HC Deb 18 May 1809 vol 14 cc617-20
Mr. Curwen

moved the second reading of the Seats in Parliament Bill. The bill was then read a second time, and on the question that it be committed,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

stated, that he thought it right to take that opportunity of mentioning to the hon. gentleman, and to the house, the objections which pressed upon his mind as to this bill. He should not say that these objections might not be obviated; but he felt it desirable to state them in that instance, in order to give gentlemen an opportunity of turning them in their minds, with a view to obviate them if possible. His first objection applied to the manner in which the bill described the offence; his next objection was, to the manner in which the offence was to be punished; and his third objection was against the manner, in which by a precautionary provision, it was proposed to prevent the recurrence of the offence. If the bill were to pass in its then form, it would comprehend a variety both of acts and conduct, which he was persuaded had never been in contemplation of the honourable framer. It would apply not only to the sale of seats in that house, but to the sale of property or interests, which might give influence in the return of members to that house. If this bill were to pass, no burgage tenures could be sold, nor any property that would carry with it influence at an election, without incurring the penalties of the bill. This was an insurmountable objection to it in its present form. Besides, it would act prospectively and retrospectively, directly and indirectly, so that no man who had a vote at an election, could at any time receive a favour from a member. This was an operation of the bill, which he was convinced had never entered into the mind of the honourable gentleman. He had himself turned his thoughts to the bill, and discovered difficulties which could not be obviated without getting rid of several clauses which the honourable member wished to retain. It was not a satisfactory answer to say that a jury would not construe the act to extend to such cases as were not obviously intended to bias the particular election. The house should not leave that to a jury to decide, and besides it was highly ob- jectionable to legislate penalty without a precise and definite exactment. With respect to the manner in which the punishment was to be regulated, he could not conceive, until the blanks should be filled up, how that was to be settled; whether the question was to be sent to the courts of law, without any limitation of time, and not referred to a committee of that house. But he doubted, whether that house would consent, under any circumstances, to commit questions of that description concerning the validity of seats within its walls, to the jurisdiction of the courts of common law. His next objection was to the oath. If an oath was to be introduced, it ought to be precise, so that what members were to swear should be clearly and distinctly known, and he was sure the house would not admit any other form into the bill. What would have been the situation of members under the treating act, if there had been such an oath as first proposed in this bill, when what one committee decided not to be an offence against the act, another committee declared to be an offence, so that if the oath were to have been imposed, the same act would in one case prove perjury, which in another would be wholly innocent. He had thought it incumbent upon him to state these objections to the house, not with any idea of giving opposition to the bill, but for the purpose of giving gentlemen an opportunity of obviating them if possible.

Mr. Curwen

congratulated the house that the objections of the right hon. gent, were not to the principle of the bill. What the right hon. gent. said, had certainly considerable weight with him. It was never in his intention to destroy the right of disposing of burgage tenure, because that would lead to the destruction of the right to dispose of freeholds. But when the bill should come into the committee, he hoped that means would be devised to get rid of all the difficulties stated by the right hon. gent. As to the Oath, he thought it ought not to be imposed in the detail, if not in the wholesale. At all events, nothing could tend so much to set that house right with the public, as to shew that no persons could get improperly into it. If parliament did not reform itself, it would, according to the saying of a great man, be reformed with a vengeance from without. When abuses were proved to exist, it would add to the dissatisfaction of the people, if the necessary remedies should not be applied to correct them.

Mr. Windham

thought, that his honourable friend, when his bill had been suffered to take its chance for a second reading, had no occasion to make the harangue he had delivered, or to utter the menaces against that house with which his speech concluded. He had himself determined to remain till the question of the second reading of this bill, though he was jealous of its progress. He would not admit that parliament had lost the confidence of the public, at least of the thinking part of the public; and he did not allow that the corruptions alluded to by his hon. friend existed, at any rate not in the sense in which his hon. friend said they did. He had risen only to protest against the harangue of his hon. friend, and to lay in his claim to an unfettered exercise of his judgment upon the merits of his bill.

Mr. Bathurst

thought, that when the house had agreed to the second reading, it sanctioned the principle of the bill; and that they had a right to know from his right hon. friends, whether they thought the abuses proposed to be remedied by this bill were such as ought to be corrected. He considered the house as placed in a situation in which it had never been before. It was new to parliament to have the practices proposed to be corrected by this bill admitted within that house. This bill was not to interfere with the sale of property; neither would it touch, in the remotest degree, the question respecting a reform in the representation in that house. It was intended to correct an evil acknowledged to exist, and upon which the house had a right to expect an opinion from his majesty's ministers. As to the first objection of his right hon. friend, it might be got over by leaving out a few words. The other objections also, he was of opinion, might be got rid of in the committee.

Mr. Dennis Browne

was of opinion that parliament had not lost the confidence of the public; and if it had, this bill was not calculated to retrieve it, for it had not met with the approbation of the Solon and Lycurgus of the Crown and Anchor.

Mr. Curwen

, in explanation, stated, that he had not been present at the meeting at the Crown and Anchor.

Lord Folkestone

did not think it necessary to argue with the right hon. gent, whether the house had or had not lost the confidence of the country. The right hon. gent, had not lately been found in attendance on the debates of the house, and probably from that circumstance, and from his having spent more of his time, among the public, he esteemed himself better qualified to speak as to the degree of confidence the public reposed in that house. The light hon. gent. probably knew that the house, by the votes they had lately come to, had procured universal approbation and applause, and stood higher than it had ever done at any former period in the public estimation. His lordship doubted not the right hon. gent. had found all this to be the case, during the time he had been absent from the house. He (lord Folkestone) however would tell him what had passed here during the interval of his absence. A question had been brought forward, charging some of his majesty's ministers with bargaining for and selling Seats in that house; and so far from being denied, the offence was endeavoured to be palliated and extenuated. Farther, various, members professed their belief of the existence of a train of abuses of the kind, and the investigation into them was not gone into, because it was even held out that all the public men in the house would be found to have been implicated. If the right hon. gent. had beard these things, and moreover had been informed, that they were as clear and notorious as the sun at noon day, the noble lord left it to him to say, if the present bill was the effect of popular clamour.

Mr. Lockhart

should object to this measure if it were intended to stop here, and allow the rotten boroughs to be held by their present tenures. He had always been of opinion that a moderate reform was necessary.

Mr. Ponsonby

understood the discussion of the principle of the bill to have been postponed till the question for the Speaker's leaving the chair. Many members, he was convinced, were now absent on that understanding.

The bill was then ordered to be committed for to-morrow.

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