HC Deb 08 February 1838 vol 40 cc922-9

House in Committee on the Qualification of Members Bill.

Sir E. Sugden

begged to ask the right hon. Gentleman on the Treasury bench whether it was the intention of her Majesty's Government to take any part in this bill? It was of so important a nature that it ought to attract the attention of the Government. It appeared to him that the real object of the bill was to give that which was not really a qualification the character of a qualification, while it provided no means of testing the qualification of any persons who might be elected to represent a borough or county in that House. It was true that at present it was possible to evade the law. But he understood the real object of the hon. Member for Bridport to have been, to get rid of all qualifications. Not succeeding in that, however, he had now proposed a bill to establish something in shape or form of a qualification, but which in fact was a mere nullity, and intended to effect the other object. He was of opinion, that the greater the extent of the franchise, the more reason there was for a sure and proper qualification on the part of the representative. A man, either by inheritance, or by his own talent and industry working his way up in the world, might become possessed of property which would give an assurance to his constituency that he would perform his duties in a satisfactory manner. He did not mean to say that a man would neglect his duty because he was not possessed of property, but the possession of property was a security to the country in the case of a Member of Parlia- ment for the proper discharge of the responsibilities of his situation. As to making personal estate a qualification, that might be a very easy plan, but not a satisfactory one. A man might reckon is furniture from his kitchen to his attic as sufficient to give him a qualification. But how would they ascertain its value? Would they employ surveyors or appraisers? Why, it was a well known fact that those persons scarcely ever agreed in the valuations which they made. There ought to be a ready test of the qualification, and not a long trial, and a tedious inquiry, as to whether a man's house was full of furniture or not, and so on. Looking with all the candour he could afford, on the present occasion, to that clause of the bill respecting annuities, he must say that he never saw a clause drawn more truly in the spirit of philosophy, to give to the eye that which was denied to the understanding. As to the oath, a man might very conscientiously swear that he was duly qualified, having respect to what was called personal property, and that was all required of him, and there was no mode of showing that his qualification was not good. He apprehended that on these and other grounds this bill ought not to be allowed to pass. Indeed he thought the hon. Member for Bridport could scarcely entertain a serious hope that it would pass.

Mr. Warburton

would merely observe, that during the discussions which preceded the passing of the Reform Bill, when the qualification of Members elected to serve in Parliament came under the consideration of the House, a minister of the Crown stated, in his place, that it was never intended that the statutes regulating the qualification, should bear a stringent construction or be rigidly adhered to; that the only object was to secure the return of Members who would be respectable in station and character; that the object was not that they should actually possess the qualification required, but that they should be of a sufficient degree of respectability. Such, too, was the simple object of his bill. The number of petitions presented during the present Session against persons returned for not possessing the requisite qualification, was eighteen. That would serve to show the extent in which it was doubtful whether Members returned duly elected, possessed the requisite qualification or not. During the last Session, one of the Members for the county of Cornwall made a motion to do away with the property qualification altogether. During the discussions which that motion gave rise to, it was stated by several hon. Members, that they were willing to entertain the question, whether or not the nature of the qualification should not extend to personal as well as real property. He then thought there was a reasonable hope of inducing the House to entertain the present bill. For its provisions, or the mode by which these provisions were to be carried into effect, he had no particular affection, and would be glad to avail himself of the assistance and suggestions of the House towards devising a different or a better plan. In answer to the objections made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he would instance the case of the heir-apparent to a man possessing himself a qualification of 300l. or 600l. a-year. Now, the interest of the heir-apparent, which the present statutes considered a sufficient qualification, was, at most, but a reversionary interest. It might turn out, in point of fact, to be nothing. Unless the House were disposed to confer inquisitorial powers on the examiners of qualification, they could not get a full disclosure either with regard to landed or funded property. Let them take, for instance, the case of a secret transfer of the funds, and they would see the difficulty, nay, the impossibility, of effectually guarding against underhand dealings. He hoped that the House would not take up the matter as a party question, but as one of great public importance.

Mr. Praed

would either go farther than the hon. Member for Bridport, or he would not go so far. That the bill was, in some respects, an improvement he did not mean to deny. He thought, however, the hon. Member's bill went too far in allowing professional income to amount to a qualification. The qualification arising from the possession of funded property, was a great improvement as far as it went. It may, perhaps, admit of a question, whether it was desirable to have any qualification at all. The great objection to the present system was, not that it exclusively permitted landed property to be the qualification, but that it gave occasion for gross frauds. That inconvenience would continue just as much under the present bill. With reference to the quotations made by the hon. Member for Bridport, and which he professed to find in a speech delivered by Lord Althorp, he (Mr. Praed) could only say, that he never heard Lord Althorp make use of any such expressions as that it was the present intention of the statutes regulating the qualification that the construction should not be stringent, or that there was such an object as the hon. Member had stated. In the case of landed property, the title deeds may, without inconvenience, be deposited for a short time; and in the case of funded property, there would be no difficulty in lodging with the officer a distring as upon 300l. or 600l. worth of stock.

Colonel Sibthorp

would be glad to see the amount of qualification trebled, instead of being diminished. If the present bill was allowed to pass, he could not see how a fellow possessed of a common country stallion, whose labours produced him an income of 300l. a-year, might not be imported into that House as a Member of Parliament, and be a proper person to sit there. At the same time, he was not prepared to deny, that such persons might be much better qualified than many hon. Members who at present had seats in the House.

Sir R. Inglis

recollected a case which occurred about two or three Parliaments ago, which went to show that a conveyance, which was considered as a mere accommodation, did actually vest in the Member for whose accommodation it was done, the absolute right to the property, &c, conveyed. It was held in a court of law, that the creditors of the person to whom the land was conveyed for the purpose of enabling him to qualify were entitled to the property in payment of debts. The best qualification, as it appeared to him, consisted in lands, whether freehold, copyhold, or leasehold, and the next best was money in the funds.

Lord J. Russell

owned it did not appear to him to be especially incumbent on the Government to give an opinion upon this Bill. It was a matter of general legislation, upon which individual Members, being as much interested, were as much bound to give an opinion as the Government. He confessed, however, that in his mind it was not a matter of legislation of very high importance. He was ready to assent to a qualification, because he thought public opinion was in favour of a qualification; but as to any great particular advantage to be gained from it, he owned he had always been at a loss to discover it. He did not find that the English Members, who were compelled to qualify, were in any respect superior to the Members for Scotland, in whose case no qualification was required. Nor did he find that the Universities by reason of their not having a qualification elected persons less fit or less qualified than the Representatives of other parts of the kingdom. Therefore he did not himself attach any very great value to the qualification; and certainly he attached very little value to the qualification established by the Act of Anne. He thought that the qualification prescribed by that Act requiring Members for boroughs to have a certain amount of landed property was a qualification adverse to all the ancient principles of representation. Such a qualification could never have been intended originally, and he thought it was quite as little suited, if not less suited, to the present state of circumstances than to that which existed when the right of representation was first given. Every body admitted that a rich banker, or a person possessing large property in the funds, although he had not a single acre of land, was perfectly qualified to sit in that House. He had never heard any body contend that the principles of the Act of Anne were of any very essential use to the House. Entertaining these opinions with respect to the qualification, all that he could wish from the introduction of a Bill of this description would be to endeavour to make the law a little more agreeable to the fact. It was well known that there were persons sitting in that House whose qualifications, under the existing law, were doubtful, but who, under various clauses of the Bill now proposed, would be enabled to say that they were duly qualified with perfect truth. If some Bill of this kind were passed, the qualification of the Member would be that which he in fact possessed, instead of being, as was now too often the case, a purely fictitious qualification. He thought that such an alteration of the law was highly desirable. That, however, was the total amount of the advantage that could be gained from the adoption of a Bill of this kind. Therefore, he said generally that he was of opinion that a Bill extending beyond landed property to funded, leasehold and other tangible property, was a very good measure to propose. He should be further disposed to say, but upon that point he imagined a great part of the House would differ from him, that professional income should be considered as a good qualification likewise. Having made these general remarks he would only further observe that he did not think the proposition of the hon. Member for Aylesbury could be carried into effect bona fide without creating much vexation to many Members of Parliament; and he confessed he did not think it worth while for the sake of any exact or stringent qualification to subject Gentlemen to such a vexation.

Mr. Hawkes

thought, that funded property should be admitted as a qualification as well as land. He was disposed to support the view taken of the subject by the hon. Member for Aylesbury.

Sir Edward Sugden

The House seemed to be agreed on all sides, that there ought to be some alteration of the qualification. There must be time allowed to see what that alteration ought to be. He would therefore propose, that the Chairman do now report progress, and ask leave to sit again, in order that time might be obtained to consider the subject, and to frame the necessary clauses.

Sir Robert Peel

thought, that the difficulty to the Bill and the difficulty to the parties to whom it would apply would be in making the declaration, which was to be considered as equal to an oath. The Bill required, that Gentlemen elected as Members of Parliament should declare, that according to the best of their knowledge and belief they were entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons. Now, suppose the case of a professional man, whose usual income did not exceed 100l. a-year, but who from some accidental cause had received an income of 300l. the year before he was elected as a Member of Parliament; was the fact of his having received the 300l. for the one year, without the reasonable prospect of receiving it again for the next year, or, in fact, of ever receiving it again at all, to be taken as a good qualification? The House would perceive, that under the provisions of the Bill now proposed, a difficulty would at once arise upon a point of that kind. He thought, therefore, that whatever qualification were adopted, great care ought to be taken to make the intention of the Legislature clear and precise. He certainly must say, that he thought the present qualification unsatisfactory. Land might be a very proper qualification, but it did not follow that it should be the only qualification. Under the existing system it was perfectly notorious that many Members sat under a fictitious qualification; and it was equally notorious that parties took an oath, that they were possessed of 300l. a-year in land, when in fact they did not possess a single acre. That being the case, it was impossible to resist the conclusion that the present qualification was unsatisfactory. He thought, that the objection might be remedied by allowing the qualification to consist of personal as well as landed property. If a respectable man were enabled to state, "I am in possession of personal property sufficient to entitle me to sit in Parliament," he thought that that would be more satisfactory in every point of view than the compelling him to go to a friend to obtain a temporary qualification. He confessed he did not see any great advantage that could result from agitating the question at all; but if a new qualification were to be adopted, he thought the simplest would be the best. Say, for instance, where a party did not possess land, that he should be required to have such an amount of personal property as would secure a certain definite income. That would be plain and intelligible. He (Sir R. Peel) would exclude all professional income, all chattel property, which in most instances consisted only of furniture, and even the stallion to which the gallant Colonel had referred. He would simply require that a Member of Parliament should possess a certain fixed amount, either of real or personal property. But as he objected to the present mode of procuring a fictitious landed qualification, so also should he object to the transfer of any amount of funded property for the purpose of giving a temporary qualification.

Mr. Goulburn

concurred in the view taken of this subject by his right hon. Friend who had just sat down, and especially that care should be taken to prevent the "loose dealing" (of which the noble Lord had spoken) in funded property. Perhaps it might be thought that this was a question in which he ought not to interpose, inasmuch as he was one of those from whom no property qualification was required. But it should be remembered that the Members for the Universities were required to have some qualification in other respects; the Universities were obliged to return Members of their own body supposed to be qualified otherwise than by property. He did not mean to assert that applied to himself individually. With respect to this Bill, he thought it would be better to withdraw it from further discussion at present, in order to render its enactments more conformable to practice. If the Bill merely continued the present existing qualification with the addition of the qualification from funded property, it would be more likely to work well than in its present shape.

Mr. Warburton

could not consent to extend the qualification merely to funded property, when he knew many leaseholds as good as freeholds. He had no objection to withdraw the provisions in the Bill as to professional incomes, and leave the qualification to be upon real and personal property of a tangible character. He desired also to equalise the amount of the county qualification to that now necessary for a borough qualification, viz., 300l. a-year. On that understanding he would consent to the Chairman now reporting progress, and he would frame clauses for the purposes he had stated.

Sir R. Peel

could not consent to the undertaking the hon. Member for Bridport desired. He repeated, that he was ready to add personal to the existing landed qualification, but he could not commit himself to the proposition for making the qualification for counties the same as that required for boroughs. He reserved himself also on the question as to the amount of the qualification.

House resumed. Committee to sit again.