HL Deb 21 March 1844 vol 73 cc1308-11
Lord Campbell

rose to call the attention of the House to what he considered to he one of the most unreasonable occurrences he ever recollected in Parliament. He alluded to the unjustifiable delay in giving the Royal Assent to the Three-and-a-half per Cent. Annuities Bill, a Bill which was read a third time and passed in their Lordships' House on Tuesday last. The operation of that Bill affected no less than 250,000,000 l. of the debt of this country. By that Bill certain terms were offered to the parties holding the stock to induce them to consent to the proposition made by Government for its conversion; in the event of their dissenting from that proposition, the Bill reserved to them the right of expressing that dissent, and they were to be paid at par. The clause in the Bill for that purpose provided that dissents should be signified on or before the 23d day of this present month of March. He guessed, from what had fallen on a former occasion from a noble Earl (Ripon) not then in his place, that it would be inconvenient to allow a long period to elapse between passing the Bill and the term in which dissents should be signified. But surely some fair portion of time should be allowed for that purpose, otherwise it was a pure mockery. The Bill was read a third time (the Committee having been negatived,) and passed on Tuesday last; and he had no doubt that Her Majesty's Ministers would have advised Her Majesty to issue a Commission to give the Royal Assent to the Bill on Wednesday. Had that been done, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday would have been allowed to the public for expressing their dissent; but there had been no Commission on Wednesday, and the Bill could not receive the Royal Assent, or become the law of the land, until to-morrow, if Her Majesty should be pleased to issue a Commission for that purpose. This Bill dealt with a sum of 250,000,000 l., and affected the interests of 100,000 shareholders. It could not become law, it could not receive the Royal Assent till some time to-morrow, which would leave only a few hours for the 100,000 stockholders, many of whom resided a great distance off, to notify their dissent. If the terms had been ever so unfavourable, no opportunity, beyond a few hours on Saturday, was afforded for the expression of dissent. The terms offered by the Government on this occasion were, no doubt, liberal, and the dissentients were likely to be few, if any; hut an opportunity ought to have been given the parties concerned to consider whether they would accept of those terms, or prefer being paid off at par. Proper forms ought to be adhered to in important matters of this kind. The same thing might be done, under different circumstances, when some future Minister might wish to reduce the National Debt, and who might offer such terms that parties might be desirous of being paid off; and the stockholder be thus deprived of the opportunity of expressing his dissent. It might in that case be said, that in the month of March,1844, 250,000,000 l. were dealt with in this manner:—The Bill authorising the alteration did not receive the Royal Assent till four o'clock on Friday, and Saturday alone was given to the stockholders to intimate dissent. This was a most dangerous precedent; and he called on their Lordships to consider whether it would not also expose this country to misrepresentation among foreign nations. They had always prided themselves on keeping strict faith with the national creditor; but would they consider that faith was kept with the public creditor, when an opportunity was denied to him for the expression of dissent, and when it might, in consequence, be almost said that he was compelled to accept the terms offered to him? This had happened very unfortunately and very unnecessarily, and he wished for an explanation of the delay which had occurred.

The Lord Chancellor

I can only say, that I intended to have a Commission on Thursday (this day), but I received an intimation from the House of Commons, that it would be more convenient tomorrow. Although in point of law there could be no dissent until after the Bill had received the Royal Assent, yet practically dissent in three cases had been given, and, he believed, more were not expected.

Lord Campbell

said a specific mode was pointed out for expressing dissent. That course alone could be pursued, and it could not be effected till the Bill had received the Royal Assent. The time, therefore, for dissenting was confined to a few hours on Saturday, while the Bank Books were open.

Lord Monteagle

believed that no practical inconvenience was likely to arise from this delay, because he thought that the terms were, on the whole, so advantageous to the shareholders that there would be very few dissentients. But the question was, whether the course taken by the Government in this instance was exactly fair to the holders of this stock; and whether, if it were adopted on other occasions of a similar nature, it might not operate most disadvantageously to the holders of stock? In that point of view, the subject was certainly one of much importance, and he was glad that his noble and learned Friend had called their Lordships' attention to it. It was a transaction in which the Government were releasing the State, on certain conditions, from obligations previously contracted by the State, and every part of the agreement with the stockholders ought to be fairly carried out. He was glad that the subject was mentioned now, that parties hereafter might not be led to apprehend that a course would be taken that might be likely to prejudice their interests.

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