HC Deb 26 April 1837 vol 38 cc278-88

Mr. Robert Steuart, in moving the second reading of the Municipal Corporation Bill for Scotland, said, in the few observations I shall have to make in moving the second reading of this Bill, I shall not occupy at any length the attention of the House; but I do hope that the debate upon this question will be conducted without admixture of party feeling, and I do think I have redeemed my pledge by having given ample time between the first and second reading of this Bill for consideration of the subject. It will be in the recollection of the House that when the Municipal Reform Bill, the 3rd., and 4th., of William 4th., c. 86, passed, no provision was made in that Bill for the burghs of Scotland to meet their necessary expenditure; and it must be evident, that the Legislature had then in view some ulterior measure with regard to them. Sir, I will state briefly the objects of this Bill; first, then, it relates to the boundaries of burghs. It is well known that the former Bill altered the boundaries of almost every burgh, but no provision was made for extending the Municipal Corporations of Scotland over these boundaries; nor was any provision made for extending or altering the jurisdiction of the magistrates, the inconvenience of which has, in a great measure, been felt. Sir, the not extending of these boundaries is an evil. It is obvious that the increasing wealth and importance of some, and the diminishing wealth of others, has rendered some alteration necessary. In some of them the population has not increased since the original charter was granted, while in others it has increased in an enormous degree. I shall not deem it necessary to go through all the details of the Bill. I will mention very briefly some of the points. The first point, as I have already stated, is the boundaries; the next point is to increase the number of councillors. I propose, in some of the larger burghs, to increase the number of the members of the town council, and in other smaller burghs to diminish the number; but, perhaps, the most convenient opportunity of discussing that point will be when the Bill goes into Committee. The 'next object of the Bill is a complete set of police laws, which will save the expense of going to Parliament for a police act. The necessity of such a measure is so manifest, that I should be wasting the time of the House, were I to enlarge upon it. The other alterations are of such minor importance, that I do not think it necessary to refer to them until the Bill comes into Committee. With regard to the liability of parishes to the debts, &c, of burghs to which they may be added, I propose to have a special provision that all territories which are added to any burgh shall not be subject to any imposts to which the suburban districts at present are not liable. I also propose that if a certain proportion of the inhabitants should not consent to certain measures for conducting the affairs, that the magistrates shall be at liberty to interfere. Sir, I also propose that landlords, in case of their tenants absconding, shall only be liable to one-half (being their own half) of the assessment. The qualification clause I also propose to alter to this effect:—That the electors shall consist of such persons only as carry on business within the burgh. I cannot conceive it to be intended that persons not resident in the burgh, and having no interest in it, except a nominal qualification, should have any control in the election of councillors for that burgh. There is another provision that I propose to introduce: it is to this effect, that when any part of a county shall be added to a burgh, if the portion that is so added shall become liable in assessment for the repairs of the streets of that burgh, there shall be no assessment for statute labour on that part of the county. I propose also that the powers to bring in a supply of water shall be limited to those burghs in which there at present are no water companies. I also propose to put in a special provision, excepting any University or place of learning from the municipal assessment. I propose also to make an alteration with regard to the rights of burgesses, as I cannot see any one good to result from the continuance of that body. Now, Sir, with regard to Edinburgh forming part of this Bill, I am the more anxious to say something upon that subject, in consequence of the proceedings that have taken place in Edinburgh, and the statements that have been made in meetings that have been held there, that in contravention of a pledge that my hon. Friend the Lord Advocate and myself gave last year, Edinburgh has been included in this Bill. Now, I beg leave to say, that I have always thought that it would not be expedient to let the present state of things exist with regard to the boundaries of Edinburgh. I did not oppose Edinburgh being kept out of the Bill of last year, because I saw no probability of that Bill passing, but I have included Edinburgh in this Bill, because I do think it is of great importance that there should be a change in the present state of things, and I think it anomalous that a population of 80,000 souls should not be attached to a burgh whose population is only 50,000, and that it should be dependent upon it. I do therefore, hope if Edinburgh is withdrawn from this Bill, that it will be only upon a pledge that a Bill shall be introduced for the purpose of changing the municipal regulations of that city. I am most anxious to take upon myself the responsibility of removing Edinburgh from the operation of this Bill, and I wish to correct some misstatements that have been made with regard to the provisions of this Bill, as far as they affect the suburban districts. Sir, at some of the meetings called for the purpose of considering this question, it has been stated that if the provisions of this Bill were carried into effect, an assessment of 6¼ per cent., upon the rental of these districts might be imposed by the Corporation. I have had some opportunities of conversing with a gentleman who has taken an active part in the opposition to this Bill. I stated to him, in the strongest and most positive terms, that it never was in the contemplation of the framers of this Bill, nor did it ever come within the principles of the clauses, that the suburban districts should be liable to the previous debts of any previous boundary within the royalty of the city. It has been wilfully misrepresented to the inhabitants of these places, that under this Bill they might become liable to all the debts and all the existing burthens of the royalty, and, moreover, that a tax I have before mentioned, might be imposed upon them, to the extent of 6¼ per cent, upon the rental. Upon the whole, I have a right to complain, that the intentions of the framers of this Bill have been misrepresented in the different statements that have been put forth. Sir, it certainly would appear, that it is not a wholesome state of things, that there should be so large a population, divided by an imaginary line, forming parts of one great city, and not under the same control. I feel this will be to the advantage of all, and I am certain, before long, a very great many of those who are opposed to it will regret the opposition that they have upon the present occasion given. Sir, having said thus much, I move that this Bill be now read a second time; and I cannot, injustice to a gentleman who appears to have performed a duty that lays all Scotland that is connected with municipal affairs under obligation to him, — I cannot conclude without expressing on my own part, thus publicly, the high sense I entertain of the manner in which the secretary to the Commissioners has discharged his duties. I take this opportunity of tendering my admiration of his conduct, and the zeal that he has displayed. Having done so, I now move that this Bill be read a second time.

Major Gumming Bruce

Sir, my hon. Friend disclaims all intention of producing by this Bill any political feeling, and I am disposed to give him full credit for that declaration, but I must say, on looking over the clauses of the Bill, I do see in them powers given in some cases very unnecessarily, for the purpose of supporting the interests of particular parties. This, perhaps, is not the time to refer to that part of the Bill, it may be objected to when the Bill comes into Committee. The clauses to which I have particularly alluded, are those that give the power to the Crown of giving additional magistrates to burghs, and of altering or re-constructing burghs already established. My hon. Friend has said, that he has given ample time for the consideration of this subject, and I am not at all going to deny that he has redeemed his pledge; but I cannot help regretting that a much greater time has not been allowed than has been allowed, to pass, in the construction and framing this Bill, in regard to the municipal concerns of Scotland. The extent of legislation regarding our Municipal Corporations is so large, that it would require the study of a long legal life to become acquainted with it. I think it would have been as well, if, instead of introducing this Bill, my hon. Friend had applied his ability and talent to the consolidation of these laws, instead of bringing a multiplicity of Bills that I conceive will materially confuse the understanding of all ordinary men wishing to acquire a knowledge of what the law really is as affecting our municipal institutions; and there is this disadvantage in the multiplicity of these Bills, many of the provisions contradict one another. Many of the provisions are of an extraordinary character. There is in this Bill, under the consideration of the House, a clause which provides, that the country town clerks throughout Scotland, shall henceforth be annually elected by the magistrates. All the officers, therefore, at present holding office for life, will have their interests materially interfered with, and will be entitled to compensation. Sir, while I shall not feel it my duty to oppose the second reading of this Bill, I cannot avoid stating my regret that these Bills have been precipitately introduced into the House, and I think it would be better if they were wholly withdrawn, and a more substantial and efficient measure affecting the Parliamentary and royal burghs, and the burghs of legality, were introduced. With regard to some of the towns, I agree with my hon. Friend opposite, that there is great difficulty in finding respectable persons qualified to vote in sufficient numbers to constitute a fair constituency, and there is a great difficulty also to find persons to hold the offices of baillies and magistrates of those burghs. In one of them that difficulty has already been experienced. I shall vote for the second reading of this Bill.

Sir George Clerk

Sir, I shall offer no opposition to the second reading of this Bill, because I admit there are many matters that do require some alteration, and for which purpose I think a Bill should be introduced. But, at the same time, there are certain provisions in this Bill to which I cannot at present give my consent, and which it will be necessary to discuss at length when it goes into Committee. I rejoice to hear from the hon. Member that it is his intention to omit Edinburgh in this Bill. The Attorney-General has assured his constituents that he will take care Edinburgh is not included in it, and the Lord Advocate has made the same statement; so there can be very little doubt that it will be done. I confess I do not agree with the hon. Member's views in respect of the suburbs of Edinburgh. I think they are not so much in want of a Municipal Corporation, as for the mere advantage of having a share in the election of councillors for the city of Edinburgh, to have themselves burthened by taxation, which would be the necessary consequences of being united. The hon. Member says it appears an anomaly that a large city, which I may call the southern districts, separated by an imaginary line, hardly defined in many instances, should not be under the same magistracy as the ancient city. Now, Sir, I should like to know whether any inconvenience has arisen from Westminster not being placed within the city of London? Do the people of West-minster think they should be under the control of the magistrates of the city of London? I believe they are satisfied with the manner in which they manage their affairs at present, and have no wish to be united with the Municipal Corporation of the city of London. Sir, in the Bill which the hon. Member has brought in there are many very important clauses which go to affect the whole principle of the Bill brought in in 1833; and the most material are those where he proposes to alter the qualification. It is in direct op-position to the Report of the Commissioners made in 1834, and upon which Report this Bill is founded; indeed, we are told, that this Bill is drawn up by the gentleman who acted as secretary to that commission. Now, Sir, without wishing to detract from the services of that gentleman, if they have not been greater to that commission, than the making of this Bill I cannot agree in the compliment which the hon. Member passed upon him. With respect to the 51. qualification, the Commis- sioners say, "We find in smaller burghs the number of persons who live in 10l. houses bears pretty nearly the same proportion as in the larger cities, therefore, they see no reason for altering the qualification." But there are places in Scotland where there are not sufficient persons occupying 10l. houses to make councillors— and what do the Commissioners recommend?—A reduction of the number of councillors in those burghs. In some seaports and places now fallen into decay, the Commissioners recommend that the Corporation shall be reduced to fifteen, twelve, or even nine councillors, and there is a great class of these burghs where they recommend a reduction to not exceeding six; and there is another class where they shall not exceed three. Sir, I think, the recommendation of those Commissioners is entitled to great weight and respect—that the remedy they proposed of diminishing the number of councillors is the right remedy, and that you ought not to introduce the anomaly of having a different qualification in those burghs on account of their size, because if you do admit that, upon that ground alone it is necessary to alter the qualification of municipal councillors from 10l. to 5l., I should like to know on what ground you can resist reducing the Parliamentary qualification also in these burghs? On that ground I shall feel it my duty to give my decided opposition to that part of the Bill which proposes to reduce in these burghs the amount of qualification, unless reduction is not confined to the municipal qualification alone, but is extended to the Parliamentary qualification. The Commissioners think that where there are small towns there are strong reasons for removing them from the control of a burgh, and placing them, as in former instances, under the charge of their own magistrates, instead of imposing upon them the expense of keeping up the paraphernalia of the burgh. Sir, they will be glad to be relieved from that burthen and placed under the jurisdiction of sheriffs and magistrates, as was done in many other instances in Scotland. I think it is only necessary to state that, in many cases, you are legislating for villages, where, it is difficult to find three or four houses of the value of 5l., to shew that you cannot apply to them a great number of the clauses of this Bill, which may be applicable to a large town of ten or twelve thousand inhabitants, but which are per- fectly inapplicable to villages, some of which contain only 400 individuals. My hon. Friend has observed that about nine-tenths of this Bill is nothing more than a repetition of the clauses contained in the general police Act, but we are left in the dark whether the general police Act is to be repealed or not. The hon. Member also stated, that great misstatements had arisen in respect of towns not now included in the municipal boundaries, becoming liable for the debts of the burghs to which they may be united. I believe that it is not the intention of the framers of this Bill; but still they would be liable on any new assessment, for the sum of 1s. or 2s. in the pound, as the case may be, upon the property. Now, Sir, there are very many great objections to this Bill, with regard not only to Edinburgh, but to the persons who have property in the immediate vicinity of these burghs. Gentlemen who have country houses of great value have no wish whatever to have this measure carried into effect. They see no advantage that is likely to accrue to their property by being included within the burgh. I think it would be very unjust to the owners of those houses who are satisfied with the present state of things, and who wish their property to be under the jurisdiction of county magistrates, and not under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation. I see, therefore, no reason why the municipal boundaries should be altered, and I think, Sir, instead of making this confusion in the burghs it would be better to keep the ancient recognised municipal boundaries, than to involve the case in very great difficulties, by raising up opposition on the part of all those persons who object to have their property damaged by being included within the burghs. Sir there will be several other points which it will be necessary to discuss when we come to consider this Bill in Committee. I think it may be shortened; I think it is unnecessary to have nine-tenths of this Bill upon police, and another statute at the same time. It is, Sir, a Bill, that, in its provisions is analogous to an Act of Parliament, which we have passed for Ireland namely, the 9th Geo. 4th., which gives to burghs all the necessary powers of Government, for establishing police, for lighting, watching, and cleansing the town, and supplying it with water. Now, Sir, when you are going to levy, in order to keep up the expense of the Corporation, you make the inhabitants of these towns liable in a very severe tax, and if those inhabitants consider that this will be an advantage, it is their affair, not mine; but I do hope that both as regards towns of that description, but more particularly as regards ancient burghs, that the municipal boundaries will not be extended for the purposes of bringing in a great number of towns that are not now subject to those heavy municipal liabilities which they will then be subject to. I will not trespass any longer upon the House, except to state that I shall feel it my duty, to suggest several important alterations in the provisions of this Bill.

Mr. Chalmers

.—In the Bill of last year, provisions were made that parties having an interest in the funds of these Corporations should form themselves into societies, by which those funds be administered. It is of the introduction of these provisions I now complain. I hope the hon. Member will, at least, introduce a clause to prevent the improper or lavish expenditure of these funds.

The Lord Advocate

.—Sir, with regard to what my hon. Friend says, that there ought to be a clause to prevent the improper distribution of the funds of the Corporation he would imply that a Corporation has a right to distribute its funds. It has no such right — a Corporation must exist according to its grant, and can only be dissolved by the terms of that grant. Having referred to that matter, I must state that I cannot agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the northern burghs, in what he said with respect to the two acts to which he alluded relative to the town clerks and the sheriffs. Instead of one Bill being contradictory of the other, the one Bill appoints compensation to be given, and lays the foundation for the other Bill. There has been an endeavour in this Bill to take advantage of every thing that is good in that Bill, and to add such provisions as may be desirable. Then, with regard to the police, there have been great representations from the royal burghs that due provisions were necessary with respect to that, and a great number of Bills have been brought up; but if this Bill is successful in its result, it will prevent the introduction of other Bills, which will be in itself a great advantage. Sir, I do not think it necessary to take up more of the time of the House upon the second reading of this Bill, and I will only add to what has been said with reference to the city of Edinburgh, that I think it adviseable there should be a separate Bill for that city. In expressing my opinion last year I gave no pledge nor promise, and I consider myself perfectly free; but I think it will be better to take the city of Edinburgh in a separate Bill, than to include it in this Bill. I apprehend the House will have no hesitation in reading this Bill a second time; and, before it goes into Committee, I shall be happy to receive any suggestions from hon. Members upon the subject. With regard to there having been too much haste used in bringing forward this question, I think, Sir, the great misfortune has been that there has been no legislation for many years. Charities have been allowed to squander their money, and to contract debts, and defeat the objects for which they were instituted; and, if there had been a few hasty Bills brought forward forty or fifty years ago, there would not be the same difficulties that now exist. We might then have framed a code of those various hasty Bills, and still have had those funds to administer, which the munificence of royal sovereigns formerly conferred upon Royal burghs.

Mr. Forbes

I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without stating that there are clauses in this Bill which I shall feel it my duty to oppose most decidedly. With regard to tardy legislation, I must say I would rather see slow justice, than injustice done rapidly—and I hope the hon Gentleman will not proceed too hastily in this matter.

The Attorney-General

Sir, having presented several petitions—some praying that Edinburgh may be excluded from the provisions of this Bill, and others that it may be included in them— I feel it my duty to express my own sentiments upon the subject. Now, Sir, I differ entirely from the hon. Baronet, the Member for the county of Edinburgh. I think all Scotland ought to be under one uniform municipal system. There is no comparison to be made between Edinburgh and the cities of London and Westminster. The city of Edinburgh forms one community by the sending of Members to Parliament, and ought to form one corporation. I am roost anxious to have this Bill to pass during this Session of Parliament, and I think if Edinburgh were allowed to remain within its provisions —that most desirable object would be rendered impossible. But I consent to its exclusion only on the understanding that there shall be a separate Bill introduced, providing for the city of Edinburgh alone, and by that Bill ample justice will be done to all classes of the community. All have equal benefits, and I do hope that the discontent which has prevailed, may be abandoned, and perpetual peace established.

Mr. Andrew Johnston

Sir, I hope when this Bill goes into Committee, the objections which the burgh Members can make will be fully considered. It certainly would be desirable that this Bill should include in its provisions the city of Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland); though I agree with the hon. Member, the learned Attorney-General, that it may be expedient for the purpose of carrying the Bill through the House, this Session, that Edinburgh should be excluded. I had entertained a hope that the Bill would be considered a Government measure — that it would not be put off from Wednesday to Wednesday, and regarded as the Bill of an individual, but that it would take its place as a leading measure. If I, Sir, should find any intention of postponing this Bill, I shall, considering the lateness of the season, take an opportunity of proposing that the Bill shall be read this day six months, merely to mark the strong feeling I have upon the subject.

Bill read a second time.

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