HC Deb 17 April 1877 vol 233 cc1365-72

in rising to call attention to the claims of the Royal Irish Constabulary Pensioners who retired previous to the month of August 1874; and to move— That Copies of the Case submitted to the English Law Officers of the Crown, in pursuance of the undertaking given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the 27th of June 1876, and of their opinions on such case, be laid upon the Table of the House, admitted that if this was the ordinary case of the Government taking the opinion of their Law Officers for their own guidance, they could not fairly be asked to produce such opinion. That, however, was not the present case, and he was prepared to demonstrate that the course ho was taking, in moving for these Papers, was warranted by the circumstances he would state. Last year it seemed to him that the expression of opinion in the House was such that if he had pressed his Motion for a Select Committee to a division he should in all probability have been successful. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, having stated that he was willing to take the opinion of the English Law Officers of the Crown upon the points then in controversy, he (Mr. Meldon) stated that he would be bound by such opinion, and, accordingly, offered to withdraw his Motion. The legal questions then in controversy were by mutual consent left, so to speak, to the arbitrament of the Attorney and Solicitor General for England, and it was understood that, so far as the law of the case was concerned, he was to be bound by the opinion of the English Law Officers of the Crown. The opinion taken in pursuance of such arrangement ought to be laid on the Table, so that it might be known how the case now stood. It was necessary to state shortly the complaint of the Constabulary pensioners. In the year 1847 an Act was passed regulating the pay and pension of the Royal Irish Constabulary Force. That Act provided for a certain scale of pay. Upon retirement after 15 years' service they were to be entitled to two-thirds of their pay; after 20 years' service they were to be entitled to the full pay. There were two forces—the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police Force—concerned in this matter. Between 1847 and 1866 the pay of these forces was increased, and the Act of 1866, besides fixing a new scale of pensions, increased the rates of pay considerably. The rights of all members of the two forces who were in the service at the date of the passing of the Act of 1866 were protected, the provisions of the Act of 1847 being continued for their benefit. From the coming into operation of the Act of 1866 the members of the two forces were pensioned on different systems, although the provisions of the law under which pensions were granted were identical in terms. The members of the Metropolitan Police who retired under the Act of 1847 received pensions calculated on the rate of pay they were in receipt of at the time of their retirement, whereas the members of the Constabulary Force were not given the full amount of pension to which they were entitled; it being calculated on the rates of pay prevailing in 1847. The answer which the Government gave to the complaints of the Constabulary pensioners was that under the Act of 1866 they were bound to go back to the Act of 1847, and ascertain the rates of pay then prevailing; and this, notwithstanding that upon the construction of identical words in the same Act, the Metropolitan Police were pensioned on the rates of pay of which they were actually in receipt. He said that the Government had made a mistake in law, and asked that it should be remedied. An officer in receipt of £91 a-year only got £60 a-year upon that calculation. The case put forward by the Govern- ment, in the reply given by the Lord Lieutenant to the Memorial of the Pensioners, by the Chief Secretary in the debates in the House, was that the authorities had given to the pensioners the highest amount of pension the law permitted, and the legal question at issue last Session, which was left to the decision of the Law Officers, was whether this contention of the Government was right or not. The decision of the arbitrators should in all fairness be communicated to the parties interested. There was a new pension scheme introduced by the Act of 1874; but the rights of those members of the force entitled to be pensioned under the Act of 1847 remained exactly as they were before such Act was passed, yet the Government allowed such members of both forces to be pensioned on the rates of pay they were in receipt of at the date of their retirement, thus admitting the principle he was contending for to its fullest extent. His case was that the Government had made a mistake in the construction of an Act, and that they had done so was clear—that the Metropolitan Police got the benefit of that Act, while it was denied to the Constabulary. Well, then, he said, let the Government meet the case fairly, and let them see the opinion of the Law Officers on the subject; or let the matter be referred to a Select Committee, who should inquire into the subject; but, in any event, justice ought to be done to a most deserving body of men.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That there he laid before this House, Copies of the Case submitted to the English Law Officers of the Crown, on behalf of the Royal Irish Constabulary Pensioners who retired previous to the month of August 1874, in pursuance of the undertaking given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the 27th of June 1876, and of their opinions on such Case."—(Mr. Meldon.)


denied that the Government had been guilty of any breach of faith in this matter. Last year the hon. and learned Member moved for a Committee of Inquiry into the case of these pensioners. In the course of the discussion a suggestion was made by the hon. Member for Long ford (Mr. O'Reilly) that the opinion of the English Law Officers of the Crown should be taken. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) then said that the Government would re-consider the mat- ter, and would take the opinion of the English Law Officers. On that understanding the hon. Member withdrew his Motion. Well, he fulfilled the engagement he had given. Ho went through the Papers again, and he took the opinion of the Law Officers; but he never promised to lay that opinion on the Table, nor could he have done so, because it was an invariable rule that the opinions of the Law Officers were treated as confidential. This matter was a very complicated one. Previous to 1866 the Constabulary wore entitled to a certain rate of pay. In that year, in consequence of a movement for an increase of pay, there was a Commission of Inquiry, which reported in favour of an increase of pay; but recommended that the pensions should be calculated on the scale of superannuation and rates of pay previously in force. An Act was passed in conformity with that recommendation, and the intention of the Legislature evidently was to apply the old scale of superannuations to the new line of pay, so far as regarded the men then in the force. Up to 1874 the men retired in conformity with that Act, and no question arose as to the pensions to which they were entitled. In 1874 another Act was passed. At the time that Act was passed there was an impression that it would give the higher rate of superannuation to men who retired subsequently, and it was thought better to fulfil the expectations thus excited. Then arose the question whether the Act of 1874 was retrospective, so as to give the men who had retired before 1874 the higher rate of superannuation. The opinion of the Law Officers was taken on the point. Although the Government might pay the higher rate, those men were not legally entitled to a higher rate of pension than that which they had retired upon, that the Act of 1874 was not retrospective, and that there was no legal reason for giving them more now. That being the case, he could not accede to the proposition of doing more than had been done; nor could he produce the opinion of the Law Officers, for the reasons he had already given.


said, that as the Act of 1874 was obviously one of a doubtful character, it was only right that the opinion of the Law Officers should be produced, as it appeared from the opinion of the English Law Officers that the Treasury might, if they chose, pay the higher allowance, although they were justified in refusing to do so. He thought that it was a poor encouragement to the men now in the force if they now refused to treat them with an amount of liberality which, according to the view of their own Law Officers, they would be warranted in displaying.


said, that the decision of the arbitrating party was to be binding between the parties represented by the Treasury, on the one hand, and the pensioners on the other. The decision had been that the Government might, in the exercise of their discretion, grant the claims of the Constabulary. The Government now took advantage of their discretionary power to refuse to abide by the decision of the arbitrator. Surely, that was not a fair way of carrying out the understanding arrived at last year.


thought that the Government should consent to the Motion. The reference to the Law Officers of the Crown was for the purpose of ascertaining if the Government were justified in granting the claim. Now, it would appear that although the opinion of the Law Officers was that the Government would be justified, the latter said they would take advantage of the law to deny the claim.


denied that there was any such judicial opinion sought from the Law Officers. The point referred to them was, whether or not members of the Constabulary who had retired previous to 1874 had been deprived of pensions to which they were legally entitled. The pensioners who retired then did so knowing what pensions they were to receive, and they never thought of asking mere until the Act of 1874 changed the rates of pension and gave a higher scale to members of the force retiring after its date. Then, and then only, they bethought them of coming to the House with their claim for an increase. If the House sanctioned, with reference to one branch of the public service, a proposal to re-open and increase pensions which had been granted in accordance with the law, there would be opened such a vista of similar claims from all classes of the Civil Service, as well as the Army and Navy, as would be insupportable.


said, that the right hon. Baronet the Chief Secretary for Ireland had, on the whole, given a correct account of the steps taken by the Constabulary pensioners in making their claim for increase of pension. What they said was that, unless there was some absolute bar to their claim, they had a right to consideration. The Government rejoined that they were not empowered to give a favourable ear to the demand as the law stood in their way; but they engaged to take the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown on the point. What did this mean? It implied that their policy would be to make the concession unless the law was against them. The only new feature in the case was the opinion of these learned Gentlemen, and it was that feature we were not to be allowed to look at. That was very extraordinary. The Government shielded themselves now under the intention of the Legislature when they could no longer derive comfort from the express words of the Acts of Parliament. The men whose cases were now under consideration served the country in troublous times, and did their duty wisely and well. We do not say you are bound by law to do what we ask, but we say you are justified in doing it, and that is enough for our case. We move for Papers, and you not only refuse the Papers, but you announce a rigid policy of refusal, which you shrunk from last year when the House was not in a condition to promise a favourable issue for the Government. You will leave a rankling sore in the breasts of men who have faithfully done their duty, and you will seriously impair the confidence of Her Majesty's servants in the generosity of Parliament. He hoped the Government would even yet give way and do a graceful and just act towards the Irish Constabulary pensioners.


said, his hon. and learned Friend's (Mr. Meldon's) contention was that there was some legal claim; if not, why was the matter submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown? A question of policy would not be submitted to them. No possible harm could arise to the public service from granting the Papers.


said that though there might, strictly speaking, be no legal claim, yet, when the services of the Irish Constabulary were taken into consideration, the Government would do well to make some concession. An ordinary Commission might, he thought, inquire into the different cases and settle the question without considerable difficulty.


said, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated correctly what was the opinion given by the Law Officers of the Crown. As he understood it, that opinion was that the Lord Lieutenant had a discretion in granting pensions on the higher scale; but that the pensioners had no legal right to demand pensions on that scale. He protested against the principle that hon. Members should ask for the opinions of the Law Officers of the Crown, not for the sake of the Law Officers, but for the sake of the Government. The Law Officers of the Crown advised the Government confidentially; and if the Government yielded and granted the Papers asked for, similar applications would be made in every case.


believed that the understanding last year was that if the Law Officers of the Crown put it into the power of the Government to give these pensions they would do so. The Law Officers had enabled the Government to do what they were asked to do, and yet they declined. If this could have been foreseen last year the result of the division might have been different.


asked why the question had been submitted to the Law Officers if it was not intended to act upon their opinion should it be in the affirmative?


agreed with the hon. and learned Attorney General as to the law; but the issue between the pensioners and the Government, and what was by consent left to their decision, was not whether the former had a legal right, but whether the Government had the power, under the Act of 1866, to give pensions calculated on the rate of pay received by the persons retiring at the date of their retirement. He thought that by their own showing they had this power, and that the Lord Lieutenant was able to do so at his discretion. He did not go fully into the merits of the case, as the Motion was for Papers necessary at a future time to substantiate the claims of those he represented; and he was satisfied, for the purposes of the present Motion—to show what the issue was that was knit between the pensioners and the Government—that the decision of that issue was by mutual arrangement left to the Law Officers, and that in all justice the decision arrived at should be communicated to the parties interested. It, however, appeared from the statement of the Attorney General that the decision arrived at was entirely favourable to his (Mr. Meldon's) contention; but he wished upon the Motion to take the opinion of the House upon his right to have copies of the Papers laid upon the Table of the House.


said, the Act of 1874 provided that the pension should be commuted on the salary for the three years previous.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 77; Noes 131: Majority 54.—(Div. List, No. 79.)