HC Deb 20 March 1866 vol 182 cc591-603

said, that he proposed to the House to take into consideration two of their Standing Orders, with the view of introducing certain Amendments into them. One of the Amendments of the Standing Orders would be a necessary consequence of the adoption of the other, and he should therefore direct the special attention of the House to the first of his Resolutions. He had always understood that one of the fundamental principles of the Constitution was that the House of Commons should never of itself take the initiative in granting or voting away public money, or in increasing the national burdens by levying any tax upon the people, but that it should leave the proposal of such measures to the Crown. It was the duty of the House of Commons to sit in judgment upon the measures introduced by the Crown, and, if possible, to reduce and diminish the taxation on the people rather than to attempt to increase the amount of their burdens. Were he to revert to the ancient practice of the House, it would be easy for him to show that the course of proceeding in centuries past was such as rendered it impossible for any private Member to have departed from this constitutional principle. In those times, the House was required merely to take into consideration messages from the Crown, requesting aid for some public purposes, to grant that aid by their vote, and to appropriate the sum granted to the particular objects in view, so that no opportunity was given to any private Member to introduce any plan of his own by which any addition might be made to the charges upon the people. At the beginning of the last century, however, an entirely new system was introduced, and the Exchequer was constituted to act as a trustee between the Crown on the one hand, and the House of Commons and the people on the other. The consequence of this new arrangement was, that the plan was adopted of separating the levying of taxes from their appropriation by Votes of the House. The result was that there was always a balance of public money lying in the Exchequer, which in the course of time Members began to regard as being very much at their own disposal. To prevent the mischief likely to arise from the growing disposition of private Members to establish a claim upon such balances remaining in the Exchequer a Standing Order was made in 1813 to the effect— That this House will receive no petition for any sum of money relating to the public service but what is recommended by the Crown. That Order undoubtedly was short, and its language was limited, but he believed that the House had given its words a very large and general application. The practice was to allow no step to be taken which would tend to impose any public burden except on the requisition of the Crown. But in 1852 a Committee was appointed to revise the Standing Orders, and it was then thought desirable that this Order should be brought more into conformity with what had been the recognized practice, so that the authority of the Speaker might not be questioned in consequence of the words not being sufficiently comprehensive. The following Standing Order was made, in accordance with their recommendation:— That this House will receive no petition for any sum of money relating to the public service or proceed upon any Motion for granting any money but what is recommended from the Crown. The House had always upheld the principle embodied in the Standing Order, but while they had carefully locked the public gate of the Treasury they had unfortunately forgotten to guard a secret mode of access which had in reality admitted of greater inroads upon the public funds than would probably have been committed if there had been no Standing Order at all. The ingenuity of some hon. Member had led to the discovery that what could not be accomplished by direct attack might yet be obtained in another form, and Bills which contemplated demands upon the public money were brought in containing a clause which provided that the necessary expenses should be defrayed out of money hereafter to be voted by Parliament. He had consequently often found in Committee of Supply that, however objectionable some of these propositions might be, their opponents were informed that opposition was useless, because Parliament had previously agreed upon the advisability of carrying them out. It was therefore perfectly idle for Members to come down night after night to criticize and watch the Civil Service Estimates, because when any expenditure was objected to it was urged in reply that the faith and the credit of the country had been pledged to the outlay. Propositions made in a contingent form the establishment of offices to be provided for by sums to be provided by Parliament, had led to a considerable expenditure of money, but at the same time avoided the principles and practice of the Constitution. This sort of evasion should be got rid of. Indirect attempts should be placed on the same footing as direct attempts on the public purse. It was self-stultification to recognize a Standing Order and at the same time evade it. These proposals sometimes assumed the form of humanity and benevolence, and, when humanity and benevolence failed to supply the necessary funds, applications were made to Parliament for gradually increasing Votes of money, until the demands upon the public purse really became serious. He had found from experience that the opposition of private Members to proposals involving outlays of public money were attended with great inconvenience and embarrassment, because whoever opposed applications for public money would be sure to entail upon himself much odium. The consequence was, that those who felt an inclination to be generous at the public expense had full scope afforded them for the exercise of their generous propensities. By passing such a Standing Order as he had mentioned, it would become the Speaker's duty to inform hon. Members who started such proposals that in so doing they were out of order, and Ministers and private Members would thus be relieved from the odium and unpopularity which they often drew upon themselves by their opposition. To prove that these results were not imaginary, he might state that having on one occasion opposed a demand of this kind which he regarded as impolitic and unjust, he had received an anonymous letter of a threatening character advising him not to prosecute his opposition any further He had noticed, too, on another occasion that several Gentlemen who were professed advocates of economy when outside the walls of the House had absented themselves when a Motion of this kind was under consideration, and on inquiry he learnt that they had been induced not to attend by the arguments of an influential deputation by whom they had been waited upon, whose interest it was to obtain certain legislation at the public expense. It required a good deal of nerve to resist solicitations from interested persons outside the House. There were recent illustrations to prove how expedient it was to get rid of this sort of indirect attack upon the Public Treasury. As an instance of the measures to which he referred, he would allude to one, and the House would see that he would not be likely to deal unfairly with a measure on the back of which was his own name. He might, perhaps, as well add that—while like most sponsors he must, he supposed, be held answerable for its sins—he had had no opportunity of correcting its vices. The Bill to which he referred provided that a Commissioner should be appointed at a salary of £2,000, that numerous other officials should be constituted, and that the necessary expenses should be defrayed out of any money that should be provided by Parliament for the purpose. The measure to which he referred was on turnpike roads, and though the principle advocated by the hon. Member who had introduced it (Mr. Whalley) was undoubtedly a good one, he feared that the hon. Gentleman's discretion was not quite equal to his zeal. He might again illustrate his argument by referring to the Bill introduced by an hon. Member (Mr. Hunt) under the influence of the great calamity which at present prevailed in this country. By this Bill a sufficient number of persons were to be appointed for the purpose of seeing that all cattle trucks, slaughterhouses, and so on, should be disinfected, and the expenses of carrying out the enactment were to be defrayed out of money to be provided by Parliament for the purpose. If this great army of inspectors had been appointed, the Government, and the Committee itself, would have degenerated into mere clerks, whose only duties would have been to vote the money which was demanded. Not, however, content with the contemplated outlay, an hon. Member, while the Bill was under discussion, proposed that all the damages caused by the cattle plague should be paid out of funds hereafter to be provided by Parliament for the purpose. He thought they had reached the utmost limit of the abuse he was condemning. One private Member had by a Bill he had introduced to the House gone so far in usurping the functions of the Crown as to propose to regulate the retiring pensions which were to be paid to public servants. He could conceive of no function more peculiarly that of the Crown than determining the salaries of public servants, and afterwards asking Parliament for the wherewithal to meet the expenditure incurred. But in the case to which he referred a private Member proposed to fix the establishments of the Crown by an Act, and to leave the Crown and Parliament hereafter to go through the ceremony of asking for and providing the money, for the Bill he referred to, like all its kindred, concluded with a clause ordering that the money should be paid out of such sums as Parliament might from time to time grant for the purpose. If the system were permitted to continue, private Members might take upon themselves the control of any Department of State. Any private Member could bring in a measure to regulate and re-organize the whole of the Departments of the State, merely by putting in at the end of the Bill clauses providing that the money should be paid out of money voted by Parliament. He asked the House to look at this matter, as it affected every Member. The principle he proposed to uphold by his Motion was one of vital importance. To depart from it was unconstitutional. He had remarked a passage in one of the public journals a few days ago, where reference was made to an incident bearing upon the subject before the House. The late Sir Robert Peel was asked his opinion upon the draught of a new Constitution for Greece. On examining it he put his finger upon what appeared to him to be a blot in it. By its provisions the House of Representatives would have been allowed to propose grants of public money; and he expressed the opinion that a Constitution framed in imitation of England's could not possibly be carried out unless the House of Representatives were prevented from taking the initiative in making grants of public money or imposing taxes upon the people. Recent events had verified the soundness of his observation. A crisis had recently been brought about in consequence of an attempt to violate that principle of the Greek Constitution, and the Sovereign had succeeded in vindicating it by obtaining an ascendancy over his Parliament in an attempt to deal with the public money except on the requisition of the Crown. It might be said that it was not desirable that they should tie their hands, and every Member doubtless believed he was wise and acute enough to be trusted; but, in his opinion, nothing was more desirable than that a public assembly should tie their hands in this respect. It was useless for the House to attempt to reduce the expenses of the country after they had been increased by Acts of Parliament brought in by private Members; and it was idle to complain of the evil consequences brought upon them by the system to which he had referred. The whole responsibility of increasing public expenditure should be thrown upon Her Majesty's Ministers, and Parliament should not permit them to say they would have been more economical had it not been for the House of Commons. He trusted the House would not charge him with presumption in having brought the matter forward; the suggestion was not entirely his own, but it accorded with his ideas. It had long been the practice of the House not to interfere in providing money for the general service of the country; and they had now to deal with what they might deem the escape in the restrictions imposed, and to say whether they would stop this gap and suppress these indirect applications for money by a Standing Order. He had been led to consider the matter by a very sensible increase in the Civil Service Votes three years ago, and though he could not then bring the subject forward he had deeply studied it. He would remind the House that the Civil Service Estimates had increased of late years from £4,500,000 to £9,000,000. If they wished to keep down these Estimates they must strike at the root of the evil, and cast upon the Government the whole responsibility. In this way only could the desired end be attained of keeping down the burdens of the people. He moved— That the Standing Order of the 25th of June, 1852, relating to applications for public money, be repealed, and, in lieu thereof, that this House will receive no Petition for any sum relating to Public Service, or proceed upon any Motion for a grant or charge upon the Public Revenue, whether payable out of the Consolidated Fund or out of monies to be provided by Parliament, unless recommended from the Crown; that the Standing Order of the 25th of June, 1852, relating to public aids or charge upon the people, be repealed, and, in lieu thereof, that if any Motion be made in the House for any aid, grant, or charge upon the Public Revenue, whether payable out of the Consolidated Fund or out of monies to be provided by Parliament, or for any charge upon the people, the consideration and debate thereof shall not be presently entered upon, but shall be adjourned till such further day as the House shall think fit to appoint, and then it shall be referred to a Committee of the whole House before any Resolution or Vote of the House do pass therein.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed.


I rise, Sir, for two reasons—first, because the Motion of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) appears to meet with the general approval of the House; secondly, to tender my thanks to my hon. Friend for having taken upon himself the task of raising this subject. I will not say one word after what has been so fully and ably stated by my hon. Friend upon the possible mischiefs of this practice of private Members bringing forward measures affecting the public revenue. It is a very young practice, but one which is sure to grow, as all evil things do grow in this evil world. I will just point out, in case it should he apprehended that the House is parting with any portion of its valuable liberty, that that is really not the case. The House will continue to have full authority to pronounce an opinion upon every proposition made by the executive Government, whether negatively or positively. I do not deny that it may be the business of the House to point out public charges which it may think ought to be incurred. It may be done by Resolution or by an Address to the Crown. The latter is the ancient and truly constitutional method of expressing the desire of the House that some public charge shall be incurred. The effect is not ultimately to bind the House, but to throw on the Crown the responsibility of accepting or declining that Address. The House, even after the Motion of my hon. Friend may have been adopted, will be just as free to discharge its duty in recommending any public charge as it is at the present moment. No doubt that is a privilege which the House exercises with very great reserve, and I am certain that great and wise reserve will continue. In reference to what my hon. Friend mentioned respecting the Constitution of a foreign country in Sir Robert Peel's time, I believe that in all cases of legislation—certainly in the great eases of legislation we have had in this House within the last thirty years for Colonial Constitutions—we have been most careful to introduce this provision. In Canada, before the present Constitution was established, the proposals by private Members to make grants of public money became so numerous and glaring that a remedy was necessary. The remedy was to introduce this provision. I believe it has been successful, and that the practice is now becoming a recognized principle of the British Government at home and in the colonies. In assisting us to stop this leak—for such it is—my hon. Friend is only giving consistent efficacy to rules which, having undoubted authority on their side, should always be our guide.


said, he thought no one could doubt that the object of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets was in entire conformity with the constitutional practice of the House. He agreed with the Motion of the hon. Member, and thought he deserved the thanks of the House. His right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had remarked upon the only point of doubt which would occur to any one's mind upon the subject. It was clear that every petition and Motion for a grant of public money should, on the ground of economy, and for the safety of the people, be initiated by the responsible Ministers of the Crown. On the other hand, there were cases where they might deem it right to initiate such a Motion. For instance, in the case of a public officer who might have a wrong done him an application might have to be made to that House for redress or compensation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that was a point which might be met in two ways—either by a Resolution or an Address. He doubted whether it could be met by a Resolution, but thought it could be by an Address. There was one very great inconvenience, however, attaching to Addresses to the Crown—namely, that they were carried upon one Motion, and one only. Strongly as he would urge on the House the propriety of retaining the opportunity of addressing the Crown, even for pecuniary grants to redress a wrong done by a Minister, he would also urge on the House the propriety of having some new Standing Order requiring Addresses to the Crown, whether involving money grants or not, to be confirmed by a second decision of the House before they were finally carried. He would also observe that the Standing Order which was about to be passed was confined to two points—namely, Petitions and Motions. It was desirable to consider whether it ought not to be extended so as to meet the greatest abuse of all—namely, that in regard to Bills.


said, he shared entirely in the feeling of gratitude which had been expressed towards the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets for introducing that subject, and also concurred in the Motion which he had laid on the table. That Motion appeared to him to meet the case of the Bills to which his right hon. Friend (Mr. Walpole) had referred. Surely the Motion even for the second reading of a Bill would entirely cover the whole of the contents of that Bill; and still more when they came to the Committee, and the Motion there was that a clause containing a money grant should stand part of the Bill, it was hardly possible to say that that was not a Motion within the meaning of the hon. Member's proposal. The suggestion thrown out by his right hon. Friend (Mr. Walpole) as to enabling the House more maturely to consider Addresses to the Crown, was well deserving attention. Supposing such an Address to involve a grant of public money, it would seem to come under the second Resolution requiring all grants to be considered in Committee of the whole House. Be that as it might, the point was one well worthy of attention. It would then be very desirable that such an Address involving a grant of money as its consequence, should be reported from the Committee of the Whole House to the House itself, and the consideration of such Report be postponed to a subsequent day, or some other formal stage of that character be interposed, so as to enable the House to apply a check, if it thought fit, in such cases. The hon. Member's proposal, they must all agree, was a step in the right direction. They did not seek to deprive any one of an opportunity of approaching the Crown who had a legitimate ground of claim upon the Crown. What they desired was that the answer should be given by the Minister of the Crown on his responsibility. At present these Motions were made in the House, and it was the business of nobody to resist them; and the hon. Member had pointed out how they escaped resistance. But that would be remedied by the adoption of some such plan as that now before them.


said, that agreeing as he did with the object which the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) had in view, he still thought his Amendment required further consideration. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said the proposed alteration of the Standing Order would not tie up the hands of the House, or in any manner prejudice its privileges or its usefulness. Let him attempt to illustrate the case by a remarkable hypothesis which might possibly be realized in our history, as it had been before. Suppose the country were involved in a war, and that during its prosecution the Ministry were engaged in the negotiation of a peace. A Motion might be brought forward by a Member of that House condemning the Ministry and expressing want of confidence in them; but the real object and gist of the Motion and the whole debate upon it might turn upon the question whether peace should be made or not. Now, although the House had no right to decide directly on the question of peace or war, there could be no doubt that it could do so indirectly by agreeing to a Motion of Want of Confidence in the Government. But such a Motion would come within the proposed Standing Order, because, by continuing the war, a charge would, of course, be imposed on the public. If, therefore, the present Amendment were adopted, he apprehended that such a Motion of Want of Confidence in the Government, under the circumstances supposed, could not be brought forward without the consent of the Ministry of the day. That was a point of sufficient gravity to induce the House to pause before it assented to the proposal now before it. It might be possible so to modify the words of the Amendment as to meet such a difficulty if it should occur; but it was easy to conceive other cases in which the same objection would arise. Perhaps it would be said that the case which he had put, and analogous ones, might be met by Members not moving a Vote of Want of Confidence, but proposing an Address direct to the Crown. That might be so; but then Members of that House ought not to be shackled in respect to the mode in which, in the exercise of their judgment, and having regard to the interests of the country, they might deem it best to bring forward a question of great importance.


said, that the Amendment was not confined to Motions for the grant of public money, but extended to petitions in relation to any grant from, or charge upon, the public funds. The hon. Mover said it was the present law. As he (Sir Colman O'Loghlen) thought the present law ought to be altered, he wished to call attention to it. Being a member of the Petitions' Committee he could state that there was hardly a meeting of that Committee at which petitions were not rejected on account of their praying for a grant of public money or some similar informality. Among the petitions, for example, relating to the cattle plague there were some which prayed for compensation partly out of the local rates, and partly from the Consolidated Fund; and every such petition was rejected. Again, many petitions coming from Ireland, having reference to medical charities and the like, were rejected on the same ground. Why should there be any Standing Order of that kind in regard to petitions? He believed that the practice of the House was formerly that anybody might originate a Motion upon a petition, when it might be discussed. He could see great inconvenience in allowing independent Members to move grants of public money, but there could be none in allowing constituents to petition the House in reference to such grants. This matter had been discussed in the Petitions' Committee, and it was the unanimous opinion of the members of that Committee that the Standing Order was worthless. He suggested that the words relating to petitions in the proposed Standing Order be omitted.


said, he hoped that if this Amendment were agreed to it would have the effect the hon. Member expected in lessening the public expenditure. He could not say he was very sanguine in that matter. Its effect would, he thought, be this—that if it applied to clauses in Bills it would bring back the old system of having the clauses printed in italics. The real matter, however, was this—every one now wanted everything to be done for him, everybody wanted to be paid for what he did, and everybody said that unless he were well paid it was not to be expected that it would be well done. It was like rat hunting, as soon as one hole was covered over the rats made their way through another. He did not think, therefore, that they would stop expense, although he admitted that the attempt to reduce public expenditure was a laudable one. If this proposition was to be really effectual to prevent Members bringing in Bills to do all sorts of things, and to remedy all sorts of evils, real or imaginary, the immediate consequence would be that the bringing in of these Bills would be thrown upon the Government, whereas at present the larger portion of such legislation was in the hands of private Members. One effect of the hon. Member's proposition would be the placing of great power in the hands of the Government with respect to the admission of clauses to Bills that might be introduced. He, however, considered that the Government were responsible for all such clauses, and that they ought not to allow them to pass unless they gave their approval to them. He should be glad if the hon. Member should prove successful, for he (Mr. Henley) was friendly to any thing of this kind.


said, that the hole which had let in these demands upon the public money was due to some ingenious Member of the other House. The proposition of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets, if it were adopted, would administer a considerable cheek to a very bad practice. With respect to Addresses to the Crown relating to grants of money, he would suggest that the proceeding should not be completed in one day, and thus he thought the object of the right hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Walpole) would be attained. A great difficulty arose from the wording of the Standing Order; for, after looking at it, and considering what the House was in the habit of doing, it was not easy to see how the Order and the procedure of the House harmonized. As some doubt as to the Standing Orders affecting grants of money was entertained by various hon. Gentlemen, he suggested the appointment of a Committee, comprising Members familiar with the business of the House, to take into consideration the Standing Orders as well as those points affecting them indicated by hon. Members who had spoken on the subject. He had no doubt that in this way the object they all had in view would be effected.


said, that he did not think it was necessary to submit the Standing Orders to the investigation of a Committee. He did not intend to touch the Standing Order 320—regulating the presentation of petitions—which had been referred to in the course of the discussion. What he proposed was to take the Standing Order affecting grants of money as it was, enlarge the Bills and Motions which were prospective in their charges, and place them on precisely the same footing as if for a present charge. The change was simple, and could easily be effected. With respect to the suggestion made by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bouverie), the objection to it was that, as he himself and other hon. Members who took an interest in the question were now engaged on other Committees, it would be impossible for them for a long time to undertake to serve on a Select Committee to consider the Standing Orders. He hoped, therefore, his right hon. Friend would not press his suggestion.

Standing Order 25th June 1852, relating to applications for Public Money read, and repealed.

Resolved, That this House will receive no Petition for any sum relating to Public Service, or proceed upon any Motion for a grant or charge upon the Public Revenue, whether payable out of the Consolidated Fund or out of monies to be provided by Parliament, unless recommended from the Crown.—(Mr. Ayrton.)

Standing Order 25th June 1852, relating to Public Aids or charges upon the People read, and repealed.

Resolved, That, if any Motion be made in the House for any aid, grant, or charge upon the Public Revenue, whether payable out of the Consolidated Fund or out of monies to be provided by Parliament, or for any charge upon the People, the consideration and debate thereof shall not be presently entered upon, but shall be adjourned till such further day as the House shall think fit to appoint, and then it shall be referred to a Committee of the whole House before any Resolution or Vote of the House do pass therein.—(Mr. Ayrton.)

Ordered, That the said Resolutions be Standing Orders of this House.