HC Deb 17 May 1819 vol 40 cc460-5

Lord Clive brought up the report of this bill On the motion, "That the Amendments made by the Committee to the bill be now read a second time,"

Sir Robert Wilson

rose. He claimed the indulgence of the House now, as having on former occasions, in obedience to its wishes, postponed his opposition to the bill until its present stage. He did not feel quite satisfied with its object, which being only the extension of the elective franchise to some 800 freeholders, over the five or six hundred electors of Barnstaple, was not sufficient, he feared, to guard the public against the recurrence of similar events. The mere addition of this number of voters would not, he thought of itself resist the machinations of such a Lothario as sir Manasseh Masseh Lopez. He saw no reason why they should restore to the freemen—freemen they were not—to the salesmen, he should say of Barnstaple, their elective franchise. It was a restoration that was, in effect only the reward of guilt. A fine opportunity was now presented for what he would call, an elementary system of reform. His proposition was, either that one of the counties at present inadequately represented, should have in addition the two members it returned, or that the electors of Barnstaple should be allowed to vote only in the election of the knights of the shire. Since the time of Edward 1st, about sixty boroughs had been created and annihilated; and he thought that they were entitled in these times, where they had justice on their side, in like manner to make and to reject precedents. Let it be remembered, that they had seen thirty unoffending, at any rate unconvicted boroughs in Ireland disfranchised, and the representatives of that country reduced from three hundred to one hundred. There were many men, and he would admit, conscientious men too, likely to be alarmed at his proposition; those who would sanction the most notorious abuses rather than put in practice any thing like reform; who thought that to amend, was to innovate, and that to innovate was to destroy: who were unwilling to admit that any of the horrors of the French revolution had been caused by the profligacy of its rulers, the corruption of its ministers or the imbecility of its government, because it produced such mighty changes. The government of this country must always depend in a great measure on the authority of opinion, and that authority could not be maintained without showing a respect for popular rights, and a steady observance of the great constitutional compact by which all classes of the community were bound together. A reform was demanded, not upon theoretical principles or for the purpose of gratifying visionary schemes, but from a deep-rooted attachment to the principles of our free constitution. The people claimed it, not in indulgence of theories, but as a security against the mal-administration of their affairs and a safeguard of their liberties. It might be said, that if the House acceded to his proposition there would be no limits to the proposals of the reformers. For his own part, he only demanded such a reform as was suited to the moral and intellectual advancement of the age. His constituents, in whose behalf he spoke, were not advocates for annual parliaments and universal suffrage. They claimed the restoration of triennial parliaments which were withdrawn from them, not on any allegation of their inconvenience, but from the fear of a Stuart faction, and which should have been restored to them when that danger ceased. As to universal suffrage, they thought that whatever was the ancient law, a right of voting founded on that amount of property which could be easily obtained by industry, was more suitable to the present state of society. They looked not only to what was desirable, but to what was attainable. In fixing the place to which he should propose to transfer the right of returning two members, he had some difficulty, as so many unrepresented or inadequately represented places had claims. He however thought that as in the West Hiding of Yorkshire; there was a population of 563,000 persons very inadequately represented—that as Leeds, in that riding contained above 60,000 people and 11,268 houses—as it had been an ancient borough, formerly disfranchised without any cause assigned in the parliamentary records, he might propose to give that town the privilege of returning two members, without affording cause of offence to Manchester, Birmingham, or other unrepresented places. It was his intention therefore to propose that the amendments be read this day six months, with a view of moving for leave to bring in a bill to transfer the privilege of returning two members from Barnstaple to Leeds; giving the electors of Barnstaple the privilege of voting for the knights of the shire for Devon, and continuing the sitting member in his seat for the remainder of the parliament.

Mr. Wynn

said, he had in the case of Helston, suggested the propriety of transferring the franchise to the West Riding of Yorkshire, because all the borough had participated in the benefit of the corrupt bargain proved to have then taken place. In Barnstaple, many electors had not participated in the corrupt practices; he therefore thought, that the present proposal for infusing healthy blood into the borough v. as more just than a bill to divest it altogether of its franchise. He approved too, in the present instance, of the clause to prevent the making non-resident honorary freemen, as the purpose of the bill might be otherwise defeated by the corporation. He suggested that all persons hereafter obtaining their freedom by any means, should not be allowed to vote unless resident.

Sir J. Newport

approved of the bill before the House. There was no other borough in the four hundreds in question, so that that part of the country would not have an undue share of representatives. The proposal of his gallant friend might be less objectionable as applied to Penryn. The bill which he proposed to introduce was objectionable, if not on other grounds on account of the anomaly, that one member would be left seated for Barnstaple on the old, and one returned for Leeds on the new plan.

Mr. Martin

, of Galway, proposed, that the bill should be re-committed, to examine evidence, and ascertain how far corruption had prevailed in the borough.

Mr. V. Blake

said, it did not appear that the whole corporation had been infected with corruption, and therefore he would not inflict a more severe punishment than had been thought necessary in other cases. If the House would consent to recommit the bill, he would move the introduction of certain words which should go to transfer the elective franchise to gentlemen who had freeholds in the neighbourhood, and who were also resident in the borough.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

said, that the public entertained great expectations that some measure of reform would be adopted, and regarded the present question as a test of the virtue of the House. It was a notorious fact, that corrupt practices prevailed to a great extent, not only in Barnstaple, but in many other places. The elective franchise ought to be considered as a public not a private right, to be exercised for general and not for personal advantage. It could not be denied that our representative system was one of great inequality, that Middlesex, Essex, and Lancashire had not their fair proportion, and that Cornwall sent as many members to that House as thirteen other counties. It was incumbent on them to show a disposition to correct this evil when an occasion was presented, and a gross abuse had been detected. Whatever might be the danger to be apprehended from what were called wild and visionary schemes of reform, he thought this was the period when the House was called upon to punish those acts of corruption which were proved to exist in the return of members to serve in parliament. When the abuses which were known to exist in the different boroughs in Cornwall were spoken of, they were laughed at; yet there was scarcely a member in the House who had not heard of those boroughs being offered for sale, and a price being fixed upon them. He had himself lately heard a gentleman complain, that notwithstanding the depreciation of property generally, the electors of one of those boroughs were so unreasonable as to ask 30l. a head for their votes, though the price paid at the previous election was no more than 24l. He thought the gallant officer bad not taken exactly the right course, and was anxious that the bill should be recommitted, as there were a variety of topics connected with this subject which ought to be taken into consideration before the bill was disposed of by the House.

Mr. Alderman Wood

animadverted on the alarm which seemed to be excited on the opposite side of the House by every proposition for a reform. He was sorry so little had been said in the course of the present session in favour of a parliamentary reform, but he hoped the subject would shortly be taken up in a proper manner. He concurred with his hon. friend who had just sat down, in the view which he took of the present bill.

Lord Compton

supported the bill.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

thought it would be better that the borough should remain as it now stood, rather than it should, by an extension of the elective franchise, be thrown into the power of some few persons of the landed proprietors in the neighbourhood; as he thought that the aristocracy and landed interest of the country had already more than their due influence in returning representatives to parliament.

Mr. N. Calvert

declared the landed interest had no predominance in that House. He did not believe that it contained twenty members that purely represented the agricultural interest, most of the members from the agricultural counties being in fact returned by the trading interest.

Mr. G. Lamb

deprecated the idea of considering a measure of this kind in the light of its being a parliamentary reform. The noble lord who introduced the bill, had justly stated it to be for the correction of abuses which had been proved to exist. The House by adopting this measure would not, in fact, do any thing more than enforce the laws against bribery and corruption in the return of members to parliament. Whenever the question of parliamentary reform was brought forward (and he trusted that day was not far distant), he hoped he should not be found backward in redeeming the pledge which he had given to his constituents to support that measure. But here that question was not involved: parliamentary reform had nothing to do with the bill before the House. He was anxious that those abuses should be corrected, but as he conceived that the bill did not go far enough he felt himself bound to sup port the amendment.

Lord Clive defended the bill; after which the House divided: For the original motion, 110; For sir R. Wilson's amendment, 12.