HC Deb 22 June 1836 vol 34 cc746-54

Mr. Wakley, after presenting several petitions, praying for reform in the system of parish voting, proceeded to move the second reading of the Parish Vestries Bill. It would be re collected that a Bill had been introduced by Sir John Hobhouse, repealing so much of Sturges Bourne's Act as imposed it upon the parishes within the bills of mortality; and it had been considered by many, that a similar bill ought to have been introduced, which should apply to the whole country, inasmuch as the system of voting which that Act had enacted had been productive of the greatest discontent, and the greatest mischief throughout the kingdom. Until 1819 such a system of voting was unknown in this country, in our parochial proceedings; and after examining the discussions which had taken place at the time that Act was passed, he (MR. Wakley) could find no reasons stated which appeared to him to make out a case justifying its provisions in this respect It appeared to him to have been a perfect piece of wantonness; and that its only object was, to throw the administration of the parochial funds into the hands of persons of property, to keep up what was called "the just influence of property." When a rate was levied in a parish it was levied so as to apply to the whole community; and he (Mr. W.) should like to know why the power of influencing the distribution of the parochial funds should not be also shared equally by all? But in every instance almost in which this system of voting had been introduced, its effect had been totally to paralyze the voice of the minority. Until 1818 the vestries of this country were generally open; the labouring classes had their just influence in the management of their parochial funds, and consequently they were contented. It would be for those gentlemen who did not agree with him (Mr. Wakley) to prove that since this system of voting had been adopted, equal satisfaction and content had existed in the country parishes? In his belief, if the law before the present system was introduced was bad, it had, since that period been infinitely worse. By Sturges Bourne's Act the occupier of a 50l. tenement had one vote; if it were worth 25l. more he had an additional vote; and for every 25l. another vote, till the total reached 150l., or six votes, to which his privilege became limited. The power of voting was thus conferred upon the rate-paying occupiers; but in 1823 the House transferred that power to the owners, and permitted them to vote by proxy for property occupied by other in- dividuals; it took from the occupier the power of giving his six votes for property rated at 150l. a-year, and transferred it to the non-resident owner! So that in the present state of the law an owner of 150l. a-year might have nine votes, while an occupier to the amount of 200l. could only give one vote. Such an anomaly in legislation was most odious, and it was still more so considering that a reformed Parliament had the power to amend such a state of things. A case had occurred in his own neighbourhood lately which would illustrate the injustice. Suppose, that twenty persons living in a parish had 150l. a year each, amounting to 3,000l. a year; and suppose that 100 other persons had 30/. a year each, amounting to the same sum; those twenty persons could at pre sent give 120 votes, while the 100 per sons rated at the same gross sum could only give 100 votes. Thus one-fifth of a parish could neutralise four-fifths, their equals in point of property. The House could not sanction such a state of legislation without sanctioning all sorts of in justice. In the late election at St. Mar tin's parish twenty-four candidates were to be found on each side. The lowest. Liberal candidate had 748 votes, and the highest Conservative candidate had only 662; yet sixteen Liberal candidates were made to give place to sixteen Conservatives. This was not all. Several persons dismissed from the vestries for improper conduct had brought in proxies; one had gathered thirty-one of these votes; an other fourteen; another sixteen; another seventeen. Altogether, eight dismissed persons had collected 129 proxy votes. Now he would ask, if such a system of voting was a just one. If it were, why was it not introduced into the Reform Bill,—why not introduced into the Municipal Corporation Bill. If the representative principle was to be introduced at all into the parochial system of the country, it ought to be carried into operation, by arrangement which would work harmoniously, and produce satisfaction and content. But the present system was one that actually disfranchised large amounts of property. It was a law of disfranchisement, with regard to property,—to rate paying,—to democratic right. It was one of the worst laws of the old corrupt be rough-mongering Parliament; and surely it would not be maintained by a House of Commons calling itself "Reformed." The people now looked for the fruits of the Reform Bill, and if they found that the reformed Parliament did but support the bad measures of the unreformed, and corrupt body, he (Mr. Wakley) would say it would be better for them to be again under the old system, and that the power of legislation should once more be vested in the hands of the select few. The hon. Member concluded by moving, that the Bill be read a second time.

Lord John Russell

Sir, I stated to the hon. Member, that though I should not object to his bringing in this Bill, it was not my intention to consent that it should go through any further stage at present. The ground on which I am not disposed to agree to it at present is, that I conceive its operation would be injurious to the ex tension of the Poor Law Amendment Bill, which I consider a most valuable Act, and which has been carried most successfully into operation in many places. This Parish Vestries Bill would, I am aware, very much interfere with, or do away altogether with, that Act in many parishes, therefore I certainly feel very much op posed to it. I shall not upon this occasion enter into the question which the hon. Member for Finsbury has raised, whether or not the system of voting by proxy is a just or desirable one: that may come hereafter more properly under discussion: all I say now is, that as I should be very sorry indeed to obstruct the working of the Poor-law Act; and as that would be the effect of this Bill, I hope it will not receive the sanction of the House.

Mr. Hume

was as anxious as the noble Lord for the free and unfettered working of the Poor-law Act, but he did think the proposition of his hon. Friend, the Member for Finsbury, worthy of the consideration of the House. He (Mr. Hume) did not believe the present system of voting in parish vestries could be approved of by the noble Lord. And all his hon. Friend proposed to do was to go back to the old established law of the land, that every rate-payer had his vote; in place of the innovation introduced by Sturges Bourne's Act. But if the noble Lord really considered that the hon. Member's Bill would tend to obstruct the operation of the Poor-law Bill, he (Mr. Hume) should advise his hon. Friend to strike out of his Bill all that part of it which referred to Poor-law Unions, in order that no fear might exist of such con sequences resulting from it as the noble Lord anticipated. With that end, he hoped the noble Lord would consent to the Bill going into Committee, and it might there be so altered as to be confined in its operation to parish vestries.

Mr. Pease

felt himself bound to object to the second reading of the Bill, on the ground that its operation would be extremely mischievous in several parishes. He should most decidedly object to any measure tending to interfere with the pre sent mode of voting in parochial vestries. He therefore moved that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.

Mr. O'Connell

The objection urged against the Bill by the noble Lord is intelligible enough; the opposition of the hon. Member for Durham is perfectly un intelligible. The principle of the Bill is the principle of the common law, that every rate-payer should have his vote. Does he object to that principle? If he does he objects to a recognised principle of the common law, and of common sense. The rate levied in a parish presses more heavily upon the poor man than upon the rich man: the poor man's shilling is in comparison as much as the rich man's pound. I repeat it, there must be some thing behind the opposition of the hon. Member—it is perfectly unintelligible. He may perhaps wish to out-vote his poorer neighbours by reason of the length of his purse; that is quite comprehensible. After all, what alteration can this Bill make in the working of the Poor-law Bill? We have had complaints that the mode of election under that Bill gives undue weight to particular properties against the aggregate, and all that is sought by this Bill is to alter the system of parish voting so as to make it conformable to the principles of the common law, and in favour of those who compose the majority of the rate-payers, and on whom, comparatively speaking, the burden of the rates falls. I do hope this Bill will be allowed to go into Committee, the House will then be able to examine its details, and if it be found that it will interfere with or prevent the working of the Poor-law Amendment Act, (though I do not believe it can,) we can exclude those parts of it which apply to that Act.

Mr. Pryme

agreed with the hon. Member for Durham that the Bill of the hon. Member for Finsbury was one of a most objectionable nature, more particularly as regarded country parishes, as its effect would be to place the funds of many parishes at the disposal of thirteen or fourteen labourers, to the exclusion of the wealthy farmers. Many parishes were not divided into more than ten farms; and the effect of this Bill would be to give the occupiers of those farms the management of the whole property in the parish. He (Mr. Pryme) believed, that if such an alteration as this were to take place, the value of agricultural property through the kingdom would be greatly deteriorated. Reference had been made to the ancient law upon this subject. But he (Mr. Pryme) was surprised to hear such an argument used on his side of the House. If there were anything in the argument drawn from antiquity, why not carry it out to its full extent, and why was it not applied to the reform of Parliament, and to municipal reform? Besides which it should be remembered, property was much more divided now than it was anciently. The present state of the law did not do more than give to property its just preponderance, for would it be reason able that small occupiers should have more weight and influence in the administration of the parochial funds than those large owners of property whose interest in the parish was twenty or fifty times as great.

Mr. Ward

asked, if, before the present system of voting was established, the effects were produced which the hon. Member for Cambridge anticipated from its repeal? And he would also ask if that system of voting had not everywhere been the constant source of ill-feeling and discontent. If so, would not the House support the hon. Member for Finsbury in an attempt to remedy evils which all must acknowledge, and which all must be anxious to remove. At the same time he (Mr. Ward) thought that if the Bill interfered with the working of the Poor-law Bill, it would have a bad effect. The present system of parish vestry voting had given to the great landowners, in his opinion, an influence which without it they would never have possessed, and which they ought not to have: it had produced many abuses, it had led to many evils, and he should therefore vote for the second reading of this Bill, in order that in Committee it might be there altered so as to make it as perfect as possible; but he did so with the express condition that in Committee he should be at liberty to oppose it, so far as it would affect the operation of what he considered a valuable Act.

Mr. Hardy

hoped the Bill would be allowed to go into Committee, because he was willing to go so far with the hon. Member for Finsbury as to correct an anomaly which at present existed in parish vestry voting, viz.—that the practical effect of the present system was to give twenty persons more power than 100 persons, because they happened to possess more property. Now, he thought that every rate-payer had a right to a voice in the administration of affairs which concerned his own interests. And in his opinion the best way of correcting this anomaly was to go into Committee on the Bill of the hon. Member, with that object. He (Mr. Hardy,) thought that the property ought to have its due influence, it ought not to have more than its due influence; and it did in his judgment possess an undue influence, when it gave to a small number of persons in a parish a greater influence than the majority of parishioners in the management of the parochial affairs.

Mr. Plumptre

would vote against the Bill. Dr. Bowring considered that the Bill of the hon. Member for Finsbury was no thing more nor less than a Bill carrying out the principle of the Reform Act, which was, that the rights of individuals were entitled to more respect than the rights of property. And on that ground alone he should vote for its second reading.

Mr. Philip

Howard was favourable to the principle of the Bill, but considered that the proper course would be to bring the measure forward next Session by moving for a Committee to consider what alterations ought to be adopted in the present system of voting in vestries.

Mr. Hawes

would support the motion of the hon. Member for Finsbury. As to the objection that it would tend to lessen the influence of property, he considered that the passing of the Poor-law Amendment Bill had completely cured any difficulty of that description.

Mr. Goulburn

could not think it desirable that those who paid the smallest amount of rates should have the greatest amount of influence in the management of the parochial funds. He knew not much about the metropolitan districts, but in the country the present system had been most beneficial, inasmuch as it gave greatest influence to those who from their station, &c, were more likely to possess knowledge and general abilities requisite for enabling them to exercise that influence to the advantage of the whole parish. But the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Finsbury would give to men possessing 30l. a year the same influence as those who possessed 300l. or 3,000l. per annum. He (Mr. Goulburn) did not think that such a state of things was desirable, and he should therefore oppose the Bill.

Mr. Benett

said, that as a country Gentleman, he could, from long experience, assert that no practical evil resulted from the present system of parish vestry voting. The effect of the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Finsbury would be to place in many instances the whole control of the funds of a parish at the disposal of ten or twelve labourers, whose influence could be purchased for ten or twelve quarts of beer, and who would be, therefore, easily excited by artful and designing men (of whom there were always enough in every parish), to enter into any hostile combination against the great landholders of the parish. He (Mr. Benett) need not point out the great practical evil which would result from such a state of things. Let the hon. Member for Finsbury legislate for his own borough if he pleased, but let him not interfere with country parishes.

Major Beau clerk

was surprised at the assertion of the hon. Member who had just spoken, that those engaged in agricultural pursuits, and who resided in country parishes, could be bought for quarts of beer. He considered that such an assertion was an insult to the humbler classes inhabiting the rural districts. He should vote for the second reading and going into Committee on this Bill, because he believed the present system of voting in parish vestries to have been productive of the worst effects throughout the country.

Mr. Potter

said, his knowledge of the operation of the present system of voting was confined to large towns, it was true; but he must say, in his opinion, it had operated most injuriously. In Manchester it had produced more disputes and ill-will among the inhabitants than almost any other subject. He should support the second reading of this Bill, in hopes of remedying the evils of the existing system.

Mr. Wakley

said, he had passed a great part of his life in rural districts, and he had always found that the landed interest endeavoured to oppress those who were poorer than themselves.

The Speaker

intimated that the hon. Member must confine himself to reply.

Mr. O'Connell

An amendment has been put; the hon. Member may speak on that,

Mr. Wakley

continued. He would observe, that in London (city) the Act which went by the name of Sturges Bourne's did not apply, nor in Southwark, nor in Marylebone, where a system of open voting had been introduced four years ago. If the noble Lord, the Home Secretary, was afraid that his Bill would interfere with the working of the Poor-law Amendment Act, he would make no objection to adopt the suggestion of his hon. Friend, the Member for Middlesex; but if the noble Lord would not consent to the measure with the alteration proposed he should certainly press his motion to a division.

The House divided on the original motion. Ayes 42; Noes 60:—Majority 18.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Marsland, H.
Baines, E. Musgrave, Sir R.
Barnard, E. G. O'Connell, D.
Beauclerk, Major O'Connell, J.
Bewes, T. Pechell, Captain
Bodkin, J. J. Potter, R.
Bowring, Dr. Roche, W.
Brodie, W. B. Rundle, J.
Butler, hon. P. Smith, B.
Chalmers, P. Stuart, H. C.
Collier, J. Thompson, Colonel
Crawford, W. S. Tulk, C. A.
Elphinstone, H. Turner, W.
Ewart, W. Walker, C. A.
Fort, J. Waller, J.
Gillon, W. D. Warburton, H.
Gully, J. Ward, H.G.
Hall, B. Wilde, Sergeant
Hardy, J. Wood, Alderman
Harvey, D. W.
Hawes, B. TELLERS.
Hector, C. J. Wakley, T.
Lister, E. C. Hume, J.
List of the NOES.
Agnew, Sir A. Goulburn, rt. hon. H.
Alsager, Captain Goulburn, Sergeant
Arbuthnot, hon. Hugh Hay, Sir J.
Balfour, T. Hay, Sir A. L.
Baring, F. T. Hayes, Sir E. S.
Benett, J. Heneage, E.
Calcraft, J. H. Hogg, J. W.
Cayley, E. S. Hope, J.
Chichester, A. Howard, P. H.
Chisholm, A. W. Inglis, Sir R. H.
Cole, Lord Johnstone, J. J. H.
Cooper, Edward J. Johnston, A.
Cripps, J. Lee, J. L.
Curteis, E. B. Lees, J. F.
Duncombe, hon. W. Lennox, Lord G.
Egerton, Sir P. Martin, J.
Elley, Sir J. Morpeth, Lord
Estcourt, T. O'Loghlen, M.
Finch, G. Palmerston, Viscount
Forster, C. S. Pelham, hon. C. A.
French, F. Plumptre, J. P.
G re, O, Poulter, J. S.
Pryme, G. Townly, R. G.
Rae, rt. hon. Sir W. Trevor, hon. A.
Rickford, W. Twiss, H.
Ross, C. Weyland, Major
Russell, Lord J. Wigney, I. N.
Russell, Lord C. Yorke, E. T.
Sharpe, General
Sheppard, T. TELLERS.
Spry, Sir S.T. Pease, J.
Stewart, P. M. Steuart, R.