HC Deb 08 March 1861 vol 161 cc1676-83

said, he founded the Motion of which he had given notice upon the fact that there was upwards of £1,000,000 raised in the counties in Ireland and administered by the grand juries of the country without any representation or control of the ratepayers. In fact the whole of the fiscal administration of the counties of Ireland was in the hands exclusively of an irresponsible body, under the same obligations as were imposed upon them relative to the transaction of criminal business. In 1836 a change was made in the law on the subject which effected several improvements in the system. In the first place it gave publicity to those proceedings which were before then conducted in secrecy. In the next place it deprived the sheriff of that unlimited discretion in selecting grand juries which those officers had previously possessed; and, lastly, it enacted that no presentment could in future be passed until it had been previously adopted at the Presentment Sessions. The magistrates, however, of the whole county could attend those Presentment Sessions, and with them a small number of the associated ratepayers could control the expenditure of those enormous sums levied off the county. But, under the circumstances in which those ratepayers were selected it could not be said that the body was at all properly represented. The names of one hundred ratepayers were returned for each barony or hundred, and they were thrown into a box, and the first six that were drawn out were expected to act. The persons supposed to be controlled by the ratepayers had the selection of those names, and, therefore, there was no security whatever against misapplication of the funds at their disposal. The expenditure of the counties might be divided into ten heads, all of which were under the control of the grand juries. They were, with the amounts expended, in 1859 as follows:—The making of new roads, bridges, &c, connected with public highways, £85,000; repairs of roads, £493,000; erection and repairs of county buildings, £10,000; prison expenses, £79,000; police and witnesses, £19,000; salaries and county fees, £102,000; public charities, £72,000; repayment to Government for advances made, £102,000; miscellaneous items, £92,000; making in the whole an ex- penditure exceeding £1,000,000. The Royal Commission which inquired into this system in 1842, and which was composed of some of the most eminent men of the day, had placed it on record that while it was the intention of the law to give the right of representation to the taxpayers, the law was ineffectual for accomplishing that object. They then recommended certain changes in regard to the Presentment Sessions. Now, he (Mr. Butt) did not rest his case upon any charges of jobbery or impropriety of conduct on the part of the grand juries in Ireland. He believed that, generally speaking, they were actuated by as high and honourable motives as any similar class of Gentlemen in this or any other country. Nevertheless, under the existing system, there was every temptation afforded them for the application of those monies to the making of new roads or other improvements in such places as would considerably increase their own properties without conferring any proportionate advantages upon the country generally. Throughout the whole of the evidence of the Commission of 1842 comments were made upon the inefficiency of the existing system. No attempt, however, had been made to carry out any one of the recommendations of that Commission. But in the year 1849 a Bill had been introduced bearing upon its back the names of Sir William Somerville and Sir George Grey. It had been introduced in June, and then it was ordered to be postponed to the next Session. That "next Session" was a favourite period for considering all Irish matters. Nothing, however, was done; and again in 1855 Sir Denham Norrys attempted to introduce a Bill but without success. It was again deferred until "next Session," and again in 1856, and again in 1857. And now, once more, there were Gentlemen in the House exceedingly anxious for a reform in the law, who advised him to follow the example of his predecessors, and leave the matter in the hands of the Chief Secretary, and expect that "next Session" something would be done. But if he did so, he had no doubt whatever that "next Session" the reform sought for would be as far off as ever. He was not prepared to present a Bill for the acceptance of the House, but he felt that so many interests were involved in the question, that a Committee was the proper tribunal in which to consider them. He believed also, if a Committee were appointed impartially to collect opinions, and if men of widely different ideas on the subject were to meet and hear each other's arguments, that the result would be suggestions which would carry with them the general opinion of Ireland. He valued the principle of local self-government; but local self-government was not half carried out by the higher classes, and not at all encouraged by the sheriffs. It was desirable to establish an independent public opinion in Ireland; but how could it be established without institutions that would create it. Give the people of Ireland the institutions which had made the Saxon character so independent and strong, and they would exhibit the same characteristics.


said, he would second the Motion. He was far from finding fault, however, with the manner in which the grand juries had administered the finances. He believed they had done it as well as persons in their circumstances could do, but that ought not to be an obstacle to carrying out the principle advocated by his hon. and learned Friend. He was quite certain that those who were in the habit of attending boards of poor law guardians must have noticed the improvement in the habits of the middle order of Irish, and that any tendency to jobbery or local favoritism which used to exist had disappeared, and he was quite sure that the Government could not do better than carry out and extend that system of education of the Irish people in the management of their own local affairs.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee tie appointed to inquire into and report upon the effect and operation of the laws which regulate the raising of money by public assessment for the making, maintaining, and repairing of the public highways, and for the other purposes now provided for by Grand Jury presentment in Ireland, and of the system by which, under those laws, the fiscal business of the several counties in that country is administered, with a view of ascertaining whether any and what amendments may be advantageously made in the laws regulating the administration of that business, and more especially whether, and to what extent, it may be expedient to introduce into such administrations the principle of representative bodies and popular election.


observed, that the hon. and learned Gentleman had taken an opportunity of bringing forward his Motion at a time when nearly all the Irish Members were absent from the House attending the assize in their respective counties. I The hon. and learned Gentleman had given a description of what he conceived grand juries were, but the grand juries were a much more popular body than he imagined. The jurors were the highest ratepayers, interested on their own part, as well as on behalf of their tenants, in a proper levy and administration of the county cess. It was objected that Peers could not be members of the grand juries who imposed the local taxation; but the same objection applied to the House of Commons taxing the House of Lords. Besides the taxing presentment of Irish grand juries was subject to appeal before a judge and jury. There was no fund administered so economically in the whole of the United Kingdom as that managed by the grand Junes. The grand jury system, however, was not perfect; and, although he objected to a Select Committee, he would not object to an inquiry into its constitution before a Committee on a Bill if one were introduced.


opposed the appointment of a Committee as unnecessary.


said, if he thought the appointment of a Committee was likely to lead to any practical result he should not oppose it, but he believed that a Committee would lead to no practical result. Already there had been a Commission, which had fully inquired into the subject, and Bills upon Bills had been introduced, not one of which had received the support of the House. If a Committee were appointed, at the end of its labours the same hopeless course of bringing in Bills would be gone through, with the inevitable result as indicated by former proceedings. He confessed that the present system was not to his liking, but as the appointment of a Committee could not possibly better it, he trusted his right hon. Friend would not agree to the Motion.


said, he could not but condemn the present grand jury system in Ireland. In the city of Waterford there had been but one Roman Catholic sheriff since the time of James II. The appointment of the sheriffs rested with the Lord Lieutenant, upon the recommendation of the Judge of Assize, and as the grand jurors were appointed by the sheriffs the grand jurors were practically appointed by the Government.


said, the picture of the grand jury system in Ireland drawn by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Butt) was not only highly coloured but grossly exaggerated. It was hardly pos- sible that a more untrue statement of the constitution of the grand jury could be presented to the House. The barony constable who was appointed by the grand jury and responsible to them, selected one hundred of the highest ratepayers for the grand jury, who were bound to select not less than twelve and not more than twenty. In answer to another misstatement of the hon. Member he would say that the grand jury had not the power to raise one single penny, but the Act of Parliament expressly stated that it should be voted and approved by the ratepayers. Then with regard to the appointment of grand juries, the sheriff was bound to appoint one grand juror for each barony, and it was possible that he might so far forget himself as to appoint one whom he thought might not attend, but he (Mr. George) was of opinion that scarcely any sheriff could be found who would so far forget his duty. The merits of the grand jury system had already been borne testimony to. He believed that a better system of high-roads and bye-roads was nowhere to be found than in those that were ordered by them; and although he was not there to deny that a job might not here and there be found, he believed they were exceedingly rare, and did not affect the general system of the grand jury laws. If the right hon. the Secretary for Ireland would, instead of granting this Committee, which would lead to interminable discussion, bring in a Bill to reform the points to which he had adverted, he would do far more good to Ireland.


said, he had found in every speech which had been made since the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Butt) proposed his Motion a reason why the Committee should be conceded. The only tangible objection he had heard was from his hon. Friend near him (Mr. Gregory) who said the Committee, if chosen, would occupy a great deal of time without arriving at any definite result. That was just what they wanted to test; and the result could not he known unless the Committee was granted. He admitted that the grand juries discharged their duties with impartiality, but it must be remembered that the grand juries did not initiate any work, they only sanctioned contracts that were sent up to them; and the question was whether it would not be better to introduce into them by the principle of popular election the men who did initiate that work. That he understood to be the ob- ject of his hon. and learned Friend in proposing this Committee, and he thought it was a fit subject for a Committee to inquire into. He hoped, therefore, the right hon. Secretary for Ireland would not oppose the Motion.


said, the question was not whether the grand jury system should be retained, for to that everybody agreed, or that it was without its difficulties, for that everybody acknowledged; the question was, whether the proposal made was that which was best adapted to the wishes and convenience of the House. If it were so, he should have the greatest reason for supporting the Motion, as he had most to learn from an inquiry of the kind. His hon. and learned Friend who opened this discussion used a very cogent argument. He said, give us those institutions of local government that you possess, in order that we may be trained in the same school. But was his hon. and learned Friend aware of what was the case with regard to the county finance in England? Was it a system of popular representation, and was it only in Ireland that taxation and representation with regard to local management did not go together? In England the county magistrates had the whole management of the county finance, without any control from elected members, either of their own class or of any other. The justices of the peace had the management solely, by being placed by the Crown in the commission of the peace. The power in Ireland was granted by legislation. Having got the power by a lawful title, and by the wish of Parliament, had they the whole control? What was the case? In the first place his hon. and learned Friend somewhat alarmed the House by stating the amount at £1,000,000 of money. But when he (Mr. Cardwell) came to analyze that amount, he found it comprised many sums which had been repaid for advances made to Ireland in times of emergency, frequently without interest. It also comprised payments which had been already appropriated by Parliament. As to a very-large part of the roads the control no doubt was vested in the magistrates, with an intermixture of popular representation. They were controlled at a subsequent Session, and subject to the review of the grand jury, who had not the power to lay a single sixpence on the ratepayers. The largest amount dealt with was in respect of the roads. The whole expense of making new roads and maintaining old roads and bridges did not exceed £579,000 for about 50,000 miles of road. In 1842 a most elaborate Report was laid on the table, and there was no want of evidence on the subject. He had always observed that if small measure was introduced, it was opposed because it left parts of the subject untouched: if the measure was a large one, numerous objections immediately arose from those who disliked the changes proposed. The difficulty was not the want of information, and he would suggest that, instead of pressing for a Committee, his hon. and learned Friend should introduce a Bill dealing with those parts of the subject which were most likely to receive the sanction of Parliament. If such a Bill was introduced, he would give it his support; or if the House wished he would undertake, on the part of the Government, to prepare such a measure.


said, he was at a loss to understand what were the precise views of the executive on this subject. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cardwell) seemed to be fishing for a Bill. It seemed to be admitted that the fiscal arrangements under the Grand Jury system were imperfect. The Government were, therefore, bound to bring in a Bill themselves. It was all very well to ask a private Member to bring in a measure himself. The fate usually attending such measures was too obvious. They seldom reached second readings, and he should recommend his hon. and learned Friend not to accede to the proposal of the Government. The feeling in Ireland was generally against the fiscal system as managed by the grand juries. The grand juries did not initiate the taxation, but they initiated the men who carried it out. The controllers of the taxation were the mere nominees of the grand juries. A million of money was expended annually by grand juries without any check derived from representation. He could not help saying that when no advocate appeared in favour of the present system, it was rather hard that there should be opposition to the appointment of such a Committee as that asked for by his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Butt). He hoped that hon. Gentleman would press the Motion to a division.


said, that his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland had never held out the slightest hope that he would bring in a sweeping measure to remodel the grand jury system in Ireland. On the other hand he was free to say that if a moderate practical measure were prepared by some private Member, be would take such a Bill into his own hands. He (Mr. Forteccue) admitted that there were two points on which the Grand Jury system might undergo amendment; one of these had reference to the qualifications of grand jurors, and the other to the mode of appointing cess-payers. Gentlemen of but a very small fee-simple estate, might be nominated upon the Grand Jury, while gentlemen who had a much greater stake in the country, but whose interest in land was not fee-simple, were excluded from it. As regarded the cess-payers, they ought to be elected by the same machinery by means of which the Poor-law Guardians were elected. At the same time he could not agree that the cess-payers had no control at present over the county rate. His right hon. Friend had opposed the Motion on the ground that legislation on the subject had been prevented, not through want of information, but through want of sufficient agreement amongst such gentlemen, and because it was felt that there was really no great abuse to correct. He quite concurred in that view, and, therefore, he should oppose the Motion.


said, the Government did not understand the feelings of the people of Ireland. The landlord interest had been sufficiently well represented in the debate, but such was not the case with respect to the ratepayers. The present system was one of taxation without representation. It was the tenant paid the county cess, and not the landlord. He hoped that every kind of agitation would be pursued until a radical reform was obtained.


asked, whether the Government had any intention of dealing with the question during the present Session, for if so he for one should not vote in favour of the Motion?


in reply, said he felt bound to press his Motion to a division, but if the Motion were carried he would not nominate the Committee until after Easter, so as to give the Government an opportunity of dealing with the matter if they really desired to do so.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 25: Noes 119; Majority 94.

House adjourned at half-after Twelve o'clock, till Monday next.