HC Deb 09 July 1877 vol 235 cc1023-31

rose to call attention to the action of the Treasury in omitting to place a Vote on the Estimates for the financial year 1876–7, for the payment of the salary fixed by statute to be paid to the Junior Clerk of the Writ and Seal Office in Ireland, to which office Mr. R. D. Pigot, junior, was appointed on the 20th November, 1875, as directed by the statute 13 Vic. c. 18, s. 33, and the duties of which he still discharges, and to move— That such action is inconsistent with the intentions and spirit of of the Act 17 and 18 Vic, c. 94, by which the payment of salaries, declared payable by statute to the holders of certain freehold offices held during good behaviour, were transferred from the Consolidated Fund to the Estimates without any intention of thereby diminishing the security of such payments, otherwise than by subjecting them to the control of Parliament by an annual Vote of the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman said, that by the 17th & 18th Vict, it was provided that the officers of the Writ and Seal Office should hold their offices at the salaries fixed by the statute and directed to be paid out of the Consolidated Fund. In 1854 these salaries were placed on the Estimates. Later on the Treasury came to the Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant, asking that the superior posts in this office might not be filled up, as it would not be necessary to fill them up in consequence of the possible passing of the Judicature Act. The Chief Secretary, however, declined to take that course, on the ground that they being statutable offices, they must be filled up. Then an attempt was made to induce the Irish Judges not to fill up the offices in question, as they were required to do by the statute. But the Judges declined to do so. And with regard to the Clerk of Writs and the second assistant in the office, the Treasury had therefore been obliged to give way. But the provisions of the Act equally applied to the junior clerk. The words were precisely the same in both portions of the statute, and if the Judges were obliged to appoint the superior officers, as was now admitted by the Treasury, so the masters of the Court—under the same mandatory provisions of the statute—were equally obliged to appoint the junior officer. In the first instance, the Treasury did not say they would not pay the salary. All they originally said was that they would not give compensation. In point of fact, the salary of this officer had been paid for a certain time. Mr. Pigot had thus been acknowledged as the incumbent of an office, the duties of which he had discharged, and was at this moment discharging, and to which he had been appointed in virtue of a statute, and it was therefore monstrous that the Treasury should now refuse to pay the salary. The right hon. Gentleman then entered in great detail into the facts of the case, in order to show the validity of the appointment of Mr. Pigot, and from that point he passed to the allegation that the late Lord Chief Justice Whiteside had been opposed to the appointment. That allegation he contradicted on the authority of a letter from the late Lord Chief Justice, who had expressed in very vigorous terms his sense of the perfect regularity of the appointment, it's exigency under the statute, and his sense of the meanness of the conduct of the Treasury in refusing to place on the Estimates the salaries of clerks who had been duly appointed. The letter said— Thus making a precedent which would enable the Treasury officials to cheat all other officials by declining to place their salaries on the Estimates, and leaving the ruined officials with places, but without pay. The Lord Chief Justice said emphatically that Mr. Pigot, being lawfully appointed, only a statute could deprive him of the salary of that office to which he was thus entitled. There being great interruption—


asked the Speaker to call Order. He thought that during the speech of the right hon. Member for Kildare, a Member of the Government should preserve Order in that House. [Cries of "Order, order!"] He was prepared to name him. [Cries of "Order!"] He must protest against the right hon. Gentleman the Judge Advocate General laughing in such a contemptuous manner and disturbing the House during the speech of the right hon. Member for Kildare, with respect to a grievance affecting a meritorious public officer.


The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kildare is in possession of the House, and is entitled to proceed without interruption.


resumed, quoting other high authorities to prove that the title of the office holders referred to in his Motion was not intended to be prejudiced in any way when their salaries were transferred from the Consolidated Fund to the Votes of that House. Although apprehensions had at the time it was passed been expressed as to the effect of the Act removing salaries from the Consolidated Fund to the Estimates, it was never contemplated that the Treasury could, at their own caprice, strike those salaries out of the Votes without submitting them, in the first instance, to Parliament. No other mode of redress was open than that of bringing the matter before the House, and he maintained that there was no precedent for such a case of the salary of an official being withdrawn from the official without any charge being made against him by an arbitrary act of the Executive, on the plea that it was intended to introduce into Parliament a Bill by which the office would be proposed to be abolished. He did not often trouble the House, and he thanked them for the attention with which they had heard him. The course pursued by the Treasury in the case was a clear violation of justice and of law, and he begged, therefore, to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to th end of the Question, in order to add the word "this House is of opinion that the action of the Treasury in omitting to place a Vote on the Estimates for the financial year 1876–7, for the payment of the salary fixed by Statute to be paid to the Junior Clerk of the Writ and Seal Office in Ireland, to which office Mr. D. R. Pigot, junior, was appointed on the 20th day of November 1875, as directed by the Statute 13 Vic. c. 18, s. 33, and the duties of which he still discharges, is inconsistent with the intentions and spirit of the Act 17 and 18 Vic. c. 94, by which the payments of salaries, declared payable by Statute to the holders of certain freehold offices held during good behaviour, were transferred from the Consolidated Fund to the Estimates, without any intention of thereby diminishing the security of such payments, further than subjecting them to the control of Parliament by an annual Vote of this House,"— (Mr. Cogan,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, the question before the House was simply that of the abolition of a sinecure office, to which no duties whatever were attached. In the new Judicature Bill intimation had been given to the Treasury in 1875, that it was proposed to abolish the office in question, simply because there were no duties in connection with it to be discharged, and the Treasury were supported in the view that the place ought not to be filled up by a Minute signed by the Irish Chief Justice and Chief Baron. As to the complaint that due notice had not been given that the salary of the office would not be provided, the fact was, that within three weeks of the final act of the Master appointing his son, he had full notice that provision would not be made for his salary in the Estimates of the coming year, and he (Mr. Smith) himself stated to the right hon. Gentleman who now brought forward the matter, that the Treasury did not think it desirable that the office should be filled up, so that fuller or more expeditious notice could hardly have been given. The right hon. Gentleman laid great stress on the argument that good faith demanded that provision should be made for an officer whose salary was transferred from the Consolidated Fund to the Estimates, and he did not wish to controvert the principle thus laid down. But considering that the office had become vacant, that it was known beforehand that Parliament would be asked to abolish it, that there were no duties connected with it, and that the two principal Judges—the Chief Justice and the Chief Baron—had recommended its abolition, he thought the Treasury would have been wanting in their duty to the Public Service if they had not taken the course which they had done. Under these circumstances, he hoped the Motion would not be persevered with.


asked how long the office would be kept open. It involved a legal question which he would like to submit to legal opinion. In his view, the Treasury were bound to fill up the office, and in doing that were bound to make provision for it in the Estimates. The matter rested on the construction of a statute, and the Secretary to the Treasury had last year consented that the point should be submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown —whether the Master of the Court of Exchequer was bound to fill up the office of junior clerk. That, however, had not been done. He now made this proposition to the hon. Gentleman—that the question should be submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown in England or Ireland.


observed, that so far as he could make out, the place was an absolute sinecure. If the Treasury were to discharge any duties at all, this was surely one of them, seeing that, as guardians of the public purse, they were bound to resist expenditure of money for sinecure offices. When the respon- sible officials had written to the Lord Lieutenant to apprise him that there were no duties to be performed by this functionary, the Government had no alternative but to decline to put the item on the Estimates.


held that so long as the statute referred to was in force the office should be filled up. When the charge of the salary was transferred to the Parliamentary Vote, it never could have been intended to place the officer's salary entirely at the mercy of the Government to make provision in the Estimates, or not, as they might think fit. The real question was whether the Government, without seeking the abolition by statute of a statutory office which they thought no longer necessary, and to which a fit person had been legally appointed could properly withhold from the consideration of Parliament the Vote for the salary of the officer. The question of providing the salary was one which, at any rate, should have been referred to the Law Officers of the Crown as had been proposed to the Government. He must say he thought the course taken by the Treasury was an unconstitutional one.


remarked that this was not a question merely as to a small sum of money. It was a question of principle. The Treasury, as custodians of public money, were bound to discountenance payments for sinecure offices, be the sum small or large. They had been informed by two of the highest authorities, and who were the best judges on the point, that the office in dispute was unnecessary. ["No, no!"] He said, Yes; and, that being the case, it would have been wrong to continue it.


agreed that it was a question of principle, and not one of the expenditure of £250 a-year; but he thought the principle involved had not been correctly stated by the last speaker. Throughout the whole of the correspondence it had never been hinted that the office had been a sinecure. The ground taken was altogether different. The Government said—We intend to make an Act of Parliament, by which it is intended to make extensive modifications in the Judicial Staff in Ireland, and in those changes this office will be in our way, and we will not fill it up. But had the Treasury the power to do such a thing? He contended that they had not. The members of the Judicial Staff were appointed by Act of Parliament, and while the Act remained unrepealed, it was idle to say the office was unnecessary. They had, in fact, assumed the powers of Parliament, and if they were at liberty to say of this small office that it was not to be filled up, they might come to the same decision respecting any other office.


insisted that the appointment was legal, and the holder was entitled to be paid. The whole question amounted to this— had the Treasury the right to repeal an Act of Parliament? It was not merely an Irish question, but involved interests all over the Kingdom.


said, that he must take exception to the arguments of the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt), who had contended that action had been taken by the Treasury on their own authority, on the assumption that a Bill before Parliament would become law; and that the action of the Treasury would justify them in practically abolishing any other office. It ought to be borne in mind that there was a great difference between refusing to continue on the Estimates the salary of a person already holding an office, and refusing to place on the Estimates the salary of a person newly appointed to an office. The latter was what the Treasury had done in the present instance. It was also clear that the duties of this office were, if the Judicature Bill did not become law, so slight as to render it almost a sinecure. That opinion was not merely that of the Government, but was also the result of an inquiry held in 1875 by two gentlemen appointed by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The Report that followed that inquiry induced the Lord Chancellor to advise the Lord Lieutenant not to fill up the office of Clerk of the Writs and Seal when it became vacant. The Lord Lieutenant would not, in fact, have filled up the office had it not been discovered some months later that the signature of the holder of that office must necessarily be appended to certain legal documents. Consequently the second clerk was temporarily promoted in order that a needless burden should not be put on the public purse. Then the Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench and the Chief Baron, acting in accordance with a statute which they considered binding upon them, appointed Messrs. Bush and Burke to the office of first and second clerks. But the Chief Justice expressed his opinion that the office of junior clerk ought not to be filled up. The Chief Baron said he considered he had no jurisdiction in the matter; but he had authorized him (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) to state, that nevertheless he thoroughly agreed with the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland that it was not necessary to fill up the office of junior clerk. However, two out of the three Masters took it upon themselves to fill up the office by appointing to it the son of one of them, and as reference had been made to nepotism, he might remark that all three clerks, including this young man, were near relatives of Masters or ex-Masters of the Courts of Law in Ireland. There was nothing in the action taken by the Treasury to warrant the argument that salaries were not permanent under existing arrangements. Under the present system the clerks of the Eirst Law were as free from undue interference on the part of the Treasury as they were when their salaries were placed on the Consolidated Fund. All that the Treasury had done was to try to prevent, as far as they were able, an unnecessary office being filled up, and to take care that an unnecessary burden should not be imposed on the public purse by a transaction to which, in his judgment, a much shorter term might be applied.


said, the late Lord Chief Justice Whiteside, in a letter dated the 13th June, 1876, on this subject, expressed a strong opinion as to the "meanness incredible" of the Treasury. The letter further stated that the appointments were signed by the Chief Baron and himself; that— He had had a conversation with Beach, who had told him that the office was to be abolished, and it was upon that he had agreed. The matter had not been dealt with on one consistent principle, for on the 26th of October, 1875, the right hon. Baronet had written a letter in which he had said that it was illegal not to appoint, as the office was a statuteable one, and had to be filled.


said, that though the point at issue involved a salary of no more than £250 a-year, the debate had been very instructive, and had shown how eagerly lawyers resented any reduction of official salaries. Here was an office which the Judge himself had not thought it necessary to fill up; but when that had been done, and the Treasury had refused to pay, they were assailed by lawyers on both sides. But if they voted for economy, they would vote that a man who had nothing to do should not be paid, and that was one of the first and soundest Constitutional principles. In fact, the whole question was, whether they should pay a man who did no work. When the Government had the courage to oppose such a Motion, they ought to be supported by the independent Members.


remarked that if it were a question of abolishing offices to which no duties attached he should agree with the hon. Member; but the point that had been debated was, whether the Treasury alone had the right to decide that the salary of an officer, who had been duly appointed, should be stopped. Two superior Judges had been abolished by the Bill, but their salaries had been put into the Estimates, while those of the junior officers had been left out. The Government had acted without bringing the question before Parliament, and that was what he and his Friends complained of.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 227; Noes 38: Majority 189.—(Div. List, No. 227.)