Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

I believe there never was a measure brought forward with more deliberation than the bill for inquiring into the abuse of charitable funds. The education committee of 1816, having observed many instances of malversation, and of negligence in the management of such property, recommended a parliamentary commission, as the most effectual and economical mode of bringing to light the still more numerous cases of abuse which every one suspected to exist, In 1817, the committee again met; but my illness prevented it from doing more than repeating the recommendation of the former report. We knew well enough that a bill might easily have been carried through parliament during the remaining part of the session; but sufficient time for maturing the details of the measure was wanting, and we felt the propriety of avoiding every thing like rashness, even at the risk of being charged with procrastination, As soon as we were again appointed, last March, we applied ourselves to the subject of the bill, and its introduction being recom, mended in our report, I was instructed to move for leave to bring it in. I did so early in April. Every day's inquiries in the committee demonstrated the necessity of the measure, and threw light upon its details. Skilful professional men assisted me in preparing the bill; it underwent a minute discussion above stairs; it was then communicated to his Majesty's ministers and to the law officers of the crown; and, as there was reason to apprehend that the princi, pai opposition to it would be made in the lords, it was submitted to the highest legal authority in that house, as well as to the secretary of state for the home department, to whose province, I was informed, the subject in an especial manner appertained. About ten weeks elapsed from its introduction to the passing of the act; the whole time being occupied in discussing its provisions, and in altering almost every part of them again and again. I believe it was printed not fewer than six times.

If the framers of the measure cannot be accused of rashness or impatience, so neither are they liable to the charge of party-feeling or of undue prepossession in favor of their own views. The committee, composed of above forty members, taken indiscriminately from all parts of the house, have agreed in every matter that has come before them from the first day of their appointment in 1816. I do not recollect a single instance of a division. Of course, as always happens in committees, the regular attendance was con fined to a few upon whom the labor chiefly devolved; but these were for the most part gentlemen who differ with me in politics; and a constant communication being maintained between those who took an active part in the inquiry and those who attended but seldom, the least dissension among us would have led to an immediate assembly of the greater part of our numbers. I have there. fore a right to assume that a real and complete unanimity prevailed among us in all our proceedings.

Having the fortune to take an active part in the political business of parliament, and to be involved in its contests, I was peculiarly solicitous to avoid every thing that might seem to proceed from party attachments or dislikes. For a proof of this, I appeal to those members of his Majesty's government with whom I had the honor of communicating from time to time; and I am confident they will admit that I received every suggestion of theirs with the greatest respect. Indeed the changes which I adopted at their desire, sufficiently prove that, if I am liable to any charge, it is to the imputation of having surrendered too many of the provisions originally made in the bill. It is material that a few of these changes should here be mentioned.

As the bill at first stood, the commissioners were to be named in it. The ministers proposed that the appointment should be vested in the crown; that is in themselves. To this important alteration the committee with extreme reluctance submitted, rather than assented. We were aware that upon the fitness of the pero sons selected to carry on the inquiry its success mainly depended. We had before us the examples of the commissions of public accounts, and of naval and military inquiry, from which the coun. try had derived the most signal benefits, chiefly, as we conceived, because the acts establishing those boards had nominated the members who were to form them. No private selection of commissioners, how conscientiously soever it might be performed, could give the same seourity against improper or inefficient appointments. Without accusing the minister to whose department it belonged, of so foul a crime as a wilful prostitution of patronage in this most delicate matter, we felt that all men in high office, are beset by applicants; that they must frequently trust to others for their information as to individual merit; and that private friendships often blind very respectable persons in the reports which they make or the suits which they prefer. We could not indeed believe that the secretary of state was capable of choosing men whom the place might suit, rather than those suited to the place; that he could sbut his eyes to the claims of acknowledged merit, and prefer unknown persons backed by powerful supporters; or that, instead of regard ing their fitness for the new ofhce, he should bestow, the salary as the wages of former service. Least of all did a suspicion ever enter our minds that care might knowingly and wilfully be taken to avoid those men, whose zeal for the cause, and whose habits of investigation gave a certain pledge that all abuses would be sifted to the bottom, and that the guilty would in no station be spared.

Yet we

were afraid that a certain degree of carelessness or easy goodnature, the almost necessary attendant upon official habits, might be shown in the selection, and that he whom we were willing to believe incapable of voluntarily converting into a job the most sacred part of his patronage, or of taking precautions to screen the enormous delinquency of robbing the poor, might from imperfect information, and in the hurry of a busy department, choose commissioners far less adapted to the objects of the act than those upon whose fitness a public decision by the voice of parliament should be pronounced. To assist the legislature in making this selection, we had applied ourselves with much attention in the committee, canvassing with perfect freedom the qualifications of many gentlemen who were at different times offered to our notice. And we were prepared to propose a list, in which was to be found the name of no one connected, however remotely, with any of ourselves. I may add, as far as regards myself, that all but one were of political connexions adverse to my own; that I was upon a footing of intimacy with none of them; and that one gentleman, of undeniable qualifications having been proposed, I desired his name might be no more mentioned, as he happened to be a near relation of mine. Some persons, whose opinions I highly respect, deemed that we acted unwisely in abandoning this main point of the nomination. But we only gave it up when we found the ministers determined to oppose the bill, unless they were allowed to name the commissioners. We still trusted that the power would not be abused ; and we looked to the wholesome control of parliament and the public for a security that the work would be done with diligence, upon whomsoever it might devolve.

The next change of importance, related to the quorum. The whole excellence of the measure consisted in the ambulatory nature of the board; because, beside the great saving of expense, unless the commissioners repaired to the spot, it was quite vain to expect an effectual investigation of the various particulars relating to local abuses. But, as the performance of this duty would be both cumbrous and endless, if the whole commissioners were to go round the country in a body, it was provided that they should divide themselves into budies of two each, and that four boards should thus at the same time carry on the inquiry, with an expedition greatly accelerated, and with a salutary rivalship among

themselves. The ministers in the house of lords, changed the quorum from two to three, and left the whole number of commissioners eight, as before; thus reducing the number of boards from four to two, and leaving two commissioners wholly unemployed. As it is perfectly well known, even to beginners in arithmetic, that eight is not di

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

visible by three, I am reduced to the necessity of suspecting that the authors of this change have no serious intention that the board shall ever be divided at all; and that they mean to make the come missioners proceed by written interrogatories sent to different parts of the country. It is already stated out of doors that such a plan has been formed; I can only say, that it must render the whole inquiry a perfect mockery; and the labors of the last session, for the correction of abuses, will have ended in adding one of peculiar grossness to the former number, by the creation of about a dozen sinecure places.

An addition was proposed by his majesty's ministers, which we cheerfully adopted, regarding it as an improvement. They suggested the propriety of naming six honorary commissioners, who might form a superintending and central body, to advise and to regulate the proceedings of the whole. The personages who were proposed to fill this department, united to great weight in the country, commanding talents and confirmed habits of business. I need only mention the speaker, Sir W. Grant, the Marquis of Lansdown, Lord Grenville, and the Bishop of London, to justify the satisfaction experienced by the committee at this part of the arrangement. It seemed even to furnish a security against the consequence of any defects in the choice of the stipendiary commissioners; and

some,

whose confidence in the measure had been shaken by that choice being left in the crown, felt it revive when they were told that such men as I have named, would at all events be placed at the head of the department.

The changes made in the powers of the commissioners were as important as the alterations in the construction of the board. They were deprived of all authority to prosecute their inquiries, unless by the consent of every person whom it might be necessary to examine; and they were only permitted to carry on even this ineffectual investigation, into a class of abuses neither the most numerous nor the most flagrant. It seems hardly credible, that any men affecting to have at heart the great objects of the bill, should have 80 crippled its powers and narrowed its objects. Nevertheless, such I lament to say is the undeniable fact. In the first place, as to the powers. We had originally given the commissioners the same authority which rendered the naval and military inquiries so effectual. Imagining that persons concerned in any abuse might. be unwilling to give evidence against themselves, or to produce documents which made them liable to refund large balances due to the poor, we had armed the commissioners with the power

of compelling the production of papers, and obliging every one to answer such questions as did not criminate himself. The ministers in the house of lords peremptorily insisted upon this provision being

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

struck out. They said it was harsh—but why should any one complain of being forced to do what it is every one's duty to do, and what no one can refuse to do unless with the design of concealing some malversation? They represented it as indelicate to respectable trustees--but can any respectable trustee complain of being called upon to disclose the particulars of his conduct in the execution of his trust? They described it as unconstitutional-yet the same powers are possessed by all courts, even by commissioners of bankrupt. They called it unprecedented—yet they themselves, when in office with a truly great minister, the renown of whose naval exploits alone eclipses the glory of his civil administration, had furnished the precedent which we followed ; had passed the very act from which we copied verbatim the clause in our bill. They attempted, indeed, to escape from this dilemma by various outlets. My Lord Chancellor said that he had always disapproved of that provision in Lord St. Vincent's act; yet he suffered it to pass without a division, and was, with my Lord Ellenborough, the principal advocate of the measure. My Lord Sidmouth contented himself with observing, that many persons had objected to Lord St. Vincent's bill; but assuredly his lordship, then minister in the house of commons,

was not of the number; for he strenuously defended it against Mr. Canning, who alone, of the present cabinet, opposed it. A feeble effort was made to distinguish the objects of the two inquiries. But as to their importance-can any one maintain that the expenses of the dock-yards demand more rigor. ous investigation than the disposal of funds destined by benevolence for the relief of wretchedness; or that the conduct of the person who uses a sum of the public money, without authority, and then replaces it, shall be sifted by every means of examination which can wring the truth from interested reluctance ; while he who pockets thousands a-year belonging to the poor, shall only be invited to disclose the state of his accounts in order that his undue gains may cease, and his past accumulations be refunded? Then as to the nature of the two inquiries—can it be contended that the power of examining all private merchants' accounts, in substance possessed by the naval commissioners, was less liable to abuse, or in itself less vexatious, thàn the power of examining the accounts of trustees, filling a public office? As for the clamor excited against the clause respecting title-deeds, no one who had read our bill could be deceived by it for a moment; because the possessor

of a deed was only obliged to produce it, in case it related wholly to the charity; if

any other matter whatever was contained in it, he was allowed to produce a copy of the part relating to the charity.

All our arguments, however, were unavailing. It was resolved that the commissioners should have no powers; and what is very

« AnteriorContinuar »