HC Deb 22 February 1870 vol 199 cc697-707

rose to call the attention of the House to the disabilities under which the Revenue Officers labour in reference to Parliamentary Elections, and to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire and report as to electoral restraints and disabilities affecting the Civil Servants of the Crown in the several branches of the Revenue Department, and to consider the expediency of removing them in certain cases. Iii proposing that inquiry should be made into the electoral disabilities under which Civil Servants in the Post Office, the Excise, and the Customs now laboured, it would be unnecessary for him to remind the House that by an Act passed in 1868 the revenue officers were empowered to record their votes at the election of Members to serve in Parliament. It was doubtless also in the recollection of hon. Members that a Bill was introduced in the course of last Session by the hon. Baronet the Member for Buckingham (Sir Harry Verney) and himself, having for its object the repeal of certain disabling enactments contained in Acts passed in the reigns of William and Mary and of Queen Anne, which imposed restrictions and inflicted heavy penalties upon all revenue officers who should take part in an election by persuading persons to vote or dissuading them from voting for any particular candidate. In addition to a fine of £100 any revenue officer who might be convicted of having taken part in an election was thenceforth disqualified from, and rendered incapable of, ever holding any office of trust or emolument under the Crown. That Bill was opposed by Her Majesty's Government, and was thrown out on the second reading by a large majority—about two to one in a full House. He did not think that he was over-stating the case when he said that by that decision the House had expressed its deliberate opinion that the mouths of the officers of the Revenue Department ought to be closed with reference to political subjects, in the same manner that it was deemed expedient to close them 170 years ago, and that they ought to be debarred from taking any part in the promotion or move in the discussion of any subjects of interest which might happen to be before the country. He had abundant evidence to show that many of these officials who had passed a competitive examination, who had risen to the highest rank in their profession, and had grown old and gray in the service of their country, felt very keenly the stigma which, the decision of that House had placed upon them by refusing to restore to them the full rights of citizenship. They argued that no body of men were more interested than they were in the stability of our institutions, and no class of electors so likely to oppose violent and revolutionary changes, while the imputation that they might be influenced by political motives, or by any other motive than a desire properly to perform their duties in collecting the public revenue was unworthy of those who made it. He had, however, no intention to revive the discussion of last year, neither did he then; seek to reverse the decision which was then arrived at, although he availed himself of that occasion to say that he should lose no opportunity of doing all in his power to complete the enfranchisement of the civil officers in the Revenue Department. The object of his Motion was, first and foremost, to ask the House to appoint a Committee to investigate and ascertain which of the three branches of the Revenue Department still laboured under statutory restraints and disabilities; and, secondly, to consider whether any branch of the Service, or any class of officials so affected, might not in the present day be appropriately relieved from those disabilities. He begged to repeat the assertion which he had made last year, that one, at least, of the three branches of the Revenue Department was in reality politically free. He then stated that the disabling Act of 5 William and Mary, c. 50, s. 48, which imposed the minor penalty of £100 on any officers in the Excise who presumed to take part in an election, and which disqualified them from ever holding office under the Crown, had been repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act of 1867. The Act of 7 & 8 Geo. IV., c. 53, s. 9, increasing the penalty to £500, was repealed in 1868 by the Act of 32 Vict. c. 73, commonly known as the Revenue Officers' Disabilities Removal Act. He submitted to the House that it was a matter of grave public importance that the political status of the officers in the Revenue Department should be distinctly ascertained, and that no reasonable doubt should be allowed to remain as to whether the disabilities and penalties imposed by the Act of William and Mary, already repealed, had been revived or kept alive by any subsequent Act. He understood that it was alleged by those who advised the Inland Revenue Department that those disabilities and penalties were kept alive by the Act of 55 Geo. III. c. 184, but he entirely dissented from that opinion, believing that the advisers and the officials of the Inland Revenue Department had made a mistake with reference to that Act, which referred to and affected the public only, upon whom the duties were levied, not the officers who levied them. Under these circumstances, he thought he had made out a case, so far as the Inland Revenue Department was concerned, at all events, for further inquiry. He came next to the Department of the Post Office, and here he at once acknowledged that he entertained no doubt whatever as to the political status of its officials, inasmuch as he had discovered no Act which repealed the penalties under which they laboured. He had, however, the less reason to regret that circumstance, because in the debate which took place last year on the Revenue Officers Bill the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, in reply to a Question from the right hon. and learned Member for Southampton (Mr. Russell Gurney) who was pleading the cause of the Post Office Department, said if that right hon. and learned Gentleman would move for a Committee to institute a careful inquiry, with the view of seeing whether there were any persons labouring under disabilities to whom they should not be applied, he did not know that he should resist such an investigation. So far, therefore, as the Post Office was concerned, he believed the Government would scarcely wish to oppose his Motion. He would ask the House to bear in mind that no argument was brought forward last year to show that the public service could suffer from a relaxation of the restraints upon the officers in the Post Office, and he would remind his right hon. Friend the First Minister that in the Report presented to Parliament from the heads of the Revenue Departments in 1868 there was no report against 1he enfranchisement of that branch of the Civil Service. As regards the Customs, perhaps, the House would be somewhat surprised to hear that he was prepared to lay before the Committee, if appointed, evidence which he believed to be of a conclusive character that the officers in the Customs were absolutely free, politically speaking, because all the disabling Acts affecting them had been repealed, either by the Customs Consolidation Acts of George IV. and William IV., or by the Revenue Officers' Disabilities Act of 1868. He believed he had made out a case to justify inquiry into the political status of each of the three branches of the Civil Service. As regards two of them, very considerable doubt remained as to their political status. With regard to the third no argument was advanced last year to show why they should not be completely enfranchised. He made no appeal ad misericordiam to the House on behalf of the Civil Servants whose cause he had taken up; but he did appeal to the Government not to refuse a Committee to inquire, with a view of setting at vest all doubts on a subject not only of deep interest to the revenue officers themselves, but of much importance to the public service. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Resolution.


said, the request made by his hon. Friend was so reasonable that he could not but anticipate the Government would accede to it. Considerable interest was felt on the question in Liverpool, and the revenue officers at that port were very grateful for the franchise that was conferred on them last year, but they felt that so long as restraint and disabilities were imposed upon the expression of their political opinions, they were in an unfair position with regard to the rest of the community. No doubt there were reasons for imposing these restrictions when they were first adopted, but he could not help thinking that it was undesirable they should any longer exist. Besides, the statement of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk), that it was questionable whether some branches of the Civil Service were really disqualified from canvassing, made action in the matter really urgent. He had no wish to make the officers of the Crown public agitators, and that might be prevented by departmental regulations instead of by statutory enactment. He should have thought that the decision of the House on a former occasion would have been sufficient for dealing with this question. It seemed to him so simple a one that there was no occasion to refer it to a Select Committee; but as the hon. Member for Gloucester, who had taken so great an interest in the subject, thought it was the best mode of dealing with it he had great pleasure in seconding the Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire and report as to electoral restraints and; disabilities affecting the Civil Servants of the Crown in the several branches of the Revenue Department, and to consider the expediency of removing them in certain cases."—(Mr. Monk.)


I cannot but help expressing my regret that the zeal and fervour of my hon. Friend (Mr. Monk) in the cause that he has taken up is so great that he cannot endure, after the debate and decision of last year upon this subject, to allow it to sleep for a year. I think, when the House has come to a decision on a matter of no very great concern, after a full discussion, and has come to a very decisive expression of opinion upon it, I would almost say that common humanity on the part of the promoters of this cause ought to induce them to give the House a short lease of tranquillity before we are again almost driven by tenacious and repeated attacks into the resumption of a question under the hope that ultimately, through sheer weariness, like the unjust judge in the parable—not because he considered it just—but by continued application so wearying us that we shall accede to the Resolution. The two hon. Members who have spoken have not covered the Motion with any disguise; but when come to look to the terms of the Motion, I one might think there was something like tactic about it, and I am going to acquit the hon. Mover of that, because if there is any reservation in the terms of the Motion there is none in the remarks of the Mover and Seconder. There are but three great branches of the public service that are affected by these restraints, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester first shows why they should not apply to the first, then to the second, and then to the third, and that in the certain cases in which he wishes to remove restraints are the whole of the cases embraced by the present disabilities. The Seconder of the Motion was rather more ingenuous. He expressed his regret that a Motion for a Committee had been resorted to instead of grappling with the question by a distinct proposal; but out of deference to the Mover of the Resolution he thought it was not safe to abandon his company and association, and support what he regards as an unsatisfactory proposal. This is, in reality, a Motion to reverse the vote of last year. No ground has been laid for a partial inquiry. It is true that when last year the question was under discussion, I understood the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Southampton (Mr. Russell Gurney) to state that there were certain cases which he thought were invested with a special character, and said if he thought inquiry was necessary into them let it be made. But it was not prudent to do so on the present occasion, nor does he conceal the question whether the whole of these disabilities should be removed. I must say I dislike to revert to questions which were thoroughly sifted last year. The principle applied in these disqualifying provisions is not peculiar; it is applied in many ways, and in no way more rigorously than within the walls of this House. We do not allow a Government contractor to take a seat here; and why? Not that contractors are impure, but because we think the combination of influence they exercise on persons employed for the public service in matters of money with their duties as Members of Parliament, deciding on matters of expenditure, is not calculated as a general rule to secure perfect integrity and freedom from suspicion, and reasons of sound policy make it right to place them under a certain amount of disability. I might refer to other cases, but when I appeal to the case of a body elected in this House—every man who sits in it being dependent on the scrutiny and deliberate choice of a large number of his fellow-countrymen—it is obvious that I establish the strongest possible case, more particularly because those persons after being elected are compelled to do everything in the light of day, but revenue officers are of necessity entrusted with matters to which the check of publicity cannot be applied. The revenue officers have necessarily to discharge their duties in secret, but they conduct them with the utmost privity and with as absolute freedom as anyone can possess from the remotest approach to guilt. Yet if they are placed in situations of political association with those whom it is their business to control, and check, and arrest in matters of great pecuniary importance relating to the public, it is quite evident you compromise their independence and reputation before the public by deliberately placing them in a false position. I think if the hon. Member for Gloucester had interfered in one of those neutral and colourless Sessions, when the House appears to have nothing to do, when the House is thankful to any Gentleman who finds them a topic of interest to discuss, then there might have been something to say in favour of his bringing forward this question. But really, when we consider what is the amount of work cut out, and we are cutting out, in the Session now opening, I do make an appeal ad misericordiam to him, and beseech and entreat him to give a little compassionate consideration to our overburdened shoulders and our failing knees, and give us time to rally from these repeated assaults, and enable us to bring to a conclusion other and more important business; and after which the hon. Gentleman would be all the better, as it would bring him longer rest and repose, for which all, in fact, would be the better. I hope, however, whenever he comes back to the question, the soundness of the arguments against it will be sufficient to repel it. It will be better for us all to allow a short and decent interval to elapse before we occupy ourselves with questions which have been thoroughly sifted and decorously disposed of as this was in the last Session of Parliament.


said, the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government had brought the Motion on himself by the remarks he made last year. If the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk) had proposed the same measure which he brought forward last Session for the removal of these disabilities, he should himself have been disposed to tell the hon. Member, as the right hon. Gentleman at the head of Her Majesty's Government had just done, that such an application was premature after the decision arrived at last Session. A decisive division was then taken, and it would not be respectful to the House to renew the same question now. In point of fact, however, the present Motion was very different from that made last year, and after the remarks which fell on that occasion from the lips of the right hon. Gentleman it was quite natural that the present Motion should be brought for- ward. The House was then distinctly told that if a Motion for inquiry were made the right hon. Gentleman would probably not raise any objection to it.


I said an inquiry with regard to certain special cases.


said, it was not limited in that way. It was to be a Motion for a Committee to inquire whether there were certain special cases. His hon. Friend no doubt thought that in almost every instance the officers should be relieved from these disabilities; but his Motion was merely for a Committee to ascertain whether there were any special classes which ought to be relieved from them. With that view he should support the Motion, which was so reasonable that he thought even the "claims of humanity" would not be sufficient to prevent the House from acceding to it.


said, he regretted that the right hon. Gentleman should have likened himself to the unjust judge, because he was sure no one else would have ventured to do so, even although the likeness were true. He was also glad the right hon. Gentleman had not been able to advance a single argument against the case that had been made out for inquiry, but that he had merely called for "rest." He would, however, remind the right hon. Gentleman, that the same authority which told them about the unjust judge also said that "there was no rest for the wicked." If a large number of Her Majesty's subjects had a grievance the House ought to grant an inquiry in order that all the parties concerned might have an opportunity of showing the goodness or badness of the cause they advocated. He should support the Resolution.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had made a very good speech against the Bill introduced two years ago by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk); and, indeed, if his memory did not deceive him, it was almost the very same speech which the right hon. Gentleman delivered on one of the stages of the Bill of 1868. But the House did not then think proper to endorse the right hon. Gentleman's opinions on the subject, which he failed to support by his vote, and the Bill became part of the law of the laud. What was now wanted was an inquiry into the present state of the law. At present people were in a state of confusion, and did not know what were the rights, privileges, and disabilities of these officers. But his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had not addressed a single remark to the subject of the desired inquiry. Great confusion now existed as to the state of the law in reference to these officers. Any officer who held his appointment direct from the Crown was directed by the head of his Department not to interfere in any election beyond merely recording his vote. If a collector of taxes or distributor of stamps—in Scotland, at all events—other-wise interfered in an election he would be breaking the law if the instructions of; his superior were well founded. But if any clerk in the officer's service chose to interfere and canvass to any extent as a paid agent nobody could touch him, because he did not receive his salary direct from the Crown. Ought such a state of things to be allowed to continue? All cause for quibbling ought to be got rid of, and a uniform rule applied to all the service. At present the small men might exercise influence, while the great men were not allowed to do so, although they were more independent, more respectable, and loss likely to use their influence improperly than their subordinates. The hon. Member for Gloucester did not ask the House to prejudge the question, but simply desired an inquiry which he hoped the Government would not persist in refusing, especially as it would not in the least interfere with the important; measures to be discussed during the present Session. The Committee would collect evidence, and if it showed that legislation was necessary to remedy the existing defects and remove the existing doubts, it would, in his judgment, have performed a very useful work.


remarked that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had passed over in silence the chief part of his argument. He would merely point out that his right hon. Friend had confined his remarks to the second part of his Motion only which asked for an inquiry as to whether these disabilities should be removed in certain cases. He should not have placed that portion of the Motion on the Paper had it not been for the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman on the subject last Session. All the Motion asked the House to assent to was that an inquiry should be instituted as to the political status of the officers in the Customs and Excise. He thought the result of the rejection of his Motion would be that the officers in the Customs would avail themselves of the information that they were politically free, as were also, he believed, the officers in the Excise. Whether such was the case or not might be determined either in a court of law, or by the Committee he was asking the House to appoint. He would again express a hope that the House would not refuse to grant a Committee to ascertain the political status of the three branches of the Revenue Department, although if the House wished it he would not press his Motion to a division.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.