HC Deb 16 March 1888 vol 323 cc1439-53

Considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

(1.) Motion made, and Question proposed, That towards making good the Supply granted to Her Majesty for the Service of the years ending on the 31st day of March 1887 and 1888, the sum of £114,900 7s. 4d. be granted out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom.

MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

wished to ask the Chairman if he should be in Order upon this Vote in directing attention to certain illegality? He was not certain whether the payments to which he referred were made out of this Vote or not.


said that this was an excess Vote, and any question the hon. Member desired to raise would be better raised on a subsequent Vote.


This is the excess Vote for 1887?


. Yes.

Vote agreed to.

(2.) Motion made, and Question proposed, That towards making good the Supply granted to Her Majesty for the Service of the year ending on the 31st day of March 1889, the sum of £11,704,603 he granted out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom,


said, he believed that the point he was desirous of raising would come under this Vote. On Friday night he had directed attention to a matter which certainly appeared to him to be most unfairly brought forward in a Vote on Account. He had always understood that in discussing any Vote on Account it was desirable not to go into any lengthened details, but only to direct attention to matters of general importance. What he wanted to direct attention to was that for the last three years payments had been made, as far as he understood, from the Report of the Committee on Public Accounts, by the Treasury, which the Controller and Auditor General had year after year stated to be illegal, and which the Public Accounts Committee had reported and protested against time after time. The Committee had also reported that the Government were bound to obtain legislative sanction for these payments; but the Treasury had never done so from that clay to this. He thought it was a matter which ought to be dealt with immediately, and the Government ought to be called upon to show urgent public necessity for making these illegal payments. If hon. Members would turn to the Report of the Committee on Public Accounts they would find that the officers of the Treasury had been subjected to considerable examination on this mutter, and had been asked why they had not obtained legislative sanction for the payments that were made. The answer given by the officers of the Government was that a Bill had been drafted. One officer was asked if the Bill so drafted was sufficient to discharge the Government of their duty, and the answer was "Certainly not." He was then asked why proper efforts were not made to obtain proper legislation on the subject, and the answer was that the pressure of Public Business was very great. Now, no matter what the pressure of Public Business might be, he (Mr. Dillon) thought the first duty of the Government was to obey the law, particularly when it was a question of paying money. He had no reason to suppose that there was any stronger intention on the part of the Government to obey the law this year than in previous years, nor that they were not prepared to set at defiance the views of the Committee on Public Accounts and the Controller and Auditor General. Those payments had been made for a purpose, which might account for the reluctance of the Government to ask for legislative sanction for their Acts. They had been used to reward officials in Ireland for certain conduct, and they were extremely unwilling to bring a Bill into that House asking Parliament to sanction their proceedings. Now, he maintained that if it was right and desirable to obtain legislative sanction for any departure from the law, it was ten times more desirable that it should be obtained for the payment of Executive officers who were employed in a time of emergency. What were the payments which in this instance had been illegally made? Recently in Ireland a fresh rank of promotion was established for certain magistrates. Hon. Members would be aware that very strong objections were entertained in that House, and had been expressed over and over again to the fact that the Irish Magistrates held their position at the discretion of the Government, and could be dismissed without cause being shown. At the same time they could also be promoted if they evinced any leaning towards the proceedings of the Executive Government. Not content with that state of things, the Government had created, without the sanction of Parliament, a totally now class of magistrates called "Divisional Magistrates," a very ill-judged step which no Government ought to have taken without the sanction of Parliament. Certain men who had made themselves obnoxious to the people of Ireland had boon rewarded by the Government with important and lucrative positions as Divisional Magistrates with large salaries, such salaries not having received the sanction of Parliament in any shape whatever. He maintained that that was a serious matter, and as it had been going on for more than a year the Government ought to say upon what grounds of public necessity those appointments were justifiable. Men like Mr. Byrne, whose salary had been objected to over and over again by the Controller and Auditor General, had been rewarded because they had made themselves obnoxious to the Irish people Then, again, men like Colonel Turner, whose appointment was altogether illegal, had been paid considerable salaries year aft or year. Time after time they had been disallowed by the Controller and Auditor General, but they continued to be paid salaries for assisting the Executive in connection with the special mission of General Buller. Although that mission had come to an end those officers continued to draw their salaries, and in Ireland the payment of them was looked upon as a system of bribery. He objected to the Vote, because he thought it was one which ought to receive legislative sanction before the payments were made. The question was raised last year. He had no intention of obstructing the Vote on that occasion, or of opposing the wishes of the First Lord of the Treasury. He might probably have spoken for 10 minutes, and he regretted that the right hon. Gentleman had not extended to him the courtesy he would undoubtedly have extended to any hon. Member sitting on his own side of the House. If that course had been taken the right hon. Gentleman would have got his three Votes last night. What he objected to was not that the right hon. Gentleman should have moved the Closure, but that he should have moved it at a time when no public advantage could be gained, and when the matter bore the appearance of an insult to that House.


said, that he was sorry the hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) had, in the absence of his right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Treasury, repeated his charge of want of courtesy against the right hon. Gentleman. If there was any man in that House who was not open to such a charge it was his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Had his right hon. Friend had any ground for believing that the whole of the Public Business for the evening could have been got through without his moving the Closure, his right hon. Friend was the last person who would have made a Motion of the kind, which was, and always must be, a most repulsive course for a Minister of the Crown to take.


Then why did he take it?


said, that the Closure had been moved in order to facilitate the progress of Public Business. His right hon. Friend had expected that the ordinary courtesy of debate would have been pursued, and that no objection would have been raised to the taking of the Votes. He would now pass from that point which, after all, was a comparatively small one, to the other more important subject which the hon. Gentleman had thought fit to raise on a Vote in Committee of Ways and Means—namely, the payment of the salaries of the Irish Divisional Magistrates. He did not deny that the question raised by the hon. Gentleman was a proper one to bring before Parliament, but the hon. Member was not quite correct in his statement of facts. The exact state of things in reference to these magistrates was this—Lord Spencer first in- itiated the appointment of Divisional Magistrates. The present Government followed the example of their Predecessors, and had acted in the same manner. It was perfectly true, as had been stated by the hon. Member, that the Committee on Public Accounts and the Auditor General and the Treasury had year by year raised objections to this method of paying Divisional Magistrates without having first obtained statutory authority to sanction such payments. He was perfect ready on the part of the Government to admit that the proceedings which had gone on year after year had been irregular and inconvenient, but they had not been so irregular as the hon. Member seemed to suppose. The question of the payment of these Divisional Magistrates was placed before the Law Officers of the Crown, both by the late and the present Government.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Longford, N.)

In what year?


In 1886, I think.


The question was first raised, I believe, in 1884.


said, all he had to state was that the illegality of the proceedings had been brought before the Law Officers of the Crown, and they had given their opinion in favour of the legality of the payments. Any hon. Member who looked back upon last Session, or any Session since 1884, would see how impossible it would have been for the Government to have wasted the time of the House by bringing forward a Bill to sanction payments which, although irregular and inconvenient, were not illegal. He would ask if it was possible last Session to introduce a Bill of that kind in addition to the legislation which the Government had in hand? Any man who would cast his eyes over the history of last Session must feel that any Minister of the Crown who had had the audacity to come down to the House and bring forward a Bill of a controversial character, simply to set right a matter of convenience would have been laughed at. He was willing to admit, however, that what was not possible last Session might be possible now; and a Bill in connection with the subject was ready, and he was extremely anxious to bring it before the House. He trusted that it might be introduced soon. They could do no more than that. He was sorry that the hon. Gentleman should, in accordance with his usual practice, have attributed motives to his political opponents. The hon. Member said that the reason why the Government had been prevented from introducing a measure last year was that they were afraid of the discussion which the introduction of such a measure would give rise to. Now, they were not afraid of discussion; but what they were afraid of was the time which might be wasted in discussion. It was their desire that the matter should be discussed in the light of day from a fair point of view; but to ask the Government to give up a number of days in order to render these payments not legal, but regular, was to place too great a tax upon them. It was necessary that the Public Business must have made satisfactory progress before such a measure could be proceeded with. He hoped that this explanation would be satisfactory. The Government admitted that there had been an irregularity, but he must repeat that what had been done was not illegal.


said, he only wished to say one word in the interests of Public Business. He regretted the Government should have so ordered the Business of the House as to permit this discussion in Committee of Ways and Means to intervene between the House and the very interesting question that hon. Members were expecting to have before them that afternoon. He had no wish to enter into any matters which occurred last night in a controversial spirit, but he must say this in regard to what had fallen from the hon. Member for East Mayo and the Chief Secretary. The Chief Secretary said that if the Government had known that there would be no opposition to the Votes they sought to obtain in Supply and in Committee of Ways and Means, and the excess Vote, they would not have moved the Closure. The right hon. Gentleman added that hon. Members below the Gangway should have communicated to the Government that they did not intend to obstruct the Vote. But it was for the Government to have made inquiries upon this subject before they moved the Closure. How could hon. Members below the Gangway know that it was within the breast of the Government to move the Closure or not?


Order, order! I have allowed the hon. Member for East Mayo to go into what occurred to Supply last night as being a personal matter, and I have also allowed the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary to reply to him; but that question has nothing to do with this Vote, and I cannot allow the discussion to continue.

SIR JOHN LUBBOCK (London University)

said, that as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, he wished to allude to the question which had been raised by the hon. Member for East Mayo, because he was not altogether satisfied with the remarks which had fallen from the Chief Secretary for Ireland. The attention of the Public Accounts Committee had been drawn to the fact that payments in excess of those authorized by the Legislature had been made by the Treasury. He would not follow the right hon. Gentleman, who seemed to draw a distinction between what was illegal and what was irregular. These payments, at any rate, were irregular, and were rightly questioned by the Auditor General. The Public Accounts Committee, although they thought that under the circumstances they were justified in not disallowing the payment, recommended that a Bill should be introduced to settle the question. He understood the Chief Secretary, however, to speak very doubtfully with reference to such a Bill. But it was most objectionable that year after year the Controller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee should report to the House that certain payments were irregular. The Committee would, he felt sure, see that the continuance of such practice must weaken the position of the Auditor and Controller General and detract from the effective assistance which the Committee on Public Accounts could give to Parliament. he had hoped to hear from the Government that it was their distinct intention to bring in a Bill dealing with the question this Session, and he was disappointed to find that the Chief Secretary added the qualification that the Government would do so if they could find time. He had only risen to express his hope, and he believed he might speak also for his Colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee, that Her Majesty's Government would make time to deal with the question this Session.


said, the hon. Gentleman had somewhat misinterpreted what he had said. He certainly merely meant to express the intention of the Government to deal with the question as soon as they could.

MR. JOHN MORLEY (Nowcastle-on-Tyne)

said, he certainly shared the impression of the hon. Baronet that the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary had spoken with considerable doubt. He thought the right hon. Gentleman said he wan doubtful whether there would be sufficient time to allow the Government to proceed with the Bill. He was the more surprised at the right hon. Gentleman taking that tone when he remembered the power of Closure, which the Government possessed, and with the aid of which they could press this much needed Bill through the House. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman was correct as to the opinion of the Law Officers in 1886 being in favour of the legality of the payments. It was, however, felt at that time that it was the most irregular course to continue them without legislative sanction of an Act of Parliament.

MR. CLANCY (Dublin Co., N.)

said, there was a suggestion he would make to the Government—namely, that they should withdraw the Bill for the payment of a Parliamentary Under Secretary for Ireland, and substitute for it a Bill to legalize these payments. He thought the adoption of some such course would very much facilitate matters. The Bill the Government proposed to introduce was a measure which had been urgent for several years past, whereas the Bill for the payment of a Parliamentary Under Secretary had only become urgent during the last six months, and could afford to wait for another year. These payments had been irregularly made for some years, and there had been a public scandal in reference to them which ought to be remedied at once.


said, that at the time the question was first raised the Chairman of Committees was Secretary to the Treasury, and he would remember the debate which occurred upon it and which kept the House sitting all night long. He would remind the hon. Gen- tleman that the argument he had used then was similar to that which was used by the Chief Secretary now—namely, that this was not an illegal charge, because it had been incorporated in an Act which afterwards became an Act of Parliament, and which, of course, legalized all the payments included in it. That argument was at once met by his hon. Friend the then Member for Queenstown (Mr. Arthur O'Connor), who pointed out that the Act of Victoria fixed the salaries of the magistrates in Ireland at a limited sum and that no subsequent general appropriation of money could legalize the payments. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Bridgeton Division of Glasgow (Sir George Trevelyan) who was then Chief Secretary, made a promise very similar to that which had now been given by the present Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman distinctly promised four years ago that a measure should be introduced to legalize these payments. It was only another instance of the value that was to be attached to Ministerial promises. Four years had elapsed and no effect whatever had been given to the promise then made. In the debate which occurred four years ago the Chief Secretary gave an intimation that a Bill would be introduced, and that intimation had again been given by the Government. If, however, the Government intended to introduce a Bill on the subject, it was necessary that the Committee should have a distinct pledge as to its nature and scope. It should be a Bill with one distinct object, and one object alone—namely, to legalize these payments. The objection raised to the Bill of 1884 was, that having committed an illegality the Government brought in an omnibus Bill in which they included a great many other matters. He therefore asked the Government to say that they would confine any measure they intended to introduce to the defects which had been pointed out by the Public Accounts Committee and avoid everything else. That was a fair proposition, and if they would introduce a Bill simply to legalize the payments he should be glad to see it introduced. He would not say what reception he should give it, but certainly if he found that it was a general Bill dealing with a great variety of subjects, he should offer it the strongest opposition.

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, he thought that the First Lord of the Treasury should give some assurance in regard to the point which had been raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London (Sir John Lubbook), The Treasury, the Controller, and Auditor General, and also the Committee on Public Accounts, have reported in condemnation of the manner in which these payments have been made, and it was the duty of the Committee not to allow the matter to be treated by the Government with contempt.

THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)

said, he understood that his hon. Friend had already engaged on the part of the Government to bring in a Bill in order to meet the objections of the Controller and Auditor General, and to legalize the payments objected to. He thought this was a sufficient assurance.


said, there had been no misunderstanding about the remarks of the Chief Secretary, which was only a vague statement, that the Government might bring in a Bill if they had time. It certainly was not a positive-pledge.


said, that time was of importance to secure the progress of Public Business, and, therefore, he had attached to the promise a proviso in reference to time.


said, he wished to draw the attention of the First Lord of the Treasury to the evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee last year by an official representing the Treasury, wherein it was stated that if the Vote was not legalized it would not be presented to Parliament. Notwithstanding that declaration, the Vote was now before the Committee, and the official of the Treasury said he was afraid the matter was one over which the Government had no control.


said, he would submit to the good sense of the Government if they were desirous of acting fairly in the matter, that the Bill for the payment of the salary of the Parliamentary Tinder Secretary for Ireland should be given up. Did they intend to press it, no matter what the time was at their disposal. He was afraid it would be seen that they would force that measure through, and if so why not this measure to legalize payments, which they themselves declared to be illegal, so as to bring their acts in accordance with the law? Would the Chief Secretary get up in his place, and say that if he was pressed for time, he would withdraw the Bill for the salary of the Parliamentary Under Secretary?


said, the question was one upon which the Committee ought to have an answer from the Government. The Bill they were asked to introduce was a Bill to regulate or justify payments that were clearly irregular or illegal.


Not illegal.


said, the Government admitted that they were illegal, because they were of opinion that they ought to be legalized. They knew that the payments had been condemned by the Financial Secretary and the Public Accounts Committee, and the promised Bill, therefore, was of far more pressing importance than the Bill for the salary of the Parliamentary Under Secretary. What was asked of the Government was whether they would give precedence to a Bill for legalizing these payments—for the Bill which appeared on the Paper night after night—for the salary of the Undersecretary. That was a very fair demand to make of the Government. There could be no question whatever from a financial point of view that the Bill they were now discussing was a far more important and urgent measure than the Bill for the salary of the Parliamentary Under Secretary. He would, therefore, ask the Government to give an undertaking that the Bill to regulate the provision for Divisional Magistrates in Ireland should have precedence.


said, that the Government had already stated that they would introduce the Bill to which the right hon. Gentleman attached importance, and would use their best efforts to pass the measure into law with as little delay as possible. He could not undertake, however, to accept from the right hon. Gentleman suggestions as to the order and manner in which Public Business should be conducted.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Longford, N.)

said, the Vote was for £10,000,000 of money, and as the sum of about £1,000 was involved in this question, he would move to reduce the Vote to £9,999,000. The course pursued by the Government had been condemned year after year, both by the Controller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee, and now that a distinct pledge was asked by the right hon. Member for Derby from the Government as to whether they regarded the representations of the Public Accounts Committee as of such importance that they would be prepared to give this Bill precedence, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Government said "No," but he would push on the other measure. He (Mr. T. M. Healy) protested against the action of the Government. He would take a Division in order to see whether English Members would vote for continued illegality. For four years the Public Accounts Committee had condemned these illegal payments, and last year a distinct pledge was given that the payment should not be made again until its legality was fixed by Statute. He begged to move that the Vote of £10,000,000 be reduced to £9,999,000.


The hon. and learned Member has not stated the sum accurately, it is not £10,000,000 but £11,704,603.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a reduced sum of £11,703,603, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom."—(Mr. T. M. Healy.)


said, that the Motion moved by the hon. and learned Member for North Longford (Mr. T. M. Healy, scarcely affected the question. The Committee on Public Accounts did not disallow the Vote last year, but passed it with a strong expression of opinion that it was incumbent on Her Majesty's Government to legalize the payments by passing an Act this year. He had risen a short time ago, because he understood his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to express himself in doubtful language; but since then his right hon. Friend had given an explanation, and they now had the assurance of the Leader of the House that the Government intended to bring in a Bill to legalize these payments. Under the circumstances, he thought they might trust the matter in the hands of the Government, and he, therefore, hoped the hon. and learned Member would not press his Amendment to a Division.


said, he would venture to join in the appeal which had been made to the hon. and learned Member not to press for a reduction of the Vote. He would point out that the whole of this discussion had arisen from the language which was understood to have fallen from the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary. There appeared to have been a misunderstanding; but the language of the right hon. Gentleman was somewhat loose, and implied that if there was any question in regard to time the measure, when introduced, would be thrown over.


said that after what had been stated by the hon. Baronet the Member for the University of London, he should allow the Amendment to be negatived without a Division. He thought, however, that he was entitled to ask when the promised Bill would be brought in, and if it would be confined to the simple point of legalizing these payments?


said, he could not pledge himself on that matter.


wished to say one word as to the course pursued by the Public Accounts Committee in not having taken action to give effect to their opinions. They had asked if it was intended on behalf of the Government to continue making these payments, which were admittedly irregular, if not actually illegal; and when the Treasury official was further asked what the Treasury would do if the Public Accounts Committee disallowed the payments in regard to an Under Secretary, the answer made was that the Treasury would go on making them just the same. Under these circumstances, the Public Accounts Committee did not disallow them; but, in his opinion, the Treasury ought to be bound by the engagement they had made with the Public Accounts Committee last year, and they ought not to submit the Vote again until they had legalized it by passing an Act of Parliament.

Question put, and negatived.

Original Question put. Resolved, That towards making good the Supply granted to Her Majesty for the Service of the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1889, the sum of £11,704,603 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom.

Resolutions to be reported upon Monday next.

Committee to sit again upon Monday next.