HC Deb 26 April 1837 vol 38 cc291-7

Mr. Williams moved that the Freemen's Admission Bill be read a second time.

Mr. Bennet

was surprised that any Reformer could bring forward such a measure as that, and he was determined to give it every opposition in his power.

Mr. Jervis

thought, that the sum at present demanded of freemen who sought to secure their rights, amounted to a positive prohibition of them to honest men. He should therefore support the Bill. He was convinced that the friends of reform ought not to seek to limit the franchise, but to extend it.

Mr. Wason

would support the Bill. He thought that the practice of candidates enabling freemen to take up their freedom was the first step to bribery.

Mr. Arthur Trevor

should be sorry if the motion of the hon. Member for Coventry were not carried. He could speak in terms of well-merited eulogy of the freemen of the borough which he represented, many of whom gave him their independent support, of which he should always be proud.

Mr. Tharnely

would support the propositions of the hon. Member for Wiltshire. He thought the retention of the freemen a blot on the Reform Bill, and therefore he would vote against reducing the difficulties of admitting them.

Mr. Charles Buller

was understood to say, that he thought the House would not countenance the present system of admission, as it was one by means of which the admission fees would always be paid by candidates. The House should, therefore, pass the Bill before it.

Lord John Russell

could not agree with the argument of the hon. Member who had spoken last, because he thought that a clause which required the payment of a certain sum for the purpose of taking out the freedom of a borough, would rather tend to promote bribery and corruption. The Bill before the House was introduced for the purpose of placing freemen in a better condition than they were before the Reform Bill; and though it was true that they were subjected to a tax for the right of voting, still it ought to be recollected that there was another class of voters who suffered infinitely more on that account, he meant those electors who could not vote unless they had paid up all their taxes before the 6th of April. He did not think the payment of taxes on a particular day was a fair imposition, because it was likely to deprive many 101. voters of the franchise, from inability to pay, or accidental circumstances. He therefore thought, if there was to be a relaxation as regarded freemen, a similar relaxation ought to be granted to the 101. householders—perhaps some such relaxation as that proposed by General Evans, that the period of payment should be extended to the 1st of October of the succeeding year. He did not think, therefore, that the one class should be placed on a more favourable footing than the other. It was his intention to vote for the second reading of the Bill, but at the same time he would state, that as there ought to be some relaxation with regard to the payment of taxes by 10l. householders, he would, when the Bill went into Committee, endeavour to frame a clause for that purpose.

Mr. Lowther

could bear testimony to the general integrity of the freemen. They had now lost their right of exclusive dealing, and he did not think it too much to grant this boon to them.

Mr. Warburton

said, that if the House took off the tax upon the admission of freemen, they should be prepared to give facilities to the payment of rates and taxes by the 10l. householders.

Mr. Mark Philips

observed, that having taken a part in the investigation of the Liverpool case, he felt so much disgust and indignation at the conduct of the freemen, that he was not prepared at first to give them exclusive advantages, while there was no extension of privilege to the constituency created by the Reform Act; but after what had fallen from the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Home Department, pointing out that this Bill might be made the means of opening more widely the 10l. franchise, which would only be just and right to those who were called into political existence by the Reform Act, he should not oppose the Bill in its present stage, as the House would have an opportunity of reconsidering the decision respecting the enforcement of the rate-paying clauses, to which, in his opinion, they most unwisely came.

Lord John Russell

hoped the hon. Member did not misunderstand him. He had not said anything in favour of doing away with the rate-paying clauses, but he had urged the propriety of a relaxation of their provisions.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that it appeared to him that these two measures stood on distinct grounds. There was no connexion between them. If the hon. Member for Manchester was disgusted with the conduct of the freemen, and thought that by relieving them of this tax, he was giving them an undue advantage, he ought to vote against the Bill. The hon. Member said, that he had viewed the conduct of the freemen with disgust and indignation, but he was willing to grant them this boon if he could obtain any facilities for the 10l. householders with respect to the rate-paying clauses. He thought the noble Lord (J. Russell) took a very unjust advantage of this proposition. The noble Lord said to hon. Members on the opposition side of the House, "You are bidding for the favour of the freemen, and I will bid for the goodwill of the 10l. householders." There was no connexion between the two questions. If it was right that the 10l. householders should be relieved from the payment of rates before acquiring a right to the franchise, let them be relieved on the grounds of policy or justice; but they ought not to consider the freemen and the 10l. householders as two adverse and antagonist bodies, and determine, that because one body was exempted from a certain charge, the other had a right to demand a corresponding relief. Let them ask themselves in either case, whether the proposed exemption was just or not, and relieve either the freemen or the 10l. householders as they found them entitled, according to the merits of each case. He (Sir R. Peel) should certainly, if there was a necessary connexion between the repeal of the tax on the admission of freemen, and the noble Lord's proposition respecting the rate-paying clauses, reserve to himself the right of questioning at a future stage of the Bill the propriety of relieving the freemen from that charge, at the expense of breaking down the qualification required by the Reform Act. He had always defended the rights of the freemen as they were established under the Reform Bill. He had never contemplated any extension of them, and he did not think that they had any right to call for such an extension. If it were contended that this Bill would diminish corruption, that might be a good and valid reason for relieving the freemen of the charge imposed upon them; but if it were urged that a relaxation of the rate-paying clauses ought to accompany this exemption, that argument would certainly not have the effect of recommending the measure. The sole ground on which this Bill might be supported, was not from any inherent right that the Reform Bill conferred on the freemen, because their franchise existed before the Reform Act passed; but if it would diminish corruption, that might be a very sufficient reason for agreeing to it. He was glad to hear the course which he had himself pursued, when the rights of the freemen were called in question, so amply vindicated by the testimony which hon. Members opposite had borne to the virtuous and hon. conduct of the freemen. He felt assured that private electioneering motives had nothing to do with that testimony. It was given upon a comprehensive philosophical view of the abstract merits of the question. It was a source of the greatest satisfaction to him to find, on the most unimpeachable evidence, that those whose privileges he had always defended, were the purest and the most incorruptible body of men in the country. What an injury then, what injustice, would the House have committed, if the representatives of the people had had their own way. What a great example of purity would they have lost. And yet they were now told that the Reform Bill was actually carried owing to the virtuous exertions of the freemen. The hon. Member for Coventry had told them so in express terms. He did not tell the House, as the hon. Member for Manchester did, that he had viewed the conduct of the freemen with disgust, but he declared that the freemen themselves were so anxious for the extension of the franchise, that with a virtuous disinterestedness "above all Greek, above all Roman fame," they had forced their representatives to vote for the Reform Bill. Why, what ingratitude would it have been if the House had turned round on this virtuous body, and deprived them of any portion of the rights secured to them by the very Bill which they had been so instrumental in carrying. The hon. Member for Ipswich, and the hon. Member for Chester, and the hon. Member for Coventry, ought to congratulate him on his judgment. They really ought to originate a subscription for him for a piece of plate, for having exerted himself to protect the freemen from the consequences of their own virtue, and thus hold him up as a testimony to all future times, that merit would sooner or later have its reward. The hon. Member for Ipswich declared on his honour, that there were 1,500 freemen who voted for him, and that his election only cost him 25l. He had defended the right of freemen to vote, on the ground that it was an hereditary franchise, that it was limited in extent, and one which established a connexion between degrees in society which the uniform character of the 10l. qualification did not admit of. He was glad to find an admission—he would not say a reluctant admission, as he was quite sure their votes would not be given with a reference to private electioneering interests—on the part of hon. Members opposite of the justice of these views, an admission which entirely reconciled him to the vituperations which he had received from the Attorney-General and several hon. Members on the Ministerial benches, for having defended the rights of this virtuous body, when the House of Commons was prepared to deprive them of those rights. When, however, he was asked to carry those rights further, and to relieve the freemen from a pecuniary charge which lay upon them before the passing of the Reform Bill, he must say, that if one of the necessary consequences of yielding to this request was to be the breaking down of the qualification established under the Reform Act, he should hesitate before he gave his final assent to this measure.

Mr. Wason

observed, that the remarks of the right hon. Baronet did not apply to him, as he had voted for his motion in 1831.

Mr. Wakley

said, that the taunts levelled by the right hon. Baronet at hon. Members sitting on his (the Ministerial side of the House) were richly deserved. He recollected when an immense body of Reformers in that House voted for disfranchising the freemen, and he certainly concurred with the right hon. Baronet in the surprise which he had expressed on that occasion. But he (Mr. Wakley) did not deserve those taunts. He had never been a party to any proceeding calculated to deprive freemen of the elective franchise. He had always voted in favour of the freemen, for he thought the poorer classes in England ought to be represented in that House. He would support the Bill, and was glad to find that the noble Lord was disposed, by the introduction of a clause in the Bill, to effect a relaxation of the law which, in its present shape, disfranchised thousands. Why should the freemen be required to buy their franchise by the payment of a pound? It occasioned bribery. The money in many cases came from the rich, who ought to be the parties punished; for the tempter should be punished, not the tempted. He knew many poor persons, however, who would suffer the loss of their bread rather than sacrifice their political independence. And was it the poor alone who were bribed? It had been proved that in Liverpool men worth 10,000l. had received bribes of 50l. Similar proceedings had taken place at Stafford, though not to so great an extent as in Liverpool. The poor were, therefore, calumniated on the subject. The Bill would get rid of the payment of the one pound by the freemen for their franchise, and that the freeman would no longer be tempted to sell his vote to the highest bidder. He hoped also that the House would go further on the subject of extending the elective franchise than the noble Lord seemed disposed to go. He thought that the Gentlemen who sat on both sides of the House must begin to perceive what the real state of public feeling on the subject was, and that there must be no squeamish-ness on their part.

Mr. Brotherlon

would vote for the Bill, because it would prevent corruption. He wished that all classes should hay fair play, and the abolition of the rate-paying clauses would have the same effect as the exemption from the payment of the stamp duty on admission to freedom. For his own part, he had found among the poor greater integrity and honesty than among the rich.

Sir Love Parry

bore testimony to the honesty and integrity of the poorer class of voters, and particularly to the excellent character of the scot and lot voters among his own constituents.

The House divided:—Ayes 75; Noes 21: Majority 54.