HL Deb 01 March 1804 vol 1 cc634-42

His lordship then moved, that the bill be read a second time on Monday next.—On this question being put,

Lord King

rose, not, he said, for the purpose of opposing the motion of the noble Sec. of State, for he had no objection to deferring the discussion of the measure till that day: but he was induced, from the consideration of such a bill being before the House, and more especially by the circumstance of a bill of still greater importance being in its progress through the other House of Parliament, to require some information from ministers, relative to a subject of the greatest importance to that House and to the country. He alluded to the present state of the Sovereign's health; and he expressed his hope that in the present instance, the noble Sec. of State would be able to afford that consolatory information which was lately given in (he other House of Parliament, by a person high in his Majesty's councils: what he meant was, the declaration, that no necessary suspension of the royal functions existed. Information on this head was the more requisite from the authority of ministers, as the House had, as yet, no source of information, but that which it had in common with the public at large; namely, what it learned from: he daily bulletins signed by lour of the royal physicians: the information conveyed by these, he deemed neither sufficiently explicit nor satisfactory; the more so, as it was said that a filth person of the medical profession attended on his Majesty, whose name he was rather surprised to observe was not subscribed in common with the others. He was glad to perceive several of his Majesty's ministers in their places, and in whose presence he called for the explanation alluded to, and he particularly had to address himself to the noble and learned lord on the woolsack, from whom he seemed to think full explanation on such a subject was more peculiarly, as from his high official capacity and relation to the Sovereign, involving in a deep, and he might say, awful responsibility, to be expected. Adverting again to the circumstance of the only channel through which the House had hitherto an opportunity of being informed upon this most important topic, he expressed the sense of duty he felt to call upon his Majesty's ministers for the desired explanation.

Lord Hawkesbury

observed, that he could not conceive what regular or proper ground the noble lord could assume, on what might have taken place elsewhere, to put the question alluded to, to any particular peer in that House. However, the topic being mentioned, he had no hesitation to declare, what gave him heart-felt consolation, and what he was sure must afford all their lordships, and the country at large, the greatest satisfaction; namely, that there existed at present no necessary suspension whatever of his Majesty's royal functions or authorities.—The question being then put on Lord Hawkesbury's motion,

Lord Grenville

rose and spoke in substance as follows.—He considered the important measure of continuing the restriction on the Irish Bank, 2s intimately connected with the question put by the noble lord who sat near him (King), as the furtherance of such measures, and, indeed, of all measures, necessarily supposed, that every part of the constitution was in full vigour. He was sure that every noble lord in the House heard the noble Secretary's answer with the highest satisfaction, and every individual in the country must also feel the same satisfaction, and the most lively gratitude to Providence, at the consoling intelligence, that the Sovereign, whom all loved and revered, was again in a situation to exercise his royal functions. It was well said, that the most awful responsibility rested upon ministers, in case of their misleading the public; but, he could not believe, that they could possibly forget their duty to their country and their Sovereign so completely, as to forward any important measure, or give it the royal sanction, unless they were in possession of that confidence with his Majesty, which would enable them to obtain his consent and approbation, which alone gave any consequence to their official situation in the eyes of the public. The noble Sec. had said, that there was at present no suspension whatever of the royal functions. He would mention to the House how he understood this declaration. When, previous to this period, the public mind had been alarmed with the unwelcome accounts of his Majesty's illness, both Houses of Parliament had provided what was to be done on such an occasion, if such should in future occur. The state of convalesence of his Majesty, which would render any interference of Parliament unnecessary, was then settled to he at that particular point, when his Majesty should not be disabled, by his indisposition, from coming down to his Parliament. This was not the passing words of a speech, or any opinion actually given, but it stood upon the records of Parliament. So far, then, the records of Parliament precluded all necessity of discussion upon the subject, and fixed the precise stage of indisposition, when the interference of the legislature became necessary. From the declaration which the noble Sec. of State had now made, we understand, with the settled rule of Parliament on this subject in view, that his Majesty was, now completely restored to that degree of health and vigour, which enabled him to come to his Parliament, and in the exercise of the royal functions personally transact the business of the nation. Understanding the noble Sec. in this sense, and if his idea was wrong he wished to be corrected, he could not but most heartily partake in the high satisfaction which the House, and the nation in general, must feel at such an unexpected account of his Majesty's state of health. He rejoiced, that at this tremendous crisis, when we were menaced with a formidable invasion, our efforts were not likely to be damped by sorrow at the heavy calamity of our Sovereign's indisposition. He hoped no point of false delicacy had induced ministers to make this declaration, and that they would recollect, that while they performed their duty conscientiously to their Sovereign, they had also a duty to perform to the public. Heartily must their lordships, and the whole body of the nation, thank the noble lord who had put the question in this House which had Jed to an answer so well calculated to spread joy and delight over this country. The subject was, no doubt, delicate, and none felt it more than he did; but, he would ill understand his duly to the legislature and the public, and even to his Sovereign himself, who had proved, on many occasions, that the love of his people and their happiness, were dearer to him than life itself, who should allow any notion of false delicacy so far to weigh in his mind, as to carry on the usual business of the nation, and to transact the most important measures, with the knowledge that there was, in fact, no executive government. He, therefore, highly approved of what the noble lord had done, and he would have been the last to approve of any discussion on such a subject, if he had not been convinced that it was demanded by a sense of duty to every part of the government and the nation. He had explained already what he understood by the answer which the noble Sec. of State had given to the noble lord who sat near him. He had mentioned what the records of Parliament required on this subject, and this was the criterion by which he must judge of the declaration of his Majesty's state of health. He was satisfied that the noble Sec. had no intention to lead the legislature and the public into an error on this important point. If he were not satisfied on this head in his own mind, he could not agree that Parliament should proceed to any other business till the subject of his Majesty's indisposition was inquired into; but, understanding the noble Sec. in the sense to which he alluded, he most willingly gave his consent to the 2d reading of the Irish Bank Restriction Bill on Monday.

Lord King

still expressed himself not altogether satisfied with regard to the answer given to his question. There was one circumstance, about which nothing had been said by the noble Sec. of State, that weighed considerably in his mind, which was this, that his Majesty was attended by a fifth physician, whose name did not appear on the face of the papers that were circulated relative to the indisposition of his Majesty, and his progress towards convalescence, it was certainly very material that the opinion of that filth person thought be procured and stated to the public along with that of the other four. What the noble Sec. had stated with respect to the question was probably founded on the authority of these four physicians; but the account could not be altogether satisfactory, unless the opinion of the fifth physician who attended his Majesty, should be given, as it was impossible but conjectures must be spread concerning the reasons of with-holding his sentiments from the public, that must, in a great measure, damp that satisfaction which the physicians now spread by their reports of his Majesty's recovery. He wished, therefore, that the noble Sec. would give some answer to that part of his question. It would also be satisfactory, if the noble and learned lord on the woolsack would confirm the statement which had been given, as the high situation which he held, as keeper of the Great Seal, rendered him more peculiarly and personally responsible.

Lord Kawkesbury

said, that he thought there was no occasion for any further question on this subject. He stated the favourable account of his Majesty's health, upon what he considered as sufficient authority, and that was all that the House ought to require at present.

Lord Carlisle

rose to request a more explicit answer to the question of his noble friend. It was of the highest importance that the nation should be satisfied that there was no misapprehension on this subject. The opinion of a fifth physician, who was in attendance upon his Majesty, afforded room for conjecture that medical men were not agreed in their sentiments respecting his Majesty's indisposition; this was a circumstance of the last importance, and certainly ought not to be with-held from the legislature and the public. To remove the apprehensions on this head, to satisfy the legislature that it was not proceeding with the business of the nation when there was no executive government, to satisfy the nation there was no intention to mislead them; he wished that some explicit answer should be given with respect to this point. He would therefore, request, that before the question was put, some of his Majesty's ministers would be so candid as to satisfy the House.

Lord Fitzwilliam

followed on the same side. He urged the point that an explicit answer should be given to the question of the noble lord near him. He really wished, that the mystery which appeared to him to hang over the circumstance of a fifth physician attending his Majesty, whose name did not appear in the Bulletin, should be satisfactorily cleared up. If the opinion of that gent, was as favourable as that of the other physicians, why should it be with-held from the public? If it was not, the public had still a right to know what it was; it was a most flagrant breach of public duty in the ministers, if, from motives of false delicacy, or any other motives, they took upon themselves to conceal from the nation that it had no executive government. If that was the fact, he wished, that, instead of clothing their communications on this subject in general terns, they would remove the public anxiety all at once by an explicit declaration upon this subject. These general sort of answers always left an impression that something was with-held material to the question. The ministers ought, therefore, to be more explicit and particular, in order that there might be no possibility of misunderstanding their words, and being led into error. This was a most awful moment, which required that the government should, in every point, be exercised with full vigour; and it was the highest injury that could possibly be done to the legislature and the nation, to keep them in doubt on a subject that so nearly concerned them. He admitted that this was a point of delicacy, and he could well conceive the critical situation in which ministers stood at present; but they had a duty to perform to the public, which ought to overcome every notion of false delicacy. He confessed his doubts had by no means been satisfied with regard to the indisposition of his Majesty, and it was, on this account, that he begged that the noble lord on the woolsack, or the noble Sec. would give a more particular answer to the last question of his noble friend.

The Lord Chancellor

then rose. He had been personally alluded to, he observed, by the noble lord who had begun this discussion. He would assure the noble lord, that he was fully sensible of the responsibility that attached to himself in particular. He had considered, and that deeply, the duty which was incumbent upon him at this trying crisis. He was aware, that while he was, on the one hand, constantly to keep in view what was due from him, in point of delicacy to his Sovereign, he ought, on the other, never to forget that he had a duty to perform to the legislature and the public. He had settled in his own mind what line of conduct he was to pursue on this occasion, and kept that line exactly, which, in his own idea, appeared to be his duty. What the ideas of others might be on the same subject was another question. But lie was anxious that there should be no misapprehension, and therefore, declared that the noble Sec. of State had correctly stated the convalesence of his Majesty. Delicate as this subject was, he would certainly not have mentioned this much, if he had not been compelled to it. But, as he had been compelled to it, he would state, that at this mo- ment there was no suspension of the royal functions.

Lord Carnarvon

said, he had heard of the delicacy of entering into any investigation on such a subject. Was this, however, a time to talk of delicacy, when, besides the alarm arising from the danger which menaced us I from without, every person was struck I with terror, least a suspension had taken place of the functions of the executive government? He, for one, did not understand such ideas of delicacy. If the Sovereign himself could be consulted, he would think it a mistaken delicacy indeed, by which the country was to be left, even for a moment, without a superintending hand. Such a delicacy would be equally false to his Majesty and to his successors, as it would be false to the people. It was of the last importance to take care that no minister should presume, even for a moment, to exercise the functions of royalty. Every step taken at such a period was an usurpation. Two bills of importance were at present before Parliament, into which he apprehended it would be impossible to enter without some evidence to satisfy Parliament on this head. He would ask his Majesty's ministers, whether they themselves had any knowledge, as to the actual state of his Majesty's health? Whether they were in the daily habit of receiving marks of his personal confidence, and whether they had the usual access to his person? If these questions could not be answered in the affirmative, he must regard them merely as private individuals, no longer exercising an official situation. It was not enough that they should once have possessed his Majesty's confidence, if they were not at this moment in the enjoyment of it. On a former occasion, when a suspension of the exercise of the kingly functions was apprehended, physicians were examined before that House on the subject, and they were called on to act by similar evidence when any, the smallest interruption of the exercise of the royal functions took place. He had heard a great deal about responsibility. He knew of no such term. The national security was what they were now called on to guard, nor were they warranted to entrust so sacred a pledge to the responsibility of any individual, or of any set of men, however respectable they might be. A parish minister, or any subordinate character, by taking on himself the weight of state affairs, would unquestionably increase his own responsibility, but would the public security be increased in an equal degree?—The question was again about to be put, when.

Lerd Grenville

again arose, and observed, that if the noble and learned lord had given an answer to the noble lord who sat near him, it would have been still more satisfactory. The learned lord had said, that be was anxious that there should be no misapprehension. In order to prevent ibis, it would be for him to say whether he understood him right, when he considered the declaration then made as corresponding with the rule laid down in the records of Parliament, on which his hand then rested. In that rule it appeared, that the particular point at which the interference of Parliament should be considered as necessary, was, when his Majesty was in such a slate as precluded his coming down to his Parliament, and transacting the business of the nation. When the minds of the public were filled with grief and alarm, at the indisposition of his Majesty at two former periods, this rule had been adopted and written in the Parliamentary Records, in order to form a guide to the legislature and the ministers how they were to act in the event of such a case happening again. What, therefore, he understood, by the declaration which had been made, was, that his Majesty was in such a state of health, and possesed of ail the faculties necessary for the discharge of the royal functions, that he was not prevented from coming down to Parliament, and transacting the business of the nation. In order, then, to prevent all misunderstanding, he would wish that the noble and learned lord would inform him, whether the sense in which he understood tile answer which had been given was correct. When the nation was, on two former occasions, tilled with sorrow, at an event similar to the present, the noble and learned lord who then sat on the woolsack, had satisfied the House, by declaring that he Lad waited on his Majesty in person, and on his own authority and observation declared to the House, that his Majesty was in a situation capable of discharging the functions of government. At a subsequent period, another noble lord, who then sat on the woolsack, bad affixed his seal to a commission for pissing bills in that House, which was one of the most important functions of government; thereby making himself personally responsible for the capability of his Majesty to discharge those very functions; and ibis was the very act which diffused joy and satisfaction over the nation at that time. He would, therefore, wish some explicit declaration were made by the learned lord, whether his idea of what had been said, in answer to his noble friend, was just?

The Lord Chancellor

said, that from that attachment and duty which he owed to his Majesty, no consideration should make him swerve so far, as to make him go into what he conceived an unnecessary and improper explanation. At the time of passing the resolution to which the noble lord pointed, the two Houses of Parliament were about to exercise a very uncommon act of power, to the due and ordinary discharge of which, the: concurrence of his Majesty was, by the constitution of this country, essential. The best answer, therefore, which he could make to; the question put by the noble lord, so as to evince his conviction of the state of his Majesty's health, was, that, if a similar act were mw in agitation, and he were called on to affix the seal to it, he should think himself; guilty of a breach of his duty in so doing, under the present circumstances, without first having an interview with his Majesty, and requesting to know his royal will on the subject. This was all he had to say, and no consideration whatever should induce him to say any thing further on the subject at present,—The question was then put, and the bill ordered to be read a second time on Monday.

Lord Granville

said, that the words of the noble lord on the woolsack, so far from proving satisfactory to him, convinced him of the necessity of some farther conversation on the subject, before the second reading of the bill an Monday.