HC Deb 09 May 1837 vol 38 cc750-5
Mr. Lawson

rose to move, pursuant to notice, "that the names of the voters reported on by the Longford Election Committee be struck off the register of voters for the county of Longford." The course of the House, he said, was manifest, and he was very glad that the hon. Member for Meath had given notice of an amendment, as this would bring the question fairly to issue. If the register were not to be purified, the bona fide electors must inevitably be swamped.

Mr. H. Grattan

said, that whatever might be the case in England and Scotland, the Speaker had clearly no right to authorise any clerk of the peace in Ireland, to strike the names of voters off the register, and he therefore moved, as an amendment, a resolution "that the Speaker is not authorised to direct the clerk of the pece of any borough, city, or county in Ireland, to strike the name of any voter off' the register."

Lord Clive

, as Chairman of the Longford Election Committee, begged to say a word or two on this subject. It appeared to him, that many of the remarks which had fallen from hon. Members in reference to this Committee, could only have been made in entire ignorance of the subject. There could be no doubt that it was the duty of the Chairman of an election Committee to give his casting vote in cases where the numbers were equal, and this was a duty which he was bound to exercise as strictly as any other part of his duties. This point was settled by the clearest decisions of the House. The motion of the hon. Member involved the consideration of, whether the Committee had taken the proper course for bringing the result of their deliberations under the notice of the House. It was perfectly obvious, from the course taken by the Committee in striking off the names of ninety-three voters from the poll, that they considered those names ought not to be on the register. The resolution was come to by the Committee in its present shape, and it was for the House to consider whether, under the circumstances, the course taken by the Committee, brought it within the jurisdiction of the House. He must fairly admit, that he was not aware of the resolution of the House, of 1835, until after the Committee had separated.

The Attorney-General

rose to express his strong objection to the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough, which sought by a resolution of the House to disfranchise ninety-three electors of the county of Longford. It appeared to him, that this would be a stretch of power greatly beyond the authority of the House, and that it would be a clear violation of the law. His first objection was, that the report of the Longford Election Committee in no respect corresponded with the resolution of the House of the 23rd of June, 1835. That resolution declared, that "if an Election Committee report to the House that any names ought not to be on the register, the Speaker shall take the necessary steps, by directing the town-Clerk, or clerk of the peace, to expunge those names from the register." The Longford Committee had made no such report as this; the Longford Committee merely reported that certain names ought not to have been put on the poll. It was quite clear that this was a very distinct thing from a declaration that these names should be expunged from the register. They might not have been properly put on the poll, because they were not old enough to register, or because they voted after the regular time for closing the poll, or on account of some temporary disabilities, but they might still retain a full right to be on the register, and to vote on another occasion for the county of Longford. The House must go by the resolution of the House of June, 1835, and not by that of June, 1833. The noble Lord said, he was not aware the resolution was rescinded, therefore the Longford Committee had wade this blunder, they had supposed the resolution of June, 1833, was in fore, whereas it had been withdrawn. The report of the Committee then rested on a resolution which was no longer a resolution of the House of Commons, therefore it was impossible that the House of Commons could act on that report. But he went much further, and he submitted to the House that the resolution of the 23rd of June, 1835, in so far as it extended to Ireland, if it did extend to that country—the hon. Member for Meath said it did not, he, however, would rather say, it was meant that it should—but he had no hesitation in giving it as his opinion, that so far as it did extend to Ireland, it was contrary to law. This House had, no doubt, the power on the petition of an elector, to determine whether a voter had a right to vote; but this House had by law no right to disfranchise a voter—it had no such right at common law, and the right it had, was given to it to be exercised only in a particular case. There was no proceeding could be taken by the House analogous to that of a quo warranto in the Court of King's Bench. Suppose the right of election to be vested in freemen, the House had a right to determine whether a voter was a freeman or not; but did a man cease to be a freeman because of a resolution of the House? No; he had a right to show at any future period that he possessed the elective franchise of a freeman, and the House had no right, by resolution or otherwise, to deprive him of his franchise. Before the passing of the Grenville Act, the House had no power to deprive an elector of the franchise, or to do more than determine if he had the right to vote at a particular election. When was this power conferred? Was it ever exercised before the union? Was it ever thought of till the Reform Bill passed? Many years before it passed there had been registration in Ireland; but neither under the Irish Parliament, nor under the Imperial Parliament, was it ever thought of that an Election Committee should disfranchise any electors that had voted. The English Reform Bill gave an express power to reform the register, or rather, to add those to the register who had been improperly left out of it, or take off those who had been improperly placed upon it. With regard to Scotland, the 25th section of the Scotch Reform Bill gave a similar power. In these cases, then, they saw that a Parliamentary power was given to this House, which it might lawfully exercise, but it was not given by the Irish Reform Bill, therefore, so far as Ireland was concerned, the law remained as it was before the Reform Bill passed—it remained the same as before the Grenville Act passed—in short, it continued what it was by the common law. They were not now considering what the law ought to be, but what it was. He must say, however, that if he were called on to decide what the law ought to be, he should hesitate considerably before he determined that the fate of these voters should depend on the capricious decisions of an Election Committee; he should desire to see the system of election Committees reformed and improved before he consented to their decisions being final as regarded the franchise of the electors. The law with respect to Scotland was, that the Committee had power to make a report, and on the report of the Committee, the House might adopt or reject names. In England it was the same. Now, he contended that the introduction of these clauses showed, that by the common law no such power existed. It might be said, that this was a casus omissus. He certainly could not say, whether the noble Lord opposite, when he was framing the Bill, had the circumstance in his contemplation—probably it was a casus omissus—but being so, the law remained as it was before the passing of the Reform Act. He contended, it would be the usurpation of a power not belonging to this House, it would be assuming a power which could not be lawfully exercised by Parliament, if they were to disfranchise electors. Under these circumstances, he could not agree to the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough. His grounds of dissent were two-fold, first, this report of the Longford Committee did not come within the resolution of the House, which was on the journals; secondly, if it did, so far as that resolution extended to Ireland, it was contrary to law, and they had no power whatever to act on it.

Lord Stanley

felt considerable difficulty as to the course he should take on the present occasion. There were two questions before the House which were extremely different, and his opinion was, that he was in duty bound to vote against both. He should vote against the motion of the hon. Gentleman behind him, because he conceived the House was fettered by the vote of the Committee; and if he had any doubt on the subject, it would be removed by the stringent terms of the resolution of 1835, which limited the power of the Speaker conferred by the resolution of June, 833. He so far differed from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General, that he thought it unfortunate that the Committee, whether intentionally or not, had not made a further declaration that they thought it expedient that these voters should be struck off the register; because he apprehended that they came to their decision on no such possible grounds as those suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman, but the conviction on their minds was, that the voters in question were not, and never had been, possessed of the qualification. The effect of adopting the amendment would be, not that they did not disfranchise persons who had no right to claim to vote, but that in consequence of the omission (for an omission he believed it was) they would leave on the register of the county ninety-one voters whom the Committee had declared to be disqualified. He did not pretend to discuss the legal point; but he thought it was open to grave consideration whether the House had the power. Certainly the practice of the House had been to extend the resolution to Ireland. There had been one case since 1835, and a considerable number since 1833. He must say, he should hesitate before he agreed to the proposition that the Speaker had not the power of doing that which he found had been done uninterruptedly in so many instances. At all events, this was a point which ought to be discussed separately and distinctly, and he should press it on the consideration of the House, if it were not that the general feeling appeared to be that the law of Ireland as regarded registration should be put on a more satisfactory footing. He thought it time that the law of England and Scotland in this respect were assimilated to that of Ireland. If a better court of appeal were established than existed at present, he should be as opposed as any man to Committees of the House of Commons opening the register. He thought the more convenient course would be for the hon. Gentleman behind him, seeing that the sense of the House was against affirming his motion, to withdraw it, the hon. Gentleman opposite withdrawing his amendment. The consequence would be, that the law would not be decided by a hasty resolution on the one side; and, on the other, the Speaker could not issue a writ, the Committee not having reported whom they had struck off, Practically, no grievance would take place, no abuse would arise, and he hoped they should be able to come to a full consideration of the present state of the law.

Lord John Russell

thought it was not to be regretted, that the Committee had not made a report precisely in the words of the resolution, because it might be the means of saving the House from coming to an immediate decision on the general question, which it was desirable to reserve for after consideration. He was the person who moved the amended resolution of the House in the year 1835. The previous resolution conferred on the Committee, the power to alter the poll by striking out or adding names; and the Speaker issued directions to have the register altered according to their alterations. He would give an instance of the system which had existed. A voter having been allowed to vote a few minutes after four o'clock, the time appointed for its close, his name was very properly struck from the poll; but, though properly struck off the poll, it did not follow that it ought to be struck out of the register, because that would be saving, that for having on one occasion voted a few minutes too late, he should not be allowed to vote in future. He thought there; was sufficient ground for not proceeding with the hon. Gentleman's motion. He must say, with respect to another point, that the resolution, as now settled by the House, was still defective; and he did not think, that the Irish Reform Act, having included no provision for striking out voters by the authority of this House, it was competent to the House by resolution merely, to give that authority to strike out voters. He concurred with the noble Lord, who was of opinion that it would be better, on some future day, to decide the important question whether the resolution in question did, or did not, extend to Ireland; he thought it did not; but he would rather not determine the matter on an occasion like the present. He was prepared to vote against the motion of the hon. Gentleman opposite; and though he agreed with the view of the hon. Member for Meath, he was not disposed to support his motion at present.

Motion and amendment withdrawn.