HC Deb 02 April 1883 vol 277 cc1260-71

Resolution [March 29] reported.

Resolution read a second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


said, that, although the hour was late, there was an important point arising out of this Resolution which it would be well for the House to consider. He quite agreed with the President of the Board of Trade that a Resolution of this kind used to be a mere matter of form; but, having in view the institution of the new Standing Committees, he was inclined to think that the House would hold that a Resolution of this sort had now ceased to be a mere matter of form. For the first time in the history of Parliament, the House was invited to delegate to another body the power of imposing burdens on the people of this country; and when the House considered the great importance which the English people had always attached to the taxing power of the House, he thought they would hardly be departing from their duty if they discussed this question for a moment before referring the Resolution to a Committee outside the House. He wished to express no opinion with regard to the precise merits of the proposal to compensate these officers; and if the matter had been before the House in the usual manner, in the ordinary course of Business, he should have been very unwilling to interpose at all in relation to it; but as they were asked, as he presumed they were, to refer the question to an extraneous body, he really thought the House would do well to consider how far they ought to deprive themselves of their own privileges in dealing with a matter of such great importance. The ordinary course had been to go into special Committee to consider whether it was desirable to arm the Committee of the Whole House with this power of dealing with questions involving future taxation. Such had been the vigilance of the House that it had not been thought desirable even to trust the Committee of the Whole House with the power of initiating a burden of this kind, unless it had been made a matter of special consideration in a Committee of the House appointed for the particular purpose. When that Committee had decided upon it, and not till then, it had been thought desirable that such a matter should be considered in Committee upon a Bill. The House was now asked to pass this Resolution in Committee of the Whole House; and by doing that they were, he presumed, in some was or other, to make the Committee seized of the whole subject; but they were not allowed the machinery by which the sanction of this Committee was to be imparted to that Committee. He presumed that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Chamberlain), who, no doubt, was anxious to make his Standing Committee work as well as he could, would make some Motion to instruct that Committee as to the course they were to adopt with regard to this Resolution; but, whether he did so or not, it would be bettor for the House to retain in its own hands the power it had hitherto exercised. It had fallen from the Attorney General that night that in regard to one of the other Bills which were to be referred to the Standing Committees, he was prepared to consider whether it would not be better to remit the question of expenses arising from that Bill to the Committee of the Whole House; and he thought the President of the Board of Trade would be well advised if he would accept the suggestion to re-commit this Bill, when it came back from the Standing Committee, in respect to the money clauses. By that course the House would retain the jurisdiction it had always exercised in regard to such an important financial question—a question, he ventured to say, which was not to be measured in its importance by the £30,000, or £60,000, or £100,000 involved in this particular case, but which raised the whole issue of the taxing power of the House, and of the exceptional privileges enjoyed by the House in regard to taxation. He did not wish to create any difficulty as to how the Standing Committee was to deal with this question; but he could not help thinking that it would be more in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution, and certainly with the precedents of the House, if the right hon. Gentleman would adopt the course he had indicated. If that was done, he could not see any objection, so far as the question of form was concerned, to the House assenting to the Resolution passed by the Committee on Thursday last; but if that course was not taken a serious question would be raised by this new departure, which would involve the surrender by the House of that particular power which it had always been the first and most important duty of the House to claim for itself. If the right hon. Gentleman would consent to re-commit the Bill when it came back from the Standing Committee, it would probably not take more than five minutes to put in the money clauses. Whenever a Bill of this kind came back from the other House the space for expenses was left blank, and the money clause was put in by the Committee of the Whole House; and he only asked that in dealing with such questions, when they came back from the Standing Committees, the House should be in the same position as in respect to a Bill coming back from the other House. Questions of this kind were well worthy of consideration; and if this House was to retain the privileges it had hitherto enjoyed, it would be well for the President of the Board of Trade to give this question that attention which he now invited from the right hon. Gentleman.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had given several special reasons why this Resolution was not precisely a matter of form; but the main argument was that it was to be referred to a Standing Committee instead of to the Committee of the Whole House. That might be a very good reason, but it ought not to be required; because, if the matter were not referred to a Standing Committee, he and many other Members would object to this Resolution. The Resolution declared that it was— Expedient to authorise the payment, out of moneys to be provided by Parliament, of compensation to persons whoso office may be abolished, under the provisions of any Act of the present Session to amend and consolidate the Law of Bankruptcy. Practically, that was to give the Executive power to compensate any persons whose offices might be abolished under the present Bill. There was a little matter of form of this kind in 1869, when there was also a Bankruptcy Bill; and we were paying for that now. In addition to commutations—and he did not know how much they amounted to—we were paying £18,000 per annum to gentlemen whose offices had been abolished under that Act. Now, 10 or 12 years afterwards they came forward with another Bankruptcy Bill. They found that a change was wanted again, and Her Majesty's Ministers asked the House of Commons to grant compensation allowances to those officers who had been appointed under the second Bankruptcy Act. He was told that there were a great many gentlemen who were now enjoying the £18,000 a-year still paid in the shape of compensation allowances, who were in excellent health, and were probably likely to enjoy their pensions for many years to come. For his part, he was opposed to the old system, of giving to the Government the right to grant pensions. What happened in such cases? They all knew perfectly well what happened. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade was, he had no doubt, one of the purest men who ever sat on the Treasury Bench—[Cries of "Oh!"]—well he (Mr. Labouchere) thought so, at all events. He had no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would do his best not to give compensation more than was actually necessary. Still, he would find it advisable to grant pensions to some of the existing officers, and they knew very well what would happen. The right hon. Gentleman would not sit for ever upon the Treasury Bench. To use a colloquial phrase—"Some Minister would arise who knew not Joseph," who would have a good many people to provide for, and who would provide for them by giving compensation allowances tinder this Bill; and 10 years after the Bill passed they would find the country saddled with the payment of further large allowances in the shape of compensation. Now, what he held was this—that when a gentleman received a salary in the Public Service the public had a right to his services. He had not the freehold of the particular place to which he was appointed; and if that place was abolished because it was no longer required, the public had a right to call upon him to do something for the money he received, in some other place as similar as possible to that which was done away with. The adoption of the contrary doctrine had cost the country millions of money. He was not going into that question at that hour of the night, and he complained that the right hon. Gentleman should have brought the matter forward at so exceedingly late an hour. Having, however, done so, he and others who did not agree with the proposal submitted to the House, and who objected to give the Executive the power the asked for, which might enable them 10 years hence to saddle the country with the payment of another sum of £18,000 per annum, would meet the Motion with a direct negative.


The objections which have been taken to the Resolution are entirely distinct. I will deal first with that which has been taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere), which is based, in some degree, upon a misap- prehension. The House is not asked to pledge itself to any proposal to grant superannuation allowances. The proposal for superannuation in the Bill itself is extremely limited. My hon. Friend says that, although he would be willing to trust me, he is not willing to trust my successors in Office at the Board of Trade.


It was only a qualified trust.


All I have to say is, that the qualified trust of my hon. Friend in me is entirely superfluous. I have no occasion to ask for that qualified trust, because the Bill does not propose to confer upon me any power to superannuate officers at all. The only clause in the Bill which raises the question is the 144th, which says— If the Lord Chancellor is of opinion that any office attached to the London Bankruptcy Court at the passing of this Act is unnecessary, he may, with the concurrence of the Treasury, at any time after the passing of this Act, abolish the office. The Board of Trade has nothing to do with the matter. But though the office has been abolished, there is another clause, the 146th, which provides that— Every person appointed to any office or employment under this Act shall, in the first instance, be selected from the persons (if any) whose office or employment is abolished under this Act, unless the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, or, in the case of persons to be appointed by the Board of Trade, of that Board, none of such persons are fit for such office or employment. Provided that the person so appointed or employed shall, during his tenure of the new office, be entitled to receive an amount of remuneration which, together with the compensation for loss of the abolished office, shall be equal to the emolument of the abolished office. The object of this clause is to prevent claims for compensation coming upon the Exchequer; and the only case in which such a claim would be valid would be where, in the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, or, in the case of persons to be appointed by the Board of Trade, of that Board, none of such persons were fit for such office or employment. The only effect of the rejection of this Resolution would be, that if any such officer attached to the London Bankruptcy Court, on account of old age or unfitness, becomes disqualified for serving the country with advantage, we should be unable to abolish such an officer, because we should be unable to superannuate him. Accordingly he would be retained; but the taxpayers would not be benefited, because he would continue to receive his full salary. That is the answer I have to make to the objection of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere). The House will see that the question is a very small one indeed, and that the interests of the taxpayers will not be served by the rejection of this Resolution. Then I come to the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman opposite the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Raikes), for which I thank him, because I quite understand the spirit in which it is made. The right hon. Gentleman says that by the Resolution we are delegating the power of taxation to an extraneous body. Now, I take exception to that as an inaccurate description. In the first place, we are not delegating to any body the power of taxation possessed by the House. The power of taxation is retained by the House because, after the Committee upstairs shall have considered the subject, and either have accepted or rejected the Resolution of the Government, there will be full power on the Report stage to deal with the matter afresh, and either to reject the recommendation of the Committee if they adopt the Resolution of the Government, or to insert the proposals of the Government if they should have been rejected upstairs. Not only so, but if there should appear at a later stage any reason for such a course, there would be, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, no difficulty in re-committing the Bill, in order that the matter might be dealt with by a Committee of the Whole House. As at present advised, it seems desirable that the matter should be treated in the same way as similar matters are now dealt with by Select Committees, which consist of a much smaller body, and are much less representative of the House than the Grand Committees. It has always been the practice to consider similar Resolutions, and to deal with matters involving charges on the Public Exchequer. Another exception which I propose to take to the right hon. Gentleman's description has reference to the word "extraneous." The Grand Committees are not bodies which are extraneous to the House; but, on the contrary, as far as the Committee of Selection can make them, they are representative of the House.


I cannot help expressing my regret that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade has not seen his way to the adoption of the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend behind me (Mr. Raikes). I think there is really a great deal of substance in the objection which my right hon. Friend has taken. We are now asked to take a new standpoint, and to adopt a new mode of procedure with regard to Bills of very great importance. Not only will there be additional charges for pensions to be awarded under this Bill, but there will be a very considerable additional charge arising out of the operation of the measure itself; and I hold that it would be a very great misfortune if this House were to lose the power of considering in Committee of the Whole House questions affecting the taxation of the country. That, I think, would be a matter of very considerable importance indeed. I think that when the time comes for receiving the Bill from the Standing Committee that it should be re-committed as far as these charges are concerned. I think it would be most desirable that that should be the case. With regard to the objections which, in substance, the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) has taken, there is, I must say, a great deal of reality in the form to which the right hon. Gentleman the. President of the Board of Trade has referred. This Resolution is precisely in the same terms, and the clauses in the Bankruptcy Bill are almost identical with the clauses which were passed in the Bill of 1869. In that case the Lord Chancellor had the power of recommending pensions to be given to officers who had served for a certain period, or who, in his judgment, were unfit to be appointed under the new Bankruptcy Bill. What was the consequence? There were charges imposed by the Act of 1869 which amounted to something like £40,000 a-year; and there now remains in the shape of annuities, so far as these people are concerned, a charge of £18,000 a-year. There are gentlemen who were enjoying a salary of £1,000 a-)'ear, whose age of retirement was only 38, and who are now in receipt of £660 a-year. There are also gentlemen at the age of 49 who were granted their full annual salary of £2,000 a-year, and there are others who were retired on the full salary to which they were entitled at the time of their retirement. One cannot help feeling that there is in the Bill now before the House a return to the system which was introduced in 1869. We maybe called upon to pension a large number of officers, or to pay pensions to persons who are discharging duties analogous to those which it is now intended the officers of the Board of Trade are to discharge in future as officers to be appointed under this Bill. Under the provisions of the Bill the Lord Chancellor will have the power, with the concurrence of the Treasury, of pensioning various gentlemen who may be found in the enjoyment of an annual income; and then, 10 years hence, we may have to consider the question of bankruptcy afresh, and have to deal with a fresh body of officers under the Board of Trade, who may not have realized the expectations which are now formed of them. The legislation of 1869 has cost the country altogether close upon £500,000, and whether the legislation of 1883 will cost the country a similarly large sum remains to be seen. I quite agree with the proposal made by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere), and I trust that the House of Commons will not rush lightly into any measure in which burdens may be imposed on the country without any corresponding advantages.


The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. W. H. Smith) is not altogether correct in saying that the provisions of this Bill correspond with those of the Act of 1869. Under the Bill of 1869 I think that I am right in saying a distinct scheme of retirement was contemplated, and there was no provision that the person so retired should be employed under the Bill. I do not think there was any such provision in the Bill of 1869 as that which is contained in the present Bill. I speak, however, from memory, and if the right lion. Gentleman says that I am wrong, I will accept his correction; but I do not think I am. What I understand the right hon. Gentleman opposite to recommend is that, though a person may not be fit, nevertheless he ought to be employed. Mr. W. H. SMITH: No!] That is what I understand to be the effect of the suggestion, because the Bill in terms provides that the persons who are to be employed are, first of all, to be selected from among those now employed, if they are fit to discharge the duties of the new offices. I do not think that it would be desirable that if persons are unfit they should, nevertheless, be appointed to places under the Bill, and I understand that to be the real issue. [Mr. W. H. SMITH dissented.] My right hon. Friend shakes his head; but this is the way in which I understand the question, and it seems to me to be the clear construction of the clause to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) that there is no one more alive than I am to the great scandal which has arisen under the Act of 1869. No doubt there are persons in the enjoyment of pensions who ought not to be in the enjoyment of pensions at all, and I have no sympathy with what was done in the Act of 1869. There was no provision, however, in that Act for compelling the employment of persons if they were unfit for employment. In this Bill it is simply proposed that such persons, if unfit for employment, should receive a superannuation allowance; and to that extent, and to that extent only, a charge would be thrown upon the Exchequer. It has been suggested that there are other charges that will be incurred under the Bill; but there are no other charges whatever.


said, he did not think that it mattered in the slightest degree to the House what analogy the present Bill had to the Bill of 1869 in regard to the claims for compensation. What he objected to at the present moment was that this Bill was drawn upon different lines from any other Bill ever brought before the House. He thought the suggestion made by his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Raikes) and the right hon. Gentleman below him (Mr. W. H. Smith) was worthy of much more attention than had been given to it. It was one thing to give a Committee of the Whole House power to deal with the Bill and the money clauses contained in it, and quite another thing to give to a Committee upstairs the same power. Such a power had not been given before, and if it was to be conceded in this instance he thought the proposal should be considered with very great care. The power they were asked to give to the Grand Committee was the power of inserting in the Bankruptcy Bill a clause that would involve the expenditure of money without their knowing how far the expenditure might lead them, as there would be no means of checking it. It seemed to him that the most natural course to take was to know, first, what the amount of the expenditure would be, and then effect that expenditure in the recognized way. In such a case they would deal with something definite and tangible, instead of a proposal which was altogether indefinite. They did not say to the Committee to whom they were sending the Bankruptcy Bill that there must be a certain amount of expenditure; but they said—"You are to pass certain clauses of the Bill which will afterwards, under certain circumstances, occasion expenditure." He thought it would be far better for the Government to declare what the amount of expenditure would be, and then ask a Committee of the Whole House to sanction the expenditure itself. Under these circumstances, in order to give an opportunity for the Government to reconsider the matter, he would move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—[Captain Aylmer.)


I am sorry that I do not see the right hon. Gentleman the senior Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) present; but clearly the objection made by his side of the House is to the proposal to leave the matter entirely to the Committee upstairs, without an assurance that the Bill will be re-committed. I think I have stated that we should be ready to consider favourably any suggestion that might be made at a subsequent stage for that purpose; but I thought it would be better to leave it as a matter to be considered at a later stage. I do not desire that the Government should be called upon to pledge itself to any distinct course. I now gather from what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) that he and his Friends attached considerable importance to such an assurance, and all I can say is that I see no objection to giving it. Therefore, I will undertake that when the Bill returns from the Grand Committee the Government will move that it shall be re-committed in respect of this clause, in order that the clause itself may be reconsidered.


said, that, after the assurance which had been given by the right hon. Gentleman, he begged leave to withdraw the Motion for Adjournment.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 70; Noes 13: Majority 57.—(Div. List, No. 47.)