HC Deb 23 February 1825 vol 12 cc635-41
Mr. Byng

having presented a petition against the Isle of Dogs Railway,

Mr. Grenfell

lamented the absence of the hon. member for Montrose. He wished it to be directly understood whether or not the principle which was laid down last night respecting hon. members interested in private bills was to be uniformly acted upon. What he was anxious to know was, whether it was his hon. friend's intention to bring forward a specific proposition to the effect, that persons so interested, directly or indirectly, should not be allowed to vote; if not, he would take the earliest opportunity of doing so himself. He had this object in. view—an object indispensable to the honour and consistency of the House—namely, not only that the votes of members having a direct interest in the bills under consideration, should be disallowed; but that the votes should also be disallowed of those members who had a direct interest in any undertaking that might be prejudiced by such bills.

Mr. Brougham

said, that the mode of voting on private bills was so scandalous in its nature, that he had made it a rule never to vote upon a private bill, nor had he ever voted, except upon one, which was not in his estimation, a private bill, but a bill of considerable public interest, the Highgate chapel bill. That was in itself a corrupt job of an attorney, not out of zeal for the welfare of the church, or any excess of piety, but out of a corrupt love of jobbing, for his own bill of charges. But the House would not go half fat-enough if it stopped at the exclusion of those who had an interest either in supporting or opposing the bill. Why should a member be prevented from giving his own vote, and be left at liberty to obtain as many votes as he could, by the solicitation of himself or his agent, his wife or his sister? Persons went about with letters from members, entreating the votes and interests of other members to whom such letters were addressed; meaning thereby that they were to come down, not only to give their own corrupt votes, but to endeavour to corrupt as many others as they could prevail with for the same object. It was that view of the scandalous jobbing in votes for private bills which had caused him to take the resolution which he had mentioned. He had before stood in this breach, and had been checked by the bashful consciousness of the House, from relating an anecdote concerning the manner of voting on those occasions, as if hon. gentlemen were afraid that he was tearing away, with too rude a hand, the veil of mystery which hung before that branch of parliamentary proceeding. But now, to show the notoriety of those practices, which were equally shameful to the character of the House, and a just complaint among the people, he would relate that very anecdote which the House, from a consciousness of its own virtue, had refused to let him mention before. It was a fact which took place in the progress of that Highgate chapel job. He was counsel for the bill. The proceedings in the committee resembled more an investigation of a committee under the Grenville act. The committee sat from ten till the meeting of the House daily—examinations were met by cross-examinations—there were objections taken which were again replied to-all forms of argument were resorted to in turn. He had never seen business more regularly, zealously, or effectually performed. His hon. and learned friend Warren was in favour of the bill, which was about to be rejected, not by jobbing in votes—the opponents of the bill were determined not to solicit one, but—by main strength—by the absolute goodness of the cause. They had sixteen votes out of twenty gentlemen who had uniformly attended the committee. At that instant, when victory was sure, as they all thought, the other committee-rooms were ransacked and swept; down came twenty new members, who had never heard one word of the proceedings, and overwhelmed the sixteen who had prepared their minds, by tedious examination, to reject the bill. The good sense of the House fortunately prevailed at last, and the bill was rejected. He wished to say a word or two more on this subject. It was a well-known principle of our constitution, that persons on a jury should not determine on the rights of private property, without fully examining the claims of the parties. The members of that House, however, did so without hesitation. They allowed themselves to be influenced, not by justice, but by favour and affection. The very men who would shudder at the notion of so conducting themselves on a jury, would, in a committee-room of that House, decide ignorantly, shamelessly, and without compunction. To him it appeared, that that was a much greater evil than allowing a member who had an interest in a bill to vote upon it in the House. Nor, indeed, was he quite sure that the latter proposition was strictly legal. The members of the House of Commons represented the interests of all their constitueents, and their own too; and he was not prepared to say, that they had not a right to vote upon every question brought before the House. But, on the other point, there could be no doubt whatever. He had no objection to any hon. member's voting in a committee on a private bill; but then it ought to be in consequence of his having made up his mind upon the evidence and argument; it ought to be because he thought the bill should or should not pass, but not because A or B requested him to vote so or so. But, if hon. members who were interested in private measures were to be disqualified from voting upon them, why should the disqualification stop there? Why should a lord of the Admiralty be permitted to vote on the motion of the hon. member for Newcastle, to reduce the number of the board? Why should borough owners be allowed to vote against parliamentary reform? Why should those who fatten on the public purse be allowed to vote against economy? Why should persons in place and office, be permitted to vote, year after year, against the motion of the hon. member for Wareham, for abolishing the salt duties, the abolition of which might certainly tend to prevent them from having "salt to their porridge?" He trusted, therefore, that those who were desirous to prevent interested individuals from voting on private bills, would have the virtue to go a step further, and endeavour to prevent interested individuals from voting on public measures.

Mr. Baring

agreed with much that had fallen from his learned friend. Every man must be shocked at the manner in which private business was conducted in that House. It was unworthy of a civilized country. The success of a private bill depended, not on its merits, but on the interest by which it was supported or opposed. That was notorious. Canvassing was the mode resorted to by the friends and enemies of a private bill; and evidence and argument were overborne by activity and numbers. How would any gentleman who was about to serve on a jury, receive a request from a friend that he would favour him in any particular cause? Would he not resent it as a serious insult? Yet, in the much more important cases that were determined by committees of the House of Commons, solicitations of that nature were looked upon as mere matters of course. For his own part, he had never voted on a private bill until he had examined the question, and made himself well acquainted with it. This, however, was any thing but the general practice. "We are only doing what is done by others," was the apology with which hon. gentlemen tranquillised their consciences. So convinced was he of the partiality and injustice evinced by committees on private bills, that rather than leave private business in the state in which it was, he would consent to remove it out of the House. No other tribunal could be so decidedly objectionable. Perhaps the evil might be diminished by ballotting, as in the case of election committees; giving the committee so appointed the power of adding to their number members whose local knowledge might render their assistance advantageous. At all events, he was for limiting the right of voting in committees to those members who had heard the argument and the evidence. For, whatever levity might be exhibited by those hon. members who came down merely to vote in committees on private bills, he was sure they would be deterred from voting against the justice of the case, if they previously rendered themselves masters of its merits. With regard to the House itself, he certainly thought they had a right to expect that any hon. member who had a direct interest in a private bill before them should, as a man of honour, avoid voting upon it by a self-challenge. But, to go further, might be productive of much inconvenience.

Colonel Davies

protested against the doctrine which had been advanced with respect to the right of voting When members received instructions from their constituents on any particular measure, were they to be deprived of the power of carrying those instructions into effect? He doubted the right of the House to disqualify any of their members in that mariner. It was true, the House might have come to resolutions of that kind; but how frequently did they, as in the celebrated case of the Middlesex election, regret resolutions by which they in fact disfranchised a portion of the people? At any rate, the prohibition, if agreed to at all, should be complete. To prevent those who had a direct interest in a bill from voting for it, while those who had an indirect interest against a bill were allowed to vote against it, would be at once to stop all private business, and to paralyse the energies of the country.

Mr. Calcraft

allowed, that where a member had a direct interest in a private bill, he ought to abstain from voting upon it; but, further than that, it appeared to him to be difficult to go. He did not well see how canvassing in the committees could be prevented. In every concern between man and man interest and influence must operate; and if hon. members were not fit to be trusted with the private, they must be still less fit to be trusted with the public and more important business of parliament. But really, notwithstanding all that had been said, he had seldom heard any complaint made of the way in which private bills passed through, that House. For, let the committee be as jobbing as it might, the bill came back to the House, and might there be thrown out. Then again, it went to the other House of parliament. Surely, let the conduct of committees be as criminal as it had been declared to be, there were sufficient checks upon it. Besides, if any bill, when passed, was found to be impolitic or injurious, nothing was more easy than to propose its repeal: this was the course which he proposed on a former occasion, when he found a bill injurious in its operation. What did the objections amount to, but to this—that, while the whole of the great public business of the nation was to remain in the hands of the House of Commons, its members were to be declared unfit to manage its private and less important matters? If this was in reality the case, in God's name, let them go about their business, and leave it to the country to return more fit and proper representatives! He had often had occasion to find fault with the decisions of that House, but not upon the disposal of private bills. Besides, the temptation to corruption was not a tenth part so great upon private as upon public transactions. It would be idle, therefore, to remove the private business to another tribunal, while the great public questions were left to the management of those whose liability to corruption made that removal necessary.

Mr. Bright

agreed that it would be wrong to allow business of this nature to be decided by any other tribunal. But he was not of opinion, that the private business of that House was conducted with perfect purity. That he must deny. Decisions were very often made by persons who knew nothing about the business on which they voted. This showed that the private business was not carried on in such a way as to give satisfaction to the country and the suitor. The hon. gentleman said, that if any injustice was done, parties might come to the House and have the obnoxious bill repealed. This was not altogether so certain; besides, they should not lose sight of the expense which it entailed upon the aggrieved parties. The hon. colonel had said, "What are we to do? we are sent here by our constituents, and are bound to vote in support of their interests." He agreed with the gallant officer, that being sent there, they were bound to do their duty; they were bound to attend to the interests of their constituents in preference to their own; and when a member found that the being a shareholder would prevent his doing his duty, he ought to give up his shares and attend to the interests of those constituents. This was the course which he would advise; for he was decidedly of opinion, that no member who had a direct interest in a private bill ought to vote upon it. There were, in his view of the subject, many ways of checking the evil; for instance, the vote by ballot, and also by reducing the number of the committee. He hoped the hon. member for Aberdeen would introduce some measure upon the subject.

Mr. Hume

said, that he intended on Friday to propose an inquiry as to how far the custom of parliament went to disqualify those directly interested from voting on private bills. For himself, he had no hesitation in stating, that the practice of the House would be found such as to preclude the necessity of any new enactment on the subject. There was, how- ever, another point of great importance, and that was, how far those interested in opposing such bills were entitled to vote against them.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, that the practice alluded to, however theoretically bad, was found to be productive of little practical injury. There could be little difficulty in coming to a decision upon the first point; but there would be great difficulty in preventing those who had an indirect interest either way from voting on such occasions. Last year a committee recommended a vote by ballot, and various other remedies; but he thought the best way would be, to leave it to the honourable feelings of the House; for no member could hesitate what course to adopt, when he found his interests opposed to his honour. He had received letters, some of which he had then in his pocket, upon the subject of private bills, which, if published, would, if he might so express himself, blow those bills out of the House; and it would depend upon circumstances, whether he should or should not detail some of them to the House. It was to him astonishing, that agents should so far forget the feelings of men as to lend themselves to such applications.

The petition was laid on the table.