HL Deb 20 November 1888 vol 330 cc1619-29

My Lords, I must ask your Lordships' indulgence while I make a statement which is, no doubt, of an unusual kind, arising out of unusual circumstances. The Lord Chancellor and the Department of which he is head—a Department not the least in the State, either in extent or importance, being, in fact, the Department of the administration of public justice—is in the singular position of having no responsible Representative in the other House of Parliament. With every other great Department of State, the Minister may be in one House, and there is a Parliamentary Secretary in the other, whether for the purpose of meeting criticisms, or for the purpose of promoting desirable measures. This state of things is very disadvantageous. As regards personal attacks, the prevailing courtesies of public life, and the sense of honour and fairness that a man should not be assailed except when and where he may defend himself, have caused this inconvenience to be but rarely experienced. My Lords, according to the ordinary channels of information, I have learnt that both the Legal Departments and myself were lately the objects of violent attack, without Notice, in "another place." Let me dispose at once of that which is merely personal to myself. I will not repeat the gross language which has been used. Your Lordships know how many and how important offices the Lord Chancellor has from time to time to supply with fit and proper persons. I believe there are people who sigh for patronage. I am sure all who have had experience of it will agree that it is not the least anxious and ungrateful part of a Minister's duty. If any should wish to have a return of the appointments I have made, he can easily find it; it would be a long and varied list, and in it he would find—that which is, I presume, the foundation for the unseemly remarks which have been made—the name of a relative whom I appointed a Registrar in Bankruptcy. My Lords, the gentleman in question has now been engaged in the performance of the important duties intrusted to him for something more than three years, those duties being constantly under the supervision of the Court of Appeal; and I venture to say that he has proved himself fully qualified for the Office, for which of my own personal knowledge I knew him to be well fitted. If I add—though it is not very relevant to my present subject—that I transferred a connection, who was already possessed of a benefice, to another benefice, slightly better in point of emolument and in a more genial climate, I have stated the whole foundation for the charge made against myself personally. In no other instance have I ever exercised any power of appointment in favour of any relative or connection whatever. My Lords, I am aware that the attacks made upon myself are not new; but I certainly would not ask your Lordships' indulgence in replying to them if they remained in those publications the existence of which I think is not very creditable to English society. I have always felt and have not hesitated to avow my contempt for, and dislike of, collectors and vendors of petty defamatory gossip. Not unnaturally, perhaps, those interested in such wares have replied by a chorus up and down the whole gamut of vulgar invective. But, my Lords, I think words spoken in Parliament, by whomsoever spoken, stand upon different ground. I now feel bound to apply myself to strictures passed on the Legal Departments. It appears to have been said generally that Commissions and Committees had reported adversely to these Offices, and that the Reports were pigeon-holed. Then, further, particular Offices were mentioned, and personal charges made, without Notice, on absent and defenceless officials. As to the general complaint, there were two Commissions mentioned—one of 1874 and a recent one of 1886. A very strong case was made out in many instances by quotations from the later Report, which indeed was signed, and I believe actually drafted, by the Permanent Secretary of my Department. My Lords, the principal Representative of the Government in "another place" certainly did not go too far when, though without communicating with me, he pledged the Government to carry out these Reports. I fully recognize the advocacy of the Attorney General, spoken without preparation or opportunity for inquiry, in a matter for which he is in no way responsible. Your Lordships will agree with me that this is startling when you learn that the fact was not stated in the other House that, so far from being pigeon-holed, the recommendations of the Commissioners of 1874 were practically exhausted by my Predecessors, and that the further recommendations of the Report presented to myself only last year were in the main realized and brought into operation before the close of that year, and as to the rest are in active and rapid progress. I will now deal, as briefly as I can, with the par- ticular criticisms. For the statements and figures I refer to the report in The Times. I will first take the Offices referred to in the Report of 1887, that is to say what is called the Central Office, meaning the Offices of the Queen's Bench Division. It was said that the Masters—who are the heads of the Central Office—were excessively numerous, and had salaries unnecessarily high, ranging from £1,500 to £2,000. The fact is, the number of Masters has actually already been reduced to the point recommended in the Report, and their salaries fixed from £1,200 to £1,500. The reduction has actually been from 22 to 15, with a saving of at least £10,000 a-year. I ought not to pass from the Masters without saying that I am making inquiries as to the statement that they attend Boards of Companies during office hours. Next as to the clerks in the Central Office. They are stated to be over numerous, 85 in number, with salaries ranging from £250 to £700. The fact is the clerks are reduced to 77, and their salaries fixed from £100 to £600. The reduction has already been from a total of about 110, with a saving of about £8,000 per annum. Then it was said that there were five clerks wholly nn-employed, yet receiving full salaries. It is the case that under arrangements with which I am not personally acquainted a class of redundant clerks was created, liable to be called upon when the office should be reduced to its normal level. Four of these, having reached an age when their services cannot be efficient, were some weeks ago, in pursuance of the general scheme of reductions in progress, called upon to resign, and placed themselves in my hands. There is a fifth, who is a younger man, and whose position is still under consideration. A further class of clerks—namely, those who are superfluous above the limit of 73, to which the Central Office is in course of reduction—are stated to be doing nothing, instead of being transferred to other offices. The fact is, the number of such clerks now only amounts to four. Several such transfers have taken place. Of course they can only be effected when a vacancy in another office occurs, and they cannot be made wholly regardless of the fitness of the clerk for the office to which he is proposed to be transferred. I have met with difficulty in this matter, and I am glad to have the support of Parliament. The next charge I find is one of general unpunctuality. I have some difficulty in dealing with it, because it was said that some clerks left before 5 and some did not come before 11. The case is, that some of the offices have their official hours from 10 to 4 and others from 11 to 5; and I do not know whether it is charged that an officer who was entitled to begin at 11 was or was not the same officer who left before 5. However, the answer is that this complaint, quoted from the Report of 1887, has been already dealt with under the regulations introduced since that time, and that any breach of those regulations will be severely dealt with. As to the number of hours of attendance, they are regulated by rules of Court, under statutory authority, and the system of six hours was recommended by the Commission of 1874. Whether or not seven hours should be adopted is a question which I certainly think must be answered with reference to all the public offices, and not piecemeal; and it must be considered with reference to the question whether or not additional pay should be allowed for additional hours. In connection with this subject, it was mentioned that there was no attendance book in the Central Office. I may say that I am in favour of an attendance book, but the Report which has been so much relied upon does not recommend it. I think that I need say nothing about the Queen's Remembrancer's Office; the duties are performed by the senior Master with a small addition of salary, which is expressly secured to him by so recent an Act of Parliament as that of 1879. There was probably a misapprehension about it, which was removed in "another place." I will take next the question of the number of Official Referees. Your Lordships may be aware that this tribunal was constituted, on the recommendation of the Judicature Commission, by the Judicature Act, 1873; the object being to relieve the Courts from a class of cases involving accounts or inquiries which tend to block the way for business requiring, in a greater degree, the attention of a Judge in person. Before the institution of that office nothing was a greater evil and expense to suitors than the cases which were brought into Court, when everybody knew they must end in a special reference, and everything have to be done over again. The number was settled, according to that Act, in 1876, by the then Lord Chancellor, the Chief Justices of the Common Law Courts, and the Master of the Rolls. That order still remains, and, until changed, I have hitherto considered ought to be my guide. I have received no intimation from the authorities co-ordinate with me that they think the number should be reduced; and the Report of 1887 makes some recommendations for adding to their work and enabling the number of Masters to be thereby diminished, but does not say anything about reducing the number of Referees. My Lords, I am of opinion that the number of four was a right number for the purpose in view at the time it was determined upon, and I think so still. When there is so much complaint of delay in the Courts, I did not think I could willingly be responsible for diminishing any channel of relief to the congestion. But I am bound to admit the office has not hitherto met the expectations of those who created it. The cause has, I believe, been attributable to the misfortune of the ill-health from which, almost from the first, more than one of the Referees suffered, and those who are aware how great an age was reached by more than one of these officials before actual retirement will not be surprised that the business dwindled. It is my belief that had the fortunes of the office been different, a different return of its utility would have been obtained. I have done my best, as I was glad to see reported to have been fully admitted in "another place," to infuse vigour and efficiency into that most valuable office; and it is the fact that the amount of business has already materially increased. Now, I wish to say something as to the Chancery Division, which, however, was not referred to in any detail. It was described generally as over-crowded with overpaid officers. I admit, indeed I have more than once stated to your Lordships, that there are points in which I believe the administration of the Chancery Division might be improved and material reductions made. A Committee, of which my noble and learned Friend the Master of the Rolls was Chairman, made recommendations on that subject which I have been desirous to carry into effect ever since I have been in Office. But the scheme submitted to me was based on the addition of a sixth Judge, and until I am given to understand that such an addition, which I believe to be necessary, is unattainable, I am not in a position to take up another scheme. I may mention, however, that the general scheme of reduced salaries, commencing at £1,200 and rising to £1,500, has been applied to this Division as well as to the others. It was stated that a novel system had been introduced and caused dissatisfaction, that the junior clerks in the Chambers of the Chancery Division were appointed by the Lord Chancellor, and not by the Chief Clerks. That is provided for by the Judicature Acts; and in so acting I and my Predecessors have been merely complying with the Statute. But the system which appears to be suggested in preference is utterly contrary, I believe, to the principles of the Public Service, according to which salaried officers must be appointed by the heads of Departments responsible to Parliament. I find a charge made that £600 a-year is paid to an officer to look after the ushers. I have to guess that this refers to the office of Superintendent of the Royal Courts of Justice. He has the whole responsibility, not only for the care and cleaning of that great public building, but also for the preservation of order. He has under him a staff of 150 men; and the police are relieved of duty there. It is a most responsible and arduous post; and the salary is no more than that of a first-class clerk. An officer called the Superintendent of Stationery was also referred to, and I think it was said he had £300 a-year for filling the ink bottles. In fact, he has the whole supplying of stationery and books throughout the Courts and offices. He was an instance of an officer transferred, and not abolished. His present duties are regulated under the recommendations of a Committee formed by the Lord Chancellor at the request of the Stationery Office, and I believe the system has effected a most beneficial economy in relation to the Stationery Office. I have not mentioned the Judges' clerks, as to whom it is complained that they cost £8,700. My Lords, the existing arrangements is that each Judge is to have one clerk; I hardly think it can be seriously sug- gested that a functionary of such dignity and with so much labour as a Judge should have no clerk at all. As far as cost is concerned, I believe the saving under this head amounts to at least as much again as the existing charge. There is only left for me to remark on the criticisms upon the Lord Chancellor's immediate official surroundings. The multitude of his secretaries and of his ceremonial attendants appeared both to amuse and to shock those who referred to them. The ceremonial, I think, is more for your Lordships to consider than for me; I have no desire to perpetuate any pomp and circumstances which your Lordships would desire your Speaker to dispense with. But in point of fact I have no ceremonial officer personal to myself who was not declared necessary, and his salary confirmed in the Report of the Commission of 1874. Both the number and the cost of the Lord Chancellor's personal attendants has been reduced even below that which was recommended by that Commission. There is no office of Purse Bearer; the purse is carried by the Lord Chancellor's confidential clerk. There are not three Private Secretaries, as has been stated, but two. One of them, for my ecclesiastical business, is the same who was Secretary of Presentations in 1874; it has been said that the Commission thought the salary might be reduced on a vacancy; it was never suggested by the Commission that Mr. Thesiger should be prejudiced. I doubt if any Minister's secretaries are fewer in number, or have so much and so delicate correspondence to deal with. As to the Permanent Secretary, he is no more part of the Lord Chancellor's personal attendants than is the Permanent Secretary of any other great Department of the State. The office is of modern creation, arising out of the concentration, under the Judicature and other Acts, of the administrative departments of the law under the Lord Chancellor, as, in fact, a Minister of Justice. The principal personal officer of the Lord Chancellor, who formerly received £1,200 per annum, until 1874, when the Commission recommended that £1,000 was enough, has been abolished and ceased to exist. It is true that the first Permanent Secretary was appointed from the personal office which he held before. But I feel bound to say that what I believe each of my Predecessors would say, that for ability, industry, and zeal it would have been impossible to find a gentleman better fitted for the post. I have no doubt the Treasury Minute or other documents relating to the constitution of the office could be obtained by moving for them. As to the salary of £1,500, it is materially lower than that of any other Permanent Secretary of a Department of State presided over by a Minister. Two objections I have been informed were taken at the time when the constitution of the office was proposed by the then Lord Chancellor. Lord Cairns—who was ex-Chancellor—said he did not think the office would be maintained in the hands of one holder as a permanent office if the salary were less than £2,500. The Treasury recorded their doubt whether any one officer—or succession of officers—could, for any length of time, perform all the duties laid upon this office. I ought not, perhaps, to pass from these questions of public expenditure without correcting the expression which has been reported about robbing the taxpayer. I am, my Lords, no less the guardian of the suitors than the Chancellor of the Exchequer is guardian of the taxpayer; but I am bound to point out that all the expenses of these offices are borne by the suitor, that these offices are, at least, self-supporting and cost the general taxpayer nothing. I regret to have been obliged to go into so much detail and occupy so much time, and I will only add this much, that while I deprecate the injustice to individuals and the injury to the Public Service which is done by reckless and indiscriminate attacks, I am in complete accord with the feeling displayed in Parliament that a vigilant watch must be kept in order to establish and maintain both the economy and the efficiency for which, as regards the legal establishments, the Lord Chancellor is responsible; and while I will defend to the utmost of my power any officer under my jurisdiction from unjust charges and insinuations which he is precluded from answering for himself, I am glad that it should be clearly known that the efforts which, with the assistance of the Committees already referred to, I have been making and will continue to make, are supported by the general feeling of Parliament.


desired to say, with respect to the Registrar in Bankruptcy who had been referred to, as it was his duty to hear appeals from the Registrar, that, in his opinion, this gentleman was a conscientious, hard-working, very able, and very efficient officer, and entirely worthy of the appointment which he held.


said, he had listened with interest to the statement read by the noble and learned Lord, who had pointed out with great clearness the disadvantage under which he suffered in not having a representative in the other House when attacks were made upon him without Notice. He thought it was quite natural that the noble and learned Lord should have taken the first opportunity of answering these personal attacks, and he felt sure that no noble Lord would wish to make attacks on the noble and learned Lord. But he did not think it was convenient to deal with the whole general subject without Notice, as it was one of considerable importance. There had been a long debate on the matter, which was one of importance, in the House of Commons, and its decision was come to by only a small majority. If Notice had been given, many noble Lords might have been anxious to take part in the debate. In these circumstances it was not necessary for him to express any opinion.


said, that he was Chairman of the Committee referred to, which was appointed to consider the working of the Central Office. But, like the noble Earl, he was not aware, till a couple of hours before, that his noble and learned Friend was about to make a statement, and he was therefore not able and had not materials to go into the matter with anything like detail. He quite agreed with his noble and learned Friend that there was a great difference between attacks made by irresponsible and anonymous persons, and those made in the other House of Parliament, and by persons occupying an important position. He only wished to refer to that portion of his noble and learned Friend's speech with which he was able to deal from personal knowledge. It was found some time ago that reform was wanted in the Central Office that there were too many officers, and that the work was imperfectly done from want of organization. Certain recommendations were made, some of which largely interfered with his noble and learned Friend's patronage. He desired to say that these recommendations were most loyally supported by his noble and learned Friend, though the Committee was not appointed by his noble and learned Friend, and he was by no means bound by its Report.