HC Deb 06 July 1835 vol 29 cc262-73

On the Motion of Lord John Russell, the House went into Committee on the Municipal Corporation Reform Bill.

Lord J. Russell

said, that he thought it right to bring the 79th Clause, which had on a former night been postponed, as soon as possible under the notice of the Committee. It was altered in a great many points, and a considerable number of the changes which had been made in it were made in accordance with the amendments proposed by several hon. Members. He thought it necessary to mention two of these alterations. By the first, the Town Council were made liable to the payment of the capital as well as the interest of the debts of the Corporation; and by the second they were not at liberty to lower the rate until this debt of the Corporation was satisfied.

The Clause as amended having then been read,

Sir R. Peel

said, that in case a surplus should remain after providing for municipal purposes, he hoped that the Town Council would not have the power of alienating what was considered corporate property. The Corporations had, in many instances, large estates, which in all probability would increase in value under a system of good government. Now, he apprehended that under the Bill, as it then stood, or at least as it was originally introduced, the Town Council would be invested with all the legal powers which the existing Corporations possessed; and according to the construction put on the law by the Court of King's Bench and other judicial tribunals, the Town Council might be enabled to alienate the property of the Corporation. The Corporation of the town of Derby imposed a rate at one time for the purpose of lighting and watching, under an Act called the County-rate Act. By this Act the Corporation of this town were empowered to levy a rate for certain municipal purposes. The Corporation of the town imposed that rate. It was objected to by some of the inhabitants on the ground that there were in the hands of the Corporation, sufficient funds to answer the object for which the rate was imposed. They alleged that they ought not to be called on to pay a rate in the shape of a county-rate until the funds of the Corporation were proved to be exhausted. In the Court of King's Bench, however, it was ruled (Lord Ellenborough being the Chief Justice) that they had no power to compel the Corporation to apply corporate property to municipal purposes and the validity of the rate was accordingly established. Lord Ellenborough ruled too, in that case, that except in certain instances, in which Ecclesiastical property was left within the control of the Corporation, the Corporation did possess the power of alienating its property and applying it to corporate, as distinguished from municipal purposes. Here might then be a case in which a clear surplus, arising from property belonging to the existing Corporations, would be placed at the disposal of the new body called the Town Council, and which might by them be applied to "corporate purposes," in the altered acceptation of the terms. What he desired, then, was, that if any such case as that to which he alluded should occur (and he admitted that it was likely to be of rare occurrence) the Town Council should not have the power of distributing or alienating corporate property without the authority of the Privy Council or some higher power.

Lord John Russell

said, that he had provided for the case which the right hon. Baronet anticipated.

Sir Robert Peel

said, it was difficult to amend the Bill even when the amendments were assented to. There was what appeared to be a discrepancy between the Bill and one of the schedules in an important particular, to which he begged leave to call the attention of the noble Lord. In page ten, line ten, the Clause assumed that the particular species of property for which an individual was entitled to vote should be described on the burgess roll: the words were these—"And no person shall be admitted to vote at any such election except at the booth allotted for the part wherein the house, warehouse, counting-house, or shop occupied by him, as described in the burgess roll, may be." It contemplated a distinct description of the nature of the property out of which the qualification arose, following the principle of the Reform Bill, as was indeed absolutely necessary in order to guard against those cases of fraudulent description which otherwise were likely to occur. If the noble Lord, however, looked at schedule D, he would find that there was no column for a description of the property, but only for the street in which it was situate. Arguing from the analogy of the Reform Bill, and on every principle of common sense, there should be a third column containing a specific description of the property out of which the franchise arose: at present the schedule was at variance with the enacting parts of the Bill.

Lord John Russell

said, his attention had already been directed to the point, and he should take care to remedy the discrepancy. He might take that opportunity of mentioning his intention (although not intimately connected with this Clause) in relation to the question of wards. He proposed to carry the principle of dividing the town into wards further than it was carried at present by the Bill. He proposed that the Privy Council should direct a town with 12,000 inhabitants, and not more than 18,000 to be divided into two wards; when there were 18,000, and not more than 24,000 inhabitants, the town should be divided into three, and not more than four wards; and where the population exceeded 24,000, the town should be divided into wards, providing that not less than six Councillors should be elected by each, so that two should go out annually at every election.

Mr. Wilks

thought it would be highly inconvenient, after the amendments proposed by the noble Lord (Russell) in the Clause now under consideration, to discuss it to-night, at least before those amendments were placed in a printed shape in the hands of hon. Members. Other propositions were to be made, and how could they proceed, when, for anything they knew, their amendments had been anticipated by the noble Lord? He hoped the noble Lord would consent to postpone it till a later hour in the evening—say ten o'clock, when they would be better prepared to deal with it.

Sir Robert Peel

begged to call the attention of the noble Lord to another point. The rate to be levied was to be in the nature of a county-rate, and that was the form used in previous Acts of Parliament. The clause provided, that the council should not be empowered to receive an appeal against that rate, but it assumed that there might be an appeal against the rate made by an individual, the words being—"and if any person shall think himself aggrieved by any such rate, it shall be lawful, &c." Now, there was no appeal on the part of an individual against the county-rate; that appeal must be made by parishes. The law required that the rate should be of the nature of a county-rate, and yet it anticipated an appeal against it, while there could be no such appeal, for though there might be an appeal by a parish, there could be none by an individual.

Mr. S. Lefevre

said, that an individual might appeal on the part of his parish.

Sir Robert Peel

maintained that the rate being in the nature of a county-rate, an individual could not say that he was himself improperly rated. The law required that the appeal should be by a parish.

Lord John Russell and the Solicitor-General said a few words which were inaudible.

Mr. Wilks

thought the Clause required correction in more than one particular. In its present state it would be impossible to carry it into practice; he, therefore, pressed on the noble Lord the importance of postponing it till they could better judge of the alterations which had been made in it.

Sir Robert Peel

had no doubt, if it remained in its present vague and indefinite shape, much inconvenience would arise, and great expense would be incurred in useless litigation. In his opinion it would, be highly expedient to separate the payment on account of poor-rate from that payable for borough-rate. Thus, should the whole payment be 2s. 6d., 1s. 6d. might be paid on account of the poor, and 1s. for the borough; the whole 2s. 6d ought to be applied for at one and the same time, for he was fully aware of the aggravation of the burthen of payment which separate applications occasioned, but his wish was that the 1s. 6d. and the 1s. might be set down in the account as separate items.

On a subsequent part of the Clause,

Sir Robert Peel

called the attention of the House to the necessity which there existed to make provision for the payment of the debts of a Corporation. He knew the case of a Corporation which for upwards of 200 years had remained in possession of a certain quantity of freehold property, that freehold was now claimed on behalf of the poor of the parish, and proceedings in Chancery had been instituted for the recovery of it. The only result of those proceedings up to the present time was, that costs had been incurred to the amount of 1,000l.; of that 500l. had been paid. Now, suppose the suit were to be decided against the Corporation, who was to pay the remaining 500l.? It was true that the tolls were not alienable till the debts of the Corporation were paid, but he entreated the House not to agree to an enactment which would have the effect of continuing tolls that might ruin the town. He felt quite assured that the present Bill ought not to be disposed of until some provision were made for paying the debts of a Corporation. The matter ought, not now to be passed over, but some specific and distinct mode should be provided by borough rate or otherwise for paying those debts.

Mr. Harvey

said, that if the suit to which the right hon. Baronet alluded were decided against the Corporation, they would cease to he possessors of property which they ought long since to have given up: the Bill would put them in no worse situation than they would have been in if such Bill had never existed. As to the costs, he apprehended that in 99 cases out of 100 the Corporation would not have to pay costs if the suits were decided against them.

Sir William Follett

begged to call the attention of the noble Lord (Russell) to what he deemed to be a very important defect in this Clause. Much had been said about the power claimed by the existing Corporations to alienate their property; but the effect of this Clause would be to empower the new Corporations to alienate the whole of the corporate property. The Clause stated that the Corporations should pay off all existing debts, before they applied any of the corporate property to Municipal purposes. This would compel the new Corporations, immediately on assuming their functions, to impose a rate on the burgesses, which would not fail to excite considerable discontent. He hoped the noble Lord would take this point into consideration. Again he would ask the noble Lord what he intended to do with respect not to the mere bond debtor, but to the mortgagees and other real securities held by persons from the Corporation? If any power were given to the new Corporations to dispose of the corporate property, it should only be with a view to enable them to pay off mortgages and other real incumbrances, and not an absolute power to sell the property without reference to those special obligations. He would suggest, however, that it should not be compulsory either on the Corporation to redeem, or on the creditors to call in their money on mortgage of corporate property; but that the Bill should leave it as a matter of private arrangement between the parties.

Lord John Russell

said, that as he had read the Clause, the new corporate bodies would certainly be at liberty to apply the money derived from the corporate property from time to time as they thought fit. He perfectly agreed with the hon. and learned Gentleman, that the rents and profits of the corporate property should be liable to the debts of the Corporation; but that the corporate body should not be obliged to proceed immediately to pay off their debts altogether. He did not think the Corporation should have the power of alienating the corporate property contrary to the purposes to which it had been previously made legally liable, but all necessary powers for the general purposes of the town ought to be granted to them. The Clause undoubtedly deserved to be well considered; and if on the Report being brought up he should find it necessary to adopt any of the Amendments suggested, he would readily do so.

Mr. Hughes Hughes

said, that this Clause embraced so many distinct and important topics, that it was utterly hopeless to attempt to accomplish all the objects which it sought to obtain by one Clause. Indeed, there was in the Clause sufficient matter to constitute a Bill by itself, and he hoped the noble Lord would withdraw the Clause, and introduce a distinct measure in relation to the several subjects contained in it.

Lord John Russell

could not quite accede to the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman. He thought it was a Clause that properly belonged to the present Bill; but after the discussion that had taken place, and considering that there were several points deserving consideration, he did not know whether it would not be better to divide the Clause into two Clauses on bringing up the Report, or on the recommittal of the Bill.

The Clause, as amended, to stand part of the Bill.

On Clause 96 being put,

Sir John Wrottesley

stated, that as the Clause stood, the counties would be reimbursed for the expenses of prosecuting at the assizes offences committed in corporate towns. He thought that the borough funds should also be liable for a payment of a portion of the salaries of the officers of the assize courts. He therefore proposed, as an Amendment, that after the word "witnesses," the words "together with a proportion of the salaries of the officers of the gaol, and the costs for repairing and enlarging it," should be inserted.

Mr. Bonham Carter

observed, that there would be quarter sessions in most of the corporate towns, at which the greater portion of the offences committed in them would be tried, and of course the expense of them would fall wholly on these towns. The number of cases sent to the assizes would be very small, and the expense so trifling that it would not be worth while to encumber the Bill with this Amendment.

Amendment withdrawn, and Clause agreed to.

On the 98th Clause being read, enacting, that borough courts of record should be holden as heretofore, but in certain cases with extended jurisdiction, the Recorder, or in his absence, or where there was no Recorder, the Mayor to he sole judge; the court to have jurisdiction in actions of as-sumpsit, covenant, and debt, whether the debt be by specialty or on simple contract, and all actions of trover for taking goods and chattels, provided the sum or damage sought to be recovered, did not exceed 20l.; and also all actions of ejectment between landlord and tenant, wherein the annual rent of the premises of which possession was sought to be recovered did not exceed 20l.; the judge of such court empowered to make rules for the practice of the court, but no such rules to have force until they had been allowed and confirmed by three or more judges of the superior courts of common law at Westminster Hall, was then read.

Mr. Charles Duller

expressed his surprise to find that the Clause established a bad system of Local Courts. Not only was a non-resident Recorder maintained in spite of the objections which now existed to that practice, prisoners being often confined in gaol for three months waiting for trial, but an incompetent Judge was provided. The Clause made no provision for the residence of the Recorder, and enacted that in his absence the Mayor should preside in the court. The Mayor by previous Clauses was to have the burgess roll under his care, to act as a justice of the peace, to be the Returning Officer at elections, to be at the head of the Watch Committee, to be Chairman of the Council, and now, by this Clause, he was to act as Judge of a Court of Record. The Clause revived the Courts of Record, together with their defective progress, and their election of jurors from a small circuit; besides which, the proceedings were to be absolutely final, and not to be carried by appeal to the courts above. Out of 150 boroughs there were only twenty-two in which these courts had not fallen into disuse, and in those boroughs the jurisdiction was, as appeared by the Report of the Commissioners, matter of just and bitter complaint. He was a friend to the establishment of a well-digested and effective system of local jurisdiction; but in this revival of ancient Courts of Record, with their faulty practice, he could recognise no one principle of public utility. The present Clause would leave to the boroughs all the evils that attended small courts. If good local courts could not be established—and the present Clause would not do so—it would be far better not to have recourse to a vicious experiment. The Report of the Commissioners stated, that the Local Court of Coventry was nothing more than a horrible instance of oppression exercised over others. He hoped that it was not now too late to ask Government to reconsider this portion of the Bill. He wished that all the Clauses relating to this point could be omitted altogether, as they would, if carried into effect, produce considerable mischief.

Mr. Blackburne

said, that his hon. and learned Friend was quite mistaken as to the objects of this Clause. There was nothing in it that would establish any court that did not exist before. All that it would do was, that where there were Local Courts already established, it would place them under better control, and make them more efficient than they were at present.

The Attorney-General

considered that it was better that those Local Courts should be preserved than be entirely extinguished; and, if so, power ought to be given to the Mayor or Recorder to try particular actions, as that would render those courts more extensive and efficient.

The Clause was agreed to.

Lord John Russell

proposed the insertion of a Clause in the place of the 30th Clause, which had been postponed, to the effect that in all cases where the population of a borough exceeded 12,000, his Majesty should be empowered to divide it into two wards, for the purpose of electing Town Councillors, and where the population exceeded 24,000, then into as many wards as his Majesty should think fit.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that as there might be as many burgesses in a borough with a population of 10,000 as in one where the number of inhabitants amounted to 12,000, this restriction of the exercise of the power intended to be invested in the Crown was unwise as it was, in his apprehension, unnecessary. It might also so happen that in boroughs where the population exceeded 18,000, more than two wards would be necessary, and therefore it was that if they were to place such a power in the hands of the Crown, it should be so placed as to enable the Crown to exercise a proper discretion. Many boroughs, with a less population than 10,000, now actually conducted their business by means of wards, and he might mention Ludlow as one; and, for his part, he should wish to see the privileges of those boroughs preserved to them wherever the system had been found to work well. He thought, however, that the power of division was one which ought to rest with the Parliament rather than with the Crown; but still, as the intention of the noble Lord's Bill was to confer it upon the Crown, he certainly should be sorry to sec it limited, as this Clause proposed. There might be double the number of voters in one borough that there was in another; and surely if this point was to be determined by the Crown, it was no more than fair that the Crown should be left something like the exercise of a discretion with respect to the division into wards. But the noble Lord's Clause laid down nothing like a principle. It did not appear whether the divisions were to be effected by a reference to the number of burgesses, by the number of inhabitants considered in connexion with the payment of rates and taxes, or by the gross number of the population of men, women, and children, of the borough; and if no rule were necessary to be prescribed to the Crown in this respect, surely no rule should be laid down as to the number of wards into which a borough should be divided.

Lord John Russell

defended the Clause, and contended that it was an object of desire that in all boroughs where the population was under 12,000, there should be only one election for the whole of the Officers of the Corporation. Experience, he submitted, had proved that in small boroughs the ward system was anything but desirable.

Mr. Grote

was glad to find that the noble Lord did not mean to make any concession to the right hon. Baronet opposite, as he (Mr. Grote) considered the Clause which was now proposed would be a very great improvement of the Bill. It might, however, be well to establish some minimum in reference to the payment of rates and taxes to regulate the division of a borough into wards.

Sir Robert Peel

thought that establishing a minimum of rate payers would be a very good principle to go upon, and such a test, he must say, would be obviously much better than if they were to be guided solely by the total number of men, women, and children. He was surprised, he must confess, to hear the hon. Gentleman, the Member for the City of London, condemning a system which prevailed in that City, which was held up in the Report of the Commissioners as a perfect model of a Corporation.

Mr. Grote

had never lauded the Corporation of London further than to say, that he approved of the annual election of the Members of the Common Council.

Mr. Blackburne

contended, that the Report of the Corporation Commissioners spoke in praise only of the Common Council of the City of London.

Mr. Brotherton

argued that some principle ought to be adopted to guide the division, and he thought no principle could be better than that of taxation connected with assessment to the Poor-rates. He should wish a power to be given to remodel the new Corporations at the end of fourteen or twenty-one years, if alteration should then be found requisite.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that he wished to justify the reference which he had made to the Report of the Corporation Commissioners, and to show that he was quite warranted when he said that they approved of the practice of the City of London. The right hon. Baronet read a passage from the Report, which bore out the assertion, that the Corporation of the City of London was spoken of generally by the Commissioners with the utmost praise.

Lord Sandon

asked whether the principle on which this Clause was founded would not affect the number of Councillors given to the different boroughs in the schedule to this Bill. In some of these boroughs there would be too many, and in others too few Councillors, if the boroughs were to be divided into wards.

Lord John Russell

admitted that the principle of this Clause would, to a certain extent, affect the schedules; and, therefore, he should not propose the schedules to the consideration of the Committee that evening.

Mr. O'Connell

thought that they ought, to take the number of burgesses, not the amount of the population, as the test whereby to judge of the propriety of dividing boroughs into wards. He thought that there should be no division into wards, unless in boroughs where there were more than 800 voters on the burgess roll. Less than that number would create a number of small unsavoury rotten boroughs, and more than that number would be sufficient to insure a proper degree of popular vigilance and control over the conduct of the Council. He hoped that a Clause to this effect would be introduced into the Bill.

The Clause was agreed to.

Lord John Russell

said, that the adoption of this last Clause with respect to wards rendered it necessary that some new arrangement should be made in the schedules; therefore, he proposed, that they should reserve the consideration of the whole of the schedules till to-morrow. He should now move that the Chairman report progress; and he hoped that to-morrow, at five o'clock, they would be able to go on with the schedules. When the debate on the schedules had closed, which he supposed would be after a day or two, he should move that the Bill be recommitted pro formâ, to enable hon. Gentlemen to bring up their Clauses. He hoped that this arrangement would afford them sufficient time. He should then move that the Bill be printed, and he proposed that if they were able to do so, the Report should be taken into further consideration on Monday next. He should certainly move the further consideration of the Report before the Motion relating to the Irish Church, which stood for the same day, was brought on.

Mr. Lennard

begged to call the attention of Lord John Russell to a defect in Clause 10. By that clause it was professed to preserve the rights of all persons entitled to their freedom now in existence. But this was not done perfectly. One of the most valued rights of the daughters of the freemen of Maldon was that of conferring the freedom of the borough on their husbands. But this Clause confined this privilege to those only who were married previously to the 5th of June last. He contended that the rights of all the daughters now in existence of freemen should be preserved; and he gave notice that he should move an amendment to this effect, unless the noble Lord adopted his suggestion.

House resumed.—Committee to sit again.

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