what position do we now stand? I do not wish to speak with levity of the objections that have been urged even to the principle of this Bill by hon. Members of great authority in this House. I differ widely from the opinions expressed yesterday by those hon. Gentlemen as to the tenure on which town dues and other property of that description are held by local corporations. Yet I readily allow that that is a subject on which men may honestly differ, and one which may require very mature consideration from this House. We are opposed on the principle of our Bill by many independent Members sitting on both sides of the House, combined with whom there are also arrayed against us those other hon. Gentlemen who represent the various seaports of this country. The latter class of Members are of course perfectly justified in speaking the sentiments of their constituents, yet, on such a question as this, it is obvious that some deduction may fairly be made from the weight otherwise due to their opinions. Anybody who has had any experience of the business of this House knows what infinite difficulties beset any department of the Government which merely seeks to benefit and do justice to the whole community by measures which, perhaps, incidentally affect the interests of some particular class. This source of embarrassment is no new story. When the head of one of the strongest Governments which England ever possessed—Oliver Cromwell—at the height of his power, attempted to pass certain measures of law reform interfering with the interests of that important body, the legal profession, he was compelled reluctantly to throw up his project, bitterly exclaiming, "I find that the sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me." I have thought it right to make these remarks because I believe that the House will think they detract a little from the song of triumph which the right hon. Gentleman deemed it consistent with his usual good taste to indulge in on this occasion. He has launched also into a variety of irrelevant topics on which it is hardly necessary that I should follow him at present. For example, he says, "See what a forbearing Opposition the Government have had to meet." I am afraid, from the disposition now manifested by the right hon. Gentleman, that the exercise of his forbearance must have cost him a great deal; and no doubt he feels much happier for the relief which he has given himself this evening. I, however, can assure the right hon. Gentleman on the part of Her Majesty's Government, that we ask for no forbearance. If hon. Gentlemen opposite, as Members of the British Parliament, having a serious responsibility resting upon them, conceive at any time that such is the critical state of public affairs that they would not be justified in obstructing or thwarting the Government in an unnecessary manner, no doubt they will refrain, upon public grounds, from factiously pursuing a course inconsistent with the interests of the country. But, then, the Government will be under no particular obligation to them on that account. Some insinuations, however, have been thrown out by the right hon. Gentleman which I cannot allow to pass altogether unnoticed. The right hon. Gentleman has thought proper to assail my right hon. Friend near me (Sir C. Wood). He says, "Why, look at the forbearance we have shown towards the blunders of the First Lord of the Admiralty." Now, Sir, I should like to know to what blunders the right hon. Gentleman refers. Instead of dealing in this vague railing, why does not the right hon. Gentleman bring forward a specific Motion, and tell the House distinctly what has been the maladministration of the First Lord of the Admiralty? I do not mean to claim all the credit for what has been done for my right hon. Friend; our predecessors, and especially the right hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir J. Graham), are entitled to participate in it, but I believe that, owing to the ability and unwearied industry of my right hon. Friend in the discharge of his official duties, a British fleet such as never before rode the ocean has been equipped under his administration of the Admiralty. And if, as I heartily pray may not be the case, our present hopes of peace should be disappointed, I believe it will be found that England has now at her disposal a weapon which will enable her triumphantly to protect her interests and vindicate her honour—a weapon, let me add, which will greatly enhance her influence in negotiation as well as prove a most effectual instrument for the prosecution of war, should further warfare unhappily be necessary. The right hon. Gentleman also dragged into this discussion the subject of the Wensleydale life peerage as a kind of make-weight. I know not if that question is to be brought before this House; but, at all events, I will not now trouble the House with any observations upon it. Indeed, I have to beg pardon of the House for trespassing on its attention as long as I already have done, but I really could not permit the most unprovoked attack of the right hon. Gentleman opposite to pass wholly without comment.


said, that as one of that class of Members who had been particularly alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, he wished to observe that, even if he had had no connection with the shipping interest, his opposition to this measure would have been equally as decided as it now was. He must, therefore, express his satisfaction at the course that had been adopted that night by the Government. Indeed, he only regretted that that course had not been taken at an earlier period, and before such principles as those embodied in the Bill had been enunciated in that House. A measure, however, dealing with the question of passing tolls, if judiciously framed, would confer a great boon on the shipping interests, and would most probably meet with the concurrence of both sides of the House. He begged to say, as the representative of a seaport, that his constituents were perfectly prepared to submit their case to a Select Committee. He was willing to admit that the strict maintenance of the present law might be attended with some hardships and inconveniences, but he thought it would not be difficult to devise a scheme that would be fair and just towards the holders of the description of property which would be affected by the Bill, while it would obviate the complaints urged against the present operation of the law.


said, he was of opinion that some benefit had arisen from the discussions which had taken place on this subject. The people had learnt that, by virtue of old documents for which a few shillings were given some centuries ago, dues which were charged upon the earnings of their hard labour were levied and appropriated by the town of Liverpool to the amount of £125,000 a year. He thought, also, that the discussion might not be without its effect upon the corporation of Liverpool, who must remember that there were other outports which were as easily accessible, and where cargoes might be discharged upon more reasonable terms.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Second Heading discharged.

Bill withdrawn.