HL Deb 16 July 1840 vol 55 cc754-8
The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I trust your Lordships will be of opinion that the importance of the subject to which I am about to call your Lordships' attention justifies me in departing from that which is the custom of your Lordships House, namely, not to make a statement on any bill until it comes to the second reading. But, my Lords, I am anxious that your Lordships should be put in possession of the general provisions of this bill before it is placed in your Lordships' hands. Your Lordships will recollect that immediately before the accession of her Majesty to the Throne, it was thought necessary by Parliament to make a provision for the only contingency which at that time appeared to be within the limit of probability to occur—of the Crown descending to an illustrious individual who, from his important position as the Sovereign of another country, might not be in these dominions at the time of his accession to the sovereignty. For that contingency your Lordships and the other House of Parliament thought it proper to make a provision for the government of the country, and for securing the succession to that illustrious person until he should be able to arrive in this country to assume his regal position, and fulfil the duties and prerogatives which so devolved upon him, That is not the only contingency, my Lords, which is now to be guarded against. Your Lordships will understand that events may occur by which for a long series of years the country may be left in this state—namely, that the heir to the throne, whether apparent or presumptive, may be an infant of tender years, and incapable of administering the duties and exercising the prerogatives of a sovereign. It is true, my Lords, that is a contingency which your Lordships would be most unwilling to contemplate, and which, if the prayers of the nation be heard, will never occur. The nation, my Lord, hopes, and has reason to hope, that the life of her Majesty will be prolonged far beyond the period at which an heir apparent would arrive at a majority. But, my Lords, whilst we trust in the goodness of Providence, it is likewise necessary for the wisdom of Parliament to guard against every contingency, and your Lordships are called upon to make provision for that event which may happen at any time for a long series of years, during which the heir to the throne would be an infant. Your Lordships have therefore to consider whether it is not expedient to guard against this possibility, and to provide the means by which, under any contingency, the duties and prerogatives of the Crown may be exercised and secured. If that should be your Lordships' opinion of the duty of Parliament, and if any of your Lordships should think it expedient now to make the provision, the question then will be—First, to whom the important trust of exercising the royal powers, during the infancy of the Sovereign, shall be confided, and whether there shall be any provision made as to the mode in which that individual shall exercise those functions. It is a great relief to me in submitting a measure for this purpose to your Lordships' consideration, to find that under circumstances very similar to the present, the opinion of Parliament was declared in an act which passed in the year 1830. I say it is a great satisfaction to me, because that act passed under circumstances which entitled it pre-eminently to the consideration of this House, and not only received the sanction of both Houses, but became the law of the land, and was introduced by a noble and learned Friend, a Member of the then Administration. It made but little progress before that Administration changed; but it contained provisions so much approved of by Parliament, that it was taken up by the Government which followed, and became law by the unanimous approbation of all parties in Parliament. I said it was a great satisfaction to me to find that precedent, because it enables me to recal to your Lordships' recollection the provisions introduced into that measure on the two subjects I have referred to, and therefore supersedes in a great measure the necessity of travelling back to an earlier period of our history, and to the discussions of former Parliaments. The Act of 1830 was passed on the accession of his late Majesty, her present Majesty being then of tender years; of years that it would have been impossible, if the Crown had descended to her, for her personally to have administered its duties. The provisions of that act were, that in that event the Illustrious Mother of her Majesty should have the guardianship of the person of the Queen, and exercise the duties of the Crown, and act as Regent for her Majesty until she should attain the age of eighteen years, under certain restrictions. This act contemplated the Crown descending on a minor, and made provisions for the government. That to which I now call your Lordships' attention, also provides for the possible event of the Crown's descending to a minor. My Lords, the surviving parent, so identified with the interests of the infant Sovereign, is the person to whom you would naturally look as the proper person to have the care and guardianship of the infant, and to have the administration of the duties of the regal office. It was so considered in 1830, and I trust your Lordships will entertain the same opinion now. My Lords, the question then remains, whether the Regent so appointed should be fettered by any parliamentary restrictions, or whether the Regent should be permitted to exercise all the power, all the duties, and all the functions of the Sovereign? My Lords, a case may undoubtedly occur in which Parliament may think it necessary, for some temporary absence, or some temporary illness of the Sovereign, to provide the means of exercising the Royal authority, and yet the great object may be to preserve the Royal authority unimpaired to the Sovereign when he may return. Such was the object of the bill to which I have before adverted, and which passed in the first year of her Majesty's reign. That bill did not appoint a Regent; it appointed lords justices, and the object of the bill was to do as little as might be, but to preserve things in that state that the Sovereign on coming into this country to assume the reins of government might find public affairs in the same state, as nearly as possible, as they had been left by the preceding Sovereign. But, my Lords, when your Lordships are making provision, the object of which must be to provide for the Government of the country for a long series of years, your Lordships will be of opinion, that it is not prudent, that it is not safe, and that it is not consistent with the principles of the constitution, that the Sovereign power should be fettered in the hands of the Regent. The power and prerogatives of the Crown are given to the Crown to preserve the balance of the different parts of the Constitution of the country, they are given to the Crown in order to preserve the power of the Crown in that state in which it is most beneficial to the public it should be preserved. They are not, therefore, given to the Crown for any other purpose than that of being exercised, and as occasion may require, of adding to or strengthening the power of the Crown, or dealing with the affairs of the State, in such manner as it is the duty of the Crown, according to the Constitution, to exercise or deal with them. They are not larger than the Constitution of the country thought necessary, and if they were necessary so to be exercised in the person of the Sovereign sitting on the Throne, in his own right, and in the plenitude of the power a Sovereign exercises, how much more necessary must they be when the powers of the Sovereign are exercised by a person with the diminished powers and authority of a Regent, by one not acting in his own right, and wielding his own powers, but as a substitute for another? To impose fetters and restrictions in such a case would be to set a dangerous precedent, which I trust your Lordships will not be disposed to set. There are, however, certain restrictions which cannot interfere with the due exercise of the prerogative of the Crown, and which it might be thought proper to impose upon a Regent. I refer to those which were introduced in 1830, and which appear to be so proper and reasonable, that I have introduced them into the present measure. It is obvious that a Regent acting for and on the behalf of a Sovereign incapable of acting for himself, should not have the power of assenting to any bill by which the succession to the Throne could be in any manner altered. Your Lordships, I apprehend, will be of opinion, that such a power should not be confided to a Regent. I do conceive, that your Lordships will also be of opinion, that no power should be given to a Regent of altering the laws which relate to the uniformity of worship in the Church of England. Neither should the Regent have power to interfere with the rights of the Church of Scotland. These powers should not be intrusted to a Re gent, but should be preserved entire to the Sovereign. But, my Lords, with these restrictions, with these exceptions, I trust your Lordships will be of opinion, that the Regent ought not to be called upon to exercise the functions of the Sovereign with fettered and restricted powers. Your Lordships are aware, that if it should seem fit to Providence to inflict upon the country the misfortune of a termination to the life of the Sovereign before the time at which the heir apparent could assume the reins of Government, and your Lordships should then be called upon to make the necessary provisions, the country would be in a state of anxiety from which your Lordships would be most anxious to relieve it, because this important question would then come to be discussed at a time when the Constitution would not be entire—in which there would be no one to exercise the royal function, and prerogatives, whereas your Lordships are now called upon at a time when the Constitution is perfect to provide for an event which may by possibility happen. It therefore, as I apprehend, becomes the duty of Parliament now to provide for that contingency. My Lords, I have now briefly stated what are to be the provisions of the bill, and it would be highly satisfactory, in a matter so interesting to every individual in the kingdom, to find, in adopting the provisions and restrictions contained in the act of 1830, that the proposition received unanimous approbation. Bill read a first time.