HL Deb 20 May 1870 vol 201 cc1034-40

wished to know, Whether the Government proposed to take any steps for carrying out the recommendations of the Civil Departments (Scotland) Commission? The subject into which that Commission was appointed to inquire was not a new one. In 1858 Mr. Baxter proposed, in the House of Commons, the creation of a Secretary of State for Scotland; but the Motion, modified in favour of an Under Secretary, was opposed both by Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, and Mr. Disraeli, and negatived by a large majority. In 1867 the subject was discussed on the Motion for going into Committee of Supply, but no substantive Motion was made; and last year, in the House of Commons, a Question was put to the Prime Minister, who stated that, in consequence of the representations of the Scotch Members, the Government proposed to institute an inquiry, by such administrative means as were at their command, into the administration of Scotch business. The representations referred to were probably those contained in the Memorial which was appended to the Report of the Commission—that the functions of the Lord Advocate were too multifarious to be overtaken by one man; that it was objectionable to place the chief government of Scotland in the hands of a practising lawyer; that the existing system of management by Boards in Edinburgh was cumbrous; and that Boards were not directly responsible to Parliament; that the creation of an Educational Board would tend to perpetuate an objectionable system, and that the appointment of a Chief Secretary for Scotland, as in Ireland, would be most acceptable to the people. One of the memorialists—Mr. M'Laren, the Member for Edinburgh—defined at great length what, in his opinion, should be the duties of the new official. In consequence of these representations, a Commission was appointed under a Treasury Minute— To inquire into the establishments now existing at Edinburgh, which are available for Scotch business, with a view to ascertain how far economy in those establishments, by their abolition, reduction, or modification, may be rendered practicable in the event of the appointment of any new Parliamentary officer for the transaction of Scotch business. The specific instructions to the Commissioners were to inquire into— 1. The authority under which those offices are constituted. 2. The number, rate of salary, &c., of the officers belonging to those establishments. 3. The duties which they perform. The Instructions, therefore, given to the Commissioners were full and comprehensive; they were not tied down by any narrow and technical restrictions, but ample scope was given them for ascertaining the state of public opinion in Scotland as to the Scotch establishments. In pursuance of their Instructions, the Commissioners proceeded to examine a great number of witnesses—all persons well versed in the transaction of Scotch business. They also transmitted a series of questions to the Conveners of Counties and the Magistrates and Town Councils of the burghs. He would venture to say that there never was an important question in which greater unanimity of opinion was exhibited by all the witnesses examined. The evidence given by everyone who was conversant with the present system of management of departmental business by the Scotch Boards was in its favour—there was a general agreement among all those who were qualified to speak to the facts, that the business was well and economically administered by the Boards, at much less expense than similar business in England or Ireland. The Conveners and Provosts all expressed satisfaction in the main with the mode in which Scotch business was at present conducted, and deprecated the appointment of a Chief Secretary. On the other hand—what was calculated to make even a stronger impression than the evidence in favour of the present system was, that the Scotch Members who memorialized Mr. Gladstone, failed to produce one particle of evidence in support of their assertions. Mr. Craufurd declined to give specific instances of the inefficiency of the Boards, and said "He would rather state generally that he considered government by Boards objectionable." Mr. M 'Laren had to admit that he was not familiar with the working of the Boards; but asserted that the people of Scotland disapprove of Boards—an assertion he would leave the hon. Member to fight out with the Town Councils; and Sir Robert Anstruther allowed that the savings which he proposed might be well effected under the present system, while his only specific charge against the Board of Supervision—that of remissness in enforcing the Public Health Act, referred to June, 1867; whereas the Board had no Parliamentary power of intervention till the following August. Mr. Baxter, moreover, after 12 years' consideration of the subject, gave no details to show how a saving of £20,000 a year could be effected by the abolition of the Boards. The great desideratum of the advocates of change appeared to be the creation of a new Parliamentary Office, for which, practically, Scotch Members alone would be eligible; and, it being necessary to find duties for this new official, they proposed to subvert a system with which the people were well satisfied. Indeed, the gradual withdrawal of the matter from Parliamentary discussion, and the attempt by private representation to exercise pressure on the Government, were indications that the support of public opinion could not be confidently relied on. He came now to the Report of the Commissioners. The Commissioners reported that it was inexpedient, even if practicable, to substitute chief clerks and departments for the present Boards. They said that the present distribution of the business under the various Boards is decidedly economical, and, in a financial point of view, will bear comparison with the same branches of public business as administered either in England or Ireland; they suggested the amalgamation of the Board of Supervision and the Lunacy Board. Sir James Coxe, on the contrary, the Lunacy Commissioner, Mr. Walker, the chairman of the Board of Supervision, and everybody practically acquainted with the question were opposed to such a step. The present staff of each Board was fully worked, so that the amalgamation would not affect any reduction: and persons whose relatives were afflicted with mental derangement would feel it a stigma to have those relatives under the direction of a Board the proper business of which was the management of paupers. He hoped the Government would pause before consolidating two departments so perfectly distinct in their functions. The Commissioners, believing that Scotchmen were not altogether satisfied with the present arrangements, had recommended the appointment of a Scotch civil Parliamentary officer, to be attached to the Home Department, who should be one of the advisers of the Home Secretary—the Lord Advocate being the other—as to Scotch affairs. He thought that everyone who had looked to the evidence would see that there was not a shadow of foundation for the charges which had been brought against the Boards: he would admit, however, that he thought there was some ground for the complaints as to the conduct of Scotch Parliamentary business, it being notorious that Bills of great importance were introduced into the House of Commons at a very late hour, and reached their Lordships' House so late in the Session that it was impossible to give them due consideration. Moreover, the Lord Advocate, though generally, under any Government, a man of ability and eminence, was not always sufficiently accessible to Scotch Members; while, occasionally, his private practice required his absence from London during the Parliamentary Session. Admitting all this, however, he thought some modification might be made with advantage. The Scotch Lord of the Treasury was not overburdened with work—indeed, Sir William Gibson Craig, who once held that post, informed the Commission that he had much difficulty in finding sufficient work, though he ultimately succeeded. Before creating, therefore, a new Scotch Office, enough work should be found for that official to prevent, at least, the time from hanging heavy on his hands. The Home Secretary was really responsible for the government of Scotland as well as of England, and for Scotch as well as English; legislation. It appeared to him that what was wanted was, that the Home Secretary should be well informed as to Scotch affairs, and the wishes, feelings, and habits of thought of the Scotch people; and he thought that might be effected by placing in the Home Office a permanent Under Secretary, who, if not a Scotchman, should, at all events be well acquainted with Scotch business. It seemed to him that there were considerable advantages in that plan over the plan proposed by the Commissioners of having a Scotch Parliamentary Under Secretary. There was the obvious advantage that, as he would not change with the Government of the day, his services would be available for every Home Secretary. It was one of the difficulties of Parliamentary government that, from the frequent changes of ad- ministration, and for other reasons, men were often necessarily selected to fill high and responsible posts who had no special knowledge of the duties which they were called upon to discharge, perhaps for the first time; and he had always understood that it was only because they were in the various offices gentlemen of great experience and ability, who did not vacate their posts when a change of Government took place, that that difficulty had been successfully met. Moreover, if they were to have a Scotch Parliamentary Secretary, the field of choice was limited by various considerations. In the first place, the Under Secretary must be a supporter of the Government of the day, and he must be a Scotchman, or, at least, a Scotch Member. But it was by no means certain that they would be able to induce the best of the Scotch Members to accept the new post. Men of energy and capacity would probably prefer to retain their independent position as private Members rather than accept a post in which there was not much to be done, and where, therefore, they would have but little opportunity of distinguishing themselves. There was a great risk that the Office might fall into the hands of men of inferior abilities, whoso Parliamentary career had been more or less unsuccessful. He desired to see the most capable men selected; but he did not wish, whenever a change of Ministry took place, to see the government of Scotland thrown down as a prey to be scrambled for by a clique of hungry provincial politicians. He did not wish to see Scotland governed as a province; and the way to avoid that was to bring home to the Secretary of State the fact that he was responsible for Scotch as well as for English legislation; and that could be done more completely and effectually by placing in his Office a Gentleman thoroughly conversant with Scotch affairs than by the erection of a new Parliamentary Office, which might often be filled by a man who was not fit for it, nor for anything else, because the men who were fitted for it could not be got to take the place. He had thought it desirable to call the attention of the Government to this subject as one of importance; but, in the meanwhile, as Scotland was at present well represented in Parliament—in that House by the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll), in the other by the Lord Advocate and by the Home Secretary, who, if not a Scotchman, was a Scotch Member—the matter did not press.


said, he regretted the absence of his noble Friend the Chairman of the Commission (the Earl of Camperdown) who could have most fitly answered the Question. He (the Duke of Argyll) thought that the result of the inquiry had been to scatter to the winds nine-tenths of the accusations which had been brought against the present administration of Scotch affairs. The dissatisfaction prevailing among at least some Scotch Members had first attracted his notice in connection with the Scotch Education Bill of last Session. Their Lordships would remember the great anxiety—he might almost say unnatural amount of attention—which was bestowed on the clauses of that measure in this House; and he excited some surprise and, he feared, some indignation of noble Lords opposite by stating that those clauses were immaterial, and that almost any way in which four or five sensible Scotchmen could be brought together to superintend the education of the country would answer the purpose. During the discussion on the Bill he had remarked that certain Members of the House of Commons manifested dissatisfaction with the conduct of Scotch affairs, dwelling especially on the inefficiency, expensiveness, and irresponsibility of all Boards. He had not himself looked closely into the administration of 'these Boards; but, while thinking this dead run against the very name of a Board rather irrational, he was not able from full knowledge of the working of the system to rebut those complaints. In consequence of these allegations the Government referred the subject to a Commission, which was presided over by his noble Friend Lord Camperdown, who conducted the inquiry with great ability, and, he thought, with very great success. He subjected, the complaining Members to a rigid cross-examination, and it was found that there existed no foundation whatever for their complaints. It was shown that the various branches of Scotch administration contrasted favourably with those of England and Ireland. Under these circumstances, the Government had little to do but to let well alone. Lord Advocates might not always, owing to their private practice, be as accessible to Scotch Members as might be wished; but this did not render it necessary to appoint a Chief Secretary for Scotland similar to the Chief Secretary for Ireland. The legislative business of that country was very small, and most of the Bills were more or less connected with legal administration, in framing which the Law Officers of the Crown had necessarily to be consulted. When questions of general policy arose, such as education—although his learned Friend Lord Moncreiff, giving his great ability, and long, and, he might say, devoted, attention to the subject, took a very prominent part in framing the Education Bill—there was no necessity for measures of that kind to be entrusted to any new officer, as any Members of the Government connected with the country naturally directed attention to them. A Chief Secretary would not have enough proper business to occupy his time, and he would be likely to fill it up by meddling with things which he had better leave alone. His noble Friend had made a suggestion that evening well deserving consideration; and it had also been suggested that the Scotch Lord of the Treasury should have special charge of Scotch business in the House of Commons. These, however, were questions of arrangement which could easily be adjusted. His answer to his noble Friend's Question was, that the Government did not contemplate any serious change. One or two minor recommendations of the Commission, supposed to tend to economy, it had already been found impossible to carry out. It had, for instance, given a kind of half opinion that one Lunacy Commissioner would be sufficient; but the Government, after full consideration, had found it essential to fill up a vacancy which recently occurred in that Board, in order to avoid throwing undue labour and responsibility on Sir James Coxe, a most able, energetic, and conscientious man, whose time was already fully occupied. The duties of his own Department had prevented him (the Duke of Argyll) looking into the details of the matter; but he could assure his noble Friend that no serious change was contemplated.