HC Deb 02 March 1818 vol 37 cc693-700

Mr. Wynn moved the third reading of this bill. He said, he should propose an amendment to obviate an objection made by a noble lord, with respect to the 400 votes requisite at the close of the two first days of the poll. The object of this amendment would be, to declare that all votes should be included in that number, which were tendered, and found ultimately good, though they might be decided against at the time.

Sir C. Monck

said, that by the present bill the returning officer could appoint as many constables as he thought necessary. This was a power that might be used for a particular influence; and it seemed desirable that such power should not be given so as to serve a political view.

Mr. Allan

said, that although the bill did not vary materially from that which passed the House last session, except in the exclusion of a clause, which had excited great discontent among many of the most valuable and best informed constituents, he was, nevertheless, by no means prepared to think it either merited, or would meet with the same support; and feeling as he did, that neither expense nor inconvenience at elections would be pre- vented by its enactment, he felt it his duty to oppose the third reading. But before he proceeded to urge his objections to particular provisions of the bill, which, to spare the time of the House, he should do very generally, he was willing to give the hon. gentleman, the promoter of it, every credit for skill and knowledge in the usages of parliament; and he hoped he would allow him to say (adverting to an observation of his on a former occasion), that he did not lie by to wait for an unfair opportunity to thwart his measure, but that his opposition to the recommitment arose from the circumstance of the hon. gentleman having himself proposed, as he thought rather precipitately, the third reading for the very next day. It had been his practice ever since he had had the honour of a seat in that House, to consent generally to the introduction of any bill, not primâ facie objectionable, and to watch its progress through a committee; and he did so in this case, though he contemplated the measure from the first as an innovation on the election laws, in his humble but confirmed opinion, not likely to produce any beneficial effects whatever. On the contrary, and on the best consideration be had been able to bestow, it appeared to him that the repeal of the act of the 18th George 2nd, by the substitution of that which was then before the House, would not tend in any degree to render less inconvenient the election of knights of the shire to serve in parliament, for it in fact merely transferred the power to provide booths or polling places from the sheriffs to the magistrates, the former being limited to the number of fifteen, and the latter unlimited, except by a vexatious appeal to the quarter sessions. It might be otherwise arranged; and as he contended that fifteen polling places were sufficient for Yorkshire, if his position were true, the argument must hold good as to every other county in the kingdom. But he objected to the principle of the bill, more particularly as affecting-places where the right of voting is in freemen, inasmuch as the power to be given to the magistrates must necessarily interfere with the bye laws and internal regulations of such places, and a right thus to be vested in an extraneous authority, to direct voting by wards, guilds, or companies, contrary to immemorial usage, must operate with those concerned, as an invasion of the chartered privileges and immunities of every city, borough, or port in the empire. Besides this, he held the proposed regulations for the polling of freemen to be still more objectionable; and he contended that notwithstanding the number of polling places might be increased so as to take the votes of 400 in one day, the poll might, nevertheless, be so protracted, by disputes upon the rights of paupers and others (he bore in mind that the returning officer might set apart), that 400 could not possibly be polled either on the second or any subsequent day, nor even 200, as now proposed; and thus, by the favour of a returning officer, by a manusuvre in fixing the day of election, and through the medium of dull or entertaining orators, two members might be returned, when, in reality, a third candidate might have a vast majority of legal votes in his train ready, but not able to exercise their franchise. The whole scope and tenor of this arrangement appeared to him to be neither more nor less than a design to do away the most valuable part of our mixed state of popular representation, to impose on independent candidates an enormous expense, by assembling freemen before the election is fixed, or at once to deprive for ever the outlying voters from any possibility of exercising their just right, whether derived by birth, or through the means of honest servitude, in the various crafts and mysteries which have so eminently distinguished this country above all others. He admitted there were clauses in this bill, to which, in another shape, he should not object, and he admitted also there had been cases in which polls had been unnecessarily protracted; but he did not think any proper remedy would be supplied by this bill, which, for the reasons he had assigned, he moved might be read a third time this day six months.

Mr. Marryat

said, that from all he heard it was clear the more the bill was considered, the more it would be found objectionable. What had been done appeared to him unsatisfactory. He objected to the proposed regulations concerning the poll, which applied the same principle to counties and boroughs. The House ought to pause before they passed this bill into a law. If it was applicable to county elections, it might not be so for all places. It tended to compel a candidate to bring up all the non-resident voters in his favour on the first day of the poll. Yet be might not know that he wanted them. The bill would be productive of an increase in the expenses of elections. Besides, the bringing up of all the voters at the beginning of the poll would only tend to increase the danger of riots and disturbances. The power to stop the poll, if a certain number did not in this stage of the election appear, had also a tendency to disfranchise those who could not, in the first instance, attend from distant parts. Why, also throw the expense of the hustings on the county, instead of the candidate? If the latter could throw upon his constituents this part of his expense, why not throw the rest? Why not, as in America and in France, make his constituents pay his daily expenses? He could not approve of the proposal for abolishing the giving away of cockades. That practice assisted a very useful and valuable branch of our manufactories, and which at present stood greatly in need of encouragement. This alteration could be no important object. The disposition to rioting proceeded, not from the cockade in the hat, but from the liquor in the head. As to declaring the election in certain cases, where there was no opposition, he supposed members knew well enough the maxim of divide et impera. It would be more decorous to let the measure stand over. If the bill were to be passed now, the House would be rushing in upon a new system respecting the law and practice of elections, just at the time when a general election was about to take place.

Mr. Protheroe

objected to the clause of the bill respecting cockades. He wished the bill to be recommitted, as he approved of some parts of it; he should otherwise vote for the amendment.

Sir W. Burroughs

thought the clause which put an end to the poll at the conclusion of the second day, if 400 voters had not polled, was objectionable. A candidate might object to his adversary's votes, and thus put an end to the election unfairly: for there was not, on the supposition that every vote was objected to, more than 63 seconds allowed to determine on each. The clause too which affixed a penalty on giving away a cockade, would occasion vexatious prosecutions.

Mr. Hammersley

thought this a selfish bill on the part of the House, and he was sorry to see so little disposition to object to it. The inconvenience that had been alleged as the reason for this bill, was, that the member for Devonshire had been obliged to stand four days before his constituents, by the opposition of a person who had but few votes. He did not think this a hardship to be complained of by a gentleman who thereby became the representative of a populous county for seven years. The longer the hon. member stood before his constitnents, the better for himself, and for them. He thought this bill tended, by diminishing expense, to introduce into the House persons of less weight and respectability than would otherwise be elected. He should therefore vote for the amendment.

Mr. Wilberforce

thought, that the part of the bill which proposed to put an end to the practice of giving cockades would not answer the purpose. The bill affixed a penalty to the giving away cockades; but the member would be thought a very shabby fellow who did not submit to this additional expense [A member suggested that the penalty was affixed to each offence]. If it was meant to apply to the giving each cockade, it was not so expressed in the bill, nor would it be so interpreted. He remembered prosecutions against a man for exercising the trade of a tailor; and he was proceededagainst separately for several acts done in the same day; lord Kenyon said, that if the man could be prosecuted for different acts in one day, he might as well be sued for penalties on every stitch. He thought it would be better to affix a small penalty, 5s. or 10s. for instance, on any person giving a cockade, for each cockade given, and to avoid the delicate question of agency, which was one of the most difficult to be determined either by a court or a committee of the House. He did not think the bill could be considered as merely intended for the benefit of the candidates. It was a benefit to the country at large, that persons who would be preferred by the electors on political principles, or from local connexions, should not be thrust out by weight of purse by men less deserving of support, morally or politically. It was the duty of the House to watch over the interests of the country gentlemen, who were the glory and the strength of the country. The bill might be convenient in its operations to a few leading families, in places were there was little chance of opposition, by limiting the duration of the poll: but the interest of any particular family was but a feather in the balance compared with the prejudice it would be of to the country at large.

Mr. F. Douglas

approved of the bill, but thought it better that some of the clauses should not be put in operation for two years, as from their enactment on the eve of an election, they might be twisted for partial purposes which could hardly be foreseen.

Sir J. Graham

objected to the clause, which rendered it no longer necessary for freeholders to adduce a proof that their tenement was assessed to the land tax. He also objected to the payment of the expense of the hustings out of the county rates, and to the power given to the returning officers to appoint any number of constables. The returning officers were not always of the highest description, and might make a job at the county expense. The magistrates were the proper judges of the number of peace officers who were necessary.

Mr. Lockhart

approved of the general principle of the bill, especially of the part forbidding the distribution of cockades. He had known 30,000 cockades given away at an election, and this signal of party was thus made an engine of bribery, not to the multitude at large, but towards persons of particular trades. He was doubtful, however, whether a simple limitation of the length of polls would not be better than the complicated machinery now introduced, the effect of which it was not easy to foresee.

General Thornton

expressed a hope that the bill would not proceed any farther.

Mr. P. Moore

observed, that the effect of some of the restrictions proposed by this bill would be to disfranchise one-third part of his constituents of Coventry. The restriction on the use of cockades was, in his opinion, highly inexpedient, as it tended to discourage an extensive branch of manufacture. This view of the subject had excited a smile in the House; but it was a matter of serious importance to many thousands of industrious individuals who derived their support from the manufacture in question. If the bill was amended, so as to do away with these objections, he should feel it his duty to support it.

Mr. Wynn

replied. He said, that as the law at present stood, if any one candidate chose, he could keep the poll open to the last moment allowed by the law, which was fifteen days. This he considered as a very great evil. It had been said, that this was a selfish measure on the part of the House. He, on the contrary, viewed it as calculated to relieve electors themselves. The very first principle of the constitution was, that freeholders should be represented in that House free of expense. To give effect to this principle was the leading object of this bill. The first clause objected to was that respecting the building of booths and other apparatus. It had been said, that to throw the expense of these erections upon the county, was to encourage ambitious candidates to come forward. But it should be recollected, that, at present, any candidate could avoid this expense. He had only to avoid offering himself, but to get some person to demand a poll for him, and he could be charged with no part of the expense. The only alternative left him, therefore, in framing this bill was, to throw the expense upon the county, or upon the individual demanding the poll; and as the latter would be a greater alteration of the whole system, he had adopted the former. When the expense was laid upon the county, no individual would feel it severely. Besides, as the materials of booths and hustings would be sold after the election, the amount would be inconsiderable. The second clause objected to respected the closing of the poll, if 400 had not voted before the end of the second day. The bringing in of electors from a distant part of a county he thought as great an evil as bringing them from the remotest part of the kingdom. If, therefore, a candidate could not poll 400 on the second day from the place where the poll was held, he thought it would be a great advantage that the poll should be closed. It had been suggested, that the bill should be put off till after the general election. He could not consent to this, as it was brought forward with the view of preventing such evils as it embraced at the ensuing general election. As to cockades, he believed that the 100l. proposed as a penalty would effectually prevent the use of them; but he should not have the least objection to a fine for each cockade given away. The clause respecting constables was especially required. At one election he knew that 8,000l. had been given to special constables. At another election 1,500 special constables had been engaged at half-a-guinea a day each. The amendment proposed in the bill respecting the land-tax was much wanted in every part of the country, but particularly in Gloucestershire and Yorkshire. If the bill should be read a third time, he would willingly discuss any particular clause proposed to be added afterwards to it.

The question being put, That the bill be now read a third time, the House divided: Ayes, 44; Noes, 51. The bill was consequently lost.