HC Deb 08 June 1841 vol 58 cc1317-24

The Order of the Day was read for the attendance of the clerk of the peace for the county of Hertford.

Mr. Storey,

the clerk of the peace of Hertford was called to the Bar. He was asked by the Speaker whether he had a copy of the register of electors for the county of Hertford? He replied that he had a copy, but submitted that he ought not to be called upon to part with it, as it belonged to the magistrates, who had paid for it, and if he gave it up there would be no other copy to furnish to those electors who might apply for it.

The clerk of the peace was then ordered to withdraw, and was retiring carrying off the copy of the register with him. He was stopped, and ordered by the Speaker to deposit the copy at the Bar until the House should decide what should be done with it.

Mr. T. Duncombe

said, that there could be no doubt that the clerk of the peace was bound to return a copy of the register, according to the words of the Reform Act. He considered, that the House had been trifled with, the return not having been made to the House by the clerk of the peace, conformably to the order served upon him. He recommended the House to leave the clerk of the peace to settle this matter with the magistrates as he best could. He, as an elector of the county of Hertford, wanted a copy of the register; and it was an infringement of the rights of the electors of that county, that they had not been able to procure it before now. It was for the House to say, whether it would have its order obeyed or not. He should, therefore, move that the copy of the register of the electors of the county of Hertford, deposited at the Bar by the clerk of the peace, should be forthwith laid upon the Table of the House.

Mr. Estcourt

wished to offer to the House a few reasons why this copy should not be laid on the Table of the House, and why it should not be taken from the clerk of the peace, in whose custody it was. He was satisfied, that the Order of the House had not been obeyed; but the refusal of the clerk of the peace to obey it arose from a misapprehension of duty on his part. The magistrates of the county of Hertford had decided several times, that the copy of the register should not be printed; and it was, therefore, too much to say, that the clerk of the peace, who was only the servant of the magistrates, should have it printed. If you insist on this copy being laid on the Table, you must take it from the clerk of the peace, and he was bound to have it in his custody in order to supply the electors with a copy of it, either written or printed, at a reasonable price. He would not have objected to the motion had it been that the clerk of the peace should produce another copy of the register within a week, or any other reasonable time; but it was not consistent with the practice of the Mouse to take a legal document from the legal officer in whose custody it legally was. He was not aware of a single instance in which that had ever been done.

Mr. Cowper

said, he had no personal feeling against the clerk of the peace, but the question was, whether the Commons would support its privileges or not, as there was no doubt, that the conduct of the clerk of the peace was an evasion of its order.

The Solicitor-General

said, he did not mean to impute to the individual who had been at the Bar a wilful contravention of the order of the House, but the course which he had taken was certainly not the most consistent with that respect to which the House was entitled. He agreed in thinking, that it would not be expedient to take this copy from the custody of the person who had been called to the Bar, but he submitted, that the House might call upon that person forthwith to furnish the House with a copy. He was glad, that attention had been called to this subject, for there certainly had been an evasion of the orders of the House, and that under circumstances which might be in the highest degree inconvenient. According to the regulations made by the Reform Act, it was the clear imperative duty of the clerk of the peaceߞso soon as the revised list assumed the character of the register by being returned to the sheriff in a complete and proper formߞto furnish any person who applied with a copy, of course within a reasonable time. These copies might be either printed or written, the object of that regulation being, probably, that where there was not an extensive demand for copies, they might be made at less expense by being written. Now, the individual who had appeared at the Bar, must have known, as an old practitioner, that it was his duty to be in a situation to furnish copies to any person who was willing to pay for them. He said, that he could only furnish the House with a copy of a copy, and yet he kept that very paper for the purpose of furnishing copies from it. From the 28th of March to the 8th of June, that House had been struggling to get a copy, which ought to have been ready at the first demand. Unless they manifested a strong impression on the subject, it was not likely, that they would be able to get a copy until the election takes place. For all the duties performed by the clerk of the peace in carrying into effect the Reform Act, he was to be paid by the treasurer of the county, and any sums he might receive for copies of the register, he was to account for to the county; he had, therefore, no interest in the question, except as regarded the due discharge of his duties. The present case appeared to him (the Solicitor-general) to be clearly an evasion of the Reform Act. The House would observe, that a fund is created to meet the charges which attend the register and the matters connected with it, and every county elector is, for that purpose required to pay a shilling at the time he claims to be registered; and in this case he thought the number of electors amounted to several thousands, and, therefore, the aggregate of these shillings formed a considerable sum, but it was a little extraordinary, that the fund created by the payment of this shilling was not made applicable to the purpose, and that it was paid to the overseers of parishes, and formed part of the poor-rate fund. As far as the electors were concerned, they paid their contributions towards the expense of furnishing the register by this payment of one shilling; and, inasmuch, as the representation concerned the interest of the country, the expense of preparing the register connected with counties was thrown upon the country. Now, the party who was lately at the Bar of this House had no excuse whatever for not supplying a copy, in respect to payment. It was his duty to make the copies, and though it was also his duty to receive payment from the electors for them, that payment was not on his own account or applicable to his own purposes, but was to be accounted for to the treasurer. And what excuse had he for not now being in possession, if he were not in possession, of the means of furnishing a copy? How could this House ߞthe representative of the peopleߞreceive an answer from a public officer, charged with a matter so important to the representation of this House as the furnishing a copy of the register of electors ߞ a statutable duty, imposed without condition ߞhow could this House, when it called for a copy many months after the period when a copy ought to be ready, receive any excuse for that copy not being furnished. He thought the clerk of the peace must have been acting under a great delusion, when, having provided himself with a copy of the register, the House of Commons required a copy, he sent word, "I have it not, it is in the sheriff's keeping;" and then, when an order was served on the sheriff, the under-sheriff wrote an answer, not disrespectful in its terms it was true, "I want to know who is to pay me for it." [hear.] A Gentleman said "hear," he meant to say it was not a fit principle to lay down, that if this House declared it to be necessary for public purposes to call for a copy of a document, it should receive as an answer, "who is to pay for it?" He hoped the House had too high a sense of justice, when it required a document which put a party to expense in furnishing, to allow that party to suffer any pecuniary loss in doing so. It was the duty of the House to procure these documents which the public interest required, and he should hope that any public officer who was called on to render a copy of a document would see that the proper course was to obey the call, and to state to the House that, obedient to its order, the act was done, but that the party had incurred certain expenses for which he had had no remuneration. The sheriff of a county was to be paid for the performance of certain duties under the Reform Bill as well as the clerk of the peace, but he did not conceive that his furnishing a copy of the register would be working out the provisions of the Reform Act, or that he would have any claim upon the county treasurer for remuneration. It appeared to him, that the clerk of the peace ought to have furnished the copy, that his omission to do so was at the peril of the displeasure of this House, and that, having had abundant time for the purpose, he should now be required to deliver a copy forthwith. With regard to the expense of supplying copies to the electors, did the House think it was ever intended that 30l. or 40l. should be asked for a copy of a register? But it was said the magistrates of the county of Hertford had directed it not to be printed. Why, they had no discretion whatever on the subject. The act of Parliament did not put it in the discretion of magistrates: the act selected the clerk of the peace as a public officer, to furnish written or printed copies. It was true that the printing might occasion an expense that would not be returned by the number of copies that would be sold. But whether that were so or not, he trusted the House would take care to enable the electors of the county of Hertford to obtain a copy of the register, at a reasonable charge. He begged to move as an amendment, that Mr. Storey be directed to furnish this House with a copy of the register of electors for the county of Hertford, on Thursday next.

Mr. Williams Wynn

said he was quite disposed to concur in the opinion of the learned Solicitor-general. He did not think that the laying a copy of the register on the table of this House would of itself be of much consequence, but he thought it might hold out an inducement to other counties not to comply with the directions of the Reform Act, but to look to the order of the House for supplying a printed copy. With respect to the question that the number of copies to be sold was not likely to defray the expense of printing, there was scarcely a county in England, with the exception of York, in which the copies sold met the expense of preparing them, and in every county with which he was acquainted there was always a charge for printing the register, and which was regularly allowed by the magistrates in the treasurer's accounts. After the authority of the House had been so far vindicated as to have its order complied with, he thought the most convenient course would be to re-deliver the copy to the clerk of the peace, and that he should be admonished that it was his duty forthwith, with all possible dispatch, to provide himself with a sufficient number of copies to answer the demands of the county.

Sir R. Inglis

said, that he could not concur in what had fallen from his right hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, because, according to the statement of the party at the bar, the document was not his, and, being the document of others, of the magistrates, it would be clearly unjust to require him to give it up. He hoped that the House would not exercise so arbitrary a power, and particularly as the object intended might be obtained by other means. If the course proposed were taken, the effect would be to relieve the counties of the expense of printing those registries, and throwing the burden on the country generally. He, therefore, should suggest whether it would not be better to order a copy to be delivered by the clerk of the peace within forty-eight hours.

Mr. Williams Wynn,

in explanation, denied that the registry was the property of individuals, and said, on the contrary, that it was a matter of record, and should be accessible to those of the public who might require copies.

Mr. C. Wood

agreed that they were entitled to have the registry produced laid upon the Table, and it would be setting aside the Reform Act if this record were not accessible to the public.

Sir E. Sugden

said there could be no doubt that the clerk of the peace should have provided himself with written or printed copies, to be delivered on reasonable terms to the electors applying for them; and sure he was, that when the Reform Act was before the House it was never contemplated that such an amount of charge as was now required should be made for the copy of the registry. He had no objection to this document being laid on the Table of the House, in order to afford them an opportunity to inform the clerks of the peace generally what was their duty; but with respect to any motion for having it laid on the Table and printed, all he could say was, that he should oppose such a motion. If the course which he pointed out were adopted, the copy would no doubt be forthwith furnished, and the difficulty got rid of.

Sir R. Peel

thought the better course for the House to pursue was that which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-general had pointed out. This was not a case it which it was necessary to vindicate their privileges, and, therefore, what they should do was to call this officer back to the Bar, and tell him that the House insisted on his furnishing the copy required by a given day, and would enforce obedience to their order if it were not ready at the appointed time. This was what he recommended at present; but if any difficulty existed on the subject, the better way would be in the next Session to have a committee of inquiry appointed on the subject.

Mr. T. Duncombe

approved of the amendment of the Solicitor-general, and withdrew his motion.

Mr. Storey

was then called to the Bar, and the Speaker said, "In obedience to the orders of the House, I have to direct you forthwith to cause a copy of the register of electors of the county of Hertford to be made, and to present the same to this House on Thursday next."

Mr. Storey

said, that he would cause a copy to be made, but he believed it would be quite impossible that it should be presented on Thursday. He thought it would take three weeks.

Sir E. Sugden

asked, whether if a law-stationer divided the copy amongst several persons, it could not be made in a shorter time?

Mr. Storey

said it would depend upon the number of hands employed.

Witness withdrew.

The Attorney-General

said, he was at first inclined to feel favourable towards the witness; but he thought it was quite evident that he was now acting contumaciously towards the House. No one could doubt that the copy could be prepared within twenty-four hours, or within half that time; and he, therefore, was of opinion, that the House should insist upon the copy being produced within the time mentioned.

Mr. Estcourt

thought it would be more consistent with the dignity of the House to fix the time when the copy should be produced; and not to ask the witness any opinion upon the subject.

The Speaker

said he would direct the clerk to put a copy of the order into the witness's hands, to produce the copy ordered by Thursday next.

Order above made to be enforced.