§ The Order of the Day for taking into consideration his Majesty's Message was then read.
§ The Message was then read by the clerk, [see the debates of May 24.]
The Lord Chancellor
rose and said, that he presented himself to their Lordships, in consequence of the notice given yesterday by the noble Duke at the head of the Government, in conformity with the recommendation and suggestion contained in his Majesty's most gracious Message, to state the nature and outline of the measure which it was the intention of his Majesty's Ministers to propose to the House for their adoption, in order to give effect to the royal wish. He deeply lamented the occasion which called for that measure, and in the expression of that feeling he was sure he carried with him the sympathies of their Lordships, as he did those of every individual throughout this loyal nation. He was thoroughly and deeply sensible of the delicate and difficult nature of the measure which he had to submit to their Lordships. It was of the utmost importance, as the necessity of the case required that some measure should be adopted for carrying his Majesty's wishes into effect. At the same time the measure must be adopted in such a shape and form as not to occasion any detriment to the public service. He felt deeply the importance of the recommendation offered by the noble Earl (Grey) who took part in the conversation last night, that with respect to a measure of that 1063 description, their Lordships should look not merely at present men and present circumstances, but should also take care that they did not establish a precedent which, under men of a different character and in bad times, might possibly lead to public inconvenience and danger. It was perfectly obvious that for the purpose of remedying the inconvenience arising from the impossibility of obtaining the personal signature of his Majesty two modes might be adopted. One was, that some other person or persons should, in the presence of his Majesty and by his command, subscribe his Majesty's name by his express and immediate authority. The other mode was, that some individual or individuals should, by a stamp prepared for the purpose, and bearing the impress of the royal sign affix that stamp for the purpose of expressing his Majesty's signature in his presence and by his immediate and express command. With respect to the latter mode, he was able to inform their Lordships that it had been adopted at different periods in the history of this country. What he stated did not depend on loose testimony, but rested on the evidence of authentic documents, which remained unimpaired in a public institution. The earliest document to which he would refer, because it appeared to be the most material and important, was a patent in the reign of Henry 8th. That patent was at present in a perfect state in the British Museum. It appeared by that document, under the Great Seal, that Henry 8th gave power to certain persons therein named, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Lords and other members of the Privy Seal, or any six of them, to affix, from time to time, a stamp, bearing the impress of the royal signature, to warrants authorizing the payment of money from the Royal Treasury. That authority was given for a limited time. It was not given in consequence of the indisposition or inability of his Majesty to perform his duty, but merely for the purpose of expedition and public convenience. There were many other instances in the reign of Henry 8th in which the Royal signature was affixed, not in the handwriting of the Sovereign, but by means of a stamp. Amongst these instances, were orders for the mustering and levying of troops, proclamations, letters which required the Royal signature, and other instruments of a similar description. 1064 These, to the amount of eight or ten, were now found in a perfect state amongst the different collections in the British Museum. Edward 6th issued two proclamations; one authorizing the levying of troops in the northern part of the island, for the purpose of providing against the incursions of the Scots, and the other was issued in consequence of an insurrection which occurred in some of the eastern counties. To both these proclamations the name of the King was affixed by a stamp, and they were countersigned by the Protector Somerset. In the reign of Queen Mary, also, a proclamation was issued at the period of the insurrection of Sir Thomas Wyatt, calling upon the persons who had taken part in that insurrection to return to their homes, and promising them pardon if they complied with her Majesty's wish within a limited period. An instance of a similar nature occurred at a subsequent period. This instance could not be vouched by the authority of an official document, but it was related by a contemporary writer of great authority and accuracy. This instance occurred in the reign of King William, in the last hour of his life, when he was no longer able to subscribe his name. It was stated that he gave his assent to the appointment of a commission for the purpose of passing into a law two bills which had recently passed both Houses of Parliament,—namely, the bill for securing the Protestant Succession, and the Malt-duty bill. It was said, that the assent of the King was given to the commission by the authority of which the bills were passed into a law, by means of a stamp prepared for the purpose. The author, upon whose authority he stated this fact, was Burnet, a contemporary of William. The fact was stated, not only by Burnet, but by other writers. He had directed his researches most diligently in the Parliament Office. He ascertained that a record of the commission does not exist. He must rely, therefore, upon the contemporary historian—and upon the authority of other writers, also contemporary. In the last year of the reign of Henry 8th, and shortly before his death, the royal signature was affixed to a commission authorizing the Royal assent to be given for the attainder of the Duke of Norfolk. The assent was given by the commission, and the King's signature to the commission was affixed by means of a stamp. That document was still in exis- 1065 tence. In the first year of the reign of Mary, a bill was brought into Parliament to declare the attainder of the Duke of Norfolk null and void. The recital of the bill, and one of the grounds on which it was passed, was, that the Royal signature was not annexed to the commission by the Sign Manual, but by a stamp, and that the stamp was not impressed by the hand of the King, but by that of a clerk. The proof of this fact rested on the evidence of a second clerk who was present. On that account chiefly, though there were other minor grounds, the attainder was, after a severe struggle in the House of Commons, declared null and void. He mentioned these historical facts, not because he relied upon them for the purpose of showing that Government could by any possibility without the authority of Parliament substitute a stamp or any other mode of signature for the Royal Sign Manual; but when they were considering the mode in which a substitute could be found for the Royal Signature, he thought it right and proper to state what in this respect had been done on former occasions, when a substitute was adopted for the Sign Manual. On the present occasion he was sure no Minister would recommend for a moment, or suppose in point of law it could be maintained, that any thing could be adopted for the Sign Manual without the authority of Parliament. Ministers, therefore, had thought it their duty on the present occasion to come down to Parliament to ask advice and counsel on the subject, to state the measures which had occurred to their own minds, and which they would recommend to Parliament to adopt. At the same time they would readily receive, and, if they could concur in them adopt, any suggestions which any noble Lords might offer for the improvement of the measure they meant to propose. It now only remained for him to state the form of the measure, and the securities with which it was intended to be guarded. Ministers were desirous that every possible security should be thrown round the trust to be given for the purpose of guarding against the chance of abuse. At the same time it was desirable that the measure should not be clogged or encumbered so as to render the progress of public business difficult. Ministers proposed by the Bill which he held in his hand, that a commission under the Royal Sign Manual should issue, authorizing 1066 any one or more of the persons therein named to affix his Majesty's signature by means of a stamp prepared for the purpose to such instruments as required the Royal signature. By way of security, and to guard against abuse, it was proposed that the persons named in the warrant as commissioners should make oath that they would not on any occasion, except in the presence and by the immediate command of his Majesty, affix the stamp to any instrument whatever. That was not the whole of the guards and securities. It was proposed that the persons named in the commission should not have authority to affix the stamp to which he had referred, until upon the instrument to which it was to be affixed had been endorsed the nature and object of the instrument, signed by three Ministers to be named especially in the Bill. This could not fail to be considered a guard against abuse, inasmuch as it increased the responsibility under which Ministers acted. It appeared to him that if he were to stop there, the security provided was so great and extensive that no practical mischief could result from the measure proposed. But it was his duty to go further. He had already stated that a stamp was to be prepared. That stamp would be kept in the custody of certain officers—certain high officers named in the Bill. It was not to be annexed to any instrument except in the presence of one of those officers, who must attest that it was affixed in his presence—that was another security. If any noble Lord could add to those securities, he would repeat what he had before stated, that Ministers would be most ready and willing to adopt the addition. Their Lordships would perceive that the securities proposed by the Bill were, in the first instance, that the persons named in the commission should have authority only in the presence and by the immediate command of his Majesty to affix the stamp. To violate that provision would be a high misdemeanour, for which the parties would be deeply responsible, and subject to the severest punishment. Next there was the additional obligation of the oath. There was the further security, that if the back of the instrument should not be endorsed and signed as he had stated, it would be null and void. Further, the stamp must be affixed in the presence of one of the Ministers of the Crown, who must attest it. Guarded by those securities, all forgery or attempts at 1067 forgery were impossible. It was necessary to state, that it was not intended to supersede the Royal authority. To guard against the possibility of that, a clause was contained in the Bill, by which, notwithstanding the provisions of the Bill, it was enacted, that his Majesty might as usual, and according to the accustomed form, affix his Sign Manual to instruments, and that the signature so affixed should have the same force and effect as if the Bill had not passed. He had now stated shortly the objects of the Bill expressly, not for the purpose of provoking discussion at the present stage, for he thought the Bill should first be printed to enable their Lordships to come to a proper consideration of the subject, which was one of delicacy and importance, but one which required to be pressed forward with all speed compatible with the forms of the House. Giving, therefore, the best council and advice of which the Ministers were capable,—they proposed that the Bill should be read a second time to-morrow; and they also suggested the suspending of the Standing Orders, so that it might be passed through its remaining stages as speedily as possible. Indeed he saw no reason why the Bill should not be passed through all its remaining stages to-morrow. It had been suggested by a noble Earl that their Lordships should search for precedents, and appoint a committee for that purpose. On two occasions relative to the question of the Regency, there were committees; and for his part he saw no reason why a committee might not sit tomorrow, and its labours might be made concurrent with the progress of the Bill. These labours might throw some additional light upon the subject; but certainly after all his own researches, and the results of the researches of others,—he did not expect that any material information could be appended to that which had been already procured. But, at the same time, if any noble Lord chose to move for a committee he should not object.
His Lordship then put the question from the Woolsack, that the Bill be read a first time.
§ The Earl of Eldon
suggested it was not necessary to read the Bill at length at present, as it was to be read a second time to-morrow.
§ Earl Grey
said, he willingly bore testimony to the fairness and candour of the statement which the noble Lord on the 1068 Woolsack had just made. He was not prepared to make any objection to the mode which his Majesty's Ministers proposed; but he felt, as he expressed himself yesterday, and as the noble and learned Lord expressed himself that day, that this was a subject of great delicacy and importance. Their Lordships should therefore consider well before they enacted the law. He was not competent to say if they would meet with precedents to guide them. It had been usual, however, to institute such a committee; and he regretted, as there was no opposition, that he had not moved for a committee last night. They might have then sat that day; and there could have been no reason for delaying the progress of the measure beyond the period proposed by the noble and learned Lord. But now, although willing to afford every facility to the measure, he would beg to submit, that as the bill could not be committed into the hands of the Members until to-morrow, whether it would not be more decent to put off the second reading until Thursday. This would give room for full consideration, and when that consideration should have been given, there could be no objection to carrying the Bill through its other stages as soon as possible. He thought that the delay of one day was a reasonable request, and confidently pressed it upon the noble and learned Lord, to whom he gave perfect credit for coming to the consideration of the measure with all anxiety to guard against the abuse of the delegated authority. There was only one thing to which he was anxious to refer; that was the question of duration. He thought the commission should be limited to as short a time as possible, and whatever might be the result of the lamentable cause which created the present exigency, he trusted that this measure would be brought again under the consideration of Parliament before the termination of this Session. He did not know the term to which it was proposed the commission should extend, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack had not specified it. He was anxious, however, that it should not be such as would place the measure beyond their immediate grasp, if they saw reason to revise or amend it. In conclusion, he submitted that the time he himself would require, and that the noble Lords around him would require, being very short, ought to be conceded; and he was confident that 1069 on the second reading everything would be in such a slate that they might proceed through the further stages without delay. He would accordingly propose that the second reading should be deferred to Thursday.
§ The Duke of Wellington
stated, that the circumstances of the case rendered it advisable for them to press forward the measure with as much celerity as was consistent with the forms of the House. He had no objection to defer the second reading till Thursday, but on this express condition—that this Bill was to be passed through all its remaining stages on that one day.
§ The Lord Chancellor, in answer to the noble Earl (Grey,) observed that it was in the power of Parliament to bring any bill before them a second time, by moving for its repeal; at the same time he acknowledged that the object the noble Earl had in view might be best effected by an original clause, which he had no objection to introduce. He had no wish to oppose the suggestion to limit the term of the commission's duration, so that the measure might again be brought under consideration before the close of the Session.
§ The Bill was then read the first time, and read at length.
§ The Lord Chancellor moved the suspending of the Standing Order of the House, No. 26,175, on Thursday next.
§ Earl Grey moved for a committee to report upon precedents for furnishing the Royal Signature in cases requiring the Sign Manual. The Committee to sit tomorrow.
§ The Motion was agreed to, and the following Peers appointed to compose the Committee:—The Lord President (Earl Bathurst); The Lord Privy Seal (the Earl of Rosslyn); The Marquis of Lansdown; Earl Grey; The Duke of Wellington; The Duke of Montrose; Lord Holland; The Marquis of Camden; The Archbishop of York; The Archbishop of Canterbury; The Bishop of London; the Duke of 1070 Devonshire; Lord Tenterden; The Earl of Eldon; Lord Wharnclifle; The Duke of Richmond; Lord Sidmouth, and the Earl of Carnarvon.