HC Deb 02 September 1835 vol 30 cc1264-71
Lord Morpeth

presented a Petition from Freeholders, Merchants, and Bankers of the West Riding of Yorkshire, agreed to at a public meeting held on Monday last. The petition, for the purpose of avoiding loss of time, had been signed by the Chairman, Sir Francis Wood. He was informed, from authority in which he placed the most implicit confidence, that the meeting was most numerously attended, there being 15,000 persons present—that the persons were most respectable, and its proceedings most orderly. The petitioners stated that they approached that House with feelings of gratitude for the past, and confidence for the future. They expressed their approbation of the Bill for the Reform, of Municipal Corporations as originally introduced into that House; and, with equal force, they expressed their disapprobation of the alterations subsequently introduced into the Bill, and in consequence of the character of these alterations, they solicited that House, with the same resolution they had hitherto manifested, now to reject the mutilated Bill, as being useless and unfit to afford solid satisfaction to the people of England. That was the prayer of the petition, and he submitted it to the notice of the House with the confident assurance, derived from his own knowledge of the sober and rational character of those whom he had the honour to represent, that in dealing with a measure of such vast importance, of the two alternatives that might present themselves, they would prefer that which he trusted the House would be able to do with honour and advantage to themselves, by embracing judicious amendments, in place of giving the measure a precipitate rejection; and in so doing, they would be effecting a great practical good, and steadily adhere to the great principle by which those whom he had the honour of representing had been ever influenced, of being at the head of every great movement of national amendment in religion, morality, and freedom.

Sir George Strickland

admitted that the leading feature of the petition was praying that House to reject the Bill as it had come from the House of Lords. Now he hoped that the wishes of the petitioners would be gratified by the Amendments which had been made to the Bill as it now stood; because he was sure that any rational person would admit that the great and leading principles of the measure had been fully preserved. He considered that the leading principle of the Bill was a popular control over the Municipal Corporations; that popular control had been preserved. Another principle of the measure was, that appointments to corporate offices should not be made for life—that also had been preserved, and, therefore, the persons appointed to these offices would be under popular control. He hoped that sentiments to which he gave expression would be heard in the county from which the petition emanated, and he was happy to say that that most odious provision which excluded Dissenters from the exercise of those rights which they had so long enjoyed, had been excluded from the alterations that were made by the House of Lords, and that the attempt to restore the Test and Corporation Acts had totally failed. He would further say, that the House had done all in its power to make such alterations as would render the Bill efficient, and he hoped that for the peace and happiness of the country those Amendments would pass in another place.

Mr. Blackburn

hoped that those Amendments would be agreed to. The Municipal Commissioners had had a most arduous and difficult duty to perform, and they had done it with the strictest justice and impartiality. Whether they had contrived to please all parties was another question, and was not very likely; but he believed they had faithfully performed the duty allotted to them.

Mr. Baines

observed that the prayer of the petition was, that the Bill, as amended by the Lords, should be rejected by that House. He was persuaded, however, that the meeting from which that petition emanated could not have been aware of the alterations which had been since suggested and effected, and he was only expressing what he knew would be the opinion of the petitioners when aware of those alterations, when he said that he wished the House not to reject the Bill.

Petition to lie on the Table.

Mr. Clay

presented a Petition from inhabitants of the Borough of the Tower Hamlets, agreed to at a meeting held on Monday, which consisted of not fewer than 10,000 persons. All the resolutions were unanimously adopted, and within a few hours the petition was signed by 3,000 persons whose residences were attached, and if another day had been allowed, 10,000 names would have been added to the petition, which in substance stated that the electors of the Tower Hamlets viewed with satisfaction the introduction of the Municipal Reform Bill, and their regret at the mutilations which had been made by the other House. They stated, that in consequence of this and other proceedings of the other House it had become apparent that in that House there was a disposition to frustrate and delay all reforms, and therefore they prayed that such a reform might be made in the other House as would render it useful to the country. The petitioners declared themselves ready to support Ministers. He trusted that this petition would yet operate as a warning to the other branch of the Legislature, and that it would not continue to proceed in a manner which he regretted to say was spreading a spirit of contempt for that House among the people.

Dr. Lushington

was happy to add his testimony to that of his hon. Colleague in support of the petition. Circumstances had intervened since the meeting which would render it advisable for him to abstain from making such observations as he should otherwise have made, because they might lead to an inopportune contention. He must be allowed to say that in that immense district, containing 370,000 inhabitants, the majority of them entertained the sentiments contained in that petition, and if justice were not accorded to the wishes of the people, they were prepared by every constitutional effort, to support their representatives in Parliament in finally obtaining it.

Mr. Sinclair

was much gratified, though perhaps somewhat surprised, by the altered tone evinced by gentlemen on the opposite side of the House. He had sat there for two hours on Monday afternoon, during which a spirit of defiance and hostility had characterised every petition that was presented, and every speech by which it was introduced. Any hint that it was possible to concur in any single alteration adopted by the House of Lords, was treated with contempt. "No mutilations" was the burden of every harangue, and all petitions were branded as hole-and-corner documents, in which any respectful allusion was made to the rights of the House of Lords as a co-ordinate branch of the Legislature, or any opinions expressed that their Amendments should be calmly considered. Last of all came the noble Lord with a bundle of petitions carried before him by a door-keeper, and much larger and heavier than the mace, in all of which the slightest concession was deprecated, and the stoppage of the supplies insisted on. But the noble Lord happily for the country, had listened to the voice of prudence, and had adopted a system of conciliation, for which he gave the noble Lord full credit, and which he trusted would be met by a similar disposition in another quarter. This, however, was a great triumph to the respectable minorities, which had supported in this House the very Amendments on which Ministers had now given way, and who had been denounced as enemies to all improvement, for voting in favour of the very changes, which were now admitted by the authors of the Bill to be quite consistent with its principles. There was one expression in the present petition upon which he should say a few words. He wished to know what was meant by a reform of the House of Lords? Gentlemen were extremely vague, though very virulent, when they touched on this subject; they dealt for the most part in unmeaning generalities, and never favoured the country with any specific plan. How did they mean to proceed? He could not suppose such a proposition could enter in the contemplation of any man of sane mind, or who had the slightest regard for constitutional principle, as to refer this subject of House of Lords' reform to a Select Committee of this House—such a scheme was, of course, out of the question. Then, did they wish to unfurl the standard of civil war, in order to get rid of the House of Lords as an incumbrance? Such an end could not, of course, be attained by any peaceable or constitutional means. Did they wish to persuade, or rather compel, the monarch to create 120 Peers for the purpose of annihilating the independence of the House of Peers? He was convinced that, rather than inflict such a mortal blow upon the Constitution, to gratify an imperious Ministry, or crouch to a desperate ultra-liberal faction, the King would lay his head upon the block. Did his hon. Friend the Member for Middlesex, expect to pass an Act of Parliament for infringing on the rights of the Peers? Did he think it possible, that they could be persuaded to give their sanction to a Bill for their own degradation? Whatever might be the case hereafter, we had not yet attained to that stage in our democratic progress, which would enable us to pass an Act of the Legislature, without the concurrence of one of its branches. He saw two hon. Members preparing to gratify his curiosity, and he would assure them, that he was as anxious to hear their nostrums promulgated, as they could be to divulge them. He should, therefore, only at present express his conviction, that the House of Peers never stood higher in the estimation of the religious, intelligent, and educated portions of the community, than at the present eventful crisis, when by their wisdom, their firmness, their moderation, and their consistency, they had entitled themselves to the gratitude of the Church, the approval of the nation, and the admiration of the latest ages—they had shown that they would neither be intimidated by ministerial menaces, nor crouch to pressure from without. The subdued and modified tone now adopted in reference to their amendments, after so much blustering and gasconading, might teach them that by opposing a calm and dignified resistance to those clamorous for reckless innovation, by fearlessly acting upon principles, they would best consult their own honour, and discharge their duty towards their country. He felt assured that, to the last moment, they would resist the spoliation clauses of the Irish Church Bill, and thus maintain the principle, on the integrity of which the existence of a Church Establishment depended inviolate, and unimpaired.

Mr. Roebuck

would answer the hon. Member's question by explaining the general nature of a proposition which he intended to bring forward on the subject of the House of Peers early next Session. His object in that proposition would be that the veto of the Lords in all matters of legislation, should be taken away. Yes, that the veto should be entirely taken away, and that the Lords should, in place of it, be endowed with a suspensive power to a certain extent; that was to say, that they should have the power of sending back a Bill to the Commons; but then if it were again passed by the latter House in the same Session, and received the Royal assent, it should become a law notwithstanding its former rejection of the Lords. Hon. Members opposite seemed to look upon "the Lords" as a body so hedged in by divine immunity that to hint even at their fallibility, to say nothing of a remedy for it, were a species of blasphemy; but those hon. Members, as well as "the Lords," would, before long, find that the same pressure from without which compelled the House of Commons to reform itself, would equally operate in compelling the House of Lords to reform itself, and to become an efficient and useful branch of the Legislature instead of what it now was, an irresponsible, an ignorant, and an interested oligarchy.

Mr. Hume

felt proud in contrasting the conduct of the reformed House of Commons with that of the unreformed House of Lords, in reference, particularly, to the great Measure of Municipal Reform, and that contrast shewed, more clearly than ever, the absolute necessity that some speedy and efficient reform should be brought about in the latter branch of the Legislature. He would take the opportunity, in answer to the hon. Member, of making known what he, too, understood by such a reform, and what, moreover, it was his intention next Session to propose on this subject. The first requisite for a system of good government was the responsibility of those who governed. The House of Lords was not a responsible body, and therefore good government was not to be confidently reckoned upon on their part. The irresponsibility, powers, and privileges, which they possessed, might have been well enough in the times when the body was instituted, but the case was very different now. The House of Commons had been reformed, and was responsible; what possible reason could be assigned why the Lords, a co-ordinate branch of the Legislature, should not, in like manner, be reformed and become responsible? He would now take the liberty of reading a notice which he intended to put on the list for next Session, and which he had had by him ready for some time past. The notice was, that he should early next Session move the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the number of the Peers; their qualifications and privileges as such; into the Committees of that House, their power, privileges, and immunities; to consider how far that House had fulfilled its duties as a part of the Legislative body; and, finally, into the conferences and communications between the House of Lords and Commons. The distinctions kept up by the House of Lords, as regarded the House of Commons, were as absurd as they were degrading to the latter branch of the Legislature. The Commons, forsooth, were, by a standing resolution of the Lords obliged, in all conferences with the Lords, to stand uncovered; while the Peers sat, with their hats on. The Commons, that was to say, were treated by a co-ordinate branch of the Legislature as nothing better than a set of degraded petitioners. These 'conferences,' besides, were in fact but a mere mockery and farce, in which two bits of paper were handed about. It was a mere mockery, like everything else connected with the House of Lords. The hon. Member opposite might smile; but it was nevertheless the fact, that the whole thing was a mockery, only equalled in its absurdity by its mischief. Masters of the community though the Lords were, they must, however, in their turn, yield to the march of intelligence, to the pressure from without, and condescend to reform themselves as the Commons had done before them. The House of Lords must correct its manifold defects. This was what the people universally demanded; but, and it was fit he should add this—no one, no body of men that he had had communication with, desired to see the House of Lords abolished. Every one agreed with him in thinking that the Chamber of Peers, while every endeavour should be made to render it an effective instrument of good government, should be preserved. Publicly and privately he had ever maintained that the existence of two Chambers of Legislature was necessary to good government. He could not conceive of a better form of Government, than that of King, Lords, and Commons, provided that each kept within its proper sphere. But when he saw one branch of the Legislature absorb the powers of all three, and appear to stop all improvement and all reform, then he thought it high time that the people should have the matter inquired into, and, if possible, make that body abandon its usurped domination; and, by working in its own sphere, conduce to that purpose for which it was instituted—the maintenance of the liberties and happiness of the people.

Petition to lie on the Table.

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