HC Deb 15 March 1827 vol 16 cc1187-98
Lord Althorp

rose, in pursuance of notice, to move for the appointment of a select committee to consider the mode of taking the Poll at County Elections. The subject was one of great importance. The enormous expense frequently attendant on county elections was a grievance which required the intervention of the legislature. It appeared to him, that the best time for bringing forward a question of this kind, tending to produce a material alteration in the law of elections, must beat as early a period as possible after the meeting of a new parliament; because, among other reasons, opportunities would be thereby given, before the occurrence of a general election, to try, by experiment, the merits of the alteration. Not only was the expense frequently attendant on a county election a great grievance, but no man who was returned after a contested election for a county could feel secure of his seat; for it was impossible that any man who had to conduct a contested election for a county, could do so without violating what was called the Treating act. It was quite impossible that freeholders-residing at a distance from the place of election could be expected to repair thither without some succour. He was aware that some committees of that House had decided, that such a practice was no infringement of the law; but every body knew that other committees had decided differently. In one of the Middlesex elections Mr. Mainwaring lost his seat, because he had provided meat and drink, for the voters in his interest. Although it was proved that the provision was not an extravagant one, yet the House decided that Mr. Mainwaring had been guilty of infringing the Treating act, and he lost his election accordingly. It ought to be recollected that it was not merely the losing candidate who might petition the House under such circumstances; as it generally happened that he participated in the violation of the law, he could scarcely himself object to the violation by another; but it was in the power of any freeholder, from vexatious motives, to take such a proceeding. Such was the case in the election for Norfolk in 1806, between Mr. Coke and Mr. Windham. This consideration, added to that of the expense, deterred many persons, otherwise well qualified, from coming forward, and offering themselves as candidates for counties. The freeholders were thus prevented from having a full choice. For instance, although at the last general election for the county of York, the candidates never went to the poll, the expenses were so enormous, that it cost the gentlemen elected an expense, among them, of not less than from a hundred and twenty to a hundred and fifty-thousand pounds. If the election had been carried on for fifteen days, half a million of money would not have covered the expense attendant upon it. It had been said, that the members for counties should be men of high rank and large property. No doubt. But from the experience which they had all had of county elections no one could suppose that the great body of the freeholders of a county would choose any man for their representative, unless he possessed rank and property which, entitled him to. that distinction. But why should that principle be carried to so enormous an extent, as to render it impracticable for any man to stand, for the county of York for instance, unless he was prepared to spend 100,000l.? The effect was, that the freeholders of Yorkshire were deprived of a choice. Of course it could not be supposed that he meant any thing offensive to his noble friend (lord Milton), or his noble friend's colleagues; but it was well known that at the last election for Yorkshire, a gentleman, who, at the nomination, had a large show of hands in his favour, and yet who, although possessed of large property, and he believed a highly respectable man, felt it prudent to decline offering himself. In proportion, too, to the largeness of a county was the choice of the freeholders limited; because in proportion to the largeness of a county was the expense of an election. He thought therefore, that he had shown sufficient grounds for the appointment of a committee of inquiry, to see if some remedy could not be devised for the evil. He was aware, however, that it was incumbent on him to state his own ideas of what would be the proper mode of proceeding. He proposed, then, that the poll should be taken in different parts of the county: This was by no means a new suggestion. On a reference to the Journals, it would be found that in the year 1774, the House agreed to a resolution "that in some counties, by reason of their great extent, the freeholders could not come to the poll without a great expense; and therefore it was the opinion of the House, that the poll should be taken at such different places as might' be appointed." It appeared, therefore, that the opinion of the House had been declared to be in favour of the principle of his proposition. In consequence of the resolution to which he had just adverted, a bill had been brought in, read a first and second time, and committed. What became of it afterwards he did not know; 'but he supposed that it was lost, in consequence of some difficulty in the details. He was aware that that difficulty must exist to a great degree. If he had not been aware of that; if he had made up his mind as to the details of the proposed measure, it would have been his duty to have moved for leave to bring; in a bill, instead of for the appointment of a committee. But he should move for the appointment of a committee, in the hope that, if the House thought it desirable to take the poll in separate districts, in the committee the difficulty of the details might be got over. This was a hope which he very confidently entertained; for, when a committee of that House applied themselves seriously to obviate difficulty in the details of any measure, they almost always succeeded. But, at the same time, he did not wish the House to grant a committee, unless it agreed to the principle of taking the poll in different parts of the county; because otherwise the labours of the committee would be mere loss of time. One objection which had frequently been made to the principle of his proposition was, that it tended to destroy that kind of feeling of warmth and interest, which it was desirable to preserve among the freeholders at an election. He thought, however, that that objection might be obviated by the attendance of the freeholders at the place and time of nomination, and also at the chairing at the end of the election. He readily admitted that it was not undesirable to keep up the feeling of the electors throughout the whole poll; but the enormous expense of the present system prevented them from giving their votes, unless the candidate laid out a sum of money which no man should be called upon to expend. This was, therefore, a counterbalancing consideration. There were two modes in which, as it appeared to him, the object might be effected. The one was by having officers inferior to the sheriff, appointed to receive the votes in the various districts; the other was, by instructing the sheriff to make the circuit of the county to collect the votes. He was not prepared to say to which of these modes of effecting the object there would be fewer, objections in detail; but either of them would be a great improvement on the present system. He would not trouble the House further. He had stated the grievance, and the expediency of some remedy. If he were allowed the committee, he was satisfied that the difficulty of the details would be got over. The noble lord concluded by moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed, to take into consideration the mode of taking the poll at county elections, and to report to the House whether any means can be taken to diminish the expenses incurred by candidates at such elections."

Mr. Batley

, from the hinder ministerial benches supported the noble lord's pro- position, and wished it to be extended to city and borough elections.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he concurred in the observation made by the hon. member, and fully agreed with him that the evil which the noble lord's proposition was intended to meet, existed as forcibly in city and borough elections as in elections for counties. He thought, however, that the abuse, as far as it related to cities or to boroughs, was capable of being altered much more easily than by the method proposed. The poll, he thought, was kept open much longer than was necessary, and by closing it at a proper period, and by some few regulations with respect to out-voters, the evil complained of would be got rid of in city and borough elections. He had the honour to represent a populous city, the voters of which amounted to not less than four thousand; yet the poll was always over, to every intent and purpose of ascertaining the election, in one day. This was effected without difficulty, by means of arrangements which were made a considerable time ago, and upon which no man whatever attempted to infringe. The election always commenced at nine in the morning, and by seven or eight that same day it was decided. Knowing, by experience, that this could be done with the utmost simplicity, and that when once established, the advantage was acknowledged to be so great, that all parties concurred in it to the extent that no man wished to oppose it, he did not see why the same arrangement could not be made in other cities. If the principle could be applied to county elections, he trusted that the committee for, which the noble lord had moved, would be able to devise some means to check the evil complained of.

Colonel Maberly

said, that the hon. member for Norwich had stated, that he represented a city containing four thousand voters, and that, nevertheless, the poll was always concluded in one day. Now he was in the unfortunate situation of representing a town in which there were not half that number of voters, and he never recollected an election in which the poll was concluded in less than eight or nine days; and, in one instance, it had been kept open for fourteen. Every gentleman who represented a popular borough would be obliged to the noble lord if he would make his motion include boroughs as well as counties.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, it was by no means his wish to oppose his noble friend's proposition; and he did not think that an insuperable objection existed to assimilating elections for boroughs to those for counties. He did not feel any great anxiety to effect the change for which the noble lord and many honourable members appeared so desirous; but he was not prepared to state any objection to the measure before the House. He was against taking the poll in different parts of a county at the same time. He thought it was of great advantage that the candidates at an election should be badgered a certain number of days by the electors. Now, if the poll were to be taken in different places at the same time, the candidate would be deprived of the opportunity of answering the questions of the freeholders in those parts where he could not be personally present, and such an arrangement would tend to separate the candidate from that intercourse which ought to subsist between him and his constituents. It was most desirable that his intercourse should be preserved; and, although it might, perhaps, in some instances, occasion perplexities to the candidate, yet that inconvenience was amply repaid by the honour of the seat, if he obtained it, or if he failed, by the glory of having honourably contested it. He should not like to see the candidate removed from the liability to answer the questions of his constituents. However, he had no objection to the appointment of a committee.

Lord Milton

said, that those gentlemen who wished to engraft upon the measure any further inquiries into borough elections, would not attain their object, but rather defeat the beneficial proposition before the House. He had always observed, that when questions were brought before, that House, unconnected with borough elections, gentlemen were particularly desirous to confine them to the single object proposed. With reference to what had fallen from the chancellor of the Exchequer, he entirely agreed with him about badgering candidates. It had a very desirable effect; but he was by no means certain that the benefit would be lost by the noble lord's proposition of taking votes at different places at the same time. In the county which he represented, it was the practice of the candidates to visit the great towns, and there show themselves before the electors. He should be sorry to see the practice done away with, as it brought each candidate fairly before his electors. But at the poll, it was not until the latter end of the day that a candidate made his appearance before any great body of the people. But were it otherwise, he rather apprehended that such assemblies consisted principally of persons who were not electors, or who had previously decided for whom they came to vote. These were not the description of persons, before whom it could possibly be advantageous to bring any candidate. What, moreover, was the scrutiny into a candidate's pretension which such an assembly could institute. It appeared to him, that any benefit of exposing representatives to the inquiry of their constituents must be derived from those interviews before the electors to which he had alluded. In smaller counties, perhaps, the case might be different. In large counties, no man came to the county town without having previously made up his mind as to his vote. He was of opinion, that great benefit would accrue from the adoption of a new system. He had himself, some years back, brought in a bill to a certain extent analogous to the measure now contemplated; namely; a bill for taking the poll in the three ridings of the county of York at once. He believed that at present, in the county of Hampshire, the principle was acted upon, and that when the poll, for what might be called the mainland, was concluded, that for the Isle of Wight commenced. He was not sure whether the proposed measure could be adopted beneficially in the smaller counties; but with the exception of four or five of the counties of England, he was satisfied that it would be generally advantageous.

Sir J. Wrottesley

said, that there were two points of extreme importance. The first, the time during which the poll was to be taken; and the other, whether the poll should be adjourned from one district to another, or be proceeded with in various hundreds, at the same time. He thought if the measure should be found practicable at all (which, however, he doubted), it would be better that the poll should be taken first in one hundred, and that the sheriff should then proceed to others, leaving proper persons to take the votes which might come in after his departure. But it would also be material to determine where the poll was to be taken first, as the knowledge of a majority in favour of a particular candidate in one hundred, might affect the votes in another. He would vote for the committee without pledging himself to any particular line of conduct when the report should be received.

Mr. Dickinson

supported the motion; which he thought would be productive of much good. He considered the Treating act a subject of great importance, to which it would be right to direct the attention of the committee.

Mr. Wynn

said, he felt much indebted to the noble lord, for the attempt he was making to remedy an evil, the existence of which had been pretty generally experienced: and thought the principle of the measure, and the effort towards removing an existing difficulty, highly deserving the support of the House. It was with a view to further the proposed measure, and not for the purpose of interposing any obstacle in the way of its future adoption, that he should take the liberty to advert to some details, the particulars of which had been alluded to, in the course of the discussion. Allusion had been made to the present state of what was termed the Treating act; and it was said, that the provisions of that statute were deserving the attention of the House. Now, he did not mean to deny that the act might be well worthy of consideration; but he thought this was not the time for entering into a discussion on that subject; the rather, as it might be impossible to enter into it without interfering, more or less, with various of the Irish county elections, which were, or might hereafter become, subjects of inquiry before a committee. They should not say what was, or what was not, the sense of the Treating act, or enter into a consideration of the alterations in it, which might, perhaps, subsequently appear to be necessary, until the cases which came before the House, under the provisions of the existing law, had been first decided. He approved of the noble lord's intention, to confine the inquiries of the committee, in the first instance, to the best mode of taking county polls, because he had invariably remarked, that intrusting too many subjects to one committee, was the surest way to defeat all. Prior to the act of 1784, the law of election was very different from what it now was. That act had been passed in consequence of the Westminster election having been spun out to forty days; and, under its provi- sions, in future elections, the period of polling was limited to fifteen days. It had s been conceived, that any election might be put an end to within that period. But a practice had arisen of keeping open the poll for the fifteen days, if voters could be got to come forward at the rate of one in an hour; this was done at a great expense, and to the infinite vexation of the candidate who had a most decided majority, and which it was known could not be disturbed with any final effect upon the election. This was a very injurious and reprehensible practice. In the county of Essex, on one occasion, five thousand voters had polled on the same day. The assessment on land formed another and unnecessary delay in county elections. It was made a criterion of votes, which became every day more false and troublesome. In the redemption of the land-tax, and transfer of the property on which such tax had been redeemed, much of the [difficulty existed. The sheriff had to decide the question, though he could not subpoena witnesses, and had not the least shadow of power to make the proper inquiries, or to ascertain the facts upon which his reception or rejection of the votes was to depend. The getting rid of this would be a very great improvement in the mode of conducting county elections. He wished not only to get rid of the practice of requiring proof of the assessment of land-tax, but of any other species of tax. He had an impression, that it would be better that the poll, if carried on in different parts of a county, should be carried on contemporaneously, than at different times. But he felt that this was a question which required the experience of those who were more versed in county politics than it was his fortune to be, although he had had the honour to represent a county for many years.

Sir T. Lethbridge

thought the House and the country under considerable obligations, to the noble lord, for the manner in which he had brought forward his proposition. He, as the House well knew, had been pretty well badgered, but did not shrink from it. He did not think the badgering would be got rid of by the proposition of the noble lord. There would still be the nomination, on which occasion, the freeholders would have an opportunity of examining the candidates. The proposition of the noble lord went to open a wider door for more numerous county candidates, in the same proportion is the expense of a contest would be diminished. In this view of the case, it vas one of great importance. He trusted that the committee would make a report, which would lead to a great practical improvement in the mode of conducting county elections.

Lord Nugent

was glad that his noble friend had confined his attention, and limited the object which he sought to accomplish, to an improvement in the conduct of county elections. Such a course was the more desirable, as it afforded a greater chance of success to his noble friend, who, no doubt, would have enough to do to carry his proposed measure into effect. If any attempt was made to extend the system to city elections, with a view to limiting the expense, the proposal would be met in limine by an obstacle of considerable moment. One great difficulty would be, to ascertain the number of non-resident freemen. Shortly before the recess, he had himself given notice of a motion, for returns of the members of non-resident freemen, who were qualified to vote at elections for cities; and he still thought it would not be so difficult to make out such returns as had been represented. It was his intention to revive his motion on the subject, with a view, perhaps, to a registration of their names and numbers. In Ireland, a registration took place, by which the creation of freemen during elections was prevented—an object, as the House must perceive, of primary utility.

Lord Lowther

said, he had had his share of contested elections. He thought, if the noble lord's proposition was calculated to diminish expense in one way it would have the effect of increasing it in another. When the poll was taken at different places, barristers and agents must be employed by the candidates at each; so that what might be saved in one way, would be lost in another. His right hon. friend had made some remarks relative to the land-tax, in which he could not concur with him; seeing that all his experience on the subject led him to conclude, that proofs relative to the redemption of the land-tax were easily produced.

Sir W. W. Wynn

was of opinion, that the difficulties at present attendant on a legal proof of the redemption of the land-tax were such as to prevent numbers of qualified voters from coming to the poll.

Mr. C. N. Pallmer

congratulated the House upon the auspicious spirit which had manifested itself in this first session of a new parliament. Many beneficial measures had been originated, and the one now under consideration he looked upon as tending to promote most usefully the unrestricted exercise of the elective franchise. He entirely concurred with the right hon. gentleman, that nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the present system of the land-tax; and he hoped that something would be done for its amendment. It was highly desirable that the expense of elections should be diminished, and that the elector should be able to give his vote unbiassed, and free from the influence of any pecuniary consideration. The expenses of contested elections, as they were at present conducted, were calculated for no other propose than that of giving to wealth alone a preponderance, which was by no means desirable.

Lord Althorp

said, he felt bound to acknowledge the kind manner in which his proposition had been received by the House. It had been his object not to overload his plan with an attempt to comprehend within its provisions, any regulation relative to cities or boroughs. Indeed, the details of it were, for the most part, inapplicable to such places. His system would not apply to the out-voters in cities. His object was, to throw the counties open to a greater number of candidates, by diminishing the expense consequent upon congregating voters together in one place, during a protracted poll. The effect of the present mode of conducting elections was, to prevent many persons from standing, who would otherwise become candidates. Every day, the redemption of the land-tax was becoming a criterion less to be relied on at elections. A registration of voters would be desirable; not such as that adopted in Ireland, where the electors were allowed to register their own votes, but some mode similar to that by which the lists of persons qualified to serve as jurors were made out in this country. The increased expense likely to be occasioned by the employment of additional agents, would not be so great as some hon. members seemed to suppose; certainly not great enough to counterbalance the saving in other respects. It was well known that agents were at present employed in the various places where voters resided, for the purpose of canvassing them for the respective candidates; so that no additional expense worth speaking of would be occasioned by retaining these agents during the polls at each place. The expense connected with the Carriage of voters to the place of election, and then-maintenance there, was that part of the candidates' disbursements which was the most considerable. These items, he was informed, constituted three-fourths of the expense of the Yorkshire election.

The motion was agreed to, and a committee appointed.