HL Deb 14 June 1832 vol 13 cc611-8
The Marquess of Northampton

rose to move the second reading of the Bill for repealing so much of the Act of Settlement, passed in the reign of Queen Anne, as rendered it necessary for Members of the House of Commons to vacate their seats on being appointed to certain Ministerial offices under the Crown. This measure was intimately connected with the great measure of Reform, which had lately become the law of the land, and might be considered a sort of appendix to it. The measure was certainly one of very considerable importance, and he felt the weight of the consideration, that it, to a certain extent, interfered with the Act of Settlement; but he thought that such a measure as this became highly expedient since the settlement of the great question of Reform. He had himself been decidedly opposed to Reform, down to a recent period; but, after what had occurred throughout the whole country, and after the declaration made by a self-condemned House of Commons, he felt that concession could no longer be resisted. He also felt, that with a view to a satisfactory adjustment, the question ought to be brought forward by his Majesty's Government, as now constituted—by men who were honest and sincere in the cause. It was certainly much better that the question should have been settled by the authors of the Reform Bill, who deemed the measure expedient and necessary, than by others who were adverse to it. At the same time, he intended to have proposed some amendments in the Reform Bill, and this was one of them, and he had been induced to postpone it only in the hope that it would be carried into effect by a specific bill. He would consider, first of all, the arguments which might be urged in support of his measure, and he would then proceed to refute the objections which might be advanced against it. The necessity of Ministers vacating their seats, whenever they accepted office under the Crown, was accompanied by some difficulty and inconvenience. When an individual accepted high office, he must at first be ignorant of the details of office; and it was, therefore, important, not only to himself, but also to the public, that his entire and immediate attention should be directed to his new duties. It was, therefore, a great inconvenience that, when he ought to be attending to public business, he was obliged to be attending to the success of his election. That inconvenience might also be increased by accidental circumstances. If it was an inconvenience, when a single Member of the Administration was changed, how much was that inconvenience increased when a whole Administration was changed, and new men were called upon to take their situations? An individual might be called upon to take the office of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the midst of a very difficult negotiation, or the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies in the midst of an insurrection in the West Indies, or the office of Secretary of State for the Home Department in times of excitement, like those of the last three weeks; and would it not be productive of great public detriment, if, at such a time, such an individual should be obliged to go to the most distant part of England, Scotland, or Ireland to secure his return to Parliament? The present state of the law led also to another inconvenience. It might interfere, and, in point of fact, had interfered, with the choice of the Crown in appointing its Ministers, for individuals had declined to take office, because they would be compelled to vacate their seats, and so be exposed to a ruinous and vexatious opposition. The consequences of the present state of the law might also be dangerous, for, in a case of excitement like that which prevailed during the last three weeks, it was important that Ministers should be in their places in the House of Commons, and should not be driven away from them, merely because their presence was most wanted. If such was the mischief which might take place now, let the House consider how much it would be increased under the Reform Bill. It had been said, that his measure would alter a great Constitutional provision; but then it ought not to be forgotten, that the Legislature had altered, and altered greatly, the Constitution. What was stated to be the reason for that constitutional provision? That a Member of Parliament, when appointed to office, was not in the same situation as when he was elected; and that, therefore, it was fitting that his constituents should have an opportunity of showing their concurrence in his appointment to office. He did not propose to repeal the present law, except in cases of appointment to high office, for the individuals who obtained such office were not placemen, but the leaders of parties; and, with regard to them, their constituents must know, that even at the time of their election, they were inclined to take a share in public business. It was said also, that the practice which he proposed to abolish operated as a check to the power of the Crown; but, unfortunately for that argument, it happened that the check never came into operation, except when the power of the Crown was weakest. Some persons maintained that the appeal to the people afforded a criterion of the popularity of the Minister. That criterion appeared to him to be absurd and false. It was in the highest degree absurd to suppose that three or four towns or counties, as the case might happen to be, were to be considered as representing the feelings of the whole of the United Kingdom. Because, some time since, a right hon. Gentleman, on accepting the office of President of the Board of Trade, lost his election for the county of Clare, would it not have been monstrously unjust to argue from that circumstance the unpopularity of the Ministry to which he belonged, not only in Clare, but throughout the whole of England, Scotland, and Ireland? That election had nothing whatever to do with the question of the popularity of the Ministry for the time being. He would remind their Lordships of a stronger case in illustration of this argument. It was impossible, he thought, to deny, that at the last election the present Ministers were extremely po- pular, on account of their advocacy of the Reform Bill, and yet, if the proceedings of particular bodies of electors were to be taken as the criterion of their popularity, it might be inferred that they were disliked by the country; for, in one instance, a right hon. Gentleman, holding a high office in the Government, on appealing to his former constituents, in the great commercial town of Preston, was defeated by an individual who had never sat in Parliament before. A noble Lord, also a Member of the Government, lost his seat for the University of Cambridge. A noble friend of his carried his election in the county in which he (the Marquess of Northampton) resided, by a large majority, owing more to the esteem in which his character, as well as that of his venerable father, was held, than to any political consideration. The party struggle took place between two other candidates, one of whom held a principal office in the Government, and the voting for them was nearly equal. If, therefore, the manner in which Ministers were received by some portion of the constituent body at the last election, were to be taken as a criterion of their popularity, it would lead to false inferences, and therefore it would be better not to have it at all. He was not aware that any other argument could be urged in favour of leaving the law as it at present stood. He would now state the offices which he proposed to exempt from the operation of the Act of Queen Anne. They were—first, all the great offices usually held by Cabinet Ministers; and, secondly, by what might be called the principal Law Officers, the presence of the persons holding which was generally supposed to be necessary in the House of Commons. He had not decided whether the office of Secretary at War ought also to be inserted in the Bill, but this was a question which might be considered in Committee. He concluded by moving that the Bill be read a second time.

The Duke of Wellington

said, there could be no doubt whatever, that some measure of this description would be necessary, in consequence of the passing of the Bill which had occupied so much of the time of Parliament; but it appeared to him, that the Bill of the noble Marquess was but half a measure, because it provided for only half of the inconvenience likely to result from the Reform Bill. Moreover, he objected to the Bill being brought forward by the noble Lord in his individual capacity. As the Bill was intended to remedy certain inconveniences arising out of a measure which Government had brought forward, he conceived, that it was the duty of the Government to introduce it as a Government measure, and to recommend it to both Houses of Parliament upon their responsibility. The noble Marquess must be well aware, that the object of his Bill was to repeal a part of the Act of Settlement, and of other Acts founded upon the Act of Settlement. This surely was no light matter. Under these circumstances, considering the importance of the subject, and seeing that the principal Minister of the Crown was not in his place, he thought that the noble Marquess ought to postpone the second reading of the Bill. If the noble Marquess would call upon their Lordships to agree to the principle of so important a Bill as this was, the House at least ought to be more full than it happened to be at that moment, and all the Ministers should be in their places, if indeed the noble Marquess would not throw upon them the responsibility of bringing forward the measure themselves. In conclusion, he would repeat his conviction, that some such measure as this, and many others, upon other points, would be necessary to remedy the inconveniences which would result from the Reform Bill.

The Earl of Radnor

could not entirely concur with the reasoning of the noble Duke. He could not admit, that if the question were to be entertained at all, it ought not to be entertained in the absence of Ministers; but he confessed, that he did not see the necessity of the Bill. The noble Duke said, that the necessity might arise. Sufficient for the day was the evil thereof. He would suggest, that when the evil should arise, it would be ample time to apply the remedy. The noble Duke had correctly stated, that the Bill was a very important measure, and would repeal a clause in the Act of Settlement. This was a question which required grave consideration. It was a modern practice to declare, in the preamble of Bills, that it was expedient to do so and so; but the House would require some other reason for repealing a part of the Act of Settlement, than the mere declaration that it was "expedient." He certainly joined the noble Duke in asking for the postponement of the measure. The noble Marquess had stated one or two inconveniences which arose from the existing state of the law, but they had not heretofore been felt very grievous. The case upon which the nobe Marquess particularly relied, in illustration of his argument was not a case in point, for at the time the present Ministers were appointed to office, they all vacated their seats, and were all re-elected. The election to which the noble Marquess alluded was the general election, and if the Bill now proposed by the noble Marquess had been in force at that period, it would have made no alteration in the case. He saw no occasion whatever for the Bill. He thought, that the other House of Parliament might take a technical objection to the measure, on the ground, that it was one which ought not to have arisen in the House of Lords. That, however, was a point upon which he would not dwell; but if it were intended to remedy inconveniences which might arise out of the Reform Bill, he would say, wait till the inconveniences should actually arise. He hoped, that the noble Marquess would withdraw the Bill altogether.

The Marquess of Lansdown

said, that in justice to the noble Marquess, he felt it necessary to state, that he brought forward the proposition, which he had embodied in the present Bill, when the noble Duke opposite was not present—namely, during the discussion on the Reform Bill. It was then generally admitted on both sides of the House, that great inconvenience resulted from the law which the noble Marquess proposed to repeal, but it was suggested that the remedy should be applied by the introduction of a separate Bill on the subject, instead of by the introduction of a clause into the Reform Bill. Certainly no distinct opinion was given upon the question at that time, but it was felt to be one which deserved the serious attention and consideration of the House, for the purpose of inducing which, the noble Marquess had most judiciously in manner, and clearly in matter, brought the present Bill before the House. He had no hesitation in saying, that he had long considered the existing state of the law to be productive of great inconvenience. At the same time the subject was one of considerable delicacy, and it would be for their Lordships to weigh the inconvenience resulting from occasionally delaying the public business, at moments when it was most urgent, and when the executive was called upon to act with the greatest decision, with the advantage which arose from the people having a check upon public men. He would consider the question as attentively as he could, before he pronounced a decided opinion upon it, and in the mean time he concurred with the suggestion of the noble Duke, that the subject should be brought forward in a fuller House.

The Marquess of Northampton

said, in reference to what had fallen from the noble Earl, that the election for Preston took place in consequence of the right hon. Gentleman who sat for it having vacated his seat on being appointed to office. The noble Earl, however, seemed to have misunderstood his object in referring to the election, which was to show, that the election of three or four Ministers did not furnish an accurate criterion for judging of the popularity or unpopularity of their measures. He had intended to have introduced a clause into the Reform Bill, to effect the object which he proposed to accomplish by the Bill, but he was at first detained in the country by indisposition, and then the Bill travelled through the Committee with such speed, that he did not reach the House in sufficient time to give notice of his intention to propose the clause, on the bringing up of the Report. He moved the clause when the Report was brought up, and when the noble Earl at the head of the Government suggested, that he should introduce a separate Bill on the subject. This suggestion was also approved of by a noble Lord on the other side of the House, who took a distinguished part in the discussions on the Reform Bill he mentioned these circumstances in order to guard himself against any charge of presumption in having, young as he was in that House, and unaccustomed to business, brought forward so important a measure. He thought there could be no objection to have the Bill now read a second time, and to take the discussion on another stage. If it were intended that the Bill should pass, it was of importance, that it should not be delayed, as it would have to pass through the other House.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that nothing could be more fair and candid than the noble Marquess's mode of proceeding. Although he was perfectly aware, that according to the strict forms of the House, the discussion on the principle of the Bill could be taken on any of the stages succeeding the second reading, yet as no material inconvenience would result from the delay of a day or two, he thought it advisable, in a case of this importance to take the discussion on the principle at the usual step—namely, the second reading. The principle upon which the statute of Queen Anne (which the noble Marquess proposed to modify, not to repeal) was founded, was this—that the Crown should not have the power to choose for its Ministers any persons who were not agreeable to their constituents, whose suffrages they were sent back to solicit. The practice was undoubtedly attended with some inconveniences; nevertheless, the principle out of which it grew was embodied in the Constitution, and he could not help thinking, that an opportunity should be afforded their Lordships of more maturely considering the Bill. He had not had an opportunity of directing his attention to the Bill, so as to form an opinion on the subject. He really was not aware, that the measure stood for a second reading that evening, otherwise he would have prepared himself to state his opinion; upon the whole, he thought it would he best for the noble Marquess to postpone the second reading.

The Marquess of Northampton

said, that after what had taken place, he had no objection to postpone the second reading of the Bill; but at the same time he must observe, that the House was tolerably full some time ago, and if noble Lords would go away when they knew an important measure was fixed for that night, it was not his fault.

Second reading postponed.