HC Deb 26 May 1840 vol 54 cc639-47
Mr. Pigot

rose, pursuant to notice, to ask for leave to bring in a bill for the better regulation of voters in Ireland. In doing so he would shortly call the attention of the House to those circumstances connected with the Irish system of registration, which appeared to him to have led to what had been a subject of complaint both in the present and former Sessions of Parliament. The House was aware, that there had for a long time existed in Ireland a system of registration of the elective franchise. He believed, that the first appearance of that mode of proceeding was to be found so far back as the year 1727. Since that time various provisions had been made, both by the Irish and Imperial Parliaments, for regulating the registration of the franchise, and for providing a means by which the right of the voter might be tested on going to the poll. In 1829, when the qualification was raised from 40s. to 10l., the course adopted was to make the freeholder attend at the quarter sessions and make an affidavit, stating how he was entitled to the freehold claimed, and, on swearing that affidavit, he was registered in the same manner as in this country. From a very early period also the system of granting certificates had been adopted. The certificate was not in itself an original document, it merely referred to the affidavit of which it was, in truth, a recital. It would appear, that the certificate had been originally devised as a protection to the voter against any unfair dealing on the part of the clerk of the peace, and partly as a means of testing (the voter's) identity. By the act of 1st Victoria, the voter was bound to give strong proof of his title to the franchise, and there was also this remarkable security, that not only was the party obliged to give the fullest proof, but there was an obligation imposed on the judge to inquire strictly into the claim—in short, to become a cross examining advocate against it. That was the course which was adopted in 1829, and it was a mistake to suppose, I that the certificate was merely a document given under the signature of a public officer, on the production of which the freeholder would be entitled to vote, without any other means being used for identification. The certificate was neither more nor less than a copy of the affidavit, the same clerk who signed the affidavit signing the certificate. At the polling place the voter produced his certificate, and when he produced it without erasure, and authenticated by the signature of the proper officer, he became entitled to vote. If lost, the claim was ascertained by reference to the original affidavit. Now, unquestionably, the use of these documents had given rise to personation. And the mere fact, that such occurrences had happened was quite sufficient reason to induce the Legislature to examine into the system. Now, the object of his bill was to do away entirely with the use of certificates. In 1795 an act was passed, and that act was confirmed by subsequent acts of the Imperial Parliament, making the certificate a protection to the voter against any fraud on the part of the clerk of the peace, to that extent he proposed to retain the certificate, but to abolish it for all other purposes. Another inconvenient portion of the Irish system of registration was that which gave the voter on registration an eight years' title, without providing any means for revisal in case of loss of franchise or death. The consequence of this had been a multiplication of names upon the register considerably beyond the elective strength of the constituency, and the fraudulent use of the certificates of persons dead, or of those who had parted with their estates. Independent, however, of these abuses, there was great inconvenience in having the apparent so much greater than the real strength. He proposed in the present bill to adopt a course which would tend to the removal of those defects, but would deprive no person of his franchise. There were several modes by which those evils might be remedied. In the first place they might disfranchise every elector—they might cut down the number—in fact they might abolish the right of every man to vote. They might disregard every vested right, and declare that every man who, having been registered for eight years, had a vested right in his franchise—who had voted at election after election, and at three general elections—who had passed the ordeal of a scrutiny of the House of Commons, should be deprived of his franchise. They might, in fact, sweep away the entire constituency. This, however, was not his plan. He intended to reform the franchise, not to destroy it—to apply the cautery to the evil, and not to cut out the sound part. He would propose that one revising session should take place at a specified period during the present year, and that means should be taken to ascertain the deaths. That power and means should be given to the barrister to prevent the multiplication of names and the recurrence of other evils. This was the simple machinery he proposed for the remedy of the evils now complained of, and he did not intend to propose that any new tribunal should be constituted to bring it into operation. The assistant barristers had been selected in 1829 to perform the duties of registration; they were retained in 1832, and he now proposed to return them by his bill of 1840. He believed that valued authorities on both sides of the House had borne testimony both to the integrity and capacity of those functionaries. The next question to be considered was the revision of the present registry. He did not intend to take away from the people of Ireland the right which they at present enjoyed of registering from time to time in the court of the assistant barrister. Without going into detail, it would be sufficient for him to say, that he thought that where a system had been established, accommodated to the habits of the people, and that when a long period had elapsed, during which the habits had grown, it should be strong ground indeed that would induce the House to alter that system. He did not concur at the time it was necessary for the purposes of registration. The bill of the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Colonies, and which was now on the table, was framed for a county which had no such tribunal as the assistant barristers of Ireland; but still, he (Mr. Pigot) proposed in all the main principles to follow it in his bill. The mode of revision proposed to adopt, and also the limitation which the bill recognised not giving right of investigation as to matters of fact, which had been ascertained on obtaining the right to vote, but permitting it with reference to subsequent events. He proposed that revision should take place in the courts of the revising barrister, who would exercise the same functions as the revising barrister in England. [Sir J. Graham—Is there to be no appeal?] There was to be no appeal as to matters of fact, but it was his intention to adopt the appeal in matters of law, precisely the same as that in the English law. [Mr. Shaw—Is the appeal to be the Judges?) No. The appeal against objection he proposed should continue as it had been fixed in 1829, but it was not his intention that the security given at that time in favour of the franchise should be abolished by his bill. Then, with respect to the mode of registration, the principle in the two countries would, in a certain degree, be assimilated. The noble Lord proposed that a party should claim, and, not being objected to, should establish his qualification, and should retain it until subsequent circumstances disqualified him.

Leave given.