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MR. PITT'S BILL FOR REFORMING THE PUBLIC OFFICES.
IN addition to the different bills which had passed for the purpose of regulating the public offices of the kingdom, Mr. Pitt brought one in this session" for appointing commissioners to inquire into the fees, gratuities, perquisites, and emoluments, which are or lately have been received in the several public. offices to be therein mentioned; to examine into any abuses which may exist in the same; and to report such observations as shall occur to them, for the better conducting and managing the business transacted in the said offices." The opposition this measure encountered was considerable. After the motion for reading the bill a third time had been opposed by Mr. Sheridan, and supported by Mr. Pitt and the attorney-general,
Mr. BURKE rose and desired that Magna Charta might be referred to, and that part read which states that "nullus liber homo capiatur vel imprisonetur," &c. While it was reading, there was a laugh on the treasury-bench side of the House. Mr. Burke thereupon observed, that what he had desired to be read was, he believed, at this day regarded just in the same light as Chevy Chace, or any other old ballad — as fit only to be laughed at. It was, however, to him of serious importance, and he would shew that the present bill was a direct and violent contradiction to Magna Charta and the common law of the land. He proceeded to point out the clauses empowering the commissioners to call for persons and papers, as clauses that went an extraordinary length indeed; so far even as to force persons to criminate themselves. He enlarged upon this as an infringement of the liberty of the subject, which that House, as the guardian of the constitution, ought never to counteHe took notice of Mr. Pitt's expression, that the aim of the bill was to inquire after and correct possible
abuses; a better phrase, he had never heard, nor one more truly applicable to the subject. Thus, he said, it was avowed that there was not any known existing necessity for the bill, but that it was produced with a view to hunt after one. He appealed to the feelings of the House, whether such unconstitutional powers as the bill would authorize the commissioners to exercise, ought to be trusted in any hands but upon the most pressing necessity. He animadverted also on that part of Mr. Pitt's speech, in which he had insinuated that former boards of treasury had been too proud and too lazy to do their duty. He declared he deemed pride and laziness two of the worst vices human nature could fall into. Pride made us arrogant and disdainful to all who differed from us in opinion, and laziness made us neglect our own duty, and push it off to be discharged by our deputies. The one led to high honours and large emoluments; the other made us disdain to merit either the one or the other, but induced us to revive the ancient practice of the Flagellants, not indeed to lay the lash upon our own backs, but upon the backs of those under us.
In the present bill there was, he said, an obvious tinge of the school in which the right honourable author had been bred. Most schools had their characteristics; thus the school of Venice was known by its colouring; the school of Raphael by its design; but the school he alluded to, was the school of large promise and little performance; the school where smiles and professions were dealt out liberally in the outset, but the issue was always a tyrannous exercise over menials and dependents, under pretence of great economy and great attention, but where the utmost probable produce from such oppressive stretches of power could be but inconsiderable. He called the bill a slander upon the whole official establishments of the kingdom, and said, it presumed the general prevalence of the grossest corruption and fraud, in every one of them. The public offices of Great Britain, he believed, were the best conducted, and the most free from affording real ground of
censure, of any in Europe. They made a part of the national reputation; and that House ought not to suffer them to be so foully slandered, as they were in that bill, which was clearly not a bill of use, but a bill of idle parade and ridiculous ostentation. It was a sample of doing nothing at all, when it was pretended that a great deal was done. He took notice of the vermin-abuses mentioned by Mr. Sheridan, and said, it was but too true, the right honourable gentleman opposite to him loved to hunt in holes and
"Mice and rats, and such small deer
Had been Tom's food for seven long year."
But though the bill was a reptile crawling in the dirt, it would be found to bite hard, where the constitution ought not to be lacerated. He lamented that the invidious task of investigating the characters and qualifications of the three commissioners had fallen upon him; but he should do his duty, though he meant not to provoke any man's resentment. He then entered into a discussion of the separate characters of Sir John Dick, Mr. Molleson, and Mr. Baring, paid each of them the highest personal compliments, but gave his reasons for declaring all the three totally unqualified to execute the duties imposed on them by the bill. Mr. Burke returned to the point from whence he set out, and said, the bill was a direct violation of Magna Charta, the common law of the land, and the constitution.
The bill was read a third time and passed:
LANCASHIRE PETITION AGAINST THE COTTON TAX.
THIS day Mr. Stanley presented a petition signed by 80,000 manufacturers in different parts of Lancashire, complaining of the tax imposed last year on the fustian and other cottonmanufactures, as absolutely ruinous to their trade; and of the introduction of excise officers into their houses. They stated, that without any benefit to the revenue, this tax would subject their manufactures to full 8 per cent. on the exportation, which would necessarily deprive them of the markets that they actually had, and drive their workmen to the necessity of emigrating to other countries. They added, that the admission of Irish fustians and cottons into England, was all that was wanting completely to annihilate the cotton trade of this country, by which so many thousands of industrious and useful subjects got their bread. The petition having been read by the clerk, Mr. Stanley moved, that it be referred on Monday next to a committee of the whole House. Mr. Pitt objected to Monday, and wished a later day to be appointed. Lord Beauchamp said, that the introduction of excise officers into the houses of manufacturers by the law for imposing a duty on cottons, had spread a great alarm through the country: the chamber of commerce of Birmingham had caused circular letters to be sent to all the manufacturing towns in the neighbourhood, to invite them to withstand, what they conceived to be a fixed plan, to introduce the excise laws by degrees into all private houses. Mr. Rose was surprised, that a mere extension could be thought by any man an introduction of a precedent.
Mr. BURKE said, that the consideration of the petition ought not to be deferred longer than Monday. Nothing was more dangerous to manufacturers and to morals, than to have large bodies of men, who were able to work, supported by public charity; alms begat idleness, idleness led to crimes, and crimes were the proofs of the destruction of
morality. He was astonished to hear an honourable member express his surprise, that an extension could be thought by any means introductory of a precedent. Now, for his part, he was more alarmed at this mode of reasoning than the honourable gentleman might expect; for it led to this something as yet unprecedented must be done; and when once done, it became a precedent on which many others were founded; and upon the strength of this first introduction, the precedent was extended, step by step, and repeated so frequently, that the principle was at last worn out and forgotten: so that in argument it would be no longer said, the principle was good, but it would be urged, that it was the common practice, and therefore nothing was to be apprehended from it. Thus, if the exciseman was once permitted to set one foot in a house, he was sure afterwards to drag in the other, and so at last introduce his whole body. Mr. Burke concluded with an expression of a man, who, from the place where he was then speaking, had declared that the cyder-tax ought not to be imposed, because it established a dangerous precedent.'* This expression, he said, would have weight with many gentlemen; but particularly with the chancellor of the exchequer, when he should inform them, that it had been used by the late Earl of Chatham.
The petition was ordered to be taken into consideration on Monday.
* See New Parliamentary History, vol. xv. p. 1307.