HC Deb 27 January 1840 vol 51 cc641-9
Viscount Morpeth

rose to move for leave to bring in the sixth bill on the subject of Irish municipal corporations. He felt he could not claim for the subject the attraction of novelty. Besides which the question, after all that had passed in the progress of its discussion, and after all that had been conceded on both sides of the House, now came to be scarcely one of principle between any material section of the House, but rather one of particulars and of details. Under these circumstances, he dirt not feel called upon to trespass at any length on their attention, but would only shortly advert to the character of the present measure in so far as it differed from or agreed with the bill of last Session. At the close of the last Session of Parliament, when the bill was sent back to them from the Upper House, with a very considerable number of what, after usual courtesy, must be called amendments, though they were of the same nature and pretty nearly of the same extent as those which in previous years had caused the rejection of the Bill by the House of Commons, yet the Government did think it its duty to take the opinion of its usual adherents, and particularly the opinion of the Members representing that country most affected by the measure. And it did seem to be the prevailing feeling, that the time had at length come for bringing this long-agitated matter to something like a settlement; and when in the course of the discussion which had taken place both the great parties obviously had receded from the ground which they originally occupied, it seemed that some amicable adjustment might be effected, though not to the perfect contentment of either party, yet so as to ensure at least a great improvement in the present state of things in Ireland. The Government, therefore, referring to what had occurred on either side of the House, and more especially to the opinions and feelings of the people of Ireland—for in dealing with a matter exclusively affecting the people of that country, and in proposing a measure which seemed to her Majesty's Ministers to fall short of the full measure of those rights and privileges which they ought to enjoy, it would have seemed to them hardly fair to proceed without a pretty general acquiescence on the part of their usual supporters, and of the Irish community—the Government, therefore, now felt itself warranted in introducing the present measure. Such was the impression stated by his noble Friend at the close of last Session, when debarred from immediately proceeding with the Bill by the difficulty which arose on certain parts of the Lords amendments upon the question of the privileges of this House, and the interpretation put by the Speaker on the forms of proceeding, he yet expressed his hope that under all the circumstances, he should be enabled at an early period of the present Session to bring forward such a measure as might be calculated in all probability to ensure the assent of both Houses of Parliament. In the same sense his hon. Friend, the Member for Drogheda, in seconding the address on tie first night of this session than whom there existed no man who more highly prized the rights and liberties of his fellow-countrymen, expressed his earnest hope, that before long an amicable adjustment of this question would be made. In that hope he rose to make the present motion, for without such a hope he could not, without considerable discouragement have ventured to launch this sixth hill of which he had given notice along the same track over which its five predecessors had unsuccessfully attempted to proceed. He had, therefore, endeavoured, whenever it seemed possible to do so consistently with fair dealing and justice, so to frame the present bill as to meet the views of either House of Parliament. The question, therefore, having now become almost one of detail only, and the proper time for considering the details of the bill being, when the bill itself should be laid on the table of the House, he would content himself on the present occasion by referring briefly to the main provisions of the bill, and the prominent deviations from the shape in which it was last put by the amendments of the House of Lords, premising only his readiness, when the time for a more specific examination should arise, to give every information or explanation that might possibly be required. The schedules of the bill into which the several corporate towns of Ireland were divided were the same as those which had been now agreed to by both Houses of Parliament, for he believed the last two years. With respect to the first, schedule A, which contained the towns to which it was proposed to extend corporate institutions immediately, the franchise proposed to be adopted for immediate use was that contained in the bill as last sent down from the House of Lords, viz., a rated franchise of 10l. He did not deny, that the Government thought this a higher rate of franchise than it ought to be—a higher rate than ought be imposed upon the people of Ireland. Still they could not conceal from themselves, that unless they were prepared to concede this step, after all the determination that had been evinced upon the subject, it would be a mere mockery to introduce this bill; and that if they did venture upon it, after undergoing the same wearisome and toilsome course as its predecessors, it would, like them, be strangled and choked, and the sixth Irish Municipal Reform Bill, after following its five predecessors to the grave, would only bequeath them the legacy of a seventh, with similar provisions, doomed to share the same fate in the Session of 1841. At the same time, being fully convinced, that the only sound rational, and really satisfactory and permanent mode of dealing with Irish rights was to place them on a footing of real and substantial equality with those enjoyed by the people of England, they proposed to stamp upon the present measure a memorial of their opinion, that it did not confer upon Ireland that equality, by enacting, that when the provision for the poor in the two countries should be assimilated, and the rate for relief of the poor should have been established for three years in Ireland, then the franchise being that of a three years' rating should be placed upon the same footing as in England. The two Houses of Parliament had hitherto experienced some difficulty in arranging the precise form of the clauses to continue the Parliamentary franchise to the freemen. To plain and unlearned minds this would not seem a very difficult matter to accomplish with precision and fair dealing, and he had taken pains so to frame this clause as to continue to all parties the rights which now existed, whether complete or inchoate, but so as, whilst not excluding any existing right, not to create any new one. With respect to the towns in the second schedule on which it was not proposed to confer corporations at once, but which, on the application of a majority of the rated inhabitants, were entitled to receive a charter from the Lord-lieutenant, they had been divided into two classes, those in which the corporate property exceeded 100l. per annum, and those in which it fell short of that sum. With respect to the first class, where the Act of the 9th of George 4th, so often referred to in the discussions on this subject, was now in existence, it would be proposed to entrust the management of the corporate property to the commissioners appointed under that Act, who had very analagous functions; and where the Act was not already in existence he should propose that commissioners should be elected in the manner proposed by the last amendment of the House of Lords. In respect to those towns where the corporate property did not amount to 100l. per annum he proposed to transfer the management of the corporate funds to the board of Poor-law guardians. There was this difference between the present bill and that as amended by the House of Lords last Session, that in no case, either in the first or second schedule, was any corporation now in existence to continue, whereas under those amendments that point was a matter of ambiguity. The grand jury clauses, which were the immediate cause of the rejection of the bill last Session, it was not proposed to incorporate in the present bill. He was not sure that any objection would be made on either side of the House to those provisions; but they were not a necessary adjunct to the bill, and formed a fair subject for separate consideration. For that they would be reserved, and he should probably introduce a separate bill for the purpose of effecting the fiscal objects to which they were devoted. The clauses relative to the compensation of the present corporate officers had been framed on the same principles and scale as in the English Municipal Reform Bill, making allowance for certain special cases; but there were some interpolations in the measure sent down from the House of Lords which he felt he could not sanction, and which he did not think would be sanctioned by either of the great parties in that House. That was all that he (Lord Morpeth) felt it incumbent on him to state in respect of the particular provisions of the bill. He had, then, only frankly to express a hope, that, after what had passed elsewhere, they would lead to such an arrangement of the vexed question of corporations in Ireland, which, if it did not please all parties, would at least have the effect of serving the great corporate towns, and of curing the present corporations of their monopoly, their intolerance, and their exclusiveness. The party contest on the subject had been carried on long enough—to-morrow night there would be a free field for party contest, on a broader basis—and however we were to emerge from it, he hoped, that that it would not be to revive their Irish quarrels on the worn-out topic of municipal corporations, but to endeavour to concur in some practical measures of internal improvement, and to promote the undisputed objects of the common national welfare.

Mr. Sergeant Jackson

did not rise to oppose the motion of the noble Lord, but to express his satisfaction that the most objectionable parts of the former Bills for reforming the municipal corporations of Ireland had been relinquished in the present measure. He was glad that the noble Lord had excluded all fiscal clauses from his bill, and also that the new qualification would not be pressed forward. But he felt bound to submit to the consideration of the noble Lord whether it would not be more expedient not to make the reception of the corporations imperative on the larger towns than in schedule A., but that they should have the option of refusing them if they saw fit. He (Mr. Sergeant Jackson) believed that the people of Ireland generally, notwithstanding all that was said to the contrary, were not now, and, indeed, never were, very anxious for corporations; and in this belief he was borne out by the facts that last Session a petition had been presented to the House of Lords from Galway against its incorporation which was attended to by that House; that a petition was in course of signature in Belfast to the same effect; and that, according to accounts which he had received within the last two days, there was another of the same tenor in progress in the Borough of Clonmell, which would be signed by all religious denominations. A strong feeling on the subject existed in other places likewise, and he had heard various comments on the injury inflicted by corporations on places in England. In his belief they did no good at the best; but in most cases they gave rise to a great deal of ill-blood, unhappiness, and expense to the community. The great objection to the present corporations in Ireland Was their exclusiveness. He hoped, that that objection would not be against the corporations sought to be established by the noble Lord's Bills. But this he felt bound to say, as regarded the objection of bigotry, that as this was a Protestant State, and the institutions of the country were also Protestant, it would, in his opinion, be not only highly impolitic, but highly improper, to place the Irish corporations in the hands of the Roman Catholics.

Mr. Redington

denied, that the town of Galway had petitioned against a municipal corporation because it was adverse to the establishment of such an institution; it was, on the contrary, solely because the inhabitants had an objection to the boundaries laid down for their borough in the bill.

Mr. Litton

had always wished, for a just and fair measure of corporate reform in Ireland. But he felt bound to apprise the noble Lord, that if he expected any bill on that subject to pass Parliament, it should be of a different character front his former bills. The effect of those bills would have been to make all those bodies of one religion, and of one politics, exclusively of all others, and to throw a class of persons into them, who, as far as respectability was concerned, would be entitled to neither the patronage connected with them, nor the power to dispose of their funds.

Mr. M. J. O'Connell

was surprised, after all the professions of peace made on the other side, that the hon. and learned Sergeant should introduce a new element of discord into the question, namely, that the large towns should have the option of rejecting or accepting municipal institutions. He (Mr. O'Connell) could not help remembering, in connection with the anxiety manifested now by hon. Members opposite, as to the settlement of the corporation question, how little anxious were the party to which they belonged, to support corporations in this country, especially when the great towns of Manchester and Birmingham 'petitioned for them on a recent occasion. He trusted, after the compromise of the noble Lord, that there would be no farther opposition on the other side of the House to the settlement of this question; and he hoped, that the observations of the hon. and learned Sergeant, and the hon. and learned Member for Coleraine would not be allowed to take effect. The latter hon. and learned Gentleman had impugned the respectability of the class of persons likely to be admilted to the corporations in Ireland under the former bills; but he (Mr. O'Connell) could tell him that any bill which could be passed, would not be able to improve the present corporation of Dublin.

Mr. E. Tennent

would oppose the bill, if it went to make the acceptance of corporations compulsory upon the people of the great towns in Ireland, especially upon the town of Belfast. In regard of this town, he would mention a fact which came within his own knowledge—namely, that, of the seven functions which it was the duty of every municipal corporation to perform, all of those that were nonexistent were performed by other bodies well, and without expense to the in-habitants.

Sir R. Inglis

said, he should not have risen but for the observations of the noble Lord respecting the monopoly, corruption, and sectarianism of the Irish corporations. As regarded the first, it was a question of law; the second had been admitted, and he should waive it; but as to the third, he maintained, that these bodies were established for a certain purpose, and that they only performed the functions which had been assigned them—the support of the Protestant religion in Ireland.

Sir R. Peel

I do not rise to prolong this discussion, but merely to say, in answer to the conciliatory speech of the noble Lord, that I shall undertake, in respect to this subject, to adhere to every declaration I have formerly made on it, and that I shall reserve all further concessions until I shall have duly considered the provisions of these bills. I hope these bills will settle the long-pending and much-vexed question as to municipal corporations in Ireland. I shall stand by the concessions I have made and the declarations I have given, as I stated, because I think restriction would be a disadvantage at this moment. But I cannot help think- ing while I do so, that it would be a great improvement in the present bill if that provision which makes it imperative on large towns in Ireland to accept municipal institutions were somewhat modified, so as to make it dependent, for instance, on the decision of the Privy Council, on petition of the inhabitants. In my opinion it would very much benefit the measure if the noble Lord adopted this modification; and it would be much more in accordance with the principle of self-government which he professes to advocate. For instance, why should a corporation be forced on the town of Belfast, after the convincing statement of the hon. Member for that town as to its inutility? That is my opinion on the matter. But as I gave my vote on former occasions for corporations for the great towns of Ireland, I shall not retract it now. I shall stand by it, as the business is a matter of consequence; but still I think that the suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend is an improvement which the noble Lord might adopt with much advantage to the country. The hon. Gentleman, the Member for Kerry, has said that the party to which I belong were opposed to the grant of municipal corporations to the great towns of Birmingham and Manchester on a recent occasion, though what connection it has with the subject before the House I am at a loss to know; but the hon. Gentleman should have remembered, before he made this accusation, that it was not with us, but with the Privy Council, that the decision of the question lay. I believe the facts were, that a certain portion of the inhabitants of these towns petitioned for a corporation, while another portion petitioned against it, and that the Privy Council only granted it after sending down a commissioner to inquire into the subject, and receiving his report. The noble Lord has referred to the Birmingham and Manchester Police Bills; but these only make my case the stronger, for it is yet a mooted point how far the municipal corporations have benefitted these boroughs, as far as peace and order are concerned. If hereafter it should turn out that the corporations of these places are to have the control of the police, they will, I have no doubt, succeed to the command of a far better force than they would even have established themselves by means of these bills; and in so far my case is strengthened. I will say no more now. I shall adhere to all T have promised. I shall make no other concession without due consideration, and I shall recede from none that I have made. And I trust that, under all the circumstances of the case, there will be no undue hurry of this bill through the House, but that ample time for reflection on all provisions shall be given to us.

Mr. Pigot

denied that the Clonmel petition against a municipal corporation for that borough, mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Bandon, represented the opinions of the inhabitants of that borough, and corroborated the assertions of his hon. Friend the Member for Dundalk, as to the causes which led to the petition of last year from the town of Galway.

Leave given to bring in the bill.