HC Deb 19 June 1834 vol 24 cc560-70
Colonel Evans

rose, pursuant to the notice he had given, to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Reform Act, in that part which made the payment of rates and taxes an essential qualification for voting at elections. He had last year tried, without effect, to induce the House to adopt this Amendment of the Act. He feared, that he should not be more successful on the present occasion, though he had now a strong argument in favour of the Motion,—in the evidence which had since been afforded of the practical operation of that clause in disfranchising vast numbers who would otherwise be entitled, and to whom the Bill intended to give the right to vote. What he sought to have done was, the omission from the 27th clause, which gave the right of voting in boroughs, of the following provisio—"Nor unless such person shall have paid on or before the 20th day of July in such a year, all the poor-rates and assessed-taxes which shall have become payable from him in respect to such premises previously to the 6th day of April then next preceding." If the House should not be disposed to go thus far with him, and consent to the omission of those words, he would even be content with a much slighter change than the one he had proposed; he would be satisfied with the substitution of "the 6th day of October" for the "6th day of April" then next preceding. [Lord Althorp expressed his dissent.] He was sorry to see, that the noble Lord did not assent to his very moderate proposition. His own object was to give full effect to the proposed intentions of those who drew up the Reform Act; and it could be shown, that the wording of this Clause had had the effect of disfranchising many thousands throughout the country. They might as well have made the payment of rent the test of qualification: and indeed it was at first proposed in the Reform Bill, that the payment of rent should be a qualification; and the public owed it not to Whig liberality, but to the exertions of an hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir Edward Sugden) the late unsuccessful candidate for Cambridge, that that test did not now form a part of the Act. Thus the public owed it to that learned Gentleman's exertions that some hundred thousand electors, now entitled to vote, were not disfranchised, as they must have been if rent were allowed to continue as a qualification. In the very moderate proposition with which he had said he would be satisfied, all that would be done would be to give the ratepayer the advantage of six months—that was, that he should have paid the rates and taxes up to the October instead of the April preceding. The payment of rates and taxes had been, under the former state of the law, made a fertile source of corruption, and he feared, that in time it would become so under the Reform Act. They had heard of the practice of attornies or agents in boroughs paying the poor-rates of many voters on the condition that if there was a contest they should vote for those whom those attornies should name, and then when they had got a certain number of votes going about seeking for a candidate who might offer himself on their terms. This was a practice which had existed to a great extent under the former state of the law. Would it not be well to anticipate and provide against its recurrence by removing so fertile a source of corruption? When he brought this subject forward last year he was told, that there were several other Members who had alterations to propose; that it was then much too soon to suggest or propose any Amendments, as they ought to wait to see how the Bill would work. They had now, however, seen how the Act worked, and Government had taken away one argument against a change by the proposing an Amendment to the Act. He did hope that the House, having passed the Bill, would now consent to render it efficient by carrying the original intention of the authors of the Bill fully into effect. It was calculated by the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) that the Bill would create a million of voters; but experience had shown, that the number actually entitled to vote was little more than half a million, the deficiency from the numbers originally announced being at present not less than 470,000. But how did the House stand, as compared with the unreformed Parliament, in the number of placemen, pensioners, and sinecurists, who had seats in it? It appeared from the report of a Committee laid on the Table of that House, that there was only a difference of three in the numbers of that class between the late and the present Parliament. As he knew from the present constitution of that House, that any Motion which the Government might oppose was sure to be negatived, he felt that he had little or indeed no chance of having his Motion carried. Yet he still felt it his duty to move a Resolution, embodying his opinion as to the necessity of a more complete reform, for the purpose of placing it on the journals of the House. He would therefore move the following Resolution:—"That this House deems it expedient to repeal or mitigate such Clauses of the Reform Act as have been found to have an unexpected restrictive operation, particularly those regarding the payment of rates and taxes; and that a revision of the Reform Act with this view is the more urgent—because the new constituency has been found to fall short, by almost half a million of voters, of the number Government contemplated, and the public were led to expect; because the present House of Commons comprises about the same number of family representatives of the hereditary branch of the Legislature, and about the same number of placemen, pensioners, sinecurists, and other dependents of the Crown, which were to be found in the unreformed Parliament which preceded it; because it is vain to expect an independent line of conduct from a Parliament containing so large a proportion as 169 Members who are in the receipt of 150,000l. per annum of the public money; and finally, because this House has in effect entirely failed to satisfy the just expectations of the public."

Mr. Hume

rose to second the Motion, though he had not seen it or been aware of its exact nature until he had now heard it read in the House. He had been the Chairman of the Committee to which his hon. and gallant friend had alluded, and he could say, that all the statements made in the report were founded on the authority of documents signed by the parties who presented them. His reason for rising to second these Resolutions was, that the objection which he had originally taken to the Clause restricting the right of voting to the occupiers of 10l. houses, who had paid up their rates and taxes, remained unaltered. The restriction was unjustifiable, rather on account of the principle involved in it, than on account of the pecuniary payment which it required. So objectionable was the principle of it, that to his knowledge, in one parish alone, 1,580 persons had voluntarily abandoned their right to the elective franchise. The noble Lord would remove a great objection which many persons felt to the Reform Bill, if he would permit this Clause to be modified, even if it were not altered altogether. There would not be more than 600,000 electors at the next registration; and that would be owing to the Clause depriving half of the elective body of their franchise.

Lord Althorp

was not surprised at finding these Resolutions proposed by the hon. and gallant Representative for Westminster, but he was surprised to find any Gentleman bold enough to state, that he seconded Resolutions of such a character without having perused them previously. The first of those Resolutions stated, that it was desirable that the House should enter upon the consideration of the propriety of modifying the Reform Bill. Now, he did not think that such an inquiry was desirable. The hon. and gallant Officer said, that we should enter into the consideration of the right of franchise, because we had already entered upon the consideration of a plan for modifying the mode of registration. But the mode of registering the electors involved a very different question from that of the proper amount of the elective franchise. This principle of making the elective franchise depend on the payment of rates and taxes was not a new principle in our system. It was part of the old scot-and-lot system. The object of the framers of the Reform Bill, after making a 10l. occupancy the basis of the elective franchise was, to prevent that standard from being evaded. With that view this Clause and these restrictions were introduced. He thought that after Parliament had declared, that a 10l. occupancy should give a vote in boroughs, it was essentially necessary that the occupancy should be bona fide. From the experience which he had derived from the result of the last general election, he was convinced more than he was before it, that the franchise which the Government had selected was the proper franchise. If they looked at the new constituencies, it would be found, that, though most of them had conducted themselves well, those who had conducted themselves best were the 10l. constituencies. There were other topics to which the Resolutions of the hon. and gallant Officer referred, and on which he would take the liberty of saying a few words. One of them referred to the impropriety of the eldest sons of Peers, in which predicament he stood, occupying seats in the House of Commons. On such a subject he might perhaps speak with some degree of prejudice, but he did not see that there was, according to the constitution, any objection to their having seats in that House. As the law stood at present, the constituencies of the country were free to choose whomsoever they pleased, whether those persons were sons of Peers, or whether they were unconnected with the nobility. The hon. and gallant Officer had also made a similar observation with respect to placemen. He had said, that the number of placemen in the House was eighty-six. He (Lord Althorp) was surprised at that statement, for he certainly had thought that the number was not so great. The constituencies, however, knew whether the persons who sought their suffrages held offices or not; and if they chose to elect persons holding such offices, that was no reason for revising the Reform Bill. As to the proceedings of the House not giving satisfaction to the country, that was a point on which he differed from the hon. and gallant Officer. That they did not give satisfaction to the hon. and gallant Officer, he readily believed, for that hon. and gallant Officer generally voted in the minority, and a Gentleman in the minority was in the habit of believing that more persons agreed with him out of doors than actually did. On these grounds he should oppose the Resolutions.

Mr. Roebuck

supported the Resolutions. The 27th Clause of the Reform Act, com- pelled every 10l. householder to pay his rates and taxes on a certain day, if he wished to enjoy the right of suffrage. Now, if a man did not pay those rates and taxes by a certain day, he lost his suffrage; but the State did not lose its revenue, for it made him pay his taxes afterwards, and that being the case, the individual ought in his opinion, to retain his right of voting. The only advantage, if advantage it could be called, of this Clause, was its tendency to narrow the constituency, and to place the suffrage in the hands of a few persons for their own benefit and for the injury of the many. He complained, that the noble Lord opposite, by placing this Clause in the Bill, had placed in it a ruinous principle. When distress pervaded the country the poorer class of voters would, of necessity, be most anxious to make their cries heard by the Legislature, and yet at that very time most of them would be disfranchised by their incapacity to pay their rates and taxes. Why should the poor at that time be disfranchised? Did the noble Lord suppose that, if distress fell on the poorer electors, that distress deprived them of the education, the intelligence, and the probity, which they possessed in the year before? And yet owing to accidents, over which a man might have no control, an individual who enjoyed comfort one year might be reduced to great inconvenience the next; and then his sufferings were to be aggravated by the noble Lord's telling him, "You are deprived of your status—you are no freeman—you are poor, therefore your elective franchise shall be taken from you." He wished the House to consider what was meant by the words "narrow constituency" in England. Those words meant a rich constituency, and did a rich constituency speak the voice of the people of England? Certainly not. They did not speak the voice of its artisans, who formed the most intelligent and patriotic class. Did distress fall on the rich shopkeeper and gentleman? No; it fell on the working artisans, who, he repeated, formed the most intelligent and patriotic body in the community. He was speaking of the élite of the artisans—of such of them as occupied 10l. houses. Why were such men worthy of the franchise one year and unworthy of it another? He did hope that the noble Lord would not tell him that this enactment was necessary for the collection of the revenue. It was not so, for the man was equally compelled to pay his taxes whether he secured his vote or not. The rating must be a real not a nominal rating, and pay it the man must. How, then, could the noble Lord justify this mode of robbing the constituency of a franchise which the Reform Bill pretended to give them, but of which this Clause positively deprived them?

Mr. O'Connell

said, recent events had shown, that it was very necessary that something should be done to amend this Clause about rates and taxes, for at Cambridge seventy voters had been disfranchised, because the collector of taxes had received their money and had run away with it without acknowledging its receipt. Now, there was no election on the result of which the fate of the Government, and he might perhaps say of the country depended so much as on that at Cambridge. It was quite clear, that this number might have turned the trepidating scale either way. After the spectacle of public buffoonery which had been exhibited in all manners of ways at Oxford, in order to influence public opinion against the Government, he knew not what might have been the effect of a real and substantial victory over it at Cambridge. He understood that owing to the operation of this clause, the number of voters at present registered fell short of the number which had been anticipated before the passing of the Reform Act by not less than half a million. Instead, then, of pursuing a restrictive system, the Government, if it acted wisely, and wished to stand well in the opinion of the people, would adopt the principle of this Motion, and consent to this extension, or rather increase, of the franchise. In many boroughs, the constituency had been rendered very narrow by acting on the principle it was now proposed to amend. In the borough of Harwich, there were not more than 170 electors; in that of Portarlington there were not 100. He did not mean to find fault with the choice made by those electors, nor to impute to them improper motives; all he meant to say was, that in those boroughs the votes would soon be of as much value as votes were in any of the close boroughs recently destroyed. It was his belief that we owed reform more to accident than to design. The Administration now in power succeeded in acquiring office owing to the imprudent and uncalled-for declaration of the Duke of Wellington against Reform. The oligarchy there made a mistake, but those who succeeded it, found that they could not avail themselves of that mistake unless they obtained the advantage of popular aid. They got that aid, and then they acted upon the principle of giving to the people as little Reform as they could to suit their own purposes. Even that little Reform they clogged with restrictions, and no restriction could be more effectual for their object than that of making the payment of rates and taxes a preliminary to the possession of the elective franchise. Owing to that restriction, the amount of the constituent body was hourly diminishing throughout the country, and there was not, he believed, a single borough in the kingdom in which the constituency had not been regularly decreasing from the passing of the Reform Act down to the present hour. He therefore agreed with the hon. and gallant Officer in thinking, that the House ought to adopt these resolutions, and by so doing, increase the number of electors throughout the kingdom. Neither from courtesy nor from principle was he inclined to object to the system of electing the sons of Peers Members of that House; but there certainly was one objection to which that system was and would be liable, so long as the duration of Parliaments was septennial. The noble Lord opposite, had certainly been elected a Member of the House of Commons for a long series of years; but he was an exception from the general rule which applied to the eldest sons of Peers. If they were elected for one Parliament, they were elected for as long a period as they would probably have to sit in that House. Seven years was about the probability of the duration of the life of any Peer who had a son old enough to sit in the House of Commons. That being the case, the eldest son of a Peer might vote as he pleased, as he was relieved from the responsibility which attached to the votes of other Members of that House. He would give them an instance of what he meant. A noble Lord, who in the last Session of Parliament was member for the county of Perth, had assailed him on the first night of it, and had afterwards voted with the noble Lord in support of the Coercion Bill. Would that noble Lord have been returned again to Parliament for the county of Perth after those votes, if he had had occasion to appeal to his constituents? He thought not, and for this reason—that a person of politics opposed to those of that noble Lord had been recently returned for that county. The son of a Peer, in that situation, had this advantage then over other Members—he voted as he pleased, because he did not expect to come among them again. It was therefore the duty of the House, if they intended to act upon the principle of the Reform Bill, to accede to the principle of these resolutions. He wished to see them modified; but still he should feel it to be his duty to support them.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

said, that this clause had disappointed the expectations of the inhabitants of the town which he had the honour to represent. Whilst the Reform Bill was under discussion, the people expected at Birmingham, that that borough would have about 18,000 voters. There were 18,000 10l. houses in that town, and it was expected, that there would have been as many votes, as the occupiers of those houses paid their rents regularly and punctually. It was now his painful duty to state, that he had only 4,000 constituents. He had no reason to complain of them, for they had returned him unanimously; and so, too, would the 18,000 voters, if they had been properly qualified. He thought, that a fraud had been committed on the country by inserting this 10l. franchise clause into the Bill. Under its operation, not only had the householders to pay up the rates and taxes on each 10l. house, but they had also to see that the entry of those payments was made in our own names. In Birmingham, two-thirds of the houses were rated in the names, not of the occupiers, but of the landlords; and thus there were disfranchised 14,000 of the best and of the most patriotic men in England. He was happy to have this opportunity to confirm the statement of the hon. member for Bath—that these artisans were the best, and worthiest, and most patriotic men in England; and yet in this way had they been disfranchised. He should support the resolutions of the hon. and gallant Officer, because they were calculated to enlarge the franchise under the Bill of Reform. At present, it was a fraud upon the people of England, and therefore he was ready to support any just and practical enlarge- ment of it. It was a great measure, undoubtedly, but still it was a fraud on the people, because it had not given them half that liberty, nor half that prosperity which they had a right to expect.

Lord John Russell

felt himself called upon to contradict, with all due respect, an expression which had just fallen from the hon. member for Birmingham. The hon. Member had said, that before the Reform Bill became law, it was expected that Birmingham would contain 18,000 voters. Now he, for one, had never either felt or stated such an expectation. He had said, that the Reform Bill would give to Birmingham 5,000 electors, and it now appeared, that the actual number of electors there only fell 1,000 short of that amount. The Bill of Reform, which gave to 4,000 electors the right of returning two representatives for a town which had never before possessed that right, was in his opinion a thorough Reform. He was sorry, that it had not produced all the prosperity that was expected; but he had an odd notion, that what the hon. Member called prosperity was only another name for the 1l. notes. Certainly the Reformed Parliament had not adopted the hon. Member's panacea for all the evils of the country, and he was not certain that the consequence of enlarging the elective franchise as the hon. member for Birmingham wished would be that prosperity which that hon. Member took so much pride in proposing and vindicating. He must also contend against the assertion, that the Reform Bill was a fraud on the people of England, or that it was the least Reform which the Ministers could give with safety to themselves. On the contrary, it was at the time generally said, and with great plausibility and truth, that if a Bill for a less Reform had been proposed, the people of England would have received it, and would have been satisfied with it as enough. But Ministers proposed a scheme of large and extensive Reform, because it was more likely to be permanent than a less Reform. That was the ground upon which the Reform Bill was introduced—that was the ground upon which he was now prepared to stand by it. He was not prepared for a measure which would carry Reform further. The present Reform had given the people of England—he was not now speaking of the people of Ireland—the power of electing their own Represent- atives. He thought, that the repeal of this restriction would not give them that power more fully. With regard to the observation which had fallen from the hon. and learned member for Dublin, upon a transaction connected with the last election at Cambridge, he would merely remark, that the overseer at Cambridge had kept two sets of books. In one, he had entered the names of those who were claimants, and had paid him, and in another, he had entered the names of those who had paid him, but whom he had not admitted as claimants on the register. That was a fraud for which he was liable to punishment. But he died soon afterwards, and he did not know of any Bill by which they could punish a dead overseer. He had not heard anything in the course of the present debate to induce him to come to a different opinion from that which he had formerly expressed—that Parliament, having sanctioned this Act of Reform, it was not necessary to go further, for it gave the people the power of electing their own Representatives, which was theirs by right and by law, and of which he thought they had made a very proper use.

The House divided—Ayes 37; Noes 124; Majority 87.

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