HC Deb 12 April 1821 vol 5 cc170-5
Mr. Lambton

rose to present a petition relative to the state of the representation of the people in that House from the resident but non-represented freeholders of the borough of Lyme-Regis. The petitioners stated, that, from the 23rd of Edward 1st, to the 14th of George 1st, 1727 the elective franchise was exercised by all the resident freeholders in the borough; but at the latter period the right was disputed, and by a decision of that House, in 1780, the right of voting was declared to be vested in the mayor, burgesses, and freemen only; since which time the borough had been under the patronage and disposition of a peer of the realm, who by his sole influence returned members to parliament for a series of years, generally his own personal friends or relations. It was perfectly well known who the peer here alluded to was; but as his name was not mentioned in the petition, he did not think it proper to state it. The petitioners went on to state, that the resident freeholders amounted to 100, while the resident free-burgesses were in number only 30, all of whom were the dependants or friends of the peer alluded to, many of them receiving pensions from, or holding places under, government. They conceived that this system was an enormous grievance, and concluded by praying for a restoration of those rights and privileges that had been exercised by their ancestors.—The petition was then read. On the motion, that it do lie on the table.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, that with all deference to his hon. friend, he did not think it the right course that the petition should merely be laid on the table; for if the petitioners had stated that which they could make out by evidence, when they said that a peer of parliament had habitually interfered in the election of members, he thought it impossible that they could suffer a practice to go on in defiance of their declared privileges—and constantly repeated votes, and of the law of the land, without taking notice of it. That the petition should lie on the table would be a very inadequate measure, and he should therefore move to refer it to a committee of privileges. Whatever opinions might prevail in the House as to a sweeping parliamentary reform, there could be no doubt as to the principle that the constitution disallowed the interference of peers in elections. It was provided so early as the reign of Edward 1st by the first statute of Westminster, that no peer or great man should interfere in elections, either by force of arms or malice—which malice meant (according to lord Coke's interpretation at least) the malice of money. In the reign of Elizabeth, the evil of patronage had got to some height; for they heard of a dame Dorothy Packington, who returned two members to the House. Of its height in modern times they had proof in a petition which had been presented to the House from the "Friends of the people" on the 6th of May, 1793, in which the petitioners stated and offered to prove at the bar, that a majority of the House at that day was returned by the nomination or influence of 154 patrons. So late as 1813, a petition had been presented to the House, staing that two seats in the House had been bequeathed by the will of the late sir John Johnstone, and the codicil was offered to be produced. The reformers had been generally met in the House by a challenge to point out a specific abuse. Here was a distinct breach of privilege; and the question was, whether they would refuse to remove this opprobrium? There had been a petition presented to the House of Commons, December 9, 1790, by Mr. Horne Tooke, in which it was stated that by the accident of proceedings in the court of chancery, the average price of a perpetual seat in the House of Commons had been ascertained, and that seats in that House were as notoriously rented and bought as the standings for cattle at a fair. On that very petition a committee was founded. No gentleman rose to say that these words were not true, and that therefore the petition ought not to be received. Let the House, when such an occasion as this presented itself, endeavour to do a little. Those who were opposed to the reformers in that House, always said, "Don't come with your sweeping plans; point out some particular grievance." Here, however, was a specific charge against a peer of parliament, and, that it might be investigated, he would move as an amendment, "That this petition be referred to the committee of privileges."

Sir J. Graham

said, the case of the electors of Lyme Regis, in which borough there had been more litigation than in any other part of the kingdom, had long since been decided. It was not proper to make a complaint at this time relative to the right of enjoying the elective franchise. That could only be done by a petition against the returning officer immediately after an election. With respect to the allegation against a peer of the realm, how could the complaint be entertained when no name was mentioned and no act specified? He believed a great number of gentlemen who sat opposite could be pointed out as being returned to parliament by peers, or the relations of peers, for close boroughs. This, however was not a close borough. The electors consisted of a certain number of freemen and burgesses, who were not the dependants of any peer. He knew some of them who, he would venture to say, were as respectable as any men in the kingdom.

Mr. Hurst

said, that as this petition did not complain of a particular election, it could not be the subject of an election committee. But as the, Petitioners complained that, for a long course of years, they had been deprived of their elective rights, they where bound ex debito justitiœ to attend to it.

Lord Lowther

said, that the right of election which was claimed by the petitioners, had been frequently decided against.

Mr. Lambton

said, this was not an election petition, as it did not complain of an election, but complained that for many years the franchise had been taken away from them. The statement of the hon. baronet that he saw many members who were nominated by peers, was certainly a bad answer to the complaint of the petition. He rather wondered that the hon. baronet had not been called to order. But it seemed now a too generally admitted fact, to affect any squeam-ishness about, that members were nominated by peers. The question now was, whether the House would take any particular notice of this petition? Certainly it would be more consistent with its ordinary usage to admit the facts alleged, and to let the petition go forth to the world uncontradicted. However, as his own opinion was, that the subject was fit to be discussed in a committee, he should agree to the amendment.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, he would withdraw his amendment on the understanding that he should propose it as a substantive motion.

The Speaker

said, that could not be done on the same day that the petition was laid on the table.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, he should then press his amendment.

Mr. Huskisson

said, the petition was confined to the statement of a general evil, coupled with a complaint of the decision of the House as to the right of voting for the borough. No particular election was complained of, and no specific ground was laid for the interference of the House. The subject of the petition might be very proper for reference, upon a motion respecting the general state of the representation; but he did not think it a case to justify a reference to a committee of privileges.

Lord Althorp

said, the present was not a general complaint; for it alluded to an individual instance, and an individual peer, though he was not mentioned by name; and it also stated, that that peer influenced the election. He considered this a direct breach of privilege, and highly fit to be considered in a committee.

Mr. Monck

said, if there was any thing more clear than another it was that the interference of a peer in an election was a breach of privilege. If the complaint had referred to a particular election it would have been only cognizable by an election committee, but. as the abuse was alleged to be of long continuance, it formed a fit subject for a special examination. If the House suffered it to pass over without notice, it would not increase the confidence of the people out of doors.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, that as it was distinctly stated by the petitioners, that a peer of the realm had for some years interfered in the election of members, the petition ought to be forthwith referred to the committee of privileges.

Mr. J. H. Smyth

was of opinion, after having read the petition, that it did not contain such a complaint as the House was bound to refer to the committee of privileges. After alluding to the right of exercising the elective franchise, the petitioners went on to complain, that a peer of the realm had used his influence in the election of members for this borough. This was a grave charge. But he was not prepared to say that influence arising from title, property, rank, distinction, was the same thing as interference. The House only condemned a corrupt and improper influence.

Mr. Wynn

said, that this was a petition which the House could not refer to a committee of privileges. The charges were of a vague and general nature; no peer was specified as having interfered; and therefore if the petition were referred the committee would have to ascertain what peer the allegation was directed against. But if this influence were proved, what punishment could they enforce? Except the peer happened to be the lord lieutenant of a county, or held an office under the Crown, from which he might be removed, by addressing his majesty, he feared that the House could inflict no punishment, A complaint of this kind had been formerly made against the duke of Bolton; but the committee found they could not bring it to a useful conclusion; and, after examining some witnesses, adjourned for four months. If bribery or some undue influence, which might be made the subject of a prosecution, were not proved, the House had no means of inflicting punishment.

Sir J. Newport

said, that if the position of the hon. member was correct, the sooner the House rescinded its resolution upon the subject the better. It was well known that at the beginning of every session the House came to a resolution declaring the interference of a peer in the election of a member of parliament to be a breach of privilege; but if such a resolution could not be enforced, the voting it was a mere farce.

The question being put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question," being put, the House divided: Ayes, 82. Noes, 33. The original question was then put and agreed to.

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