HC Deb 11 March 1828 vol 18 cc1102-15
Mr. Sykes

said, it would be recollected, that he had, at the end of the last parliament, endeavoured to draw the attention of the House to the state of the unrepresented freeholders in certain counties corporate, and that he had brought in a bill which was read a first time, declaratory of what he conceived to be the law upon the subject. He found that there were many districts, separated from the counties to which they belonged, in which the freeholders had no right to vote at the elections of knights of the shire; and to remedy that anomaly in the law, he had introduced a bill which was opposed by an hon. and learned gentleman opposite, on two distinct and separate grounds. The first respected the right of the freeholders to vote at elections for their respective counties. It was urged that though he had come to the conclusion, that they had such right, he was not therefore entitled to call upon the House to come to the same conclusion without investigation. The second respected the particular time at which his bill was introduced. It was at that time, as he had said before, near the end of the parliament, and some counties were already engaged in severe election contests. It was said, that it would be unfair to pass a bill at such a time, inasmuch as it would alter the number of votes in all the contested counties throughout the kingdom. He had yielded to the weight of these two arguments, and had deferred his bill to a future period, determining, however, to bring it forward again on the earliest opportunity. During the interval which had elapsed since the dissolution of the last parliament, he had turned the matter over and over again in his mind; and he was now of opinion, that the best shape in. which he could bring it again under the notice of parliament would be, by moving for a committee to inquire into the state of the representation in these counties corporate. He thought that such a mode of proceeding would obviate the objection which had previously been made to his motion, on the ground that he was taking the House by surprise. His attention had been drawn to the subject by a knowledge of the situation in which many of the inhabitants of the town which he had the honour to represent, were placed. King- ton-upon-Hull was a town and county of itself. It was separated from the county of York, to which it originally belonged, by a charter granted to it in the time of Henry 6th. It contained a great number of freeholders, some of whom were gentlemen of independent fortune, and others were extensively connected with the town and trade of the port of Hull. Now these persons had no right, in virtue of their freeholds, to vote at all; neither at Hull, at elections of burgesses for that town, nor at York at elections of knights of the shire for the county. What was true with respect to the freeholders of the town and county of Hull, was, he believed true, with respect to the freeholders of the corporate counties. The number of such counties was he believed nineteen. He would state their names from a list which he had drawn up. He had excluded London from it, because, from its great commercial importance, and from the: various privileges which it had received at: different periods of its history, it stood on very different grounds from any of the other corporate counties. It was, besides, a county by prescription, the origin of its separation from the county of Middlesex not having yet been discovered in any records. Bristol was made a county by a charter of Edward 3rd.; York was separated from the county which bore its name by a charter of Richard 2nd.; Lincoln, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Norwich, by charter of Henry 4th.; Coventry, Kingston-upon-Hull, Nottingham, and Southampton, by charters of Henry 6th.; Canterbury and Haverfordwest by charters of Edward 4th.; Glocester by charter of Richard 3rd.; Chester by charter of Henry 7th.; Exeter by charter of Henry 8th., Lichfield by charter of Mary; Poole by charter of Elizabeth; and Carmarthen and Worcester by charters of James 1st. Now, of these places the freeholders of Bristol, Haverfordwest, Lichfield, Norwich, Nottingham, and Exeter, vote for the town and city members in conjunction with the burgesses and citizens; and the freeholders of Canterbury, Poole, Southampton, and ainsty of York, vote at the election of knights for the parent county. He had therefore no complaint to make with respect to the freeholders in those places, as his intention was not to give to any parties a double right, but only to secure to those who had it not, a single right of voting in virtue of their freeholds. —He must now observe, that in the remaining nine of the nineteen corporate counties which he had mentioned, the freeholders were at present entirely unrepresented; and the question was, first, whether such a state of things ought in justice and expediency to be continued? and secondly, whether it existed as of right at present? On the first part of the question he would say but little, because he was convinced that even those who most strenuously advocated the propriety of things remaining as they now were, and who from principle were the most inimical to every species of reform, would admit that it was a gross injustice, that the freeholders of those places should not be put upon the same footing as the freeholders of the county of which those places topographically formed part. In the course of the inquiries which he had made, he had satisfied himself that the right yet remained in the freeholders of those corporate counties to vote at the elections of knights of the parent shire. He made that assertion upon authority of lord Coke; he made it also upon authority of cases adjudged in that House. He laid it down, upon those combined authorities, as undeniable law, that though the king, by his royal prerogative, might separate any city or town from the county to which it originally belonged, and so give them new franchises, it laid not within the royal prerogative to take away from the inhabitant freeholders of that city or town any franchises which they held previously. He repeated, on the authority of lord Coke, that such was the law. In the fourth Institute, p. 46, he used this language—"If the king doth newly incorporate an ancient borough, which sent burgesses to the parliament, and granteth that certain selected burgesses shall make election of the burgesses of parliament, where all the burgesses elected before, this charter taketh not away the election of the other burgesses." Now, what was true with regard to the electors of a borough, must also be true with regard to the electors of a county. Lord Coke then proceeded to state the reason why it was true. "And so if a city hath power to make ordinances they cannot make an ordinance that a less number shall elect burgesses for the parliament than made the election before; for free elections of members of the high court of parliament are pro bono publico, and not to be compared to other cases of elections of mayors, bailiffs, &c. of corpora- tions, &c." Lord Coke then said, that if the king could not take away a franchise, neither could he exempt from a liability. Now, the exercise of the elective franchise was a liability to which every freeholder was exposed; it was a duty thrown on him by the constitution, from which, in case of emergency, the law itself would not allow him to shrink. On this point, the language of lord Coke was most explicit: —"The king cannot grant a charter of exemption to any man to be freed from the election of knight, citizen, or burgesse of the parliament, (as he may do of some inferior office or places) because the election of them ought to be free, and his attendance is for the service of the whole realme, and for the benefit of the king and his people, and the whole commonwealth hath an interest therein."—He therefore contended, on the best authority, that though the king might separate a city or town from the county by royal grant, he could not by that grant take away from the inhabitants any immunities which they had previously possessed. Besides lord Coke, there were other authorities still more binding. The law had been decided by an election committee of the House, in a case which was to be found in Glanville's Reports, p. 54. It appeared from the statement of that learned reporter, that in the time of James 1st. a question had arisen as to the right of election for the borough of Chippenham. In ancient times all the burgesses in that borough shared in the elective franchise; but queen Mary, who gave a charter to that borough, confined the possession of it to a select number. The legality of that limitation came to be argued before a committee of the House, and he would read one sentence which deserved their particular attention: it was as follows.—"Secondly, it was conceived by the committee, and so reported to the House and there resolved, that the said charter of queen Mary, did not, nor could alter the form and right of election for burgesses to the parliament within the said borough from the course there before, time out of mind, held; so as if, before this said charter, all the burgesses and inhabitants called freemen, or any other larger number of qualified persons, had already used and ought of right to make the election, then the charter, although it may incorporate this town, which was not incorporate before, or may alter the name or form of the corporation there, in matters concerning only themselves and their own government, rights, and privileges, yet it cannot alter and abridge the general freedom and form of elections for burgesses to the parliament, wherein, as aforesaid, the commonwealth is interested." He would desire hon. members to draw, if they could, a distinction between the cases of these burgesses, and that of the unrepresented freeholders in separate corporate counties. If the grant of the Crown could not alter and abridge the general freedom and form of elections for burgesses to the parliament, pari ratione it could not limit the right of the freeholders to vote at elections for knights of the shire. Such was the result of his inquiry into this subject: he had himself taken considerable pains in investigating it; but he should be unjust to Mr. Uvedale Corbett, if he did not acknowledge that he had found, in his very excellent work on the elective franchise, nearly every thing which he wanted. He proposed, therefore, the appointment of a committee, to inquire into the state of the elective franchise in separate counties, with the view of relieving freeholders from the injuries which they sustained under the present circumstances. He trusted the House would not be alarmed at this inquiry, as being connected with the question of reform. This was not of a character to frighten even the most timorous opponent of reform. There was nothing sweeping or dangerous about it, as it only contemplated the removal of an admitted evil existing in particular places; and it had been always stated by those who were opposed to the general question of reform, that where a blot or blemish could be pointed out, they would assist in applying a particular remedy to the particular grievance. The hon. gentleman concluded by moving, "That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the state of the Elective Franchise, in the several districts and cities corporate within England and Wales."

Mr. F. Lewis

began by remarking, that the hon. gentleman had stated, that on the previous occasion when he had brought this question before parliament, he had withdrawn it at his (Mr. F. L.'s) suggestion. He now rose to offer another suggestion to the hon. gentleman, which was, that he should change the course he was following, and, instead of asking for a committee of inquiry, at once bring in a bill. In his opinion, the volume referred to by the hon. gentleman, and which was written by one of the council employed in the Coventry case, had completely exhausted the subject. He advised the hon. gentleman to bring in a bill, because, in that shape, the question could be discussed with far more advantage than it could be in a committee. An inquiry would introduce the consideration of the entire state of the representation; and neither the House nor the country should imagine, if they recognized the principle laid down by the hon. gentleman, that they could find any mode of shutting the door which that inquiry would open into all the reasons of state propriety, and convenience, on which the representation of this country was founded. He had quoted Mr. Pox before, and he would quote him again in reference to this question. Mr. Fox had said, that the rights of election in this country were like a house built at various times, which, though an odd piece of patchwork, which could not be explained on any system of architecture, was yet far better and more convenient than if devised as a whole on any regular plan. The condition of the freeholders in the towns and cities corporate was strictly consonant with other parts of the representative system. If the hon. gentleman took these peculiarities one by one, and examined charter by charter, he would probably learn the reason why each was as he would now find it. In the city of London, for example, no freeholder had the right of voting for the county of Middlesex, simply because the rights and privileges of the city of London, on account of its great importance, had been always such, that it had never formed an integral part of the county of Middlesex. In every case the circumstances varied. In the cities latest erected, the rights of the freeholders had been preserved. In the instance of York, the freeholder had no right to vote either for the city or the county; but in the ainsty, he retained his privilege for the county. In the case of the city of Carmarthen, the freeholders had no right to vote for the city as freeholders, but they were entitled if they chose to become freemen, and as such they voted for the city. In many instances the right of voting had been settled by a solemn decision of that House, and in some —Coventry for example—it had been determined by an act of Parliament. Why were these rights now to be subject to revi- sion more than any other part of the elective franchise of the country? He should, therefore, feel it his duty to oppose the motion.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, the right hon. gentleman had entirely mistaken the object and views of his hon. friend. The committee proposed, were not to inquire into the expediency of setting up new rights, but only of restoring those which could be proved to have existed formerly, and which, under particular circumstances, had lapsed. The elective franchise of a freeholder was not a personal right, vested in the individual himself; it belonged to the freehold, and if that was sold, the right of voting was transferred with the property. In the town he had the honour of representing, there was a numerous body of freeholders who could vote neither for the town of Newcastle nor the county of Northumberland. In the time of Henry 4th, the town was separated into a county of itself. This was a privilege and distinction granted to it for the part it had taken in some commotions in the north, in which it had been particularly useful to the government. Originally, the town of Newcastle sent joint-representatives with the county of Northumberland. The first notice was in the 22nd of Edward 1st, when the representatives were styled the members for the united counties of Northumberland and Newcastle-on-Tyne. In three or four years the representation was divided, and Newcastle sent burgesses to parliament under its own charter, and the county sent its members also. The power given by the charter to elect representatives, included all free burgesses, whether by birth or servitude: but it did not, therefore, take away the right of voting from the freeholder. The right hon. gentleman had objected to the committee because he apprehended it would bring on a general inquiry into the whole state of the representation; but his hon. friend had stated that it would be confined to the particular question before the House, and was not to be extended to any general views of reform. If it was the opinion of the House, that his hon. friend should bring in a bill, he had no doubt he would agree to it, but the arguments of the right hon. gentleman as to that point, were singularly inconsistent; for while he had recommended a bill, he had proved the impossibility of entering into the discussion of every circumstance, unless in a committee. He there- fore thought, that the mode of bringing the question to a more certain decision, would be to adopt the proposition of his hon. friend.

Colonel Sibthorpe

, though an enemy to abstract reform, yet thought that, where a clear case of deprivation of undoubted right, which once existed, had been shown, the House was bound to give it their closest attention. His own opinion was, that in most of the cases of local jurisdiction, a barter was made between the burgesses and the Crown, by which the former were released from the expense of sending representatives to parliament. However, as this might not have been the case with all the places named by the hon. mover, it was but fair to go into an inquiry on the subject.

Lord Lowther

said, that in this discussion one very material point had been overlooked. The information he possessed had been obtained on the investigation of the Warwick case before the House. The objection taken to the admission of the freeholders of Coventry to the right of voting for the county, was, that they could not show that the city of Coventry had ever belonged to the county of Warwick; and that the freeholders of Coventry were, therefore, not subject to the usual duties which devolved on all freeholders of the county. They never served on juries; they were not liable to serve the office of sheriff; nor did they share the expenses of the county, nor pay towards the county rates. If they had lost the franchise on the one hand, they had gained many advantages by it on the other; and he believed, if the question were put to these freeholders in The different parts of the country, whether they would prefer to have the elective franchise restored to them with the ordinary duties that accompanied it, they would decline it. The customs were very different in every one of these instances; and he was convinced, that if the gift of the franchise were offered them, with the attendant responsibilities, they would consider it rather a burthen than a benefit.

The Attorney-general

agreed entirely with his noble friend. The hon. mover proposed to examine each individual case on its own grounds; but this general proposition was founded on a fallacy. The freeholder whose property was situated in a city or town which was a county in itself, could not, in certain cases, vote for the city or town where he was not a freeman, nor for the county, because his estates did not form a part of it. His answer to the hon. mover was the same as that given by his right hon. friend and the noble lord. He had no doubt, that in every instance these cases had originated in some bargain or agreement made between the Crown and the parties, by which the town was taken out of the jurisdiction of the county, and had other immunities and privileges conferred upon it. In the case of Coventry, the freeholders in that city paid no county rates; they served no county offices; they had courts and sheriffs of their own, and other advantages. The charters of the Crown were not acts of violence, bereaving these freeholders of their rights, but compacts made with the town, by which they were carried out of the county, in order to enjoy advantages of their own. The measure proposed by his hon. friend would go to destroy that part of the charters; and if a bill were passed giving the freeholders votes, it would in effect put an end to the bargain made with the Crown. He had no doubt, that if the question were put to those freeholders, they would gladly remain without the elective franchise, rather than take it with the burthens belonging to it. In the instance of Coventry, the people had strongly resisted the introduction of the authority of the county magistrates. They preferred their own courts and magistrates, because they were more conversant with the matters that came before them. It would be impossible, if the right of voting was given to these freeholders, to draw the line of demarcation in regulating the rates and other demands that fell upon property. He apprehended that it would not be very palatable to the city of London, if, in order that the freeholders should obtain votes for the county of Middlesex, the city was obliged to give up some of to privileges. He admitted that there might be a number of persons living immediately adjoining to the very walls of a borough town, and yet deprived of the right of voting either for that borough or for the county; but he contended, that this anomaly proceeded from the inhabitants of the borough having entered into a compact with those who gave them their charter,—a compact by which they sacrificed certain rights which they possessed, for the purpose of obtaining others which they then considered more advantageous to their interests. Conceiving, therefore, that this anomaly was capable of a full explanation upon that view of the case, and knowing that, if they attempted to reform one anomaly of that description they might proceed to reform another, and so on without end, he felt himself bound to object to the motion. He could not divest himself of the opinion, that when these boroughs received their charters, their inhabitants had a choice left to them of remaining freeholders of the county, or becoming members of the corporation; and as the system of their representation whether founded upon compact or choice, was of so ancient a date, and any attempt to produce changes was likely to produce inconvenience and confusion, he saw no good end to be answered by the proposed inquiry.

Sir J. Newport

denied that any such compact was ever entered into, as that upon which the Attorney-general founded his objections to the present motion. He knew that it was not so in Ireland; and he thought it could not be so in England. In the cities of Cork, Dublin, and Limerick, many persons, who could not give a vote for the members of the corporation, had yet the power to vote for the members of the county, and he believed that a similar practice prevailed in England. Where, then, was the compact to which the learned gentleman alluded, and upon which he had laid so much stress? Admitting, however, all that the learned gentleman had asserted upon the subject of these anomalies, he would say to the House, if there be an anomaly producing injury and injustice to a portion of the people, then it is your duty to remove it; rather than to say, like the learned gentleman, "I know this may be an anomaly, and that those persons are deprived of their rights, but we cannot cure the evil, lest it compel us to prosecute more extended inquiries into the state of the representation."

Mr. Wynn

confessed, that the line which, in some cases, separated the inhabitants of borough towns, and deprived them of the right of voting, was an anomaly in our representative system; but then, was not the whole of our system of representation an anomaly? He was disposed to take much the same view of the situation of these persons as his learned friend (the Attorney-general), and to consider that much of the evil had been produced by the lapse of time, and the change of circumstances. In many of the charters of these borough towns, it was expressly provided, that the power of the sheriff was not to extend beyond certain bounds for the purpose of levying any rates or charges, some of these charges being for the payment of wages to the members who served for the boroughs. In many instances, however, the very right of voting, itself, had been lost from non-usage. Much of this loss, too, had been created, or rather sanctioned by the decisions of parliament, during the first fifteen years after the accession of the House of Hanover. During that time, a variety of decisions were pronounced by the House upon election petitions, each decision overturning the foregoing, until it was scarcely known in whom the right of voting remained. This system, however, which might be characterized as one of the most profligate upon the record of parliamentary transactions was at length abolished by the act which made the last decision of the House in every case the final decision. This salutary act at once checked the system of meddling with the representation of a borough under the authority of the minister, and settled the nature of the representation. After some observations upon the difference between the right of a voter in a borough which depended upon peculiar circumstances and upon the payment of certain rates and charges, and the right of a voter for the county, which depended upon the soil, the right hon. gentleman went on to observe, that we must look at these things in the abstract, and draw our opinions of the representation, not from a few isolated circumstances or particular anomalies, but from its working as a whole. It ought not to be forgotten, as he had observed before, that the system was a succession of anomalies, and that these anomalies, in effect, constituted the strength, beauty, and fitness of the whole plan of representation. He believed that, if the united wisdom of man was concentred in the attempt to devise a form of representation, no system could be laid down which would produce such beneficial results to the country, or so completely answer all the objects of a representative government. He knew, when he said this, that there were many wise and able men who differed with him in opinion; but such was his firm conviction, and as long as he had a seat in that House, he would resist any attempt to remedy what were considered special or particular evils, at the risk of endangering the system itself. The members of that House might not all be returned by the voice of the inhabitants of the particular place from which they were sent; but there was scarcely any man not represented in some way or other; and it ought not to be forgotten, that every member, when once returned to that House, was not the representative of any particular place, or of the opinion of any set of men, but of the whole body of the people. If they were once to allow such an inquiry to commence, they could not stop, but must go on to such an extent that he did not know what city or borough could be called safe.

Mr. Alderman Wood

, although a member for the city of London, returned by the livery, felt it due to justice to say, that there was a very large number of freeholders in the city—men of great property —who were unfairly excluded from the privilege of voting for a representative in parliament. It might be unpopular to say so, but he thought this a grievance of which those persons had good reason to complain. It was indeed a matter worthy of consideration, whether, if the franchise could not be conferred upon these persons there ought not to be a fifth representative of the city, in order that the freeholders might have the means of procuring an organ of their opinion. If the honourable member (Mr. Sykes) succeeded in procuring a committee to inquire into the state of corporate towns, he thought the subject might be submitted to its attention.

Mr. Secretary Peel

confessed himself not reconciled to the proposition of the hon. member, by what had fallen from the worthy alderman. The worthy alderman proposed to go into the committee with an intention of subverting the right of the livery of London [No, no, from alderman Wood]. Why, the charter of the city of London was given to the livery upon, grounds with which the possession of a freehold had no concern, and yet the worthy alderman said, he was prepared to go into an inquiry as to the propriety of invading those rights, by giving the freeholders the power of voting for their freeholds.

Alderman Wood

said, across the table, that he wished to give them a power of voting either for a member of the city of London or any where else.

Mr. Secretary Peel

observed, that the proposition of the worthy alderman was not bettered by this. Would he give the freeholders of London a power of voting on behalf of their freehold for some distant county in which they had no land at all. The worthy alderman's proposition of a fifth member for London was, however, rather inconvenient; for it was open to great doubts whether the number of representatives of any place could be increased, without making a corresponding increase in the number of representatives for Scotland and Ireland. But if it were unjust that the freeholders of London should be excluded from the right of voting, why were individuals possessed of great personal property excluded from that privilege in counties? There was, in truth, no injustice in excluding freeholders from voting in cities, as the right to vote had never attached to the freehold. Much had been said of the anomalies of their representative system; but it was to those anomalies that it owed its superiority over that of France and other countries. There was not an individual in the land who might not render himself capable of enjoying the elective franchise, and the poorest man could acquire that right by servitude. So far, then, from those anomalies being blots upon the system, he considered them as productive of great advantage. There were a great number of cases at present, where freeholders resident within the limits of corporate jurisdiction possessed the right of voting for members of counties. In London and Middlesex the freeholders possessed no such right; but it was enjoyed by freeholders resident in Canterbury, Poole, and Southampton. In Bristol, Haverford-west, Norwich, and Exeter, the resident freeholders could vote at the election of the knights burgesses. In one part of the city of York, the freeholders could neither vote for the members for the county nor the city, and in another district they possessed the right of voting at the election of the county members. He believed there were nineteen or twenty places, where the freeholders could neither vote for the city nor for the county members. It appeared to him, therefore, under all the circumstances, that the best way to determine the right of the freeholders would be, to bring in a bill affirming the right in any particular place, and then it would be in the power of the House, by a much more limited inquiry, to ascertain upon what that right was founded. In a question so complicated as that of the right of voting, vested in the inhabitants of chartered towns, differing so much as they did from each other in the nature of exercising that right, he thought it would be better to bring in local bills applying to each particular case; and then the House would have a fair opportunity of deciding upon the merits of each separate case, and of ascertaining whether the inhabitants were subjected to any and what burthens from their peculiar situation. For these reasons, he thought it would be better to withdraw the present proposition.

Mr. Sykes

, in reply, observed, that his motion had been quite misunderstood. The object of it was not to confer a right, but to declare one which at present existed. The learned Attorney-general had maintained, without adducing a single proof in support of the assertion, that when the charters were granted by the Crown, a compact was entered into, by which the freeholders forfeited their right to vote. Now, he would contend that it was not competent for the Crown to enter into a compact to deprive any party of a legal right. In point of fact, the right never could be taken away; it was in existence to the present moment, and his motion was merely declaratory of its existence. Seeing, however, that the sense of the House was rather against the motion, he begged leave to withdraw it.

The motion was accordingly withdrawn; and Mr. Sykes gave notice, that on Thursday se'nnight he would introduce a bill affirming the right of voting to the freeholders of Hull.