HL Deb 20 February 1840 vol 52 cc425-33
Viscount Strangford

rose in pursuance of the notice which he had given to their Lordships on Monday night, to move for the production of certain papers which he held to be absolutely indispensable to the due consideration of a measure of great magnitude and importance, which their Lordships thought fit to reject last year, but which was again shortly to be brought before them, recommended and supported by her Majesty's Government. When his noble Friend near him, last Session, moved that the bill relative to inland bonding warehouses, be read a second time that day six months, he stated a fact which had not been contradicted—it had since been stated elsewhere, and had not been contradicted—namely, that the opinions of certain revenue boards, as to the probable operation of the bill on the revenue, was in the highest degree unfavourable to the measure, and that it was the conscientious belief of those parties, that if the measure were carried into a law, it would have a most seriously injurious effect on the revenue. So many hasty experiments had lately been made with reference to the sources of the revenue, that he thought it would scarcely be wise to add that which was now contemplated to the number, without the fullest investigation being instituted, in the first instance, for the purpose of ascertaining its probable effects. No man who had heard the clear and lucid statement made, a few nights ago, by a noble Earl (Ripon) not then in his place, with respect to the financial position in which the country now stood—more especially when the noble Viscount opposite had candidly, in his answer, admitted the constantly increasing expenditure, and the equally constantly decreasing revenue there was no one, he repeated, who had heard this, but must look with consider, able anxiety and apprehension at any measure, of which persons peculiarly qualified to form a proper opinion upon it, had an idea that it would produce an unfavourable effect upon the revenue of the country. Therefore it was, he confessed, that he was extremely anxious, before they proceeded with a measure of that kind, to have the advantage of the opinions of practical men, to which he attached much more importance than he did to the theory and speculations of those to whom they were subservient. He feared that the noble Viscount was not disposed to grant the returns, because, as he had said, in the first place, it was unusual to produce such documents, and, in the second place, the production would be detrimental to the public service. Unusual it certainly was not, for he then held in his hand a report from the Board of Customs to the Board of Trade upon the question of sugar from foreign states being allowed to be refined in London. As to its being detrimental to the public service, he could not see how that could be, but it certainly might be inconvenient to her Majesty's Ministers, because the production of those documents might chance to place them in a position which they did not wish to occupy. If, however, any real case of inconvenience could be made out, he was the last man to press his motion. He hoped the noble Viscount would give the House an assurance of his anxiety to furnish those returns if it were in his power; because' if he did not assign a good reason for withholding them, and, at the same time, withheld the returns, what was the conclusion to which the country at large would come, from the fact of that double denial being given? It would come to the just and inevitable conclusion, that the noble Viscount, in spite of the previous warnings he had had, and the recommendations he had received to the contrary, from persons whose opinions deserved the highest respect and consideration, had persisted in acquiescing in a measure of this description, with a full and perfect foreknowledge of the prejudicial result which it was likely to have on the revenue of the country. There were, at the present moment, in consequence of deficiencies in the revenue, visions of future taxation before the eyes of the people; and he warned the noble Viscount that when the country was called upon to pay more taxes, it would not do so without a previous inquiry as to whether they were imposed from uncontrollable and inevitable necessity, or merely to gratify the speculations and fancies of experimentalists, who were anxious to interfere with the old established sources of their national prosperity. The noble Viscount concluded by moving for copies of any reports from the officers of the Revenue Boards to the Treasury by the Board of Trade, relating to the extension of the principle of bonding warehouses in inland towns.

The Earl of Clarendon

said, that having been for some years connected with one of the boards to which the noble Viscount bad referred, he naturally felt considerable interest in this discussion, and should, therefore, offer a few observations to the House. It was perfectly evident that, whether there were or were not precedents for the production of these documents, there could not be a doubt that, if the principle were once admitted, the practice must be exceedingly inconvenient to every Government; not to the existing Government only—for this could not, in any respect, be considered a party question,. It would, in fact, entirely alter the relation which now subsisted between the different Boards and the Government. As, in most instances, the reports of the Boards of Customs and Revenue were replies to references made to them from the Treasury or Board of Trade, and were answers lo opinions asked of them, it would follow that by the publication of such reports, there would be published also the opinions of the Treasury and the Board of Trade. In seeking for the information, on which the decision of the Government would ultimately be founded, it was manifest that the correspondence must be often of a controversial, and always of a confidential nature. It was not at all binding on the Government to adhere to the recommendations contained in the reports they received from any of these boards, ox to assign any reason for rejecting their advice. The Revenue Board informed the Government as to the law and practice, and it was the duty of the Government to decide as it thought best for the public good; which it ofttimes did (in opposition to representations made by the board) from being cognizant of things of which the Revenue Board knew nothing; and for which decision they all were responsible. The Board of Trade was considered as representing the great commercial interest of the country. The Board of Customs that of the revenue exclusively. The Board of Trade was anxious to give every facility to commerce, and to relieve it from its embarrassments, and was bound to state its views in the strongest terms. Both were equally zealous for the public service; but, at times, their views were at variance one with the other. It could answer no useful end to inform parties in what manner particular departments of Government advocated their wishes or interests, and to tell them why the Board of Trade thought a particular law necessary to be passed, and why the Board of Customs thought the contrary? Take the example of the measure which gave rise to the noble Lord's motion. The Board of Trade was considered all along to be favourable to it; the Board of Customs, on the other hand, was supposed to be unfavourable. The latter having great general information and knowledge on the subject, had suggested to, the Government various ways, by which, under such a law, the revenue might be defrauded; so that to publish this report would be to give a gratuitous lecture on the most approved mode of smuggling, by those best qualified to teach it. Their Lordships, he believed, would not think the papers, for which the noble Viscount had moved, if laid on the table, would serve any purpose of his, because they would not, in any way whatsoever, criminate the Government. Ministers, in supporting the Inland Warehousing Bill, conceived it to be their duty, with reference to the interests that were brought before them, and the assistance which those interests had a right to receive at their hands, to call upon Parliament to pass the law; but he thought they were not bound to disclose those confidential communications on which that measure was founded. Many other reasons would occur to the mind of anyone conversant with business, why these papers should not be granted. Many cases might be laid before the Treasury, affecting the reputation, the solvency, and the liabilities of individuals and of companies, without the parties who put them forward, avowing their real motives. Well, these cases might be sent down to subordinate boards for consideration—and, if the practice contended for by the noble Viscount were acceded to, the reports of these boards might, on motion, be published—and what would be the consequence? Why, in many instances, their Lordships might thus become the instruments of libel; and they all knew to what inconvenience they might thereby expose themselves. He could not conceive that there were any more grounds for grafting these papers than for producing the opinions of the law-officers of the Crown, and he believed that they all agreed as to the expediency of keeping them secret. There could be no more reason for calling for these communications than for calling on the Secretary of State to produce the confidential communications between himself and his Under Secretary. If the practice should be once established it would totally alter the cha- racter of the communications between the superior and the subordinate boards. No communications would take place but such as both parties were prepared to publish. Consultations and references would occur as before, because public business could not be carried on without them; they would be carried on either verbally or by means of private letters, which each Chancellor of the Exchequer might carry away with him when he left office. His successor would, when he came into office, find that a great deal of legislation had passed; but he would find no record left to show him the grounds and the policy on which that legislation had proceeded. He would, in fact, be left without any guide whatever, as to the reasons on account of which the change and alterations in the law had been made. In offering these observations, he had not applied himself so much to the impropriety of producing the particular papers in question as to the general ground that all such productions were prejudicial to the public service; and, as he was convinced that the noble Viscount could have no such intention, he hoped he would not press his motion.

Lord Ashburton

was understood to say, that he never was more puzzled than in endeavouring to comprehend how there could be any possible objection to the production of these reports. He could, not see how any evil results were likely to spring from the simple declaration of these two boards as to the effect of inland warehousing on the general revenues of the country. He could not see the danger of divulging of secrets which seemed to be apprehended on the other side; and as to the objection that the motion, if successful, would tend to facilitate smuggling, in his opinion the smugglers neither of this, nor indeed of any other country, required much assistance derived from information of this description.

Viscount Melbourne

said, that the noble Viscount, in alluding to what had fallen from him upon a former occasion, with, reference to the state of the finances, had qualified very materially the admission which he had made in the debate in question. He was of opinion, that neither upon questions of finance, nor upon any other matter whatsoever, could any advantage result from concealment, or from not stating to the full extent the difficulties with which the country might have to contend. But the noble Lord had incorrectly stated the admission which he then made. He had attributed to him these expressions—that "there was both an increase in the expenditure of the country, and a decrease of power to meet it." He had admitted the increase of expenditure, partly occasioned by a facility on the part of the House of Commons in increasing the expenditure in matters which seemed to require it, and partly on account of the many schemes which emanated from noble Lords with a view to promote the welfare of the country. But he never had said anything like an admission of a decrease of means to meet this expenditure. Of such a decrease there was no symptom whatever. There was not the slightest evidence of a falling off in their power of production, or of the smallest diminution of their real sources of strength and energy and national wealth. He hoped that the noble Lord would not persevere in his present motion, for the reasons stated by his noble Friend below him. The communications between the Revenue and the Board of Trade were of the most sacred character. They must, of necessity, be carried on adversely. To introduce the practice of calling for the production of papers of this description would be most prejudicial. This motion, if successful, would practically set one department of the Government against another, and if communications of this description between different departments were not held in confidence, the Government of the country could not be carried on at all. "Everything now (said the noble Viscount) is made public. If you write a letter, it is a hundred to one that it finds its way into the newspapers, or that it is produced in this House. And what is the consequence? Why, that it puts an end to all correspondence, and no man in his senses will write a single word more than he is compelled to do." If, therefore, communications made in confidence, such as those to which the motion referred, were liable to be overhauled, there would be an end of them at once, and the business of the country could not be proceeded with. He hoped that the noble Lord would not press his motion.

Lord Ashburton

thought that the precedent sought to be established by the noble Viscount would most materially limit the powers of Parliament.

Lord Monteagle

felt anxious to say a few words, in order to set right some of the statements of the noble Lord opposite. There was no analogy whatever between the papers in the hands of the noble Lord and those now moved for. There were some cases in which reports of this description might be produced, but all that was contended for was, that the principle ought to be the other way, and that cases of production should be the exceptions, and justified as exceptions. His noble Friend who had just sat down, said, that, if the doctrine of the noble Viscount was acceded to, not only would a difficulty be thrown in the way of the proceedings of their Lordships' House, but that a principle would be established which would never be agreed to by the other House of Parliament. If their Lordships referred to the Journals of the other House, they would find that the same motion was made there on behalf of the great interests that would be effected by this bill (the Liverpool Dock Company), and the same answer was given that had been given by his noble Friend, and that proposition was so satisfactory that it was acceded to, and the motion was withdrawn. The papers were not pressed for, because their production would be inconvenient to the public service. He would at a future time, when the bill came under discussion in that House, take an opportunity of stating why it was that he supported the bill. He hoped the papers would not be called for, as he knew from his own official experience, that if they were compelled to produce them the communication between the great public departments would be greatly impeded.

Lord Ashburton

said, that they would have heard nothing of opposition to the production of those papers had the Government not been going in direct opposition to the opinion of their own officers. It was impossible for their Lordships to legislate prudently unless they had information in some manner or other.

Viscount Strangford

said, that after hearing what had fallen from the noble Viscount opposite, he would ask permission of the House to withdraw his motion. But, at the same time, he would beg to remind the noble Viscount that he had suggested to him the propriety of a declaration, whether he was or was not acting in direct opposition to those men who were best informed on the subject. He thought the course hinted at by the noble Lord was the most safe; and, when the bill came before their Lordships, it would be for them to consider whether they could not obtain the information and get at all the facts by other means—by the means of a select committee up stairs. As to the confidential nature of these communications, he was not disposed to pry into the mysterious tenderness which passed between the Board of Customs and the Treasury, nor did he want to make that House an originator of libels, or a normal school for the instruction of smugglers. He could not sit down without assuring the noble Viscount that he did not mean to misrepresent him in the speech which he delivered the other night. He did not intend to assert that the expenditure was increasing while the revenue or the resources of the country were actually diminishing, but that the disproportion between them was increasing, and that comparatively the expenditure was greater and the revenue less. He hoped that the noble Viscount would give his best attention to that subject.

Motion withdrawn.

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