HC Deb 31 January 1812 vol 21 cc478-82
Mr. Lockhart

brought forward his motion respecting the propriety of bankrupts holding seats in that House. He had for some time been directing his attention to this subject, which, in his mind, was one of considerable importance. It had been a matter of doubt to him, whether it was not improper and inconsistent with the dignity of the House, that a person after bankruptcy should retain his situation as a member of parliament, and the privileges belonging to it. It was clear that, as the law now stood, no disqualification arose from becoming a bankrupt. James I published a proclamation to the sheriffs, calling upon them not to return as members of parliament any person under the circumstances of a bankrupt. This circumstance he alluded to only to prove, that before the time of James 1, bankruptcy was not considered' a disqualification. It was clear, from the issuing of such a proclamation, he did not mean to insinuate that any criminality, was attached to bankruptcy, because it frequently arose from unforeseen circumstances, against which no prudence could provide; but the progress of fraud was at present alarming, and some measure should be adopted to preclude it from that House: even the mere suspicion of it was sufficient to attach some stain, not consonant to the dignity of a person who was supposed to legislate for his country. He did not intend to assert that bankruptcy of itself was a disqualification, but he thought it deprived the person of that qualification required by the laws of the country for a member of parliament. Certain qualifications were required, and it was mere mockery to say that such qualifications might be lost without bringing any inconvenience on the loser as a member of that House. None but persons of honour and character should sit there. By the 9th of Anne, chap. 5, no person could sit and vote as a member of parliament unless he possessed 300l. a year. There were two other acts relating to this subject, the 4th and 45th of his present Majesty, but neither of them had any direct reference to a case of this kind. The law upon the subject appeared to him doubtful, and it was important, that it should be explained; the dignity of the House required it. It would be a scandal that any person should sit there to whom an imputation of fraudulent dealing could attach. Some persons might come in there to avoid the difficulties arising from debt, and, from such characters, a faithful discharge of public duty could not be well expected. On these grounds, he moved "That a Committee be appointed to inquire if any and what persons being Members of this House, and becoming bankrupts, are capable of sitting, and voting therein."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the House could not but feel indebted to the hon. gentleman for the manner in which he had brought forward his motion, for he had stated all the objections that could be urged against it. It was clear from his own statement that no law existed making bankruptcy a disqualification. The intention of the act requiring certain qualifications for a member of that House, did not require that such qualifications should be permanent. Though a man might lose his property at one time, it was not to be concluded that he could not again recover it. A person might become a bankrupt during the present, session of parliament, and before the next become possessed of much more than would be necessary to qualify him for a seat in that House. It would be a severe measure, to exclude such from the possibility of ever sitting there again. The qualification required by the act did not take in all the members of that House; it did not extend to persons from the northern parts of the united kingdom, or to representatives of universities. A person might, through losses in trade, become a bankrupt one day, and in a short time after, either by success in trade or the goodness of a friend, or the death of a parent, become fully qualified, as to property, for sitting in parliament. Persons might be insolvent and not bankrupts, and after meeting their creditors might have a surplus more than sufficient for qualification. The motion of the hon. gentleman hardly went further than appointing a committee to read an act of parliament. From the acts he had read, it was clear that bankrupts were not disqualified. It would have been more intelligible if the hon. gentleman had moved for a committee to inquire into the state of the law upon this subject. A Bill might be introduced for changing the law as it now stood, but he could not see that any object could be gained by the appointment of such a committee as the motion referred to.

Mr. Baring

expressed his surprise, that under the present circumstances of the country, such a motion as this should be brought before the House. Every person knew, that, from the impediment to commerce for several years past, many persons had fallen from opulence into great difficulties, such as could not be prevented by any conduct on their part. But men, now reduced to bankruptcy by such difficulties, might in course of time become possessed of considerable property; and surely it would be a monstrous measure to shut them out from parliament, because they had been once unfortunate. The credit of the House was not, in his opinion, so much concerned in this affair as the hon. gentleman suspected. He had no objection that an inquiry should be made into the state of the law, but he did not see any object that could be gained by such a committee as the hon. gentleman wished for.

Sir F. Burdett

was no advocate for the system of disqualifications; but, as the law now stood, no great object could be gained by such a measure as the hon. gentleman proposed. The legal ingenuity of the hon. mover furnished him with means to show that, at least, members ought to have some qualification. An hon. gentleman thought it hard, that, in times of difficulty like the present, a motion of this kind should be brought before the House; but he thought, on the contrary, that such times were the fittest for the adoption of a measure of this kind. It was well known that all commerce, at present, was licensed by government. When a great part of the public money passed through the hands of those who lived by commerce; when it was well known that many of those persons whose circumstances in life rendered them liable to bankruptcy, held seats in that House at such a time, a measure of this nature could not but be of the utmost utility, unless they were inclined to use the language of the poet, and write over the doors of that House, "broken and bankrupt fortunes mended here." These were the times in which we ought to be strict, and no man should be allowed to sit in that House with the suspicion of the public upon him. The right, hon. gentleman opposite had said, that though bankrupts this day they might have, in a few days after, as much property as would qualify them for a seat in parliament; but that was not the question. The law required certain qualifications as a security for the upright conduct of a person filling the situation of a representative of-the people, and when he ceased to possess such qualifications it was much to be dreaded, that, instead of filling his place with the integrity of an honest independent man, he would seek every means of improving his shattered circumstances. He thought that something should be done upon the subject of the motion. With respect to the monstrous privilege possessed by members of parliament, which screened them from the payment of their just debts, it was a stigma upon the House, and he did not care how soon it was removed.

Mr. Baring

rose to explain. He did not object to the disqualification as it now existed, but to the making of any change in the law at the present time.

Mr. Brand

thought the motion inadequate to the object in view, but would support it as it may do some good. He wished, however, that a more general measure had been proposed.

Sir John Newport

said, that as the law now stood, the qualifications for a member of parliament were different in England and Ireland. The principle upon which the law was founded in Ireland was a wise one; it supposed, that to secure integrity, independence was necessary. According to the law, as it existed in Ireland, if a person, being a member of parliament, did not satisfy his creditors within the space of six months, he vacated his seat. He thought it derogatory to the dignity of an assembly representing the will of an entire people, that any person walking the streets could say of one of its members, 'he only paid me two shillings to the pound.' It was proper to see that the qualification under which a member originally entered still existed. What could be so inconsistent with the dignity of such an assembly as to say of it, here are persons legislating for those whom they have deceived?' He thought that the law, as it existed at present, should be abolished, or the law adopted as it existed before in Ireland.

Mr. Lockhart

thought that the difficulty of the times, alluded to by an hon. gentleman, should be considered rather as a motive for receiving than rejecting his motion. Whatever might be the fate of this motion, he was glad that it had produced such discussion. He concurred with those who had expressed themselves friendly to the abolition or correction of that privilege of members of parliament so very injurious to the rights of others. The motion was then negatived.