HC Deb 11 April 1843 vol 68 cc831-42
Sir J. Walsh

said, that in order to render the objects of his proposed amendment intelligible to the House, it would be necessary for him briefly to retrace the principal provisions of Hob-house's Vestries Act, and the circumstances which had led to its adoption. Many hon. Members would no doubt remember the great excitement which had prevailed about twelve or fourteen years ago in the metropolitan parishes on the subject of the close, or self-elected vestries. These vestries had not in the first instance been established by legislative enactments,—they had grown out of a sort of usage, tolerated in the first instance by the body of the rate-payers in populous parishes for the sake of convenience, until they had been suffered to acquire a legal prescription. The system of conducting parochial business by means of close and self-elected, in preference to open vestries, which had thus crept into some parishes, was imitated in others, and incorporated into local acts, and thus became very general throughout the metropolis. But as the expenditure and patronage connected with parochial government augmented in these great and wealthy districts, and the temptations to profusion and jobbing became consequently greater, the parishioners at large grew dissatisfied with a mode which provided no efficient control over the application of the funds. Great irritation and excitement arose, violent struggles took place in many parishes between the close vestries and the rate-payers at large, which terminated in several instances, particularly in Paddington, St. Giles and St. George's, Bloomsbury, St. Luke's, Chelsea, in the introduction of local acts, in which the elective principle, modified so as to give a certain influence to property, was adopted. The subject was brought before the House by the right hon. Baronet now Member for Nottingham, who obtained a committee in 1829, which sat during two Sessions, collected much important evidence, and made a report, the substance of which he (Sir J. Walsh) would take leave to read to the House. It stated that great dissatisfaction had been felt in many parishes by the absence of an efficient control over the application of parochial expenditure, and that the adoption of the Act 59th Geo. 3d., c. 12 (Mr. Sturges Bourne's Act), had been attended with great benefit, and comparatively few disadvantages in many parishes, and it recommended the introduction of a measure founded upon similar principles. He (Sir J. Walsh) therefore observed to the House, that the very committee presided over and appointed by the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. C. Hobhouse) had reported not in favour of a measure at all similar to that he subsequently introduced, but of one resembling in principle Mr. Sturges Bourne's Act, which gave great protection to the interests of property. Late in the following Session of 1831, the right hon. Baronet brought in the bill, which passed through its different stages with great rapidity, receiving far less attention than its importance demanded, and it speedily became a law. Its provisions were briefly these:—The first nine or ten clauses prescribed the mode of its adoption in parishes desirous of being placed under it. On a requsition signed by fifty parishioners, the churchwardens gave notice of a meeting, at which the question of its adoption might be put to the vote. It was necessary that two-thirds of the number actually voting should be in favour of it, which two-thirds should constitute a clear majority of the whole number of rate-payers in the parish before the adoption of the act could be carried in the affirmative. When thus adopted, it provided that the parochial affairs should be administered by an elective vestry, chosen by all rate-payers rated for one year or more previous to the time of election, and who should have paid up all rates owing by them except such as might be due for the six months immediately previous to the election. The whole number of ratepayers in each parish voted in common for the whole number of vestrymen. There was no subdivision into wards or districts. The number of the vestry was twelve for every 1,000 up to 120, which number was not to be exceeded. Five auditors of accounts were appointed for the whole parish, who were to be quite independent of the vestry, and to have full powers to examine, and make a public annual statement of the accounts. The qualification of vestrymen and auditors of accounts was in the metropolitan parishes 40l. The mode of election was as follows:—The annual elections to take place in the month of May, and notice of meeting for the purposes of election to be given by the churchwardens. The first step at such meetings to be the election of a chairman by the rate-payers present; the second to be the appointment of eight inspectors of votes, four to be appointed by the meeting, and four by the churchwardens. The meeting then proceeded to elect vestrymen and auditors of accounts. Should a poll be demanded, it was to last for three days, and the mode of taking the votes was by the rate-payers delivering unsigned lists to the inspectors of votes folded, up, and which the inspectors were to deposit in boxes, without opening them. Having recapitulated the leading provisions of Hobhouse's Act, he would now proceed to explain to the House those defects for which he considered it was necessary to provide a remedy; but he would first allude to one part of the Act which had, he thought, introduced a valuable improvement, and which was entitled to his warm. and cordial approval. He meant the appointment of a small body of auditors of accounts, distinct from and independent of the vestry or parish officers, and the publicity given to their statements. He thought that this provision introduced a principle of salutary and efficient controul over the parochial expenditure, and he believed that where economy and reduction of rates had followed the adoption of this Act in certain parishes, it was mainly assignable to this cause. The defects of the law as it at present stood, might be chiefly comprised under two heads:—1st. The absence of all provision for the subdivision of parishes of great extent and population into wards or districts; 2dly. The faults in the mode of election, and the abuses it gave rise to; With respect to the first, he reminded the House that the Act was intended to apply to those great and populous metropolitan parishes, and urban populations, which were, in fact, great cities in themselves. Some of these parishes contained from 130,000 to 150,000 souls. Now under a system which without any subdivision elected the vestrymen indiscriminately from the whole mass of the parish, the first principle of good local government was lost. Local self-government was one distinguishing characteristic of this country, and many of the excellencies of our social system were to be traced to its influence. It was fortunate that it did not require in its administration the possession of great and shining talent. It was not requisite that vestrymen and overseers should be endowed with extraordinary abilities, but it was necessary that they should possess local knowledge; that they should be acquainted with the circumstances and wants of their immediate neighbourhood; that they should know, and be known, to the poor of their district; that they should be selected by those immediate neighbours, who, from personal acquaintance, could place a reliance upon their fitness for their duties, and who could answer for their respectability. Now how were these requisites attained under the operation of Hobhouse's Act? In parishes, which, in point of fact, were extensive, or populous cities, some forty vestrymen are chosen indiscriminately from the whole mass. They were not the choice of particular localities, guided by the knowledge of individuals; from the very extent of the area this was impossible. He was anxious to trace the practical result of this system. As all exercise of individual discrimination by the body of the rate-payers became impossible, the affair fell into a few hands, who made a party business of it. Lists were prepared by them, and blindly adopted by the body of the rate-payers, and thus, as extremes always meet, the evils of a self-elected vestry were reproduced by the very vastness and unmanageable nature of the elective body. Again, he would observe, that the most wealthy and important districts of these great metropolitan parishes were precisely those which had the smallest numerical amount of rate-payers. The very extent of the area covered by a large mansion in Portman or Cavendish-squares, represented by one vote, might furnish ground for twenty houses, and, consequently twenty votes in some small street in the suburbs, or some narrow crowded court. Nor was this less true of those splendid shops in Oxford-street and Waterloo-place, the ornament of the metropolis, and whose proprietors rendered the whole kingdom tributary to their taste and industry, and drew streams of wealth to this great centre from the remotest quarters. The streets occupied by their extensive establishments, covering large spaces, were quite out-numbered in the rate-book by the dwellers in the obscure, but more densely thronged quarters inhabited by the poorer classes. Thus, whole districts, and those the wealthiest and most important, were completely excluded from all share in the parish affairs under this system. He knew that it was a favourite argument with some that as the amount of his rates, however small, was in proportion as great an object to the small rate-payer as to the wealthiest, a right of voting which placed the controul in the hands of the poorer, gave every security for the economical expenditure of the parish funds. But this argument was most unsound if pushed to the extent of depriving the property in the parish of all share in the government of it. He could cite two instances in which there might be the temptation to inflict great injustice upon the richer rate-payers, where they were not adequately represented in the vestry. The first was the assessment of their property to the rates, which the vestry might assess far more heavily than their just proportion, leaving the owners to the vexatious and troublesome remedy of an appeal to the sessions; the second was the power enjoyed by the vestry of excusing rate-payers from payment of rates on the ground of poverty. Thus, under Hobhouse's Act, a rate-payer might vote for a vestryman, owing six months' arrears of rate, and might immediately afterwards present himself to the vestry, and claim exemption from the payment of this arrear: surely the vestryman might feel that to refuse his plea might not only be harsh, but ungrateful. With regard to the second class of defects, those arising from the mode of election, he would just describe an election, which might take place under the Act as it stood, and when he had made this statement he would appeal to the House whether a more monstrous abuse—a more complete mockery of free election could be conceived. Suppose a parish to be divided into parties, and the existing vestry to have the popular voice with them,—suppose that, as is generally the case, they appointed the churchwardens, who in their turn appointed four of the eight inspectors of votes,—the meeting appointed the other four by show of hands, and it might thus easily arise that all the eight inspectors of votes might be of the same party. Again, there was nothing in the act to prevent a candidate for the vestry from being an inspector, and thus it might well happen that the election might be conducted by eight inspectors, all of one side, and all candidates for the office for which they were to return themselves. They were to receive votes for and against themselves; votes given by folded lists, in a manner liable to every species of fraud and trick; could their opponents in such cases feel any security for fair play, or could they avoid feeling that they were subjected to an intolerable grievance and injustice? Having now described the defects which he thought required legislative remedy, he would briefly detail the provisions of his intended bill. One great deficiency in Hobhouse's Act was, that it afforded no means by which any influence was given to property. In this respect it was neither founded upon the Report of the Committee he had quoted, nor upon the evidence taken before that committee, nor upon Mr. Sturges Bourne's Act, nor upon the Poor-law Amendment Act, nor upon the Municipal Corporations. In all these a certain measure of influence necessary for its own protection was given to property. In his proposed bill he intended to effect this, but rather by imitating the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act, than those of Mr. Sturges Bourne's, and other acts, which created a plurality of votes, in proportion to the amount of property rated. He had no objection to the principle of a plurality of votes, but he wished to disturb as little as possible what he found, and therefore he should not introduce the system of a plurality of votes into his bill, but leave to each rate-payer, as he found it, his single vote. He did propose to divide parishes into districts—each district to return a number of vestrymen proportioned to the amount of property in that district. He proposed that in parishes already under Hobhouse's Act, the districts for the purposes of separate elections should be these in which the poll had hitherto been separately taken, as there was a fair presumption that such divisions had been dictated by motives of convenience. He proposed that in parishes adopting the act in future, the divisions should be made according to the number of rate-payers:—

Parished containing rate-payers.
2000 to 3000 into 2 districts.
3000 to 5000 into 3 districts.
5000 to 7000 into 4 districts.
Above 7000 into 5 districts.
And that these divisions should be made by two persons, one to be appointed by the rector, and the other by the vestry; one auditor to each district; and where the districts are less than five, the surplus auditors to these districts rated to the highest amount. The separate elections to be each within the respective districts, voters only to vote in one district. He proposed that the rate-payers should appoint one inspector of votes, and the rector the other. As all his inquiries had convinced him of the solidity of the objections to the manner of voting by ballot, he proposed that the voting should be by lists signed with the voter's name and address, and that the Poll should be taken in one day. There was one great anomaly in the actual law, by which church wardens and overseers were liable to great injustice, for which he was desirous to provide a remedy. By the general law of the land, poor's-rates were made, not by the vestry, but by the churchwardens and overseers. Under specific Acts of Parliament, the County Rate, and the Metropolitan Police Rate, were charged upon the Poor's-rate; and as the churchwardens and overseers were the parties to levy these rates, they were in the first instance made liable under those statutes for the amount, because they had the power of indemnifying themselves by raising the sums in the parish; but in several metropolitan parishes the power of making rates was taken away by local acts, from the churchwardens and overseers and placed in the vestry. No corresponding provision relieved parish officers in these parishes from the liability for County and Police rate, although they were thus deprived of their power of indemnifying themselves. The case had actually arisen in Marylebone, where a noble Lord, who from motives of a public nature had accepted the office of churchwarden, was exposed to the annoyance of an execution in his house for the county rate. He proposed, therefore, that where the churchwardens and overseers were called upon to pay county or police rates, they should be enabled to call upon the parish treasurer to pay over any balance in his hands for those purposes, and should there not be assets to satisfy these demands, that they might require the vestry to make a rate for that object. He had now gone through the main provisions of his bill, and in conclusion, he would observe to any Member of the late Government, or to any one who had supported the Municipal Corporations Act, that his was almost identical with it. The Municipal Corporations Act established divisions into wards, or districts, so did his bill: it provided that in the appointment of councilmen to the different wards regard should be had to properly as well as numbers, so did he; the Municipal Corporations Act established open voting, so did he. You might call one a measure for parochial, and the other for municipal purposes but, in fact, they were merely verbal differences, for the parochial government of these large metropolitan parishes was to all intents and purposes a government for municipal objects. He could not conceive how any one could approve of the one,—and condemn the other,—or upon what grounds the framers of the Municipal Corporations Act could refuse him their support. He concluded by moving, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Vestries Act."

Mr. G. Knight

said, that it was with regret that he felt compelled to oppose the motion of his hon. Friend; but having been for several years a vestrymen of one of the metropolitan parishes which the measure proposed to be introduced by his hon. Friend would affect, knowing how contrary to the wishes of the rate-payers in that parish any such alteration would be, and not having found that any such evils resulted from the present state of things as had been represented by the hon. Baronet, he should not be doing his duty by his fellow parishioners if he did not resist the introduction of the measure which was now brought forward. The vestry of the parish of St. George, Hanover-square, of which he had the honour of being a member, had been opened by Sir John Hobhouse's Act, several evenings, and, during all that time, the proceedings of the vestry had been conducted in the most unobjectionable manner—the gentry and the tradesmen, of which the vestry was equally composed, acted harmoniously together—nothing like party spirit was suffered to interfere—they never forgot that they were a parochial, and not a political body—in consequence, their undivided attention was directed to promote the good of the community over which they presided. In the first two years, they had effected a saving, in the parochial expenditure, of nearly 50,000l., and, whilst the expenditure was diminished, there had been a great improvement in the treatment of the Poor. The right hon. Baronet had complained of the mode of election; but he could not complain of a mode of election by which he had been elected and reelected over and over again; and he could testify that, in the parish of St. George, at least, a due proportion of the gentry never failed to be returned. It might be different in the parish of Marylebone, because that parish was a borough—and, from that circumstance, political feelings were likely to be mixed up with parochial transactions; but he would leave the defence of Marylebone to its own representatives. So far as St. George, Hanover-square was concerned, he would say, that the present system had worked well, and that he desired no change, much less such a change as was proposed by the hon. Baronet.

Sir B. Hall

opposed the motion. The measure would interfere very much with the metropolitan parishes, and it was made by a gentleman who had not the slightest parliamentary connection with the metropolitan districts. His hon. Friend had not stated that there was any single grievance under the present system. He had not shown that there had been any jobbing, any increase of rates or expenditure. In fact, in every parish where this Act had been adopted the contrary was the case, and in the parish which he represented the select vestry had, during the seven years preceding the adoption of the Hobhouse Act, expended 1,015,824l., whilst the vestry, in seven years under the new system, had only spent 847,000l. being a saving of 167,000l. under the new system. In the parish of St. James, the comparison of ten years of the present system with ten years of the old system, showed a diminution of the expenditure of 13,000l. His hon. Friend had not been able to show any instance of abuse, and without any communication from the ratepayers, without any complaint from them, without even notice being given to them, his hon. Friend brought forward the bill. He hoped the present Government would not give their sanction to an attempt to repeal one of the most valuable measures of the late Government.

Captain Rous

thought, as far as he was acquainted with its operation, nothing could have acted better than Hobhouse's Bill, and he should object to going back to all the evils of the select vestry system.

Mr. Hawes

said, that the bill proposed by the right hon. Baronet was not approved of by any persons having local influence or information in the metropolis. He hoped the House would not consent to its introduction.

Mr. Hume

had had sufficient experience of vestries to dread a return to the old system. The present bill seemed to be levelled at the parish of Marylebone, from which, and, indeed, from nowhere else had a single petition come in its favour; but he was sure that nine-tenths of the parishioners of Marylebone would petition against it.

Colonel T. Wood

could not admit that the hon. Member for Lambeth had made a fair statement of the feelings of the public upon this subject, because, though in a majority of parishes the people were very well contented with the present act, in Marylebone and St. Pancras there was the strongest party feeling existing that it was possible to imagine. As an instance of it he would mention that the other day a bill was introduced as the suggestion of the trustees of St. Pancras, which every member of the committee approved of as being most laudable; but the committee having introduced the elective principle, making half of them to be nominated by the parishioners and the other half by the vestry, a hostile feeling was kindled immediately and the bill was dropped. As to the measure before the House, he thought his hon. Friend attempted too much. Certainly he had not grounded his propositions on facts, but upon gene- ral suppositions. His hon. Friend the Member for Marylebone had stated a strong fact, namely, that under the provisions of Sir J. Hobhouse's Act, those parishes being divided into ecclesiastical districts, each district, previous to the election, met and agreed as to the number of vestrymen to be elected for each; and the way they solved the difficulty was, to elect an equal number for the rich as well as for the poor districts. The votes were taken in five districts, but there was only one rate-book, which was kept at a central spot, so that there was no means of investigating the validity of the votes proffered. If the bill were modified in committee he would support his hon. Friend in carrying it through the House.

Mr. Mackinnon

would not deny that his hon. Friend had gone too far; but why not let the bill be brought in and go into committee, and then there would be a proper opportunity to strike out what was objectionable? The majority of the borough of Marylebone wished the evils of the present system to be remedied, and there was no other way of meeting their wishes than by the course taken by his hon. Friend, who was met, not in the ordinary way, but in a manner which looked very much like an indication of party spirit.

Sir J. Graham

said, that he had been asked, on the part of the Government, to undertake to introduce this bill, and he declined; but he said he was perfectly willing to hear the statements which might be made by the hon. Gentleman who had brought forward the measure, and to give it his most deliberate consideration. Most certainly he had been led to believe, that, in the various parishes of the metropolis, there was an earnest desire for a change of the law as now established, and he had come down to the House prepared to be the strenuous supporter of his hon. Friend; but when he heard the hon. Member for North Notts, the hon. Member for Middlesex, and the hon. Member for Lymington, though they supported the hon. Member to some extent, declare that he had gone too far, and when he found that the bill did not receive that support from the metropolitan members which was naturally expected for a measure desired by the inhabitants of the metropolis, he must say that he could not join in the advice given by the friends of the hon. Gentleman to let the bill be introduced; he did not think it advisable to support the measure; on the contrary, he should advise the hon. Gentleman not to press his bill upon the House.

Sir J. Walsh

, in reply, said that he could not but feel that the House had met his proposition in a spirit somewhat different from that which was usual. He had attended to the loose and desultory conversation which had followed his statement, and had heard hon. Gentlemen near him and others opposite say he had gone too far; but he had heard no attempt to deal with the bill on its merits, and there seemed to be a determination not to allow the subject to be discussed. He thought he had made out a sufficient case to entitle him to the ordinary courtesy, and he had been disappointed of support where he expected it. Therefore, standing alone almost, he should not be guilty of betraying the interests of those who were anxious for an alteration of the law if he submitted to circumstances and withdrew his bill.

Motion withdrawn.