HC Deb 08 April 1859 vol 153 cc1575-87

I wish to put a question to the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer upon a matter of great interest, which I trust it may not be inconvenient or inopportune for him to answer, though perhaps I ought to have given him a more formal notice. An impression has gone forth, founded apparently on the statement made by my right hon. Friend on Monday last, or on that made by the Earl of Derby elsewhere, that the Earl of Derby's Government have come to the resolution of altogether washing their hands of the question of Reform for the time to come, and that it is not their intention either this year or in any other year to bring in another Reform Bill. The question I wish to put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer is, whether he meant by his statement on Monday last to convey to the House and to the country that the Earl of Derby's Government, if then in office, had no intention of introducing a Reform Bill in the Session of 1860; and whether, on the other hand, it is not the intention of the Earl of Derby's Government to introduce another Reform Bill on the first practicable opportunity?


Sir, it will perhaps be more convenient that I should answer the question which has been put to me by my hon. Friend at once than that I should mix it up with those other subjects which have been brought under our notice this evening, and to which it will be my duty to allude before the Report of the Committee of Supply has been received. I am not quite sure whether I have succeeded in collecting exactly the precise nature of the inquiry which my hon. Friend has addressed to me, but I understood him to ask me whether, when I announced it to be the intention of Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Bill which we introduced for the Amendment of the Representation of the People, I made a statement to the effect that it was not the intention of the Government under any circumstances to bring forward again a measure of what is termed Parliamentary Reform? [Mr. CAYLEY: Hear, hear.] Now, I certainly never intended to make, and my impression is that I never did make, any such statement. And although on the occasion in question I was desirous of introducing no subject which could lead to controversy, I nevertheless asserted the right of hon. Members who sit on this side of the House, to deal, as a political party, with that question of Parliamentary Reform, which it seemed to me some persons would maintain to be the peculiar privilege of another party. I asserted then that I considered we had a perfect right to deal with that or any other public question, but that, having fulfilled the pledge which we had given to the House and to the country by bringing forward a Reform Bill, we did not wish to burden ourselves with any specific pledge to bring forward another measure of Reform at any particular time; that I reserved to ourselves the right to bring forward such a measure when we considered the interests of the country required it, if we had an opportunity of carrying it; but that I did not wish to bind ourselves specifically to bring forward any such measure at a particular time. That was the impression which I intended in my mind—and I thought I succeeded in doing so—to convey to the House. I spoke with reference to the meeting of the New Parliament in June or July next, and I did not wish to hold out to the House or to the country the erroneous impression that we intended to do then at once that which we did not intend to do. But on a future occasion, if the opportunity should be favourable, and we happen to be in power, I do consider we are perfectly at liberty to introduce a measure on the subject. I believe the Conservative party have peculiar advantages in dealing with the question of Reform. What has recently occurred has not changed my opinion upon that point, and I should certainly be very happy to be the instrument in bringing forward a measure which would have the object of settling, as far as we can expect it, for a considerable time the question of the Amendment of the Representation of the People.


Sir, I am anxious to make a few observations with respect to a question of some importance as to the course to be pursued in reference to which it is, I think, extremely desirable that we should obtain some information from Her Majesty's Government. On Monday last the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that he and his colleagues had advised Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament, and he accompanied that statement by an announcement to the effect, that it was the intention of the Government that the dissolution should take place at the earliest possible moment, and be asked for the assistance of the House in enabling him to carry out that intention. That assistance has been liberally accorded. Hon. Members in whose name notices stood upon the paper of the House waved their claims to press them, and we agreed to a Resolution in accordance with which Government Orders of the day are to have precedence of other business during the remainder of the Session, The consequence has been, that the business of the House has proceeded so rapidly that the Votes in Committee of Supply have been closed, that the Report has been brought up, and that it is now competent for any hon. Gentleman to count the remaining days of the Session. Indeed, it may be safely predicted that, unless some unexpected source of delay should arise, the prorogation of Parliament may take place—if we should sit on Saturdays, which I believe is not intended—on the 16th instant; and, in any case, on the Monday following. It was understood that a dissolution would at once follow the prorogation, in accordance with the usual practice under similar circumstances. During the last twenty years Parliament has been dissolved on live different occasions, the dissolution, on four of those occasions, having taken place on the same day as, and on the fifth, on the day following, the prorogation. But not only has this been the usual practice, but it has always been felt that to allow a long interval to elapse between the prorogation and dissolution of Parliament, when the latter was in contemplation, was productive of the greatest possible public as well as personal inconvenience, When, therefore, I first heard it mentioned by an hon. Member of this House that that which has of recent years been the course invariably pursued in this respect was about to be departed from in the present instance, I at once discredited the report; but since then, and within the last three or four days, I have heard, on authority to which I felt bound to attach weight, that it is proposed by the Government that the dissolution should not take place for some days after the prorogation. Now, if the dissolution were in accordance with the usual practice to take place on the same day, it is obvious that the elections for boroughs might be proceeded with in Easter week, and that the elections for counties might take place in the week following, while if a different course be pursued, and the dissolution be delayed for a week, the result will be, that the borough elections cannot be proceeded with until the week following Easter week, and that the county elections will be proportionately later. Now, every one who has experienced the inconvenience and expense attendant upon a contested election in counties and boroughs, must be aware how much both are increased by an additional canvass of four or five days. Every candidate must, therefore, be desirous of having his canvass brought to a termination at the earliest possible moment. Moreover, a general election gives rise to a state of excitement which it is desirable to bring to a close as soon as possible. I have been told, however, that the reason alleged to justify a departure from the ordinary course, on the present occasion, is that it is not deemed right that the writs for a new election should issue in Passion week. For my own part, I cannot understand the force of that objection. If, indeed, it were a question as to whether the elections should take place in Passion week, there might be some reason—although such a circumstance is by no means unprecedented—for the delay which I understand is contemplated. That, however, is not the question, and Easter week appears to me is about the best possible time at which the elections can be hold, because the early days of the week are holidays of the working classes, who, in those Cases in which they possess the right of exercising the franchise, would thus be enabled to vote for a borough without interference with their daily labour, or sacrificing any part of their earnings. I hope, under these circumstances, that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be enabled to assure the House that it is the intention of the Government to adhere to what I am bound to say was the distinct understanding on the part of the House of Commons, namely, that the impending dissolution should take place at the earliest possible moment.


—Sir, whatever information may have reached the right hon. Gentleman with respect to the subject of his observations I have only to inform him that such information rests on no foundation whatever, and I must beg to object to be called upon to answer inquiries which are founded on common rumour alone. What I told the House originally was this. I endeavoured to give the House some idea of what would be the course of public business, and I calculated, so far as we could then judge, that by using our best exertions we should be able to conclude the business of the country on the Monday or Tuesday of Passion week; and I then took occasion to inform the House that as soon as possible—certainly towards the end of the month—the dissolution would take place. I certainly do think it would be very objectionable to have the elections in Passion week. That has been represented to me very strongly by hon. Gen- tlemen sitting on both sides of the House. I cannot name the precise day of the dissolution, but as soon as convenient after the prorogration of Parliament the dissolution will of course take place. There is no reason for delay, and I should imagine that it is for the general convenience of hon. Members on every side of the House that it should take place as soon as possible. Perhaps, Sir, I may take this opportunity of adverting to another subject, to the inquiries of hon. Gentlemen in respect to which I have not hitherto been able to reply. If the House wishes to change the whole system upon which the contracts for the public service are issued by the Government, that is a very fair question to discuss, and I should, I trust, be found well prepared to give due consideration to any observations that may be made upon it. I will now merely observe that Her Majesty's Government in the course they have taken with respect to the Galway contract, have simply followed in the steps of previous administrations. It is for the House, if it disapproves the system under which those contracts are made, to come to some different Resolution with respect to them. If the Executive is not to be entrusted with the power of entering into a contract for a packet service, I should like to know with what functions it can he entrusted? But hitherto there has been no case in which Ministers have come down to the House in order to consult it in respect to entering into a contract. And when we came into office we found several important contracts subsisting which had never been brought before the House for its approval. Indeed I am perfectly astonished that any hon. Gentleman should maintain that it is desirable to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the propriety of any new contract relating to the packet service which the Executive Government may think to be advantageous for the public interests. It has been said that important principles are involved in this question, because we have decided in this case, not upon public tender or competition, but merely upon our own responsibility. Well, Sir, I apprehend we have the power to do that if we think fit. It is not the first time that such a thing has been done, and I find upon the very paper which stands for to-day that a question has been put down with respect to the renewal of the steam packet contract for the West Indies; and the Secretary for the Treasury was asked whether there was any intention to renew that contract— whether any complaints had been made about the performance of that service? and so on. I imagine, Sir, that we have a right, if we think ourselves so justified, to enter into any contract without putting it up to public competition. Now, what are really the facts of the case in regard to the Galway contract? Here are some enterprising persons who develope a means of communication which no one had previously thought of, and which it would be of immense advantage to establish. We investigate the circumstances. We find that they offer a rate of speed exceeding that of any other service at present attainable. They offer too that increased rate of speed at a very diminished cost. We gain, Sir, by the arrangement which they offer, two days in point of time in our communications between Ireland and America, and £400 on each voyage. They also offer advantages for the transport of troops between Athlone—a great military station—and America. They also offer the transmission of telegraphic intelligence across the Atlantic under peculiarly advantageous circumstances to the Government. We have to consider, when we receive offers of this kind of an enterprising character, whether they are to be encouraged and supported by the Government or not; and we also have to consider whether if that encouragement were not given such advantageous offers would ever be repeated. Believing, then, that it was for the very great advantage of the country that this enterprise should be established; finding that the rate of cost was very much lower than that of the Cunard line, to which such frequent reference has been made, and that the speed would be very much greater, we chose, on our own responsibility, and as, I believe, for the public good, to accept that offer. I shall be perfectly ready at any time, upon a proper opportunity, and not in this desultory manner, to vindicate that policy as one highly advantageous to the United Kingdom, and one which we were justified in adopting. I may say that it was our duty to adopt. The right hon. Gentleman opposite is anxious that there should be a proper Parliamentary control over these contracts by the Estimates being laid before the House. Why, Sir, of course the Estimate will be laid before the House? How are we to carry it into effect, except with the consent of Parliament?


Will the Estimate be in the Votes of this year?


The Estimate cannot be in the Votes of this year; but before the Government shall have paid one single shilling, the Estimate will be laid before Parliament. It must be recollected, that it was necessary to enter into this contract at once, because great preparations are requisite before it can be carried into effect; and a very considerable time must elapse before the money will be required. I repeat, however, that before a single shilling is advanced by the Government, the Estimate will be submitted to the House, and it will have the same opportunity which it has in the case of the Cunard Company of controlling the execution of the contract. If the House should not choose to vote the money, of course there will be an end to the matter. But the House will only have to do that with regard to this company which it does every year with regard to the Cunard Company; and if it disapproves of the manner in which the contract is carried out, it can put a stop to it by withholding the vote of money. I believe the Government have acted in this matter wisely, and for the public advantage. If, however, they have not acted wisely, nor for the public advantage, they have acted in conformity with precedent, and they have not taken a single step in which they were not justified by the course which has been repeatedly pursued by preceding Governments upon similar occasions. I trust, therefore, that the House will not think it necessary to interfere with the arrangement which the Government have made, and which, I believe, to be greatly for the public advantage.


Sir, I merely wish to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the answer he has given to the question of my right hon. Friend as to the period of dissolution. That answer was anything but satisfactory. The right hon. Gentleman appears to intend that the dissolution should not take place until the end of the month.


Towards the end of the month.


Towards the end of the month. My right hon. Friend urged that in accordance with the declaration of the Government, the dissolution should take place as soon as possible; and he has informed us, that on all ordinary occasions the writs are issued the day after the prorogation. The dissolution can take place the day after the pro- rogation, and it is possible for it to take place on the same day. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what purpose the Government have in view in postponing the dissolution apparently until "towards the end of the month." The House feels the great inconvenience of such a course. Hon. Gentlemen sitting behind the Treasury bench must feel it to be as inconvenient to them as it is to hon. Gentlemen upon this side, and therefore I entreat the Government to reconsider their intentions upon this point. The dissolution might take place with perfect convenience upon the very day of the prorogation, or the day after; the elections could take place in Easter week, and Parliament could meet at the earliest possible period. But we were told just now that the Government would not undertake to bring in a Reform Bill in June or July, and are we to understand that Parliament will not meet until June or July? When the Government with which I had the honour of being connected dissolved Parliament in 1857, the right hon. Gentleman reproached us with endeavouring to waste a year. I am sure we vindicated ourselves from that reproach, because when Parliament met at the earliest possible moment, measures of a very important character were considered and carried. But if the dissolution is to be postponed in the manner indicated by what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman, and that the meeting of the new Parliament is not to take place until late in June or the beginning of July, the reproach of wasting a year may, I think, be justly applied to the present Government, than that of which I had the honour to be the head.


The House will allow me a word of explanation. I did not speak of Parliament meeting at the end of June or the beginning of July; I talked of introducing a measure of great importance at that period. I could not suppose that a Reform Bill would be introduced on the very day that the new Parliament meets. I will say this, that with regard to the dissolution we lost a day this week—not from the fault of any person, but it was a loss which the Government endeavoured to prevent. I can only repeat that we have no intention whatever of delaying the dissolution; and I cannot, I confess, see how it could be at all to the advantage of the Government to delay the dissolution; neither would such a delay be conducive to the convenience of any of our friends. But I say again, I do not think it would be convenient to pledge myself to a particular day for Parliament to be dissolved. I still think, as well as we can calculate, that all the business will be concluded about Tuesday week—the 19th. That, I think, is getting "towards the end of the month." The noble Lord is somewhat hypercritical upon that point. It is very true that the convenience of hon. Members is to be considered; but still there are other considerations, besides the convenience of hon. Members which the Government must not omit to take into account. I repeat that, as soon after the business of the House has concluded, and as myself and my colleagues think it consistent with the public interests, a prorogation and dissolution will take place. In point of fact, however, a prorogation may not take place till towards the end of the month.


Sir, the right hon. Gentleman, no doubt, cannot at this moment pledge himself to any particular day upon which Parliament will be dissolved, because there might be business which may take a longer time than is at present calculated upon, although I believe that pretty generally hon. Members of this House can estimate that the business will not occupy us later than Monday week. But the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly able to answer the question of my right hon. Friend whether the dissolution will immediately follow the prorogation. There can be no difficulty about that. We have repeated precedents in which the Crown having thought fit to dissolve Parliament asked the assistance of the House of Commons, and that assistance has been readily given, as I am sure it has been now; but a dissolution has always followed, if not on the same day at latest upon the day after the prorogation. I cannot imagine what difficulty the right hon. Gentleman can experience in assuring the House that as soon as the Crown is able to prorogue Parliament Her Majesty will be advised to do so. My noble Friend is quite justified in commenting upon the phrase of introducing a Reform Bill in June or July. I believe that upon the 19th or the 20th of this month Parliament may be dissolved, and then the new House can meet about the end of May. The right hon. Gentleman the other day rather taunted my noble Friend and myself with a want of patriotism, for asking, as Sir Robert Peel asked me in 1841, that if the existing Parliament should be dissolved the new one should meet as soon as consti- tutional precedents, and the requirements I of the law would permit. Since that time a law has been passed, known as Lord Brougham's Act, by which Parliaments may meet sooner than they could. The new Parliament might meet by the end of May. What is the meaning then, of talking about a Reform Bill in July? There can be no difficulty, if a Reform Bill is really in contemplation, in introducing it as was done in 1831, ten days after the assembling of the new Parliament, and if Parliament meet by the end of May a Reform Bill might be introduced by the middle of June. I cannot help thinking that there is something strange in the declaration of the right hon. Gentleman upon the subject; but as the House has behaved with the utmost courtesy to the Ministers of the Crown, I trust that we shall not be left in doubt with respect to the dissolution.


Sir, if there has been any ambiguity in the language of the Government with respect to the dissolution I have un doubt that we shall have it speedily cleared up, because there can be no difference of opinion as to the course which both duty and convenience dictate with regard to the time of that event. It is desirable upon every ground that the dissolution should take place at the earliest possible moment—which may be qualified on the present occasion, however, to the extent of a day or two, by the intervention of Passion week—and that the meeting of Parliament should also take place at as early a period as possible. I am quite certain, therefore, that that can never become a matter of argument. With respect to the other subject, which, owing to the accident of the discussion, has become mixed with the question of the dissolution, I would venture to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should not understand that any imputation is sought to be cast upon the Government with regard to the Galway contract. This matter of the packet service, is, after all, a young subject. It has been growing up of late years and it may be that during its progress the House has been more anxious to witness its growth than to maintain with strictness the exercise of its own constitutional control over the public expenditure. But upon this occasion an important contract with a new company happens to have come before the House when the contract; is as yet uncompleted. The speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if rigidly interpreted, might be construed to mean that it is positively better that there should be no control by this House over such contracts until they are completed, and until the money of private persons has been laid out upon the faith of those contracts. Then at last an estimate is proposed—not for future expenses, as from the nature of an estimate is implied—hut for the payment of expenses already incurred; so that in point of fact no option then remains to the House, but to keep faith with the public. And the Chancellor of the Exchequer must know as well as anybody, when he speaks of the control of the House of Commons in such a case, that it really means no control at all. There is no blame to the Government if they have proceeded in this matter as former Governments have done. When I had the honour to hold the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer I was anxious that rules should be adopted with regard to contracts of this kind, and I submitted certain rules on the subject, which, however, have never been acted on. But I will say that if it be desirable, for the sake of a due control over the expenditure, that an estimate of the ordinary expenses of a single year should be placed distinctly before the House before the expenses are incurred, much more is it desirable that this House should exercise a prior, and not a posterior judgment on a contract which is essentially of a somewhat delicate character, and "which is to bind the public faith for a very large sum and over a considerable period of time. Without blaming the Government I would point out that this matter comes before us at a time when the public faith is not pledged, and when we can without imputation vindicate to ourselves the right of considering it, and of trying the reasons which have approved themselves to the minds of the Government. I would, therefore, respectfully submit to the Government, that, under these circumstances, they would do well and wisely to recognize the constitutional jurisdiction and control of the House of Commons over the public expenditure, and to afford to it a full opportunity of considering the contract which they purpose to complete before it is completed, and before private persons have laid out their money upon the faith of it.


said, that although the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down had disclaimed any intention of blaming the Government for what they had done in the matter of this contract, the Government had twice been attacked, without much consideration, on account of it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had fairly thrown down the gauntlet, and had stated that he was ready to justify the contract, and to show that it was for the benefit of the public. If the right hon. Member for the University of Oxford doubted that, let him take up the gauntlet in a straightforward way, instead of attacking the proceeding by a side wind.


said, that the right hon. Gentleman had shown that the only control which the House had over the contract was by stopping the Supplies after the contract had been completed. If the Government had put this contract up to public competition they would have had parties offering any port they thought best, instead of Galway alone. This was a larger question than the selection of Galway. Why was it concluded that Galway was the only good port for the purpose in view? It was the duty of the Government to suspend the completion of this contract till the new Parliament could take the whole question into consideration. There was no urgency whatever in the matter.


said, he had no interest in any one port over another, but any one who looked at the map of Ireland could see that Galway was the direct route to America. He must claim for Ireland the benefit of a direct communication with America. Two thirds of the letters from America were for Ireland, and why should they go to London before they were delivered at their place of destination? Ireland therefore ought to have a packet station of her own. Cork and Limerick grasping for the shadow might end in Galway losing the substance.