HC Deb 22 May 1833 vol 18 cc36-46
Mr. Tooke

, in conformity with a notice some time since given, moved for the appointment of a Select Committee, to consider of such Amendments in the Reform Act as, with reference to the contradictory decisions it had given rise to, might improve the machinery and facilitate the future working of that measure. The limit which he had prescribed to himself as to the nature of the Amendments being altogether confined to mere practical improvements in the working machinery of the Bill, without at all infringing on its principle, would divest the subject of any peculiar claim to the attention of Members, but that they were all interested, whatever might be their party or political views, in being spared at any future election much unnecessary trouble uncertainty, and expense. Feeling all gratitude to the original framers and promoters of the Reform Act, he must nevertheless say, that it necessarily happened that in the fierce collision which took place during its progress, opportunity could not be afforded for giving it the full benefit of deliberate arrangement in all its details; the great principle attained, the minor mechanism was to a certain extent sacrificed to that paramount object of solicitude. The experience of the late elections while it fully justified the general sufficiency of the Act, developed at the same time some of its imperfections. These together with the questions elicited in the course of the Election Committees during this Session, had afforded ample materials for the Amendments proposed, in addition to which, many valuable suggestions had been received from several of the revising barristers; still, however, comprising mere practical points, wholly divested of speculative improvements. He was happy to observe, for the credit of the Act, that the obvious and apparently undebateable Amendments were but few in number and simple in remedy, and might be comprised under the following heads, chiefly applying to borough elections—namely, to allow of qualification for premises held partly as owner and partly as tenant, and of houses, &c., held jointly with other buildings; to allow the vote, if the taxes were satisfied, without requiring such payment on the part of the tenant, and to limit the period of payment of taxes in arrear; also, that opportunity should be given by two Sundays' notice on Church doors of persons in default; to define the prescribed distance of seven miles, which had on the late election received three different constructions, to one definite standard; to provide for the barristers having earlier knowledge of the lists, and entire copies of them, thus enabling them to apportion the period of holding their Courts at each place with more accuracy; the total abolition of the compulsory payment of 1s. both in counties and boroughs, in which latter it would be otherwise an annual charge; to give to outlying freeholders the privilege of voting at the nearest point to their residence in their division of a county, thus in several instances saving full seventy miles, as in the case of allowing such persons to vote at Axminster instead of Plymouth, for South Devon; and, not adverting to minor points, lastly, to dispense wholly with the third question at the poll, as to possessing the same identical qualification when registered, the effect of which was to disfranchise any person as to counties who might have sold any small part of a large estate, or who might have converted his leasehold into a freehold by purchase; and in boroughs the same disfranchisement would follow by moving to a better house in the same street, while the obvious intention of the Legislature was to fix the claim of franchise to the certain registry of it in July, subject only to annual revision at the same period. To repel any charge of precipitancy or presumption on his part in bringing forward this measure, he wished to observe that he had communicated his intention to the noble and right hon. Paymaster of the Forces, in deference to his peculiar claim upon the Bill, his Lordship, however, wholly declined the suggestion, and was adverse to any measure being taken during this Session. He thought otherwise, contemplating on the always possible, if not probable, event of a dissolution, and it would, therefore, be a dereliction of duty on his part not to submit his Motion to the House, however irksome it was personally to himself, as he could with truth aver rather than take this reluctant lead, he should have laboured with more satisfaction as a humble pioneer under the auspices of the noble member for Devon; but his overture to that effect had been rejected. He made his appeal to the House in perfect submission to its dictates, reserving to himself the privilege of reply to such observations as might appear to him to require one. Before sitting down, however, he would observe, that he conceived the corrections would be best matured in a Select Committee to be appointed for the purpose on the second reading of the Bill, in which Committee the suggestions of the revising barristers and others best qualified to communicate information, would be considered, together with the proceedings and decisions of the several Election Committees, and which were calculated materially to facilitate the object. The hon. Member concluded by moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the Act 2nd Will. 4th, c. 45, for Amending the Representation of the people in England and Wales, and to report such amendments and alterations in the provisions thereof, as in the better opinion of such Committee, may contribute to the better, cheaper, and more convenient working of that Act."

Lord John Russell

objected to the Motion, and trusted that the House would not adopt it. The Government had entered into a consideration of the doubts said to arise upon the face of the Reform Bill, and after carefully considering those doubtful points, and the difficulties stated to be thrown in the way of easy and cheap registration, they had come to the opinion that no alteration of that measure ought to be introduced in the present Session. They thought it better to give men who had been taken by surprise before, the opportunity of registering their votes now, and they believed that many of the objections which at first sight appeared so formidable, would be found, upon trial, not to be so serious as was imagined. He wished the House to wait till the end of the next Session of Parliament, and see whether many of the objections now conjured up would not be found to be of no value or weight whatever.

Mr. Warburton

thought the inquiry proposed by the present Motion, might fairly be objected to because of its unlimited character; but it would be attended with great public advantage if the contradictory decisions not only of the Revising Barristers, but of the Committees of that House on the Reform Bill, were settled. If the disputed points on which contrary decisions were given in the Committees of that House and by the Revising Barristers were collected and reported upon by a Select Committee, it would prevent a vast deal of trouble and litigation, and he hoped his Majesty's Government would consent to the appointment of such a Committee, limiting the inquiry as he had suggested.

The Solicitor General

admitted, that it might be found necessary to facilitate the working of the Reform Bill, but he contended that this was not the proper time, and the mode proposed was not the proper mode of effecting that object. He had himself made a register of the disputed points which had arisen, which he should use in good time, and he acknowledged that it would be extremely desirable that many of those points should be settled before a dissolution. He was not aware, however, that there was any immediate prospect of a dissolution, nor did he believe it was much desired. If a Committee were appointed, such as that proposed by the hon. member for Truro, every member on the Committee would have his own plan of Amendment, and he very much feared that the alterations suggested would only serve to increase confusion. At all events, he thought they should wait and have the experience of another registration.

Mr. O'Connell

said, there could be no doubt there were many defects in the wording of the Act. Ministers were afraid to consent to any Amendment in the Committee; for if they did, a whole week would be wasted by their opponents in taunts upon them, for not having produced a perfect measure. The consequence was, that many incongruities remained in the Bill which ought to be altered. The hon. and learned Solicitor General admitted the fact of the evil, and yet wished to postpone the cure—a piece of advice that seemed to be quite unintelligible. There were many contradictory decisions among the Registering Barristers, and among the Committees, and it was advisable that these points of difference should be at once settled.

Colonel Evans

was also against the postponement, and thought that a Committee ought to be appointed before the period of registration returned. If the Committee were to be refused, he hoped that Ministers were digesting some plan for the Amendment and perfecting of the existing law.

Mr. Robinson

was disposed to leave the matter in the hands of Ministers, under the assurance that the best mode of reconciling the discrepancies between the decisions of Revising Barristers was under consideration.

Mr. Warburton

proposed, as an Amendment to the original Motion, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into, and report upon, the various points arising out of the Act 2nd Will. 4th, c. 45, and 88, on which contradictory decisions have been come to, whether by the Revising and Assistant Barristers, or by Returning Officers, or by Election Committees."

Mr. Jervis

seconded the Amendment, and adverted to the practical defects in the working of the Reform Act, as regarded the duties of the Revising Barristers. He contended that some method should be adopted to ascertain how the measure had operated in different parts of the country.

Mr. Rigby Wason

referred to several conflicting decisions by Election Committees, which rendered it necessary that some general system should be established before the Revising Barristers were again called upon to act. In his opinion, the moment a defect was discovered, a remedy ought to be applied to it.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that no inconvenience could result in this case from the postponement of the remedy; and that the recommendation of a Select Committee could not increase the certainty of that law, the uncertainty of which was now matter of complaint. The present Government, as the originators of the Reform Act, were pledged to introduce every practical remedy for established defects; and he apprehended, that next Session would be sufficiently early for the purpose,

Mr. Hume

observed, that the Select Committee was not to be appointed to decide any question of law, but merely to ascertain a matter of fact, which matter of fact would be material in governing the conduct of the Revising Barristers when they should next be called upon to act.

Mr. Bonham Carter

did not object to any real improvements that might be made in the Reform Bill, provided sufficient time were allowed to elapse for the purpose of ascertaining that the changes proposed were improvements. In his opinion sufficient time had not elapsed to show whether the Bill had worked well or ill; but after some experience they would be better prepared to legislate—they would be able to judge whether or not the alleged defects were so or otherwise. He admitted, that some inconvenience might arise from contradictory decisions; but as far as he could learn, the contradictory decisions were confined to the Irish Bill; that, however, formed no objection to the general measure, and he therefore recommended, that the House should avoid anything like precipitate legislation.

Mr. Wynn

admitted, that that part of the Reform Bill which provided, that the poll should he taken in districts, and that the duration of elections should he shortened, had worked most admirably. He could not, however, make the same admission with respect to the machinery for the formation of the registry and the electoral lists. He thought, that it would he advantageous to wait till the different Election Committees had all made their decisions, because, when that was done, the anomalies and irregularities of the Bill would be better known, and therefore more easily remedied. The lists were to be made out in June, and there would be great difficulty, if a Committee were appointed, in preparing a remedial Bill, and in passing it through both Houses of Parliament before that time. A bill formed in haste upon such a subject would produce in its working greater difficulties than any which were felt at present. There were one or two points, however, which might be altered immediately without inconvenience; for instance, the names of Peers and others who were disqualified by Act of Parliament from voting, might now he placed in the lists, and if no objections were made to them, would be inserted in the Registry. This ought not to be permitted, and the Revising Barrister ought to have the power of erasing them. Again, fraudulent votes might be objected to by those persons who had an interest in supporting them. At the revision the objections might be withdrawn, and then, as no other person would have a right to press them, and as in all probability those who would have objected would have given up their opposition, on finding that there were other objectors besides themselves in the field, the Barrister would be obliged to pass votes which he suspected or even which he knew to be bad. He should, therefore, wish, that provision should be made, that when an objection was once entered to a vote, any elector should be at liberty to press it before the Revising Barrister. He could not help wishing, that the Solicitor-General would bring in a bill to settle these three points—first, how far the removal of a voter from his residence in a borough after his registration vitiated his vote; secondly, how far the Revising Barristers could themselves enter upon objections to votes, after those who had originated had withdrawn them and, thirdly, how far the House, which was the ultimate judge in all questions appertaining to elections, should be prevented from noticing any objections to vote, however strong they might be, unless those objections had been previously decided upon by the Revising Barristers. As to the other questions relating to the overseers, and constables, he had only to say, that when the noble Lord, in defending the Reform Bill, called on the House to give overseers and constables credit for common sense, he had called on the House for one of the most extraordinary votes of credit that he had ever heard of; for a long experience of the conduct of overseers and constables had convinced him, that of all men in the world they had the least to do with that necessary article.

Mr. Halcomb

said, that as a Revising Barrister, he knew something of the difficulties of the Reform Bill; and, knowing something respecting them, he thought, that the House ought to bring in a Declaratory Bill on the subject this Session.

Mr. O'Connell

observed, that not a word had been said in this Debate respecting the working of the Irish Reform Bill. He wished it, therefore, to be remarked, that in Ireland, the people had not that part of the English Bill which was now universally acknowledged to work most admirably here. There was also a doubt in Ireland whether 10l. or 20l. was the qualification in counties—a doubt which arose from a variation in the Reform Act from the Act of 1829, abolishing the 40s. freeholders. He thought, that if a Committee were appointed that night, its report might be ready a few days after the adjournment.

The Solicitor General

said, if the hon. member for Dublin thought that this matter could be so easily settled, why did he not himself bring in a bill to settle it His opinion was, that the House ought not to resort to hasty legislation upon such a subject, inasmuch as nothing was so prejudicial as the unnecessary multiplication of Acts of Parliament. It was not a sufficient reason to introduce a new Reform Bill merely because there had been conflicting decisions upon the construction of the present Bill. He thought, that when a Bill was brought in to remedy the anomalies in the working of the Reform Bill, it should, after the second reading, be referred to a Committee up-stairs, in order that they might hear the opinions on it of the different Revising Barristers.

Mr. Jervis

said, that as a Revising Barrister he had been compelled, contrary to his conscience, and contrary to his conviction, to keep upon the Register votes, which of his personal knowledge he knew to be bad, merely because they were not objected to. He thought, that a Committee might make a report on this subject in a few days, for he was certain that the Revising Barristers, who had most of them been extravagantly paid, would have no objection to return forthwith a written statement of the difficulties which they had encountered in forming the electoral lists throughout the country.

Mr. Abercromby

put it to the House, whether, if a Committee were appointed now, the House could legislate upon its Report during the present Session? If the right hon. member for Montgomery-shire should produce a Bill amended on the three points to which he alluded, he would find other Gentlemen inclined to introduce into it other points which they considered requiring amendment. He thought, that the House would act unwisely in taking a measure of this kind out of the hands of the Government.

Mr. Lloyd

was favourable to the Amendment moved by his hon. friend who sat near him. As to the objection which had been put forward with respect to time, he thought it had no weight whatever. That there were some gross errors in the law as it now stood was evident, and it was their duty to remedy it as soon as possible.

Mr. Pease

observed, that Gentlemen acquainted with counties must know, that sufficient time had expired to enable churchwardens to become cognizant of the duties which they had to perform, and to direct them in the mode which, under this Bill, they were bound to pursue. If, in the performance of those duties, they found that the Bill offered impediments or incumbrances, the sooner those impediments or incumbrances were removed the better.

Mr. Charles Grant

demanded what was the Committee, the appointment of which was now called for, to do? Why, it was to collect facts for the information of the House. Now, the greater part of the argument of those who were favourable to the appointment of a Committee was founded on the uncertainty of the law as it at present stood; that being the case, he should like to know in what way the collection of those facts was calculated to remove the uncertainty complained of? It was easy to arrive at the object required, by calling on the different Barristers for their particular opinions on certain points. He did not think that it was at all necessary to go into a Committee on this subject. If, in the first instance, when the measure of Reform was introduced, they had acted with caution and with prudence, he thought they ought, when called upon to make any alteration or Amendment in the Bill, still to proceed with caution and with prudence.

Mr. Tooke

, in replying, observed, that he should perhaps have been content to accept the pledge of his Majesty's Ministers, but that the events of this Session had greatly impaired his confidence in them, for in fact they had originated nothing, and thwarted every thing, that promised further Reform. He had entered the House with greater buoyancy of expectation than his age might justify, but his soul now sickened at time misspent and duties unperformed. Ministers had not redeemed any one pledge they had given, they claimed much merit for obtaining the Reform Bill, by which, however, hitherto they had been the only gainers, and now they even refused the opportunity of amending the provisions of that Act, though they fully admitted its numerous imperfections; with wonted inconsistency they alleged the great labour of the undertaking, and yet would defer the period of commencing it to their more convenient season, and rejected the proffered aid of a Committee. Not a shadow of an argument had been adduced against his Motion, he had established the fact, that many technical errors existed in the Act, and as by a singular coincidence they had this day balloted for the last Election Committee arising out of the general election, ample means and time would be afforded for benefitting by the decisions of all the Election Committees of the Session, no less than by the evidence of the conflicting determinations of the Revising Barristers and Returning Officers.

Mr. Ayshford Sanford

was anxious, that the improvement of the Bill should be left to Ministers. He did not think it would be prudent to place the question in the hands of others. He wished the measure of Reform to be brought to perfection by the exertions of those who, in the last Parliament, had laboured so steadily, and so successfully, in carrying a measure which had given great satisfaction to the country. He, therefore, would call on the noble Lord, and on the Government generally, to declare whether they would not state that it was their decided determination to bring forward those Amendments, and that, too, without any delay, which might be deemed necessary to render the measure in every respect unobjectionable?

The Solicitor General

assured the House, that Government had paid the deepest attention to every suggestion that had been thrown out for the improvement of the Bill. Every proposed Amendment had received due consideration. Ministers wished to do every thing that would be conducive to the public benefit; and they hoped that they would be able, in the next Session of Parliament, to bring forward such Amendments as would give general satisfaction.

Mr. Wallace

was of opinion that there was no necessity for putting off, even for an hour, any projected Amendments in the Bill. There was not a Gentleman in the House who must not be ware, that in consequence of the ambiguity of a portion of the Bill, much misconstruction had taken place. It was not yet settled whether the decision of the revising barrister was to be considered final or not. That was a most important point, and ought forthwith to be set at rest.

Mr. Charles Buller

hoped, that this Motion would be pressed to a division. They had, it was true, heard from the Solicitor General, that Government would, in the next Session of Parliament, take up the subject. Now, he objected to this delay for four reasons—first, because his Majesty's Ministers might not perhaps be his Majesty's Ministers next Session; and, therefore, they might not have it in their power to redeem the pledge which they had hastened to give; second, because they had quite enough to do without adding this task to their burthens; third, because they had managed so badly almost every thing which they had taken in hand, that he was not inclined to give them much credit for their future efforts; and, fourth, because he conceived that any alteration in the measure should rather proceed from that House than from his Majesty's Ministers. He was of opinion, that the defects pointed out called for immediate revision; and he, therefore, was not willing to allow the present Session to pass over without amending the Bill, merely because the Solicitor General had stated, that something would be done in the course of the ensuing Session.

Mr. Ellice

had not expected such animadversions on the Government from the hon. Member who had just sat down, especially as in general the hon. Member placed confidence in the measures of Government. He thought, that they should not have been subject to such remarks, if they had had no other merit than that of having made so great and successful an experiment as the Reform Bill was admitted on all hands to be. If the subject of the hon. Member's Motion were as simple as had been stated by the hon. Gentleman who spoke on the other side, he saw no occasion for the appointment of a Committee. He (Mr. Ellice) did not, however, consider it of little importance. He would only ask the House to give the Government a little time—to consider the multiplicity of business in which they were already engaged. He hoped that the House would not force them to the immediate appointment of a Committee to inquire into a subject which the Government were pledged to take into their consideration as speedily as possible. He had no doubt, that if a Committee were appointed, it would be expected that some Member of the Government would be a member of it; but he would beg the House to observe, that the time of every member of the Government was already so much occupied with the consideration of the momentous questions to come shortly before the House, or on the Committees already appointed and then sitting, that it was impossible for them to attend to this subject at present. He repeated, however, that all that was wished for, was a little delay till such time as the present pressure of business would be disposed of.

The original Motion was withdrawn, and the House divided on Mr. Warburton's Amendment.—Ayes 68; Noes 94: Majority 26.

List of the AYES.
ENGLAND. Godson, R.
Aglionby, H. A. Grote, G.
Beauclerk, Major Harvey, D. W.
Bewes, T. Hawes, B.
Bish, T. Hawkins, J. H.
Blackstone, W. S. Humphery, J.
Bowes, J. Hutt, W.
Brocklehurst, J. Hughes, H.
Buckingham, J. S. Jervis, J.
Buller, C. Knatchbull, Sir E.
Clay, W. Lloyd, J. H.
Collier, J. Nicholl, J.
Dawson, E. Parrot, J.
Duncombe, Hon. W. Pease, J.
Ewart, W. Philips M.
Evans, Colonel Romilly, J.
Faithfull, G. Romilly, E.
Gaskell, J. M. Strutt, E.
Gladstone, W. E. Stuart, Lord D. C.
Tennyson, rt. hon. C. Fitzsimon, N.
Tooke, W. Lalor, P.
Trelawney, W. L. S. Lynch, A. H.
Turner, W. Nagle, Sir R.
Vyvyan, Sir R. O'Connell, D.
Williams, Colonel O'Connell, J.
Wason, R. Roche, D.
Wynn, rt. hon. C. W. Roe, J.
SCOTLAND. Ronayne, D.
Arbuthnot, Gn. H. Ruthven, E. S.
Maxwell, Sir J. Ruthven, E.
Sinclair, G. Shaw, F.
IRELAND. Vigors, N. A.
Butler, hon. P. Wallace, T.
Blake, J.
Evans, W. TEILERS.
Finn, W. Hume, J.
Fitzgerald, T. Warburton, H.
Fitzsimon, C.
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