HC Deb 21 June 1836 vol 34 cc696-705

On the Motion of Lord John Russell, the House resolved itself into a Committee on the Registration of Voters' Bill.

On the 68th Clause, "as to putting questions at the poll,"

Mr. Maclean

rose to propose a motion of which he had given notice, "that the 3rd section of the clause relating to the question of qualification, be restored to the Bill." The object of the Reform Bill was not only to secure the representation of numbers, but of property also; but by the present state of the law many an honest voter was deprived of his franchise, although possessed of the requisite qualification, while others, who since their first registration had parted with their property, were enabled still to vote. It was also pretty well known that property was often conferred upon parties at the time of registration in order to make a vote for those who so transferred it. It was not to be expected that Members of Parliament would go to the expense of keeping up a machinery for the purpose of finding out and cancelling bad votes, but the law should be so constructed as to have that effect as far as it was practicable. He conceived that such would be the effect of a third question which he wished to have incorporated with the Bill. This protection against fraudulent voting, he admitted, was required more in counties than in boroughs and towns, because in the latter the overseers of the several parishes and other local officers were on the spot for the purpose of testing the qualification of the vote. The only questions now proposed by the Bill to be put to the party presenting himself at the hustings, were, first, as to the name and residence, and second, "Have you already voted either here or elsewhere at this election?" &c. Now, what he proposed to add was this question, "Have you the same property which is described in the register, or as much thereof as will entitle you to vote?" This would deprive no man who was properly qualified of his vote, while it would prevent bad votes from being taken.

The Chairman

suggested, that the amendment was applicable to the clause following before the Committee: amendment deferred; the clause agreed to.

The 69th Clause having been read, the amendment was again proposed.

Mr. George F. Young

expressed his willingness to support the amendment, if it were so modified as to meet the case of borough electors. It often happened that persons were deprived of their votes, not because they had no qualification, but simply because they had changed their place of residence; while others, who had become insolvent and retained no part of the qualification on which they were originally registered, came up and exercised the franchise; and not unfrequently would a man, after he had entirely left the place, as well as lost the property, return and vote at an election upon the qualification originally registered. These things he conceived to be entirely at variance with the principles of the Reform Act and of justice, and means ought to be taken to put a stop to them.

The Solicitor-General, after recapitulating the law of qualification as laid down in the Reform Act, observed, that though there might be some thirty or forty instances of the kind alluded to by the hon. Members who had spoken, out of some thousands of votes, he thought the balance of the conveniences was in favour of the existing law as proposed to be amended by the Bill. A competent tribunal had been appointed to test the qualification of voters, and it would he scarcely necessary to repeat it at the hustings.

The Amendment was withdrawn, and the Clause agreed to.

On Clause 75th,

Mr. Winthrop Praed

moved the omission of all the words after the words, "shall have tendered his vote at such election." The purport of the words so proposed to be left out was to restrict the power of Committees on election petitions to decide upon the right of parties to vote to cases "in which the name of such person shall have been specially retained upon the register, or inserted therein, or expunged or omitted there from, by the express decision of the Revising Barrister, or by the decision of the Court of Appeal," and also to cases of alleged legal incapacity of the person at the time of voting, by virtue of any Act now or hereafter to be in force, or which may have arisen subsequently to the making out of the register; in all other cases the register of voters in force at the time of election to be final and conclusive. He objected to this provision, as unequal and partial in operation. By adopting this rule, it would happen that in case of a disputed return for a borough which had been long subject to severe contested elections, and the register of which had consequently been thoroughly examined and disputed before the Revising Barrister, and was likely, therefore, to be the more correct, the Committee of this House would again undertake the task of examining and revising the list, thus doubling the expense and the trouble of those who had already had sufficient of both in endeavouring to make the register perfect. On the other hand, in the case of a borough, which had not been contested for some time previous, and the register of which had consequently been neglected by the constituents—this case, where no trouble had been gone to by the parties in order to obtain accuracy, where no expense had been incurred in disputing claims before the Revising Barrister—in such a case as this, where the greatest inaccuracy might reasonably be expected to prevail in the lists, no investigation was allowed to the Committee on the subject; and the parties who had spared themselves any trouble and expense on the subject, were now, through that very act of neglect, to escape from both for the future. This was, he thought, a very strong argument against the justness and the expediency of this part of the clause, and as he had not yet heard any attempt to defend the proposition, he should certainly take the sense of the Committee upon the amendment which he had just moved.

The Committee divided on the Amendment: Ayes 41; Noes 70—Majority 29.

Clause agreed to.

On Clause 76th, limiting the taking of the poll in counties, to one day.

The Earl of Lincoln

objected to this clause, on the ground that a voter, residing at a distant part of the county, might be unable in unfavourable weather to exercise his franchise; he wished that the consideration of the clause should be postponed.

The Solicitor-General

said, that there might be some imaginary cases in which parties might not be able to come to the poll, but it was impossible to legislate for every contingency that might be suggested, and he thought that the balance of convenience was in favour of the retention of the clause.

Lord Granville Somerset

contended, that if this clause were to be allowed to stand part of the Bill, it would debar the freeholders in many cases from exercising their rights to vote. It was not at all an extraordinary case, that an individual living on the borders of the counties should have property in each, and how was he to vote in respect to that property, if the poll was to be limited to one day? Besides, it would be giving the freeholders of the town in which the polling booth was erected, an immense advantage over the country freeholders. As to the argument which had been used on a former occasion in favour of this measure, that bribery was more successfully brought into play after the first day's poll, he must say that there were very few instances of bribery in counties. He did not see that there was any inconvenience from the excitement of the second day's poll, because the great struggle was made the first day, and the polling was always carried on languidly on the second day of polling. He should, therefore, decidedly oppose the clause.

Lord Ebrington

thought, that if power were given to the magistrates or the sheriff, to increase the number of polling places, the poll in counties might with great safety be limited to one day. The Committee which investigated this subject re ported, that it was well known that the time most favourable for bribery was between the first and second day's polling, and that many persons refused to vote on the first day, in order that they might be able to make their own terms. He could state, from his own experience, that instances of bribery in county elections were by no means so rare as the noble Lord opposite supposed, and bribery would be most effectually stopped if the poll were closed in one day. He found, by a comparative estimate that had been made of the number of voters who polled on the first and second days of polling in ten counties, that 37,000 polled the first day, and 7,000 the second, showing that five-sixths of the constituencies of those counties polled on the first day; and in another estimate, where thirty-three counties were taken, 115,000 polled the first day, and 25,000 the second. He would cite a glorious instance of what might be done from an example which occured before the Reform Act. In 1768, in the county of Norfolk, there was a contested election, and four candidates, and by an agreement between themselves and the sheriff, it was settled, that the election should be decided by the first day's poll. The election took place in the month of March, the poll began at eight o'clock in the morning, and closed at eight at night, and in the course of that time, 5,500 voters polled in the city of Norwich, and the poll might, in fact, have been closed by five o'clock. He had this statement from a living witness—Mr. Coke, of Norfolk. Thinking, therefore, that it was practicable to take the poll in counties in one day, and being of opinion that if that were done, it would save expense and prevent bribery, he trusted the Committee would agree to the clause.

Mr. Baines

observed, that in the last contested election for the West Riding of Yorkshire, where there was a body of 18,000 electors, and the extent of the district was not less than eighty miles in length, and from fifty to sixty miles in breadth, there would not have been the least difficulty in taking the whole of the votes in one day, and, in fact, a very few driblets of voters came up in the course of the second day. The whole body of electors, 18,000 in number, was polled out the first day, except about 2,000, and only a portion of those came up on the second day. If, then, the polling places were increased in number, he felt confident there would be no difficulty in taking the poll in counties in one day.

Mr. Charles Ross

remarked, that this clause embodied a disputed principle, and it would surely be most proper to have the question discussed in a separate form, and as a separate measure, and not to mix it up with details relating merely to the registration of votes. There might be many persons who objected to this part of the Bill, who agreed in thinking the clauses relating to registration expedient, and he would really put it to the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, whether it would not be better to withdraw the clause, and treat it as a separate measure.

Lord J. Russell

entirely agreed with the object which this clause had in view, but it was perhaps worthy of consideration, whether it would not be most convenient to deal with it as a separate Bill.

The clause was omitted. Several of the postponed clauses were agreed to, and the consideration of others further postponed.

Sir J. Graham

proposed an amendment, which was rendered necessary in consequence of the loose manner in which the 25th Clause of the Reform Act was worded. Till that Act was passed, leaseholders for a term of years had no franchise. A lease for lives was held to be equivalent to a freehold; but if it was terminable at a less period it was not so. For the first time, under the Reform Act, copyholds of 10l. per annum gave a right to vote in counties; and leaseholds, under certain limitations, were placed on the level of freeholds. It was the intention of the framers of that Bill that the right of voting in counties should interfere as little as possible with the right of voting in cities and boroughs, and it was therefore enacted, that no person should be entitled to vote for a county in respect of copyholds and leaseholds in boroughs. The intention of the framers of the Bill had, however, been defeated in consequence of the word "occupied" having been inserted in the 25th Clause of the Reform Act, instead of the word "held." The words of that clause were, that no person should be entitled to vote for a county "in respect of his estate or interest as a copyholder or customary tenant, or as such lessee or assignee, or as such tenant and occupier, as aforesaid, in any house, warehouse, counting-house, shop, or other building, or in any land "occupied" together with a house, warehouse, &c, such house, warehouse, &c, being either separately or jointly with the land so" occupied" therewith of such value "as would give a right of voting for the city or borough. He would put a case to illustrate his meaning. He, himself, occupied a house in Grosvenor-place, under a lease of sixty years unexpired, from the Marquess of Westminster. That house being a 10l. house, gave him a right to vote for the city of Westminster. Now, if he wished to create a vote out of that lease for the county of Middlesex, he could do it in this manner: he might let his coach-house for 7l. a year, and his stable for 6l. a year; and then, as he ceased to occupy them, it had been held by the revising barristers that they would also give him a vote for the county of Middlesex. Now, that was in direct contravention of the meaning and intention of the framers of the Reform Act; and he therefore wished to introduce a clause to remedy that defect. For that purpose he moved a clause, the object of which was to declare that no lease or assignment of a term of sixty years or twenty years respectively, or any unexpired portion of such term which confers a right of voting for a city or borough, shall confer a right of voting for the county in which such city or borough is situated.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

proposed, that this amendment, which was very important in itself, and very complicated in its wording, should be postponed for future consideration. It was taking hon. Members by surprise to call upon the Committee to pass it when thus suddenly pressed upon its notice.

Mr. Aglionby

said, that as this amendment had been on the notice-paper for more than a month, it could not fairly be said that it took the House by surprise. He fully agreed in the propriety of the observations which had fallen from the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Cumberland.

Mr. Pryme

denied that, there was any fraudulent object in this species of voters for counties.

Lord J. Russell

agreed with his right hon. Friend that the object of the framers of the Reform Bill was to prevent the inhabitants of towns voting for counties or premises which gave them the right of voting for cities and boroughs. He did not, however, understand how parties could make out before the revising barrister their claim to vote for counties in the mode in which his right hon. Friend had stated.

Mr. Hurst

objected to this amendment. It would have a much more extensive operation than the right hon. Baronet intended, and would act most injuriously to the interests and franchises of all subtenants.

Mr. Warburton

said, that if this matter were tried on the intentions of the framers of the Reform Act, the parties whom the right hon. Baronet opposed were not entitled to have votes for counties; but if it were to be tried on the merits, undoubtedly they ought to have them. It was intended by the Reform Act that property should be represented, and these parties having property in the county were entitled to the franchise. He should therefore oppose this amendment, and vote for retaining the clause as it stood at present in the Reform Act.

Mr. Jervis

was also opposed to the amendment. There was no objection on the part of the right hon. Baronet and his friends on the opposite side of the House, to let the landlords split their farms, so as to create as many votes as they could. It WHS well known that the landlords had availed themselves to the utmost of that power, and they only objected to it because they found that the landlords in towns were endeavouring to remedy that evil by availing themselves of their property for the same purpose. If the wording of the Reform Act had given this franchise to the holders of property in towns, he saw no reason why it should now be taken from them to please the right hon. Baronet and his friends on the other side of the House.

Mr. Brotherton

would like to say to the Committee, "It is now 12 o'clock;" but as those words might perhaps be considered objectionable, he would only say, that he should oppose this amendment, as to his knowledge it would disfranchise nearly a thousand good votes in the town and neighbourhood of Manchester.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

thought that it would produce the same effect in Birmingham. He hoped that the right hon. Baronet would therefore withdraw his amendment, for as a Reformer the right hon. Baronet should be anxious to extend rather than to contract the constituency.

Sir James Graham

had not said, that these votes were fraudulent. He had only said, and he must still maintain, that they were fictitious votes.

Mr. Brotherton

moved that the Chairman do now report progress.

The Committee divided:—Ayes 63; Noes 49—Majority 14.

The House resumed.

The Earl of Lincoln

moved, that the House do now adjourn. His reason was, that as his Majesty's Ministers thought that the time had arrived for reporting progress, it was clear that, in their opinion, the time must also have arrived for the adjournment of the House.

Lord John Russell

said, as the noble Lord (Lincoln) seemed to demand from him an explanation of his vote, he would state, that his opinion, as he had already mentioned was, that the clause of the Reform Act was entirely in conformity with the view stated by his right hon. Friend, the Member for Cumberland (Sir James Graham). In the course of the discussion, however, his hon. and learned Friend, the Solicitor-General, stated to him that he thought that there ought to be a further consideration of the original clause before the amendment moved by the right hon. Baronet, was agreed to. His hon. and learned Friend thought the original words of the Reform Act to be so extremely plain as to render it necessary that there should be some further consideration before it was determined whether any and what words might be required to be introduced to fill up any obscurity in the clause as it now stood. Having received that opinion from his hon. and learned Friend, he (Lord J. Russell) certainly took part with him, and consequently voted for the Motion, that the Chairman do report progress. He felt himself perfectly justified in taking that course, and he was quite indifferent to any interpretation which the noble Lord or the hon. Gentleman opposite might put upon his vote.

Sir James Graham

If the noble Lord had intimated, in the most distant manner, that he should have had no objection to the amendment, if upon further consideration it appeared necessary to carry out the original intention of the Act, he (Sir James Graham) should at once have requested permission of the House to withdraw the clause. If he now understood from the noble Lord that the clause would not be objected to, if upon further consideration it should seem requisite to achieve the object of the Act as it was originally passed, he should certainly request his noble Friend (Lord Lincoln) to withdraw the motion he had just made.

Lord John Russell

stated, that believing, as he did, the intention of the clause, as originally framed, to have been such as his right hon. Friend (Sir James Graham) had stated, if upon further consideration it should appear that such a clause as that proposed by the right hon. Baronet was necessary to carry that intention into effect, he should certainly feel bound to support it.

The Earl of Lincoln

withdrew his motion, which allowed the House to complete some routine business before it adjourned.