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Volume 203: debated on Monday 25 July 1870

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said, he rose to move a Resolution as to the expediency of abolishing the sinecure Office of Lord Privy Seal. So long ago as the year 1831 Lord Durham, in giving evidence before a Parliamentary Committee on Public Salaries, recommended the suppression of that Office, or rather its amalgamation with the Office of Keeper of Signets, with so small a salary for the two combined Offices as would practically amount to the abolition of the Office of Privy Seal. In 1850 another Parliamentary Committee, one of great weight, reported in favour of the abolition of the Office and the transference of its duties to other Departments of the State. That Resolution, which was arrived at upon the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman now President of the Board of Trade, was carried by a large majority. It was not necessary for him to prove that the Office was a sinecure, because that had been admitted by Cabinet Ministers over and over again, even Mr. Pitt having said, when questioned on the subject, that where the Premier was a Peer the duty of the Lord Privy Seal was to sit near him in the House of Lords and keep off the moths. The Committee of 1850 examined several witnesses, among whom were Lord Halifax (who now held the Office), Lord Minto, Lord Palmerston, and Sir Robert Peel. What were the reasons why the recommendation of that Committee had not been acted on? The other night, when the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. White) asked a Question on the subject, the answer was, that both in 1859 and 1860 the opinions of the House had been taken upon it and a majority had declared against it. He believed, that as a matter of fact, the opinion of the House was taken only in 1860, when the present Chief Commissioner of Works brought the subject forward, and Sir George Cornewall Lewis then used the argument that it was not proper to raise the question as a matter of Supply, but that the opinion of the House should be taken on a regular Motion upon the point. Before the Committee of 1850 the present Prime Minister took the same strong line which he had done on a recent occasion, when he said that, in a Cabinet and Government constituted as ours, it was for the public advantage that we should not have anyone who held Office too heavily laden with the immediate duties of his Department. In 1851 the right hon. Gentleman who was now President of the Board of Trade, and Mr. Hume, brought the subject before the House, when a long discussion ensued, and the argument that it was necessary to have in the Cabinet persons not connected with departmental duties was stated in the clearest way. But, even admitting for the sake of argument, that it was necessary to have such advisers, it would be far better that their salaries should be paid to them as unofficial Members of the Cabinet. There were some Members of the Cabinet, such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who were overburdened with work, and some assistance might be necessary; but there were others with leisure enough to perform other duties than those of their own Departments. When so many reductions were being made by some Members of the Cabinet in the lower ranks of their Departments, it was not right that a sinecure Office like that of Privy Seal should be retained. When the Government were called to account for dismissing persons occupying humble positions in the Civil Service, their reply was that they were responsible to the taxpayers, and that their first duty was towards them. But if that was their position in regard to the lower Offices, why make a difference in the case of the higher ones, such as that of Lord Privy Seal? In the lower Offices the men were needed at a certain time, and then a break occurred, after which, however, they would be sure to be wanted again; yet durthe interval they were dismissed. But ing the duties of the Lord Privy Seal only came in periods of great pressure, and were not continuous but intermittent, and of no long duration. If the Government could reconcile their action in respect to the Office of Lord Privy Seal with the recommendation of the Committee of 1850, and with their sense of duty to the country, he feared there were others in the House who could not reconcile such a state of things with the pledges they had given to their constituents. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving his Resolution.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House is of opinion that, with a view to the reduction of public expenditure, it is expedient that all unnecessary offices should be suppressed; and that at a time when reductions are being made in the lower appointments in the public service, it is fitting that the sinecure office of Lord Privy Seal should be abolished,"—(Sir Charles Dilke,)

—instead thereof.

said, he admitted that there was a primâ facie case made out, nor could he be at all surprised that, from time to time, the attention of Parliament should be directed to subjects like the present one; nay, it was very proper that that should be done. As he understood, an hon. Friend of his (Mr. Lambert) intended to ask next year for an inquiry into the higher Offices and their salaries, and without entering into the particular motive which governed the hon. Gentleman, on which he (Mr. Gladstone) would have a word to say if necessary—though he feared it would not advance his hon. Friend's views—he would say that the subject was one which ought to be brought under the notice of Parliament; and seemed it to him desirable to postpone the whole matter until that period. What his hon. Friend (Sir Charles Dilke) had urged—namely, that it would be preferable, if gentlemen were needed to assist the heads of overworked Departments, to pay them a salary, leaving them without any Office whatever, was worthy of consideration, though he did not agree with his hon. Friend. However, his object now was to point out that some supply or other was really requisite for the efficient discharge of Public Business over and above that which could be fully met by those immediately connected with the various Departments. It was not possible to exaggerate the importance of what he might call the non-departmental work of the Government, and if men had their minds full of departmental subjects, it would not be possible for them to give that disengaged and concentrated attention to the work which was so absolutely necessary. This non-departmental business arose in various forms. Sometimes it arose in the form of Bills intended to be introduced into Parliament which might be in the charge of a particular Department, but which might be of such magnitude as to require the concentration upon them of many minds. Such a Bill was that dealing with land tenure in Ireland, to which the Chief Secretary for Ireland applied himself with his great ability and wide knowledge of the subject, but which was too vast to be dealt with by any one Department. He (Mr. Gladstone) spent a full half of his Recess upon it; but neither his right hon. Friend nor himself would of themselves be equal to the construction of such a measure, and it was absolutely necessary they should receive assistance from others not so absorbed by the business of Departments. His noble Friend who was then Lord Privy Seal (the Earl of Kimberley), but who now filled an Office very much worthier of his abilities, gave them the most valuable aid. Again, it was a standing practice with all Cabinets in which he had sat to appoint Committees. On these Committees it was impossible, as a general rule, for the heads of the most laborious Departments to serve; and, in order to strengthen them, it was necessary that there should be on them one or two Members of the Government who were little employed in other duties, thus enabling the subjects these Committees might have to consider to be vigorously grappled with from time to time. Then, taking legislation in the House of Lords, where they had six Members of the Government, four of these — the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Lord Chancellor, and the Secretary of State for India—were all hard-worked Officers of State, who were unable to take charge of all the legislation to be conducted through the House of Lords; the fifth was the President of the Council, who could devote time for this important purpose. Now, it was only to-day he had been asked whether, considering the immense pressure of the duties which would devolve upon the Office under the Elementary Education Bill, it would not be necessary to effect a separation of Offices in the Department of the Privy Council in order to relieve that Department from a great portion of its duties, so as to enable those duties to be efficiently discharged. The Lord Privy Seal was now the only Adviser of the Crown in the House of Lords to whom, as a general rule, they could look for the conduct of measures not connected with particular Departments. The hon. Baronet (Sir Charles Dilke) said they had effected reductions in the lower officers, who were dismissed in an interval of repose, only to be re-employed again when the demand for their services arose. He hoped his hon. Friend would not make the point that the Members of the Government should be dismissed at the commencement of their holidays. His hon. Friend said that the Lord Privy Seal had duties only occasionally; but he (Mr. Gladstone) contended that the Lord Privy Seal in an active Government, and when Parliament was in a state of great vivacity, was for nine months of the year a hard-worked officer, because between the end of October—about which time the Cabinet Councils commenced—and the beginning of February, he would usually be employed in considering the measures of the coming Session, and then when Parliament met he was actively employed till the Prorogation. What he (Mr. Gladstone) hoped was, that if his hon. Friend was disposed to prosecute this subject, he would not confine his attention to the Office of Lord Privy Seal, but take a broader view of the matter, and bring together the duties to be done, and the strength appointed to do them; and thus they would be able to arrive at a fair conclusion on the whole question. He must say the Government did not shrink at all from comparison with the lower Officers as to the amount of work they got through, nor were the reductions made such as to render their own Offices comparative sinecures. He thought it was quite right that the subject should be brought before the House, as it would be very unfortunate if it went abroad that they were disposed to show a favour to the great Officers of State which they would not, and had not, extended to the poorer ones. He had himself already that day admitted that it was quite possible, if the Education Bill happily passed into law, that when they came to watch the development of the great machinery of that measure, it might be necessary to re-organize the Privy Council Office, and perhaps they might be able, without burdening the State, to do something in the way of re-adjustment, though he thought that must be done upon a consideration not of one isolated Office alone, but of various Offices in conjunction. What he had said was, perhaps, sufficient to show that there would be, on the part of the Government, a disposition to give a fair consideration to the whole subject; and, in conclusion, he would suggest that it would be well to adjourn the further consideration of the matter until the House was disposed to think that a more comprehensive view might be taken, and a thorough inquiry made into the general provision for the discharge of executive duties, and the comparative amount and weight of those duties. At the same time, he was thank ful to the hon. Baronet who had raised the question.

said, he was glad that Her Majesty's Government had expressed themselves disposed to reconsider the various Departments. He had a Notice on the Paper relating to that subject. His own view was, that it would be best for the English people to work the Departments by Boards.

said, he agreed in an opinion once expressed by Lord Brougham when in that House, that Boards were nothing more than screens. He did not approve of Boards; but, at the same time, he would not be any party to taking away from the overworked Members of the Cabinet the assistance which they already possessed. The hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles Dilke) must admit, if he looked at the row of faces on the Treasury Bench, and observed their complexions and appearance, that the heads of the great Departments of State were very much overworked. The tendency of this overwork was to make the Government of this country one of Departments merely, for it deprived heads of Departments of the leisure they required for thought, deliberation, and consultation, especially in critical times like these. To abolish the Office of Privy Seal would be to deprive the head of the Government not of the opportunity of giving a place to a supporter, but of the opportunity of enlisting the assistance of a man of experience in the conduct of public affairs, and of one whose freedom from official duties would leave him free to give the assistance that might be required, while his strength might not be equal to the labours of an exigent Department. If the Motion of the hon. Baronet were carried it might dam up the public service very considerably by throwing additional work upon heads of Departments, who had now too much to do, and therefore, in the event of a Division, he should join the Government in resisting the Motion.

said, he did not think a case had been made out for the abolition of the Office of Privy Seal. He agreed that all unnecessary Offices should be suppressed; but he thought the House would unanimously agree that this was not an unnecessary Office. The Mover of the Motion ought to have gone further, and said that all necessary Offices should be put upon a proper footing. A Fourth Lord of the Treasury without salary was in an invidious position, and his Colleagues who were paid were also placed in an invidious position by the fact that one of their number was not paid. Another semi-amateur official was the unpaid Ecclesiastical Commissioner who sat in the House, in addition to the one who was paid. If Offices were considered necessary, those who held them ought to be properly paid. It was beneath a country like this to accept the services of unpaid volunteers, and such services were often regarded with suspicion.

said, he thought that the hon. Baronet (Sir Charles Dilke) had been scarcely well treated by the House, as his Motion only carried out practically the recommendation of a Select Committee, upon which a Member of the present Cabinet (Mr. Bright) sat, and to the conclusions of which he had given his assent. Nothing had been said to alter the view taken by the Committee that the Lord Privy Seal had very little to do, and it was impossible to maintain that a Cabinet Minister sitting in the House of Lords had work to do anything like so hard as one sitting in the House of Commons; at all events, in the case of the former he must have comparatively much leisure. Hon. Members must not deceive themselves by putting the Lord Privy Seal in the same category with the First Minister of the Crown, who, indeed, was overworked. But why was it that those two Offices—the President of the Council and the Lord Privy Seal—were always held by Peers? Why were Members of the House of Commons precluded from them, and from thus accepting a share of the labour that devolved on the Ministry in that House? He agreed so far with the President of the Board of Trade that he should vote for the Motion, of which by anticipation that right hon. Gentleman had approved.

said, that having had the honour of being Chairman of the Committee to which reference had been made, he did not wish to give a vote without offering a word of explanation. He quite agreed that not only the salaries in the Office of the Lord Privy Seal exceeded the duties to be discharged, but the Office might be entirely dispensed with. But he con- fessed that he agreed with, his right hon. Friend (Mr. Gladstone) that, owing to the mode in which the Government work was carried on, it would better to take the whole question first into consideration, with a view to a redistribution of duties and responsibilities. Since the Committee sat he (Colonel Wilson-Patten) had watched very carefully the way work in the Cabinet was performed, and he was bound to say he had seen occasions in which it would have been quite impossible that the Cabinet could perform their duties without the assistance of a few men with leisure. He had occupied an Office in the Government to which, there were no very important duties attached—that of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; but during the time he filled the Office the Home Secretary was so overworked that he had to perform duties which, in strictness, did not appertain to him, and especially he had to attend to the question of local taxation when it came tip. The chief work of the first Reform Bill fell upon Lord Durham, who held one of these Offices. [Mr. GLADSTONE: And Lord Russell was Paymaster.] He, therefore, would suggest that the hon. Baronet (Sir Charles Dilke) should wait until the whole matter could be dealt with; and his belief was that if these two Offices were abolished now others must be created in their place. He would, therefore, vote in favour of the Government at the present moment.

said, he had not heard anything advanced to induce him not to support the Motion of the hon. Member for Chelsea. His hon. Friend did not wish to deprive the Cabinet of whatever assistance was necessary; he only objected to the maintenance of a sinecure Office.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 170; Noes 60: Majority 110.