HL Deb 27 May 1830 vol 24 cc1132-40

The Lord Chancellor moved that the Standing Orders Nos. 26 and 175 be suspended. Ordered.

The Lord Chancellor moved that his Majesty's Signature Bill be read a second time.

The Earl of Winchilsea

assured their Lordships that when he entered the House that evening he had not the slightest intention of trespassing upon their notice. But entertaining, as he did, a strong opinion of the importance of the Bill, and of the prejudicial consequences to the best interests of the country which might ultimately arise from it, he felt himself compelled to crave the attention of their Lordships whilst he made two or three observations upon it. Most fully did he participate in the heartfelt anguish which pervaded the breast of every one of their Lordships, and the heart of every loyal man in the kingdom, on hearing the painful communication of Monday last, which had led to the measure on which their Lordships were then assembled to deliberate. Most sincerely and solemnly did he hope, that through the blessing of Divine Providence his Majesty would soon be restored to health and to the performance of those functions which the House was now going to delegate to others, and that this Bill, which was to sanction such delegation, would be of short, very short duration. He could assure their Lordships, that if he had consulted his private feelings, he should not have obtruded himself upon their attention at present,—for he felt the delicacy of the subject on which he had to speak, and he trusted that no word would fall on this occasion from his mouth which could be justly charged with a want of that feeling. He looked upon this Bill in two distinct points of view,—the first, as giving relief to his Majesty, and the second, as establishing a precedent in future ages for the House to act on, in case their Lordships should ever be placed again in such a painful situation as the present. He could with sincerity say, that when he looked at this Bill in the first point of view, he had no observation to make upon it: for there was no individual more anxious to give relief in such a manner as would be most grateful to the Sovereign than the humble individual who was then addressing them. It was, however, in the second point of view that he now felt himself called upon to look at this Bill. As to its enactments, he had no objection to make against them; on the contrary, he should give them his cordial support. He regretted that this Bill had not been accompanied with some evidence from the medical attendants of his Majesty, stating the nature and character of the disorder under which he laboured. He was satisfied that his Majesty was suffering under sickness of no ordinary kind; but he could have wished to have had evidence going at least to this extent,—he meant attested evidence, signed by his Majesty's medical attendants, stating that his Majesty's painful sufferings were not of a description likely to impair the full powers of his mind. An application like the present might be made to their Lordships under circumstances of a very different nature from those which now existed; and he would ask them whether, if the powers of this Bill were given to a Minister who was inclined to abuse them, not only to subvert the rights of the Monarch himself, but also to prejudice the best interests of the country, they would not be sorry that they had established such a precedent as this Bill would afford such a Minister, without any examination into the character and extent of the disease of the Sovereign. He contended that their Lordships, looking at this Bill in that point of view, ought to pause before they consented to pass it. He repeated, that if he looked at the relief which the Bill was calculated to afford to his Majesty, he had no objection to make to it; but their Lordships knew not whether days might not come, in which a Minister, inclined to trample on the best interests of the country, might not abuse its powers to the consummation of some atrocious designs. All he hoped at present was, that this Bill would be brought again under the consideration of the House before the close of this Session of Parliament; and that if it were to be continued in existence till the next Session, some evidence as to the indisposition of his Majesty would be laid upon the Table, as the basis for their legislation. He trusted that in the observations which he had made, nothing had fallen from him which could be charged with a want of respect to his Majesty; if any thing could be so charged, he wished it unsaid; for nothing was further from his intention than to be wanting in delicacy to the feelings of his beloved and afflicted Sovereign.

The Duke of Wellington

confessed, that he felt great astonishment at the objection which the noble Earl had just taken to the measure proposed by his noble and learned friend on the Woolsack. His Majesty had now been afflicted by a severe disorder for more than six weeks. During that time he had been attended by some of the most able, learned, and experienced persons in the medical profession, who, as far as their knowledge permitted, had stated the nature of his Majesty's disorder; and there had not been the least hint given by or through them, of that additional misfortune to which the noble Karl had just alluded. His Majesty himself, under his Royal sign manual, had stated to their Lordships, that he desired them to consider of the indisposition under which he laboured, and of the best mode of giving him relief, in order that he might still carry on the public service. The Minister who upon that occasion had taken his Majesty's pleasure and sign manual—and he left it to the noble and learned Lord opposite to say whether he was right or not—was responsible to the House and to the country, that the indisposition to which the noble Earl alluded had no existence whatever at the time when he had the honour of taking his Majesty's commands regarding the late Royal communication. Under these circumstances, he was astonished that the noble Earl should even hint such a subject to the House and to the country. His Majesty had asked their Lordships to grant him relief. "We, His Majesty's servants," continued the noble Duke, "propose to your Lordships a measure guarded in every way which man can suggest, and fenced round with such securities as render it in our opinion impossible to be abused; and then the noble Earl comes forward and says, that it may be abused in other times by other ministers in a mode in which, if it be possible, all concerned, his Majesty's physicians, as well as his Majesty's Ministers, would be guilty of a most gross dereliction of duty. Under these circumstances I trust that your Lordships will excuse me if, feeling warmly, I also speak warmly upon this subject. I do trust that the noble Earl will withdraw his objection."

The Earl of Winchilsea

appealed to the House whether he had used any such expressions as the noble Duke had just attributed to him. The noble Duke had entirely misunderstood him: he never could have expressed, for he had never entertained, any doubt as to the vigour of the Royal mind; and he should be extremely sorry if an impression that he had either expressed or entertained such doubt, should remain upon their Lordships' minds. All he had meant to state was this,—and here he would just observe in passing, that he differed entirely from the noble Duke as to the fact of the medical attendants having told the public the character of his Majesty's disorder,—all he meant to state, he repeated, was this,—that this Bill was establishing a precedent for putting great power into the hands of individuals without any evidence having been produced at their bar as to the nature and extent of the indisposition of the Sovereign. He thought that such a proceeding was fraught with danger, for if a future Minister were to come down to the House, praying it to pass a similar bill under an indisposition of a different character from the present, on the part of the Monarch, and should state that their Lordships had granted the relief now asked for without any inquiry as to the necessity of granting it, this proceeding might prove prejudicial to the best interests of the country.

The Marquis of Lunsdown

said, that though he had listened with the greatest care and attention to the observations which had fallen from the noble Earl, he had not collected from them that the noble Earl either meant to make, or had made, that allusion which the noble Duke, under an unintentional mistake, had supposed him to have made. What he understood the noble Earl to say was this:—"that it might have been desirable for their Lordships to have taken means to inform themselves upon the facts on which they were going to pass so important an act of the legislature." Now if he understood that this bill was to continue in its present shape, to confer such authority as it now conferred, and for such a length of time as after the commencement of the next Session of Parliament, he should conceive it to be indispensable not to pass such an act on the responsibility of Ministers, without having the best evidence produced at their bar as to the grounds of the proceeding. But understanding it to be the intention of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack so to amend this Bill in the committee as to ensure to the House the means of reconsidering it before the termination of the Session, he was content to proceed to pass this act for a limited time upon the responsibility of Ministers. He said expressly "upon the responsibility of Ministers;" for he knew of no grounds at present except that responsibility on which their Lordships could act; for when the noble Duke alluded to the communications which had been made to the public by certain able and experienced members of the medical profession, he was sure that the noble Duke did not mean to say that those communications afforded any other grounds to the House than those which the House was bound to dismiss from its consideration at once, when proceeding to legislate upon so important a point as the present. He was confident that their Lordships felt with him, that they were proceeding to legislate upon the responsibility of Ministers alone. On that responsibility their Lordships, or at least he as one of their Lordships, was contented to proceed at present; but if, before the end of the present Session, the House should be called upon to re-enact the provisions of this important act, which from being re-enacted would throw an increased responsibility upon Ministers, then he should be prepared to say with the noble Earl, that their Lordships ought not to proceed to grant an extension of these powers for an indefinite period, without resorting to the usual practice of the constitution, from which they were at present deviating—he meant to an examination of witnesses at their bar. With the amendments which were to be introduced into the Bill in the committee, and which were important both in point of form and of substance, he for one was ready to take this Bill, stating at the same time his conviction, that it was on the part of Ministers nothing more than was necessary to meet the unfortunate emergency which rendered it necessary.

Bill read a second time, and committed. Several verbal amendments were made to it in the committee, which were unintelligible at the bar of the House, from the low conversational tones in which they were communicated across the table by the Lord Chancellor to Earl Grey, the Earl of Eldon, and the Marquis of Lansdown, who seemed to take the greatest interest in them.

On the first clause being read, the Duke of Newcastle having stated that he understood it to be productive of great inconvenience to his Majesty at present to hold any conversation,

The Lord Chancellor

interrupted his observations, to remark that his noble friend near him (the duke of Wellington), had had a conversation with his Majesty yesterday, for a considerable time, and could inform their Lordships that his Majesty had suffered no inconvenience in sustaining his share of it.

On the clause authorising his Majesty to appoint one or. more persons to affix in his presence, and by his command, the royal signature to public instruments,

Earl Grey

was understood to suggest that a party of rank and station in the country, for instance a member of the privy council, should be appointed to affix the royal signature.

The Lord Chancellor

contended that such a provision was unnecessary. It was already provided that the person affixing the royal signature to any document, must affix it in his Majesty's presence, and by his Majesty's command: and that before he affixed it, there must be endorsed on the document a memorandum, describing its nature and object, signed by three members of the Cabinet. These provisions rendered it, in his opinion, unnecessary to appoint any fixed person to apply the stamp.

Earl Grey

contended that a person of rank and station ought to perform this important duty. As the Bill was at present worded, it might be performed by a mere domestic.

The Earl of Eldon

concurred in the noble Earl's opinion. The fixing the stamp ought to be done by some distinguished and responsible person.

The Lord Chancellor

observed, that from what had just fallen from the noble and learned Lord, it was quite evident that he had not read this Bill with his usual attention, else he would have perceived that the stamp could not be affixed without a memorandum in writing previously endorsed thereon by three members of the Cabinet. If he looked to a subsequent clause, he would also find that it could only be affixed in the presence of certain high officers of state, who were there named, and were ordered to attest it. Three privy councillors must give authority to affixing the signature, and one at least must be present to attest it.

Earl Grey

declined to press his suggestion.

The Lord Chancellor, in the clause providing, that "the person affixing the Royal Signature, shall subjoin thereto the words following, that is to say, 'In his Majesty's presence and by his Majesty's command,' and subscribe the same with his own name," proposed to add after the words "by his Majesty's command," the following, "given by word of mouth." This amendment had been suggested to him by the noble Earl (Grey) opposite, and he saw no objection to it. The object of it was to prevent any mistake occurring as to his Majesty's assent having been given by a motion of the head, hand, or otherwise.

Amendment agreed to.

Earl Grey

suggested that there should be endorsed on each document, to which the royal stamp should be affixed, a memorandum, signed by three members of the Cabinet, stating that the nature and object of each document had been separately explained to his Majesty.

The Lord Chancellor

conceived this amendment to be unnecessary, on account of the securities which were already provided in the Bill for preventing any improper use of the royal signature. Besides, there were different modes in which the nature of the document might be explained to his Majesty. It might be read over to his Majesty by one of his attendants, or his Majesty might read it over himself, or might be made acquainted with its contents by an abstract of them, or by conversation respecting them, or in various modes unnecessary for him to mention further. It would be indispensable, if this amendment were persisted in, for the noble Earl to state which of these modes of explanation he should consider sufficient for the purpose which he had in view.

The Earl of Malmesbury

thought this amendment not required, now that it was rendered necessary for the person affixing the signature to receive his Majesty's command to do so, not by his mere assent, but by word of mouth. He rejoiced that this Bill was to be of short duration, and contended that on that account it could never prove prejudicial as a precedent. He therefore hoped that the noble Earl would withdraw his amendment.

Earl Grey

thought that their Lordships could not take too much care when the power of affixing the royal signature to certain documents was thus delegated to subordinate individuals, to provide that his Majesty should clearly understand the nature of the documents to which he was to command his stamp to be affixed. Therefore it was, that he had proposed that a memorandum in writing should be endorsed on every document, stating that its nature had been properly explained to his Majesty before he gave a command, even by word of mouth, to any of his personal attendants to affix his signature. In conclusion, the noble Earl intimated his intention to meet the wishes of the House by withdrawing his amendment.

The Lord Chancellor, after various verbal amendments had been made on his suggestion, proposed to insert a new clause in the Bill. There was already a clause in it providing that every instrument, previously to its having the royal signature attached to it, should be endorsed with a memorandum in writing describing its nature, and signed by three members of the Cabinet. Now, this clause would be very inconvenient, so far as regarded military commissions, on account of their great numbers. It would consume a great deal of time without any adequate advantage, to have such a memorandum endorsed upon every commission which required the royal signature. He therefore proposed that, in such cases, the memorandum in writing should be endorsed on the commission, and be signed by the Commander-in-chief; and that his signature, instead of that of three Cabinet ministers, should be held sufficient. In order to render this plan the less objec- tionable, each commission should be sent to the King for approval. At present the list of officers to be appointed was sent to the Commander-in-chief, with the King's sign manual at the top, and also at the bottom of it. The list so transmitted to the Commander-in-chief would have a memorandum endorsed upon it by three Cabinet ministers.

Clause agreed to.

The Earl of Eldon

proposed some verbal amendments, which were agreed to. He likewise suggested the expediency of enacting, that in cases where the sign manual was affixed to every sheet of the instrument, the affixing of the royal signature by the King's command in any one sheet should be held sufficient.

The Lord Chancellor

thought that such a clause was unnecessary, as it was intended to affix the royal signature by this Bill in all cases where the sign-manual was now required. He intended to alter the last clause of the Bill, as it was now printed. That clause provided that this act should continue in force until the expiration of one month after the meeting of the next Session of Parliament; but it was now his intention to propose to limit the duration of it to the present Session; so that if the illness of his Majesty should continue, it would be necessary for Ministers to make a fresh application to Parliament during the present Session for a prolongation of the powers given by this act, and if it ceased before that time, the act would expire of itself and become unnecessary.

Earl Grey

said, that though he had expected that a shorter period would have been named for the duration of the Bill, he had no objection to extend it to the time now proposed.

Clause agreed to. The House resumed; and on the report being received, was adjourned during pleasure.

At twenty minutes after seven o'clock the Bill was returned engrossed; and upon the motion of Viscount Melville, it was read a third time and passed.

The Bill was sent to the Commons by two judges (Parke and Gaselee).

The House proceeded with the examination of witnesses on the East Retford case.