HC Deb 14 February 1833 vol 15 cc645-55
Lord Althorp

said, that in rising to bring forward the Motion, of which he had given notice on the subject of corporations, he felt it due to the House to take the opportunity to state why he did not persevere at present in the other Motion of which he had also given notice for this evening, for giving Corporations to the new boroughs in England. He had that measure in such a state of preparation that he could have advantageously brought it before the House, but circumstances which had since come to his knowledge with regard to those boroughs showed him that it would be desirable to make some alterations in the details of the Bill, and he therefore thought it right to postpone it for the present, in order to afford more time for its preparation. But it appeared to him that the sooner the House took the other measure—that which regarded ex- isting Corporations, and which he had now risen to propose, into its consideration, the better. The complaints of the malversations of Corporations were constantly and universally heard; and it was therefore undoubtedly a proper time for the House to take the subject into consideration, for the purpose of applying a remedy. Indeed, the Corporation system, or rather the present state of it, was in such ill odour throughout the kingdom, that in many towns, where the effects of that system ought to be beneficial, it was, on the contrary, the fruitful source of disputes, quarrels, enmity, and confusion; so much so, that it had frequently happened in cases of riots in those towns that the members of Corporations, when they had sought to put down the tumult, had been refused the assistance of the inhabitants. It was, therefore, certainly most desirable that such alterations should be made in the system as to make the Corporations more popular, and render them more useful. It would certainly have been expedient on the present occasion, as in his opinion it was desirable on all occasions, for his Majesty's Government themselves to have introduced a Bill on the subject upon their own responsibility; but when they looked at the vast mass of details—at the variety and complication of circumstances connected with the case, and at the large amount of property involved in the result, they felt that it would be impossible for them, without the authority of a parliamentary inquiry, to devise the means which should be most fitting to meet the object in view. It was thought best, therefore, to submit the subject to the consideration of a Committee of that House. He was afraid that the duties of that Committee would be very laborious; and he was also afraid, that those duties would be not only laborious, but tedious and protracted. But there was no other mode of proceeding which would afford to his Majesty's Government the authority necessary for any proceedings which it might subsequently be found desirable to adopt. He did not expect that any opposition would be made to his Motion. He was fully confident that he should have the general concurrence of the House when he said that such an inquiry was very desirable. So, as it was not his custom to detain the House at any length, when he did not anticipate any difference of opinion, he would not do so on the present occasion. There was one other point, however, on which he would say a word; and that was the nomination of the Committee. As there were so many hon. Gentlemen in the House who were connected with borough towns, and who therefore felt considerable interest in the question, it might happen that some of them would experience disappointment at not finding themselves named as Members of the Committee. But they must be aware that the number of the Committee must necessarily be limited. At the same time, it was his intention to propose a larger Committee than was usual on such occasions, because, as the labours of the Committee were to be directed to the examination of Corporations, not only in England and Wales, but also in Ireland, it was, of course, desirable that a just portion of it should consist of Members from that country. He would state the grounds why, on the best consideration which they had been able to give the subject, his Majesty's Government thought the Corporations of Ireland ought to be included in the inquiry. In the first place, it was exceedingly desirable that the institutions of the two countries should be assimilated as much as possible. And, as a general rule, whatever it was proper and right to do with respect to a corporate body in England and Wales, it would be proper and right to do with respect to a corporate body in Ireland. There was also another practical reason which induced him to unite the inquiry into the state of the Corporations in the two countries in one. He was apprehensive that, if the Committee on the Irish Corporations were to consist simply of hon. Gentlemen from Ireland, the eager feelings and the great differences which existed on political points might make their decision considered not quite so impartial and satisfactory as the decision of a Committee formed of the members of the United Kingdom. He would trespass on the House no longer, but move "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the state of the Municipal Corporations in England, Wales, and Ireland; and to report if any, and what abuses existed in them, and what measures, in their opinion, it would be most expedient to adopt, with a view to the correction of those abuses."

Mr. Wallace

said, that as a member for the largest sea-port town in Scotland, he must—

Lord Althorp

begged the hon. Member's pardon for a moment. He had omitted to state the reason why Scotland had not been comprehended in his proposition. That reason was, that his learned friend, the Lord Advocate, had a Bill in preparation for the correction of abuses in the Corporations of Scotland.

Mr. Wallace

again rose, as a Member for the largest sea-port town in Scotland, to express his regret that Scotland was not placed in this proposition on the same footing as England. Was not the Union with Scotland as complete as the Union with Ireland? Why, then, should the former be treated differently from the latter? He was one of those who entertained a great respect for the learned Lord Advocate; but he entertained a still greater for the wishes of his constituents; and he was sure that he spoke the sentiments, not only of the inhabitants of the great sea-port which he had the honour to represent, but of the whole of Scotland, when he declared, that the Municipal Institutions of Scotland contained greater abuses than those of England and Ireland united. He trusted that the Reformed Parliament would investigate abuses of every description. Among other matters which might be beneficially inquired into, was the office of the Lord Advocate himself; and he thought it might be shown, that in many respects it was an office utterly inconsistent with the present state of society. In the meanwhile, he earnestly intreated the learned Lord to consider the expediency of giving to Scotland the same advantages as it was proposed to give to Ireland, with reference to this most momentous question. Many advantages would result from the investigation by a Committee, of the manner in which these Corporations were constituted; and he repeated his conviction, that the iniquities of the Scotch Corporations would be found to exceed the iniquities of the English, Welsh, and Irish Corporations united. If the hon. and learned Member could succeed in prevailing upon the noble Lord to include Ireland in his proposition, he earnestly hoped that the noble Lord would yield to a similar solicitation, and include Scotland in it. He would move to substitute the words, "Great Britain," for the words, "England and Wales."

Mr. Hume

seconded the Amendment, and confirmed the declaration of his hon. friend, that the abuses in the Corporations of Scotland were as great and as much the subjects of general reprehension as those of Ireland. But as the learned Lord Advocate was present, it would be satisfactory if that learned Lord would state why Scotland had been omitted in the Motion before the House. His hon. friend, the member for Greenock, might then, if he chose to do so, withdraw his Amendment, or give notice of a distinct motion on the subject for a future day.

The Lord Advocate

expressed his extreme regret, that, owing to an accident, he had not been in his place when the hon. member for Greenock made his observations. If, in answer to those observations, he had to state that the omission of Scotland in the Motion of his noble friend arose from the slightest doubt of the propriety or necessity of extending Corporation Reform to a country in which it was so eminently required, he should feel that he had a very difficult task to perform. But when he stated that the reason why Scotland was not included in his noble friend's proposition was directly the reverse of that supposed by the hon. member for Greenock, he trusted that he should set himself right with the hon. Gentleman and with the House. That reason was, that his Majesty's Government were prepared with a measure to reform the Corporations of Scotland in a more direct and simple manner than was proposed with respect to the Corporations of England and Ireland; with regard to which the tedious but indispensable investigation of a Committee was previously requisite. A similar Committee was not necessary with reference to Scotland, because, for forty years past, the state of the Corporations of that country had been constantly under discussion. Lord Archibald Hamilton had moved inquiries upon the subject year after year, and in consequence of the Reports of his Committees, and the information which those Reports contained, a great variety of publications had been generally circulated; so that the materials for rectifying the abuses in the Corporations of Scotland were abundant and mature; and the delay which would be occasioned by the inquiries of a Committee was rendered unnecessary. There was another reason why the Corporations of Scotland should be treated separately from the Corporations of England and Ireland. No three or four of the Corporations in England and Ireland laboured under the same grievance. Different abuses prevailed in different Corporations, for the rectification of which no one measure would be sufficient. But in Scotland the case was otherwise. In the year 1469, the whole of the liberties and privileges of the burgesses of Scotland were struck to the ground. By the arbitrary statute of that year, the Corporations of Scotland, which had before been liberal, were, by the single, unequivocal, and baneful influence of that Act, converted into rotten Corporations; the nomination of the Magistrates and Councils was declared at one sweep to be no longer fit to be intrusted to the burgesses—to "simple men," as they were termed; and it was enacted by that sweeping statute, that in time to come, the existing Magistrates should nominate their successors. The course, therefore, with respect to Scotland was plain and simple. All that it would be necessary to do was to repeal the statute to which he had alluded, and provide at once a popular constituency. That remedy had been prepared; it was very simple, and would be comprehended in a single, direct, and, as he hoped, satisfactory enactment. He trusted, therefore, that he had shown the hon. member for Greenock, and the House, that he had not been deficient in his duty, and that he had not shown any indifference to the correction of the abuses which existed in the Corporation of Scotland. There was no necessity for an inquiry into the state of the Scottish boroughs; no documents were required to establish the existence of the undeniable and flagrant evils of the present system of self-election; and he had already given notice of his intention to move, on the 12th of March, for leave to bring in a bill to provide a remedy for those evils.

Mr. Hume,

after the satisfactory explanation of the learned Lord, recommended his hon. friend to withdraw his Amendment. Having been a member for four years, of a Committee on the subject, he could assure his hon. friend that the abuses of the Royal Burghs in Scotland had been very fully disclosed. He hoped the learned Lord would not fail to comprehend all the Corporations in this measure.

Mr. Wallace

was willing to withdraw his Amendment, but hoped the learned Lord would include all the Corporations of Scotland in his Bill.

The Lord Advocate

replied that it was his purpose to do so.

Amendment withdrawn.

Sir Richard Vyvyan

said, it had been truly stated, in the Speech from the Throne, that there never was a time at which subjects of greater importance than those which were about to be considered bad been brought before Parliament. But he could not recollect any reference in that Speech to the state of Municipal Corporations. And when subjects of such vast importance were about to undergo consideration, he could not see the expediency of burthening the House further with a question of so much magnitude as that under discussion. He thought it would have been much better if his Majesty's Government had adopted on this occasion the course which they took with the Reform Bill, and if, without submitting the question to the previous consideration of a Committee, they had themselves originated a measure. The excitement of the recent election must have left the great majority of the Members of that House prejudiced either for or against Corporations; and he did not think it fair or just that they should constitute a tribunal to inquire into the subject. He would offer no remarks on the policy of the measure, or on the great responsibility which his Majesty's Government took upon themselves in proposing the abolition of all the chartered Corporations of the country. He did not stand there as the advocate for Corporations; but he must say, that there could not be a more unfit tribunal to try the merits of those Corporations than the Committee proposed by the noble Lord.

Sir Matthew White Ridley

observed, that his hon. friend, although he decried the formation of a Committee of that House to inquire into the state of Corporations, had not stated the means by which an investigation of the subject might more advantageously be entered into. After the statement of the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that, in the selection of the Committee, he should name those Members who were most likely to come to a just and impartial decision, he thought his hon. friend's observations rather hard, and a little unfair, especially at a time when he did not know who the members of the Committee were to be. Connected as he (Sir M. W. Ridley) was with a large Corporation, he could not avoid expressing on their part their entire readiness to meet the fullest inquiry, either by that House, or by any other tribunal, into the state of the management of their Corporation. He was aware that great dissatisfaction existed in some quarters on the subject; and that the hon. member for Middlesex had been intrusted with a statement of the causes of that dissatisfaction; but as his hon. friend had, wisely in his (Sir M. W. Ridley's) opinion, forborne from making that statement on the present occasion, he would forbear from stating the facts that would be an answer to it; and would satisfy himself with the declaration that the Corporation of Newcastle courted rather than shunned the fullest inquiry.

Mr. O'Connell

could not but express the great pleasure he felt, that the Members for Scotland were so satisfied at the determination of his Majesty's Government to rectify the abuses in the Corporations of that country; and he likewise felt it his duty to express as distinctly the very great gratification which it gave him, that the noble Lord had included the Corporations of Ireland in his Motion. He was the more gratified with the circumstance, because he was sure that it would not be a mock, but a real inquiry, entered into with a determination to correct the abuses which might be detected. He knew of no greater grievance in Ireland than the existence of the Corporations in question, in their present shape; and nothing could be more satisfactory to the people of Ireland than the approaching certainty that that grievance would be redressed. For above a century there had been a daily increasing dissatisfaction, occasioned by the monopoly of authority on the one hand, and the entire destitution of it on the other. Perhaps he ought to be more slow in the expression of his approbation, after the remark made the other evening by the hon. Baronet (the member for Westminster), that because he (Mr. O'Connell) approved of the measures proposed by his Majesty's Ministers with respect to the temporalities of the Church in Ireland, he ought therefore not to disapprove of the measures which they were about to propose, of an unconstitutional character. He would not hesitate, however, to say, that the proposition which had been made that evening by the noble Lord, would be hailed with great satisfaction in Ireland; and so it ought to be. If the noble Lord had thought proper to enter into details on the subject of the abuses in the Corporations of England, he (Mr. O'Connell) should have been prepared to enter into similar details on the subject of the enormous abuses in the Corporations of Ireland. But he would follow the noble Lord's example, and refrain from such a statement. He might say generally, however, that the state of the Corporations in Ireland was such as to show the vilest ingratitude on the part of England in former days to that country. By statutes passed immediately after the Restoration, Catholics were excluded from the Corporations, although those excluded Catholics had fought and bled in the cause of the House of Stuart. He hoped that better days had arrived; and that the people of Ireland would never have to complain of similar ingratitude. The duties of the proposed Committee would undoubtedly be very laborious. It would be necessary that the Committee should manifest two qualities—impartiality, and a determination to do their work. In the latter point they would find cordial assistance from the Irish Members. The state of the Corporations in Ireland was very notorious. The Corporation of Cork, a close Corporation, had at its disposal 70,000l. a-year; the Corporation of Dublin, a close and narrow Corporation, had at its disposal, (including the expenses of the Police) 50,000l. a-year. So close and narrow was the latter, that although for forty years the law had permitted Roman Catholics to be members of the Corporation of Dublin, not a single member had been admitted into that Corporation. He considered the proposition of the noble Lord, however, as a good omen of the future.

Mr. Roche

expressed his approbation of the Motion, which he thought would give great satisfaction in Ireland.

Sir Francis Burdett,

in explanation of the observation in his speech to which the hon. and learned member for Dublin had alluded, said, that what he had stated was, that the measure respecting the Church of Ireland, proposed by his Majesty's Ministers, evinced so good a feeling towards that country, that the hon. and learned Gentleman might feel assured, that whatever powers might be intrusted to those Ministers, would be in no way abused. So far from defending an infringement of constitutional rights, his (Sir Francis Burdett's) argument was, that the powers to be granted to them would enable them to maintain constitutional rights. With a Reformed Parliament such increased powers might be looked at with the less jealousy, because they would be exercised under a real and a heavy responsibility.

Mr. Barron,

expressed his gratification at this subject being taken up by the Government. He complained that vast sums of money had been embezzled by the Corporation of Waterford, which ought to have been devoted to the service of the people.

Mr. Tooke

stated, that in 1831, ten members only of the Corporation of Truro returned two Gentlemen to represent Truro in the House of Commons, and who had been so returned for two or three previous Parliaments, but as conclusive evidence of such representation, or rather misrepresentation, he might add that no sooner had the Reform Bill passed, than the nominated Members for Truro vanished from the annals of that borough, and from the knowledge of its numerous and enlightened population. The Corporation of Truro resembled, from its composition, rather a collegiate than a municipal body, as it chiefly consisted of the three learned faculties of law, physic, and divinity, comprising, within its maximum number of twenty-four, a large majority of lawyers, clergymen, and medical men, the remainder being chiefly composed of half-pay naval officers, with a very small proportion, if any, of individuals engaged in the peculiar trade of Truro, or, therefore, having a common interest with its inhabitants; in proof of which he might state, that only one member of the Corporation favoured him with his vote, while his numerical strength there was and is, as 10,200. He also expressed his firm conviction, that in the event of all the corporate officers being for the future elected by the inhabitants, such election should be that of ballot, as the best, if not the only protection from the consequences of that system of intimidation and corrupt influence which was eminently exercised at the recent election, and which practices would no doubt be resorted to with continued and increased effect, as particularly applicable, to controlling, for the purposes of party and power, the choice of resident Magistrates by resident electors.

Mr. Peter

was satisfied that the inquiry now proposed by the Government would be taken as an earnest of their increased attachment to the rights of the people, and of their determination to strengthen and perpetuate the best interests of the country.

Mr. Christmas

only wished to defend the Corporation of Waterford from the unfounded charges brought against it by his hon. colleague. He was sure that his hon. colleague was quite misinformed.

Mr. Barron

had alluded to what occurred sixty or seventy years since, when be charged that Corporation with embezzlement.

Sir Robert Inglis

asked whether the Committee would have the power to call for Charters?

Lord Althorp

replied they would have no more power than any other Committee.

Committee appointed.