HC Deb 18 April 1836 vol 32 cc1168-77

Lord John Russell moved the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into Committee on the Registration of Voters Bill.

On the question that the Speaker leave the Chair,

Mr. Thomas Duncombe

rose to move the amendment of which he had given notice. It was far from his intention, he said, to depreciate the measure of Parliamentary Reform, or to detract from the debt of gratitude due to its framers and supporters; but there were few among those framers and supporters who thought that it could all at once attain perfection, or that it would not require change and modification. There was, however, a class of partisans who wished it to be considered a final settlement of the question, but as that notion was inconsistent with reason and common sense, a revision of some parts of the Bill was soon demanded. The question was simply this—whether it had not by this time had a sufficient trial, and whether the proper hour for that revision had not arrived?—whether, in short, it fairly and honestly fulfilled the intentions of its framers? He did not think it would be denied that a fair experiment had been allowed to it; three registrations had occurred, and it was found to work in such a manner, that organised bodies from one end of the kingdom to the other were employed in the business of registration. The right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, on one occasion had warned his friends that the season of registration was the time when the battle was to be fought, and the hint had been taken both by Whig's and Tories. But all this was not in accordance with the spirit of Reform; and it was important to consider how the Bill could be rendered just in its principle and less vexatious in its operation. If he (Mr. T. Duncombe) were asked the means, he should reply that it might be accomplished by repealing part of the 27th clause, which required that all borough electors must have paid their poor-rates and assessed taxes due on the 5th of April preceding, by the 20th of July. This provision had tended to reduce the constituency of the country to a most alarming and unforeseen extent. He would prove that such was the fact from the speech of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell), when he introduced the Reform Bill. The noble Lord then said, "I will now state the number of additional persons who will be entitled to votes for counties, towns, and boroughs, under this Bill:—

The number in towns and boroughs in England, already sending Members, will be increased by 110,000
The electors of new towns (in England) sending Members, one each 50,000
Electors in London who will now obtain the right of voting 95,000
Increase of electors in Scotland 60,000
In Ireland, perhaps 40,000
Increase in the counties of England (at least) 100,000
These numbers, at least, will be entitled to vote; and, upon the whole, it is my opinion therefore, that the whole measure will add to the constituency of the Commons House of Parliament about half a million of persons.* Nobody would venture to affirm that the statement of the noble Lord had been verified by the result, and he would take the case of London and its vicinity as an illustration—London, Southwark, and Westminster, on the whole, in point of numbers, remained much as before the passing of the Reform Bill. London had increased, and Southwark had also triffingly increased, but in Westminster there had been a considerable diminution. In the Tower Hamlets, Fins-bury, Lambeth, and Greenwich, the number of voters, according to the last registration did not exceed 44,000, so that the total increase instead of being 95,000, as the noble Lord had calculated, was only 44,000. When he asserted that the 27th clause was unconstitutional in principle, and vexatious in operation, he again begged leave to appeal to the speech of the noble Lord, who had maintained in the speech he had already quoted, that in all cases representation ought to precede taxation. The noble Lord then quoted the 25th of Edward 1st, and the 34th of Edward 1st, which provides, he said, that no tax shall be levied without the goodwill and assent of the Archbishops, Bishops, Barons, Knights, and freemen.† The 27th clause, however, completely reversed that order, for it made taxation precede representation: it required not only that a man should be taxed, but that he should absolutely have paid his taxes before he voted. He should like to be informed what possible connection there was between a man's right of voting, and the day and hour of his paying the King's taxes? But other taxes were also included, such as poor-rates, county-rates, and police-rates; and he would ask Ministers whether, when they framed the Reform Bill, they contemplated the payment of county-rates by borough electors before they should be entitled to register? The consequence was, that in many instances voters might be deprived of their franchise by the trickery of tax-collectors. Surely * Hansard, (Third Series,) vol. xi. p. 1083. † Ibid. p. 1063. the Chancellor of the Exchequer had quite a sufficient remedy against a debtor of the Crown, without seizing his vote as well as his goods. The vote was not to be given for the private benefit of the elector, but for the advantage of the community. He was no advocate for universal suffrage, nor for the discontinuance of a property qualification; and all he asked for the borough constituency was, that they should be placed on the same footing as the county constituency, and that the rights and privileges proposed to be conferred by the Reform Bill should be enjoyed in their fullest possible extent. He contended that the abrogation of the 27th clause would have that effect. As it stood it might be, and no doubt it had been, a fertile source of corruption, while the repeal of it would also have the effect of simplifying the duties and shortening the labours of the revising barristers. What objection could be made by Ministers to a course so reasonable he did not know, but this he did know, that the first Administration that should have the courage, and the first Parliament that should have the justice, to affirm the principle for which he now contended, would be entitled to the gratitude of every sincere reformer. He moved, that it be an instruction to the Committee to introduce a clause for the repeal of that part of the 27th section of the Reform Act, requiring the payment of poor-rates and assessed taxes as a qualification for voting in boroughs.

The Attorney-General

felt bound to oppose the amendment of the hon. Member for Finsbury. He would do so very briefly, as he considered it of importance that the Bill before the House should get through the Committee with as little delay as possible. The proper course for the hon. Member to take would be to bring in a Bill to remedy those clauses he complained of; but he (the Attorney-General) should certainly give him his opposition. The motion of the hon. Member went to the extent that there should be no payment of rates, but if they did this, what test would they have of the respectability of the elector? The present franchise was the most ancient franchise known to the Constitution. The payment of scot and lot was the ancient test by which the competency of the party claiming to vote was determined. In the same way, the payment of rates and taxes was held to be an evidence of the competency of the par- tics to vote. He was not aware that any inconvenience had arisen in the manner stated by the hon. Member from the operation of these clauses. He had complained of the smallness of the constituency of the metropolitan boroughs, but let them take Finsbury for example. Fins-bury had a constituency of twelve thousand, and certainly the hon. Member could not complain of the use they had made of their franchise, for they had returned him. The metropolis, altogether, returned eighteen Representatives, and they were all of the same way of thinking as the hon. Gentleman; surely, then, he had no reason to complain of the operation of the Reform Act. Some inconvenience might perhaps in some instances have arisen from the neglect of the tax collectors. Now, in the Bill before the House, a Clause would be inserted, obliging all overseers to give notice of arrears. The present was not a time to enter further into the discussion. According to the statement of the hon. Member for Liverpool, when he voted against the clauses originally, he had only two to support him. That was a sufficient proof that it was the opinion of Parliament that these clauses ought to be retained.

Mr. Warburton

doubted if the present was the most proper time for such a motion, but still he should support it. He thought it was a notorious fact that the old system of scot and lot led to continual acts of bribery.

Mr. Hume

said, he had himself lost his vote last year, and in St. James's parish alone upwards of 500 voters had been disfranchised by the working of the registration system. He hoped the franchise would be extended to every householder, and he was even prepared to go farther, if public opinion was prepared to go with him. He called on the noble Lord to redeem his pledge of adding 95,000 to the constituency of the metropolis, now that he found the deficiency to arise from the difficulty of the qualification.

The House divided on the original Question: Ayes 154; Noes 51:—Majority 103.

List of the AYES.
Alsager, Richard Balfour, T.
Arbuthnot, hon. H. Baring, F.
Archdall, M. Barron, H. B.
Ashley, Lord Baring, F. T.
Bailey, J. Beckett, Sir J.
Baillie, Col. H. Bell, Matthew
Benett, J. Knightley, Sir C.
Blackburne, J. I. Lambton, Hedworth
Blackstone, W. S. Langton, Wm. Gore
Bonham, F. R. Lees, J. F.
Bradshaw, J. Lefevre, Charles S.
Brownrigg, J.S. Lennox, Lord G.
Bruce, C. L. C. Lennox, Lord A.
Bruen, F. Lewis, Wyndham
Buller, Sir J. Y. Lincoln, Earl of
Burrell, Sir C. M., Bt. Long, Walter
Calcraft, J. H. Lucas, Edward
Cambell, Sir J. Lushington, Charles
Cartwright, W. R. Lygon, hon. Col. H. B.
Chandos, Marq. of Linch, A. H. S.
Chaman, Aaron MacKinnon, W. A.
Clements, Viscount Maclean, Donald
Clive, hon. R. H. Mangles, J.
Corry, hon. H. T. L. Manners, Lord C.
Cripps, Joseph Martin, J.
Dalbiac, Sir C. Neeld, J.
Darlington, Earl of Neeld, Jose
Denison, John E. Nicholl, J.
Dick, Q. North, Frederick
Divett, E. O'Ferrall, R. M.
Donkin, Sir R. S. Oliphant, Lawrence
Dugdale, W. S. Paget, Frederick
Duncombe, hon. A. Parnell, Sir H.
Eastnor, Viscount Parry, Colonel
Edwards, Colonel Patten, John Wilson
Egerton, Wm. Tatton Pechell, Capt.
Entwisle, John Peel, Sir R., Bart.
Fazakerley, N. Pemberton, Thomas
Fector, John Minet Praed, Winthrop M.
Fielden, W. Pringle, A.
Fergus, John Reid, Sir J. Rae
Ferguson, G. Richards, John
Fergusson, rt. hn. C. Robarts, Abraham W.
Finch, George Robinson, G.
Fitzgibbon, hon. B. Rolfe, Sir R. M.
Fleming, John Ross, Charles
Forster, Charles S. Rushbrooke, R.
Fremantle, Sir T. W. Russell, Lord John
Freshfield, J. Russell, Lord C. J.
Geary, Sir W. R. P. Sunford, E. A.
Goodricke, Sir F. Scarlett, hon. R.
Gordon, W. Scott, Sir E. D.
Goring, Harry Dent Scott, James W.
Graham, Sir J. Sheldon, E. R. C.
Greisley, Sir R. Sibthorp, Col.
Grimston, Viscount Sinclair, Sir George
Hale, Robert B. Smith, J. A.
Halford, H. Smith, A.
Hamilton, Lord C. Smith, Robert V.
Harcourt, G. Smith, Benjamin
Hardinge, Sir H. Somerset, Lord G.
Hardy, John Stanley, E. J.
Hay, Sir J., Bart. Stormont, Lord
Hay, Sir A. L. Stuart, Lord James
Hill, Lord Arthur Stuart, V.
Hogg, James Weir Trevor, hon. G. R.
Hope, hon. James Tynte, C. J. Kemeys
Houldsworth, T. Vere, Sir C.
Howard, P H. Verney, Sir H.
Inglis, Sir R. H., Bt. Vivian, Major
Johnstone, Sir J. Vivian, J. H.
Jones, W. Vivian, John Ennis
Jones, Theobald. Vyvyan, Sir R. R.
Wilbraham, hon. B. Young, G. F.
Williams, Robert Young, Sir W. L.
Wilmot, Sir J. E. Bt. TELLERS.
Wilson, H. Steuart, R.
Wodehouse, E. Baring, Francis T.
Worlley, hon. J. S.
List of the NOES.
Aglionby, H. A. Kemp, T. R.
Baines, E. Leader, J. T.
Baldwin, Dr. Macnamara, Major
Bewes, T. Marsland, H.
Blackburne, John Molesworth, Sir W.
Bowring, Dr. O'Brien, Cornelius
Brodie, W. B. O'Connell, Daniel
Brotherton, J. O'Connell, John
Buller, Charles Parrott, J.
Butler, hon. Pierce Pattison, James
Chichester, J. P. B. Philips, Mark
Churchill, Lord C. S. Potter, Richard
Clay, William Pryme, George
Elphinstone, H. Roebuck, J. A.
Ewart, W. Rundle, John
Fielden, J. Stuart, Lord D.
Gaskell, Daniel Tancred, H. W.
Gisborne, T. Thompson, Col.
Grote, G. Tooke, W.
Hall, B. Trelawney, Sir W.
Hastie, A. Tulk, C. A.
Hawes, Benjamin Wakley, T.
Hindley, Charles Warburton, H.
Horsman, E. Ward, H. G.
Humphery, John TELLERS.
Hutt, W. Hume, J.
Jervis, John Duncombe, T. S.

The Speaker left the Chair, and the House then went into Committee.

On Clause 3, which enacts "Clerk of the Peace to issue his warrant to the high constable, with form of precepts, &c."

Mr. Elphinstone moved, as an amendment, that all that part of the clause which related to imparting this power to the high constable should be omitted.

The Attorney General

was of opinion that the services of the high constables in this respect should be retained as a part of the Bill. In many instances, the overseers were interested parties. By the clause, the Clerk of the Peace was directed to issue his warrant to the high constable, with the necessary forms, &c. This was in strict conformity with the Jury Bill of the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Robert Peel). That Bill had been found to work exceedingly well, and on the principle contained in that Bill the present clause was framed.

Mr. Edward Buller

said, if these duties were to be imposed on the high constable, it would be just that they should be properly remunerated for their services. If such were not the case, persons would be appointed who would not be qualified for the performance of the duties.

Mr. Hume

observed, that when the former Bill was before a Committee up stairs, it was in the first instance decided that the overseers should be the persons. But in consequence of some representations made by hon. Members, that in the north of England the high constables were a superior class of persons to the overseers, he (Mr. Hume) was induced to change his opinion. Since that period, however, he had again changed his opinion, and he was not ashamed to confess it; and in consequence of information he had received, he was therefore induced to revert to the overseers, and his reason was this, because the high constables were not ail of the same class of persons throughout the country, some being paid, and some not, and he was therefore now disposed to think they would not do the duty as well as the overseers. In a case of doubt and difficulty, he thought it was best to go back to the overseers, rather than to appoint the high constables to perform this duty, which might lead to increased trouble and delay.

Mr. Charles Buller

thought, that if the House saw reason to make an alteration, it was incumbent upon them to adopt a sensible one. When they were about to appoint officers to discharge a particular duty, they were bound to take care that such appointments should be proper and consistent.

The Attorney General

said, that the reason why it would be improper to employ these persons was, that it would give them too much to do. The high constables of England and Wales, though not always very bright men, were quite competent to the duties imposed upon them by this Bill, and they were men who were well known to the Clerks of the Peace, and could easily communicate with them. The amendment which had been suggested by the hon. Member for Hastings would, if carried into practical effect, in his opinion, make matters worse than before. He thought that, upon the whole, the high constables would be found to be less incompetent than the overseers to this particular duty.

Mr. Mackinnon

thought it quite inexpedient to transfer the duties of the overseer to the high constable; and it was to be remembered that the regulation proposed, if carried, would impose great additional duties on the high sheriff, for which the Act provided no scale of remuneration. The hon. Member concluded by moving, as an amendment upon the amendment of the hon. Member for Hastings, (Mr. Elphinstone), "That a provision be made for appointing a registrar or officer for the purpose of preparing the list of voters for counties, cities, and boroughs, in lieu of overseers of the poor, and otherwise for carrying the Act into effect so far as relates to the duties at present required of overseers and constables, with a view to the diminution of expense, the obtaining the lists in a more correct form, and the prevention of unnecessary delay before the revising barrister."

The Solicitor General

thought, that the machinery of the Bill, as it then stood, was one which was perfectly well known to the Constitution, and there was no probability that it would not work well.

Colonel Parry

preferred the duty being performed by the overseer, because he was a more responsible person than the high constable, though the latter was undoubtedly the more ancient office. He should prefer all communications being made direct from the Clerks of the Peace to the overseers.

Mr. Grote

said, that, from what had fallen from hon. Gentlemen in the course of this discussion, it appeared to be quite clear that there was a great lack of administrative talent throughout the country. He thought that by the amended clause, or by the clause as it stood, they would introduce an unnecessary complexity of offices without obtaining a beneficial result, by reason of the inefficiency of the agents to be employed. Upon the whole, he thought the wiser mode of proceeding would be to employ a paid officer.

The Attorney General

objected to such officer being appointed, because whatever Government should be in power, they would be supposed to appoint their own officers, and they would always be liable to the charge of partiality in the selection of their individuals.

Clause agreed to.

On the 12th clause,

Mr. Warburton

objected to the number of Revising Courts, and to the circumstance of all the revisions being fixed to take place on the same day. If they were fixed for different periods, twelve Courts would be sufficient to dispose of all the business.

The Attorney General

defended the clause as it stood, as providing the most efficient means of accomplishing the object.

Lord Granville Somerset

complained of the contradictory decisions of the Revising Barristers, and suggested the practicability of establishing a Court of Appeal, if not to try questions of fact, at least to determine the construction of the Act. He moved, as an amendment, that the Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench and the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, together with the Chief Baron of the Exchequer, should, previous to the Summer Circuit, appoint persons for the duty, who should not be of less than five years' standing at the Bar.

Lord John Russell

admitted, that it might be desirable to have Gentlemen of more experience and fewer in number. By vesting the power in the Judges, as, at present, precaution was taken against placing it where the possession of any political power might interfere with its exercise; but it was impossible that there should not be complaints against this or that appointment, and he did not think the objections would be removed by the proposition of the noble Lord.

Clause agreed to.

Clauses to the 18th were agreed to. The House resumed. Committee to sit again.