HC Deb 09 August 1836 vol 35 cc1037-45

The Order of the Day was read for taking into consideration the Lords' Amendments in the Municipal Corporations Act Amendment Bill.

Lord John Russell

said, the time had arrived when it became his duty to state to the House the course which it was his intention to recommend, with reference to the amendments under consideration. The Bill for amending the Municipal Corporations Act, had been brought in by his hon. and learned Friend, the Attorney-General. It was a measure of very great importance. After having undergone much discussion in that House, it was sent to the House of Lords, where it received several amendments, to the nature of which he was about to call the attention of the House. There were two or three of those amendments—two especially—the principle of which he could by no means agree to. One was with reference to the manner in which the chairman was to be chosen, to preside at the election of the mayor and council of a Corporation when there was an equality of votes; the other was with reference to the administration of charitable trusts. It was with respect to those two amendments particularly, that he was desirous to call the attention of the House to the situation in which the House of Lords had placed them by the course which that House had thought proper to adopt. With regard to the first of those amendments, although he certainly considered the mode of choosing a chairman to preside at the election of a mayor and alderman, when there was an equality of votes, very unadvisable, being such a one as might lead to a representation of the borough for a time, which would by no means be a fair representation of it, yet, if that had been all the difference which existed between the two Houses, with reference to the measure under consideration, he might not have thought it necessary to press his view of the subject. At the same time he must say, that the provision which, had been introduced into the Bill by the House of Lords, that, in the event of such an equality as that to which he had alluded, recourse was to be had, not to the opinion of the burgesses at large, or any popular body, but to that of an individual to be selected by lot, was a violation of respect to the principle of popular election, on which the Municipal Act itself was founded. Still, he repeated, that if that amendment had stood alone he might perhaps have consented to concede it. But with regard to the second amendment to which he had adverted, the amendment in the manner of appointing charitable trustees, he hoped that he should have the general concurrence of the House in his motion for rejecting it. He entertained this expectation the more confidently, because, although, when the Bill was originally introduced into that House, many of its provisions were severely criticised by hon. Members on the other side, and great fault was found with some of them, it was generally allowed on all sides, that nothing could be more desirable than to put an end to the abuses which resulted from the manner in which the old trustees discharged their functions. When he stated, in the course of those debates, that an amendment proposed by the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tam-worth, would have the effect of replacing those trustees in their offices, the answer by the other side of the House was—"It is not intended to have any such effect; for we are as anxious as you can be to put an end to the existence of a power which has been so much abused in its exercise." He trusted, therefore, that there would be in that House a general concurrence in the opinion, that it was inexpedient that the power so vested, and which had been so abused, should be continued for another year. Was it possible to doubt the expediency of at once terminating such a power? Besides the general knowledge which every man must possess on the subject, were there not various reports on the table of the House, in which it was distinctly stated, that in many places it had been the custom of trustees of charitable funds to pay away those funds to individuals of one political party, to the exclusion of all others. He was sorry to be compelled to adopt the course which he was taking; but he felt that the House would be countenancing the abuses in question, if they agreed to an amendment which continued them for another year. The evil had been so universally admitted, even by those who entirely differed from his Majesty's present Government on general politics, that he was at a Joss to conceive by what argument the expediency of its continuance could be supported. The only cause which he had heard assigned for that continuance was, the expectation that a noble and learned Lord, who had been prevented by indisposition from attending in his place in Parliament during the present Session, might probably in another year be prepared with the general measure on the subject which he had last year given notice it was his intention to produce. No man could regret move than he did the circumstances which had, during the present Session, deprived the country of the exercise of the noble and learned Lord's talents in the other House of Parliament; but really it appeared to him that that absence was by no means a sufficient reason to warrant the continuance for another year of the abuses in question. It certainly was not a ground on which Parliament ought to legislate, that they should wait a year before they corrected certain existing and generally acknowledged abuses, in the hope that, in the next Session, a noble and learned Lord might bring forward a mea- sure in which the correction of those abuses would be comprehended. Had the amendment of the Lords tended to make the funds in question more applicable to the purposes for which they were intended, and to prevent their application to any other purpose, he should not have objected to it; but, so far from that, it went to alter the whole scope and character of the Bill. There might certainly be some temporary inconvenience sustained by the loss of the Bill. But he would much rather incur that inconvenience; he would much rather that the power now enjoyed by the trustees should remain for a time in abeyance; he would much rather that the Lord Chancellor should be called upon to make such orders as the peculiar circumstances of the case might require, than adopt such an amendment as the House of Lords had introduced into the Bill. He would not consent to continue to any set of men the power of distributing large sums of money under pretence of applying them to charitable purposes, while, in fact, they were bestowing them upon persons belonging to their own party. For these reasons he would now move, that that House disagree with the amendments in the Municipal Act Amendment Bill to which he had adverted.

Viscount Stormont

denied, that the House of Lords had thrown out the clause in the Bill to which the noble Lord had been principally referring, on the ground of the illness of a noble and learned Lord, and the expectation that that noble and learned Lord might in another year be prepared with a general measure on the subject. They threw it out because they thought, that, under its operation, the administration of charitable trusts in a borough would be influenced by party considerations. He was himself most anxious to put an end to the abuses which no doubt existed in the administration of the trusts in question; but he believed that the House of Lords were satisfied that such an object would have been obtained by the Bill which had been introduced by the hon. Member for Northampton.

The Attorney-General

believed, that the amendment made in the House of Lords had been so made, not because that House approved of the measure which had been introduced by the hon. Member for Northampton, but because their Lordships had been influenced by the opinions of Members of the old corrupt corporations. The clause which had been introduced by the House of Lords was, as his noble Friend had observed, not within the scope and character of the Bill. He acknowledged that the sacrifice recommended by his noble Friend was great; but he thought it much better to make that sacrifice than to concur in the Lords' amendments.—The old trustees had abused their trust, and there could be no hope of their reformation. If the first amendment adverted to by his noble Friend were adopted, in two boroughs it would be constantly determined by a cast of the dice whether the representatives of those boroughs should be Whig or Tory. Surely it was much better to refer that question to the constituent body—to the electors—to ascertain their opinions on the subject. That point, however, his noble Friend had said, if it were alone, he might give up; but the other amendment, by which the present trustees of charitable trusts were to be continued in power for another year, his noble Friend had very properly declared his determination not to give up.

Mr. David Barclay

, although he lamented the course which the House of Lords had taken, was not prepared to agree to the motion of the noble Secretary of State. Why not allow the Bill to pass with the amendments and bring in another next year?

Mr. Hume

expressed his surprise that the hon Gentleman, who admitted the existence of the abuses in question, nevertheless thought there would be no harm in continuing those abuses for another year. He (Mr. Hume) had been informed only yesterday that at Coventry the trustees of the charitable funds had given 4l. a head to voters of certain political opinions, and that up to the last hour the charitable funds had so been mal-administered. The course taken by the noble Lord appeared to him to be a very proper course. The noble Lord had stated, and he (Mr. Hume) was very sorry to hear that statement, that he should have been prepared to make a great concession to the House of Lords, Surely the time had come when the noble Lord must have learnt, from experience, that no concession to the House of Lords could be beneficial, and that the more he conceded to the House of Lords the more the House of Commons would be trampled upon. The noble Lord would find that his course would not be rendered, in the slightest degree, less rugged or difficult by concession. The course was for that House to take a course of their own— to be influenced by no consideration but a conviction of that which, in their own opinion, was advisable and expedient. The Bill under consideration could only be lost. Let it be so. Let it go forth to the public that it had been thrown out to please a political party. The question between the parties must be settled not within, but outside that House. The people of England were the party interested. Let them confess their opinion at elections. Let them not foolishly elect so large a body of the Members of that House who were opposed to all amelioration and improvement. If the people were so negligent or so ignorant of their duties as to send so many anti-Reformers into that House, they must expect the natural consequence. The process of discussion might go on within those walls, but it was outside of those walls that the question must be decided which party should have the preponderance. If at the next election the electors did their duty, and did not, as they had foolishly done at the last election, return so many Members opposed to the cause of the people—if they were not so shortsighted as, under any pretext, to send men to the House of Commons as their Representatives who were opposed to every amendment in any of our institutions, a different scene would present itself. Was it to be wondered at that the House of Lords seeing so large a body of anti-Reformers in the House of Commons—seeing that there were no fewer than three hundred Members of that character, should be encouraged to treat the people with contempt? for the people were treated with contempt when the Lords rejected every measure of Reform proposed to them. He hoped the noble Lord would soon learn the inexpediency of making any concessions to the other House. Let them be left to themselves, and they would become martyrs of their own conduct. They had now arrived nearly at the close of the Session; and the people of England would naturally ask every hon. Member on his return to his constituency what had been done in the course of it. What was the answer that must be given? "Not a single measure of importance has been carried." If the cause were asked, the reply must be, "The Tories would not let us; we carried several valuable measures in the House of Commons, but they were defeated in the House of Lords." The honest Members of that House would stand acquitted by the country. They would plainly say to them, "We have done our best, but we have been beaten by the other House. If you want Reform, elect Representatives who are favourable to Reform. We shall not then struggle day after day, and night after night, and yet at the close of the Session find that we have accomplished nothing." If the people would not attend to this—if they wanted to see a majority of the anti-Reformers, in God's name let them have it, and let the anti-Reformers take the reins of Government.

Mr. Charlton

remarked, that the whole burthen of the song of the hon. Member for Middlesex had turned on the word "anti-Reformers." The hon. Gentleman had charged that side of the House with being anti-Reformers. He denied the charge; they were as anxious for Reform as the hon. Member could be, but they would not consent, under pretence of reforming the House of Lords, as the hon. Member wished to destroy the Constitution. The hon. Member had referred to what had taken place in Coventry, and had asserted that large sums were distributed by the trustees among persons of a certain political creed. With what propriety could the hon. Member make this charge? The hon. Member said, that he had heard it; but there was not a title of evidence before the House to support him. The hon. Member, when he preferred such a charge, should at least bring forward his evidence, to show that there was some foundation for it. Supposing the continuance in office of the former trustees for one year longer to be an evil, the question was, whether it would not be better to permit this, than in the words of the noble Lord, to permit all the funds of the charitable trusts throughout the kingdom to be in abeyance, or to make use of the still stronger words of the Lord Chancellor, to leave the whole of the charitable property in the country un administered. This would be the necessary consequence of the course which the noble Lord had taken. No power was vested in the Lord Chancellor either to receive or to distribute, and if power was given to appoint trustees, they could only be appointed after litigation on litigation. The present state of the charitable trusts in the borough of Ludlow amply bore him out in asserting this opinion.

Mr. Villiers

congratulated the noble Lord on the course he had determined to adopt with respect to the amendments in- troduced by the Lords into this Bill. It was notorious that the administration of charitable funds had been grossly abused by the old corporators, in whose hands it had hitherto been vested, and the noble Lord was therefore perfectly right in insisting that it should be removed from them.

Mr. Morrison

also supported the proposition of the noble Lord, and pointed out the inconveniences which would arise in the borough of Ipswich in case of the Lords' amendments being agreed to.

Colonel Sibthorp

defended the conduct of the House of Lords. The hon. Member for Middlesex, when he complained of the rejection of several Bills, had omitted to state the most material circumstance. A perfect chaos of ill-digested matter, without order, without arrangement—a kind of omnium-gatherum in short, was submitted to their consideration, and under these circumstances the House of Lords could not be blamed if they rejected part of the crude and ill-considered mass brought before them and moulded the rest into a form better calculated to satisfy the just expectations of the country.

Motion agreed to, and Lords' amendments disagreed to.

Lord John Russell

, in answer to a question from Mr. Goulburn as to the course which it was intended to take with this Bill, said that these two amendments that had been disagreed to—namely, that relating to the choice of mayor and aldermen, and that relating to the appointment of charitable trustees—were the only material points of difference between the House of Lords and this House. The former of these amendments was not of such importance as the other, and he was therefore not disposed for the sake of this amendment to risk the loss of the Bill altogether, but the rejection of the other amendment he must adhere to. He should therefore feel it his duty, after disagreeing to these amendments, to ask a free conference with the House of Lords, for the purpose of stating the reasons that had induced them to disagree to those amendments, and to state the reasons why they should rather incur the loss of the Bill than agree to this latter amendment. They would by this means have an opportunity of seeing whether the House of Lords would insist on these amendments. He would therefore move, that a message be sent to the House of Lords on Thursday next to request them to appoint a free conference on the subject of these amendments.

Motion agreed to and a message directed to be sent to the Lords accordingly.

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