HC Deb 27 June 1832 vol 13 cc1069-79
Mr. Baring

said, that the Bill now stood for being committed, but, if the noble Lord (Althorp) objected to the principle of the Bill, it would be a great convenience that he should state his objections now, and that the sense of the House should be taken at this stage. If the noble Lord did not intend to offer any objection to the principle, but only to the details of the measure, he (Mr. Baring) should not trouble the House with any observations at present, but should content himself with moving that the Bill be committed.

Lord Althorp

said, he did object to the principle of the Bill.

Mr. Baring

understood that the noble Lord objected to the principle, and he would, therefore, address himself to that. With reference to the qualification, all he desired was, that a Member of Parliament should have a competency to render him independent. He did not mean to contend that Members of Parliament should possess very great wealth; but, he certainly was of opinion, that those who held such a responsible situation, ought, at least, to possess an independent competency. It was immaterial, perhaps, whether the qualification consisted of landed property, or any other description of property. While, however, he did not argue that Members of Parliament should be extremely rich, he would, on the other hand, guard against the admission of Members possessing only negative property—individuals encumbered with difficulties and debts which effectually destroyed their independence. His object was not, as had been asserted, to keep individuals of moderate property out of Parliament, but to prevent the admission of men who were so encumbered that they could not be considered independent. Such was the whole effect of this Bill, as it respected the interests of rich and poor. Whether the present qualification ought to be maintained was another question, which this Bill did not touch; it merely prevented men of ruined fortune from finding a shelter in that House from their creditors. His proposal to legislate on this subject was founded on a variety of cases, in which great scandal had arisen as regarded that House, and great injury as respected individuals. Why should such a privilege as the freedom of arrest be granted to 658 persons, merely because they happened to be Members of that House? The Bill gave no right to arrest a Member upon mesne process, or upon anything short of a final judgment of a competent Court. Under those circumstances, no Member could be lightly arrested, or, in fact, arrested at all, unless he laboured under an inability to keep his engagements. He moved that the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill be read.

Lord Althorp

said, he rose to state his objections. He had been inclined, in the first instance, to support the Bill, but, upon further consideration, he thought that the disadvantage which would arise from this measure would more than counterbalance any advantage it would produce. He admitted that there were some cases in which Members had abused their privileges, to the scandal of the House, and the injury of individuals. The number of such cases, however, was very small. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baring) had argued the case too much, as if the freedom from arrest was a personal privilege, merely for the benefit of Members, whereas it was part and parcel of those privileges conferred on the Members of that House for the benefit of the public. It seldom happened that persons took shelter in that House to preserve themselves from arrest, and he thought it would occur more rarely in future, for, when men had large constituencies to canvass, they must necessarily expose themselves to arrest, if previously embarrassed in circumtances, as their canvass would make their condition known. Under all the circumstances, he felt it his duty to meet the motion by a direct negative.

Mr. Hunt

contended, that the Bill would be an act of injustice towards the whole people of England. If the people could not pay their debts, and certain Lords could not pay their debts, neither the one nor the other should be a Member of either House of Parliament. All Members of both Houses should pay their debts, or else they should not be eligible to seats in this House or the other. He thought this measure should be extended to the Members of the House of Peers as well as of the House of Commons; and if the Bill went into Committee he should, certainly, move the introduction of a clause to that effect. It was not the Members for large constituencies who had ever crept into that House for the purpose of defrauding their creditors—it was only the members for rotten boroughs. [Cries of "No, no."] He said yes, yes. Who ever heard of a man seeking to be returned for a large constituency for the purpose of screening himself from arrest? Mr. Swan had been returned for Penrhyn, and Mr. Christie Burton for Beverley. Neither of these individuals could appear when elected, for they were both in prison at the time.

Mr. Hume

said, there could be no doubt that a certain qualification would be necessary, and indeed ought to be necessary, for Members of Parliament. He thought this Bill would interfere too much with the choice of the electors, who would in future be all honest men if hon. Members would abstain from bribing them. There were not many cases of bankrupt Members, and they would not get in a second time. As to the case of the banker at Bath, he should have thought that that individual might have been proceeded against criminally. It was, certainly, a deliberate fraud on the part of the hon. Member, and could not be too severely reprobated. Many years back, when things were different to what they now were, this Bill might have been useful. At present he hoped for a remedy for the abuses it proposed to correct from other sources.

Mr. Praed

supported the measure. He could scarcely conceive that propositions so adequately sustained by proof, and recommendations advanced in a spirit of so much wisdom and moderation, could fail of support in a House ever so hostile to the hon. Member for Thetford (Mr. Baring) and the principles which he advocated. It was said that there were inconveniencies in this Bill as applied to the constituency, and hardships as applied to the Members. The hardships which attached to the Member were, that the measure would tend to render him more liable to his creditors than others of his Majesty's subjects. But they were not legislating for Members of Parliament, but for the country; and the Member would know well what were the hardships attaching to the situation his ambition aspired to when he came forward as a candidate. The consequences would be fully before him, and his choice subject only to his own determination. Under these circumstances he could not concur with those hon. Members who were disposed to make the hardships which this Bill would inflict a reason for their opposition. Then, as to the constituency, and the inconveniencies to which they would be subject under the enactments of this measure, he would ask how it was possible that a man borne down by the weight of debt, with a mind ill at ease, harassed, and subject to constant annoyances of clamorous creditors, how could such a man give his time or his faculties to the duties of his station in that House? Then upon the point of honesty. Was a needy man, coming into that House, more likely to act an honest part because he was needy? They were told, that by such a Bill as this men of great talents would be lost to the House; that Fox, Pitt, and Sheridan never would have found their way within those walls. If a man, insolvent in circumstances, dull of intellect, ignorant, of indolent and profligate habits, were pointed out to him as a Member of that House, he should say he would be of little use to his constituents. If, on the other hand, were pointed out to him a man of great and commanding powers of mind, and of commendable industry, subject to the harassing demands of creditors, he should say they could not show him a man likely to be more dangerous to the public as a Member of that House. An hon. Gentleman opposite said that there were few instances of Members being sued to judgment and execution. But the hon. Gentleman omitted to calculate how many creditors were deterred from prosecuting their claims, from the known difficulties which the privileges of Parliament threw in their way. The hon. member for Preston would not vote for the Bill, because it did not extend to the House of Peers. He saw no reason for rejecting the amendment of their own House, because they did not, at the same time, include the amendment of the other. The hon. member for Middlesex told them, that some years ago Parliament would have done well to have adopted such a measure as this. Did the honourable Member not know that, some years ago, a Bill upon the identical principle of this Bill was introduced and became the law of the land? He knew no reason why a trader should be subject to a rule, as regarded his sitting in that House, to which a gentleman should not be subject. He had read in a book containing an account of the first French Revolution, that even in the Legislative Assembly of that country and of those times a Bill of this kind was introduced. It had the sanction of Montesquieu, and was supported by Mirabeau. There was no Gatton nor Sarum in that country. A leading orator stated of that bill, that it was "the rallying point of honest men against rascals." He would scarcely venture to use such strong language with reference to he measure under the consideration of the House, but it had his cordial support.

Mr. Sheil

observed, that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baring) said, he did not wish to affect land by this Bill; but, according to his reading of it, the provisions of this Bill would affect land; for judgments would reach land by the ordinary processes of law. His great objection to this measure was, that it was partial in its operation. It did not reach Peers and Bishops who were not in the Upper House. He knew a Bishop in his own country who was in the habit of setting his creditors at defiance, and against whom there had been thirty or forty judgments in a Term, to satisfy which the Bishop took care there should be no property of any description.

Sir Henry Willoughby

said—The hon. member for Preston, the hon. member for the county of Middlesex, and my hon. and learned friend, the member for Louth, have not, as it appears to me, sufficiently adverted to the obvious distinctions between the cases of a Member of this House and a Peer of Parliament on the subject of privilege of freedom from arrest. Whether it may not be wise that the Legislature should interfere in both cases I now say nothing; but I contend that the hon. member for Thetford has exercised a wise and sound discretion in limiting the provisions of this Bill to Members of this House. There is little analogy between the two cases, which are not pari materià. In the case of the Peer the privilege is personal, not parliamentary; it is by prescription and by custom, as stated in a statute of Henry 6th, like the exemption from serving on Juries. The Peer is made to consult and assist the Crown in all emergencies; he must obey the King's sum- mons; he is a member of the highest Court of Judicature, and one of a deliberative assembly of the highest class. You cannot divest him of his Peerage. Peer he is; Peer he must be. Whereas, in the case of a Member of this House, under this Bill, if he refuses to obey the final process of the law he ceases to be a Member. Then, and then only, the provisions will attach, and he will be treated as any other subject of the Crown. The policy of this Bill is not new. It has been constantly acted upon since the Revolution of 1688. The 12th and 13th Wm. 3rd 2, 3 Anne, 10 Geo. 2nd, 10 Geo. 3rd, and three other Acts of this reign, have gradually confined within a narrower and more confined circle the privilege of freedom from arrest. Why? Because in practice it had been found that this privilege was incompatible with the free and impartial administration of justice, harassing and vexatious to the King's subjects, and causing much delay in suits. Such is the language of the preambles of the Acts I have quoted. I call the attention of hon. Members to these statements who press arguments against the policy of that Bill. I am aware a great constitutional principle is involved. Every hon. Member is entitled within these walls to liberty of body and liberty of mind, not for his own benefit, but for that of his constituents. Sir, this Bill treats this principle with wisdom and caution. So long as a Member is within these walls he retains his privilege; but, if he places himself in a systematic opposition to the law—if he will not satisfy legal claims—in fact, if he will not perform duties imposed on all the subjects of the King, then, after due notice and plenty of time, his constituents will be called upon to elect another Representative under the provisions of this Bill. The noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) has urged that few are the cases of abuse. I concur, but draw a different conclusion. Why allow the faults of a few to inflict a wound upon the whole House, and, perhaps, lessen the confidence of the people in its proceedings? Therefore, firmly persuaded that private integrity is no bad basis for public character, and that, if it is nice to frame constituencies which are sound and healthy, the same necessity exists as to the reputation of those who are to be elected and to become Representatives, I give my support to the proposal for a Committee, where difficulties of detail may be got rid of.

Lord John Russell

agreed with the hon. Member who had last addressed the House, that the grounds for including the Members of the other branch of the Legislature within the operation of this Bill, were very different from those which were applicable to the Members of that House. It might be true that, in the House of Lords, there were Peers who were not able to pay their debts; but no one would ever think of saving that they were made Peers with a view to save them from the consequences which they would experience, if they were not in Parliament, in Case they did not pay their debts. He was satisfied of this, although he admitted that, during the last forty years, Peers might have been created, not from any honourable motives, nay, even from corrupt motives; for instance, if they supported an extravagant expenditure for the war in this House, they might have been promoted to the House of Peers. He did not think, however, that a case had ever occurred of a man being made a Peer for the purpose of preventing the payment of his debts. He could not look upon this question merely as a matter between debtor and creditor. He could only regard it as a trust reposed in the Members of the Legislature, not for their own advantage, but for the benefit of their constituents and the public; and, although this privilege might be abused by persons holding seats in this House, and might be exercised for their own convenience, considerable trouble would be occasioned if it were abrogated. At present, the House of Commons possessed and exercised the power of judging in certain cases, and in bankruptcy expelled the bankrupt, preventing him from being re-elected for a period. The object of the expulsion, in cases of bankruptcy was, that persons might not obtain seats in this House, with a view to avoid difficulties. It was well known that men of high talent and integrity were often careless in pecuniary matters, and it would be injudicious to exclude such persons from this House, because they might, on particular occasions, be unable to pay all their debts. Such power might be made a most improper use of, as hardly anything could be so objectionable as making the private affairs of Members the subject of party discussion. By this measure, the constituents were not called upon to consider the integrity and talents of a person they wished to represent them in this House, but had only to look to his pecuniary circumstances. He was sure the mere circumstance of being liable to expulsion, if a man was not able to pay his debts at the moment, would debar many, who would be most excellent Members of Parliament, from obtaining seats in the House. The Bill also raised the question, whether the circumstance of being in debt was an offence of greater magnitude than other acts overlooked by Parliament? The House must recollect a case which showed the impolicy of raising the question of the expulsion of Members. About the middle of the last century, a Member was expelled for having been guilty of a libel; he was re-elected; and, although he then was not suffered to take his seat, he ultimately triumphed, as the House did not proceed, but ordered the proceedings respecting him to be erased from the Journals. Such was the conduct of the House in the case of a person who had been convicted by a Jury of his country of having been the author of an indecent libel—an offence affecting much more the character of the individual and the character of the Parliament, than the not being able, within a few weeks of the meeting of Parliament, to liquidate his debts. But Parliament acted wisely and prudently in adopting that course; and it would be highly inexpedient to provide a remedy of this nature for the occurrence of that which certainly was only an occasional evil. If persons had availed themselves of the privileges of the House on some few occasions, for the purpose of evading their creditors, that did not justify a measure which might lead to the exclusion of those from the House who would be most useful Members. He was prepared to admit, that some remedy might be necessary to prevent the recurrence of such cases as had been alluded to, but it would be better to stop this Bill altogether, than to proceed to the consideration of details so objectionable as were most of the clauses in this Bill. He was satisfied, if it were persisted in, that it would exclude from the House many persons calculated to be of the most essential service; and that it would become a party engine in the hands of Government, or of a dominant faction.

Sir Richard Vyvyan

said, the noble Lord had inappropriately confounded the expulsion of a Member with the Bill brought in by his hon. friend, the member for Thetford. The real question was, whether persons who were unable to meet their pecuniary engagements should remain Members of that House. He did not think that any fair analogy could be drawn between the state of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. To that observation he thought a sufficient answer had been given by his hon. friend, who said the House of Commons was a representative body, whilst the Peers had no constituents to whom they were accountable. It had been said by the hon. member for Middlesex, that the landed interest had always acted selfishly, and that they passed the Corn laws for their own immediate advantage. As well might it be said, that any Member holding funded property when he voted for the imposition of taxes was thereby voting money to pay himself. The fact was this, that Members, in legislating for the benefit of the country, at the same time often and necessarily promoted their own immediate interest.

Mr. Lennard

also gave his support to the Bill, and said, that any objection to its details might be cured in the Committee. He agreed with Lord Mansfield, that a privilege from arrest, granted to some persons in a country, was an anomaly, and he thought that whatever law applied to other subjects ought also to apply to Members of that House, mid of the House of Peers. He felt that it was impossible but the latter House must feel, when this Bill came before them, that it was partial, inasmuch as it did not include the Peers, and that they would supply the deficiency.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that by going into Committee it would be open to any hon. Member to propose amendments, aid the one just alluded to, as well as others, might be then suggested; but he should rather see any clause relating to Peers come from the other House, because he thought the Members of the House of Lords would naturally feel a jealousy of any interference with their privileges which did not originate with themselves. He must say, that he had not as yet heard any good reason, to show why this enactment should not apply to the Lords as well as to the Commons. We should not exclude men of genius from that House because their carelessness of pecuniary matters might lead them into pecuniary embarrassments, but he doubted very much the independence of such men as were involved in debt. At all events, such cases were exceptions, and the rule would still hold good, that a certain independence of property greatly contributed to the independence of a man's actions. If the Bill should pass through a Committee, he should be then prepared to weigh its inconveniences with its advantages, and he should vote whichever way, in his opinion, the balance lay. One thing he was certain of, and it was this, that the Members of the House of Commons ought to set an example of independence and integrity to the nation at large.

Mr. Bernal

entertained a decided objection to the measure now before the House. He, however, did not deny that the principle of the Bill was just and proper, but, at the same time, he thought that it was not possible, either for a Committee of the whole House, or even a Committee up-stairs, to make it apply equitably to all parties whom its provisions might affect. There were many men, of highly estimable character and eminent talents, who might be involved, through actions of generosity and kindly fellow-feeling, without any discredit to their moral worth, and to exclude such a man, on such grounds, from this House, was going further than he was prepared to go; and he was sure it would be going a length which the hon. member for Thetford did not contemplate on introducing this measure. It was on these grounds, therefore, that he should oppose the Motion for going into Committee on this Bill.

Sir Charles Wetherell

felt great difficulty in drawing the line which it was desirable should be drawn between those who ought, and those who ought not, to be Members of that House; but if he could not do all that he wished, he was disposed to go into Committee, and there do as much as he could. He always thought that there ought to be some test of qualification, and for his own part, he could never give up his opinions for those of the Political Unions. Though he did not know much of Political Unions, he had heard somewhat of their late resolutions, and he believed they were now reversing what had hitherto been the popular opinion. Formerly the popular cry was, that Members of Parliament should not be exempt from arrest for debt; but now the cry was changed, and those who used to call upon the House to see that Members paid their debts, now asserted that the payment of debt was no recommendation. He had even heard that some persons went so far as to assert that the possession of property was a disqualification.

Mr. Sinclair

thought it was the duty of the House to provide for its own respectability, and he, therefore, should support the Bill.

Lord William Lennox

had great pleasure in supporting the Motion of the hon. member for Thetford, after so much had been said of purifying the House of Commons, and he was delighted that it was about to be purified. Was it right, was it consistent, to keep a privilege that might be a disgrace to it? Why should Members of Parliament set their creditors at defiance, and perhaps ruin many hard-working individuals who lived on honest industry; and, even if it was not practically bad, the privilege, or rather the stigma, necessarily attached to it, ought to be removed.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

was not ready to go so far as to declare that any person who should be one month in custody upon an execution, or three months upon mesne process, previous to an election, should thereby be declared ineligible. He should support the proposition for going into Committee, with a view of devising some means for correcting some of the gross abuses which might be practised under the existing law; and, within his own recollection, the most shameful advantages had been taken by Members of the privileges conferred upon them as Representatives of the people.

Mr. Baring

, in reply, wished it to be understood that this measure was not suggested to him by any changes which had lately taken place in the Constitution of Parliament. It was well known to many hon. Members, that he had this measure in contemplation for several years, and he must say, that in his view of the subject of the late changes, he now thought it at least as necessary as ever.

The House divided:—Ayes 69; Noes 50—Majority 19.

Part of the AYES.
Baring, A. Jephson, C. D.
Baring, H. Jermyn, Lord
Best, Hon. W. Kenyon, Hon. L.
Blamire, W. Lefroy, T.
Burrell, Sir Charles Lefroy, A.
Chandos, Marquis of Lennard, T. B.
Colborne, R. Lennox, Lord W.
Cole, A. Lester, B.
Conolly, Colonel Martin, Sir B.
Dawson, G. Mildmay, P.
Denison, W. Pearse, J.
Estcourt, T. Peel, Sir R.
Fane, J. T. Perceval, Colonel
Gilbert, D. Phillips, G. R.
Gordon, W. Porchester, Lord
Goulburn, Rt. Hn. H. Praed, W.
Greene, T. Ross, H.
Harvey, D. W. Rumbold, C. E.
Hayes, Sir E. Sandon, Lord
Herries, J. Scott, H.
Hort, Sir J. W. Shaw, F.
Ingestre, Lord. Sibthorp, Col.
Inglis, Sir R. Sinclair, G.
Thicknesse, R. Willoughby, Sir H.
Thompson, Mr. Ald. Wortley, Hon. J. S.
Vyvyan, Sir R. Wrightson, W.
Wall, B. Wynn, Rt. Hon. C. W.
Wetherell, Sir C.

Order of the Day read.

Mr. Baring moved that the Speaker leave the Chair.

House in Committee.—Amendments agreed to, and House resumed.

Report to be taken into consideration on a future day.