HC Deb 01 May 1848 vol 98 cc584-9

SIR WILLIAM SOMERVILLE, in rising to move for leave to bring in a Bill to regulate the Elective Franchise, and for the Registration of Parliamentary Electors in Ireland, hoped he might ask the attention of the House for a few moments while he proceeded briefly to state the nature of the Bill which it was his duty to propose. He felt it was quite unnecessary for him to dilate on the great importance of this question; it had been recognised by successive Governments and by successive Parliaments, and yet the evils of the system remained to the present day unredressed and in full operation. Those evils, as they at present exist, he took to be threefold: first of all, the nature of the franchise as it exists in Ireland; secondly, the insufficiency of the constituencies dependent upon the nature of that franchise; and, thirdly, the system of registration, which is most imperfect, giving rise, as had been justly said, to many and grave abuses. First of all, he would call the attention of the House for a very few moments to the nature of the franchise as it exists in Ireland; and, perhaps, he need not go further in calling the attention of the House to this point, than simply to say that the franchise, as it at present exists in Ireland, is ambiguous. There might be some persons who objected to a high franchise; there might be seine who objected to a low franchise; but he believed that of all the curses that ever was inflicted upon a country—and particularly a country situated like Ireland—an ambiguous franchise was the worst. They had heard in that House, over and over again, in the course of debates on this question, the opinions of hon. Members on what is called the solvent-tenant test, and the beneficial-interest test. They knew that the Judges of the land differed in their construction of the Act of Parliament. They knew, also, that the assistant barristers in Ireland differed in their construction of the Act of Parliament; and he believed that even those who had framed the Reform Bill—or, at least, many of those who took part in the debates on the Reform Bill—differed in the construction of the Act of Parliament. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House, in discussing the question, had been unable to come to a correct decision on the subject; and such being the case, it could be hardly supposed that the peasantry coming forward to register their votes could form a correct opinion on the subject. Then let them see the great evil that was caused by this state of the franchise. An assistant barrister might register in one way; but whether or got it was to be finally allowed depended upon the going Judge of assize, and the construction he might put upon the Act. It appeared that neither Judges nor assistant barristers could agree in their construction of the Act of Parliament; and having said that, he conceived he said enough to show that, in this respect at all events, a change was desirable. What was the next evil he complained of? It was the insufficiency of the franchise in Ireland. He would not weary the House by going into detail, or by alluding to figures; but documents were at the command of every hon. Member of the House to show that the constituencies of Ireland were dwindling away, and yearly becoming less; and except the House stepped in and legislated on the subject, the representative system in Ireland would become nothing more nor less than a nullity. The numbers of the constituencies were to be found in documents on the table of the House; but let not hon. Gentlemen suppose that those documents gave a correct idea of the number of the voters in Ireland. When they saw the number of voters registered, did they consider how many of those voters were brought to the poll? Not at all; but if they looked to elections in Ireland, and to contests that had lately occurred, and compared the number of voters registered with the numbers which, even in the most severe contests, were brought to the poll, it would be found that the numbers brought to the poll were considerably less than the very small number which appeared on the face of the documents as returned to the House. He had now stated two of the evils connected with the franchise in Ireland: first of all, the nature of the franchise; and, secondly, the insufficient number of electors, caused by the state of the franchise. There was a third evil, to which he now begged to call attention, namely, the present registration system, which, as he had stated before, is liable to great abuse, and calls loudly for redress. He would now state to the House what it was proposed to do by the Bill which he desired to introduce; and first of all what remedy they intended to adopt in reference to the first of the evils to which he had called attention. Hon. Members were aware that the franchise in Ireland was, he might say, of two descriptions—one a franchise connected with occupation, the other a franchise which does not require occupation. The franchise connected with occupation was generally possessed by that which is called the poorer classes, and that occupation franchise is connected with a tenure. His opinion was that first of all it was necessary strictly to define the franchise. It was desirable that it should not be left, as a question of value, to be sworn to by the occupier himself at the time he came forward to register, and that they should adopt some fixed scale, which would do away altogether with the necessity for an oath. He knew of no plan that could be better adopted than that of falling back upon a rating. That was defined and precise, and was not liable to abuse, and a voter might be registered without being called upon to give his own deposition, or to swear to a beneficial interest, or to take the solvent-tenant test, which is now unfortunately necessary. He proposed, that the franchise should be placed on a rating. He proposed, first of all, that all the existing franchises requiring occupation should be at once abolished, and in lieu thereof a simple rating to the poor-law should be substituted, at a net annual value of and upwards. The franchise he proposed should be totally unconnected with any tenure, but based on the simple rating to the annual value of 8l. This he proposed as the occupier's test. He did not propose that any change should tale place in those franchises which did not require occupancy, but would allow them to remain as they are. He also proposed to extend the 8l. franchise to joint occupiers, provided each joint occupier's quota, when the whole sum was divided, amounted to 8l. annual value. The Bill also proposed to confer the elective franchise on persons having land in fee or in tail to the rated annual value of 5l. These alterations would give a very large increase in the constituent body; and if permitted to introduce this Bill, he would be prepared to show that that increase would not be unfair, as compared with England, Scotland, or Wales, or in any manner disproportionate; but that, considering the state of the country, and the condition of society, it was a just, fair, and liberal adjustment. He would now briefly state the plan he proposed with regard to the registration of the franchise. He proposed that the clerks of the different poor-law unions in Ireland should transmit to the clerks of the peace the list of persons rated as occupying lands and tenements, setting forth the amounts at which they were rated. These lists should be transmitted to the clerks of the peace, who would then make the list of voters otherwise qualified than by occupation, and afterwards add the occupiers to the lists. He also proposed that there should be a proviso that the occupier must have been in occupation six months, and must produce, before voting, a receipt for the payment of the last rate made for the poor. Then, with regard to the franchise of the towns, he did not propose chat any change should take place in the qualification; but great complaints having been made in Ireland as to the payment of municipal taxes, the plan now proposed would require no other payment from the voter but that of the poor-rate to entitle him to vote. Such was the measure he had to submit to the House. The registration part of the question was exceedingly complicated; and he preferred laying the Bill upon the table, in order to afford the House an opportunity of examining its provisions and when they came to the second reading he should be prepared to go into the whole matter, and, he hoped, to justify the nature of the measure to the House. His reason for introducing it might be principally, but not altogether, political. He believed it was the most desirable thing that leases should be granted to tenants in Ireland; and he knew of nothing which would more tend to induce the landlords to give leases to their tenantry than the system contemplated by the Bill of disconnecting the franchise from the lease. In its social effects also the measure would be most beneficial; but he would now refrain from entering into the subject further; and would simply move for leave to introduce the Bill.

MR. HUME said, if by any mistake or other accidental circumstance the arrears were left unpaid, that ought not to disqualify a voter. He thought the rating of itself a sufficient qualification for the franchise, without any reference to their payment of the rates, which could easily be enforced by the ordinary law. He found that, according to the returns of 1835, the number of voters in Ireland was 90,000. He wished to know the right hon. Baronet's (Sir W. Somerville's) estimate of the increase in the constituency likely to ensue from his Bill.

SIR W. SOMERVILLE calculated the number of voters in Ireland would be quadrupled by the proposed measure.

SIR D. NORRIS thought the Bill would effectually remove many of the present discouragements to the granting of leases, and making the tenant independent would be the best species of tenant-right which could be given in Ireland. All other kinds of tenant-right besides that were vague and visionary. He did not think it possible for him to make the House understand the great extent of the disgusting perjury prevalent at the session courts in Ireland, owing to the franchise being left to depend solely upon the oath of the party applying to have his name enrolled as a voter. But the present measure would leave the evils connected with the registration in the towns altogether untouched. Was the right hon. Baronet (Sir W. Somerville) aware that certain judges and revising barristers in Ireland allowed rent-charges the franchise, while other judges and barristers withheld it from them? Let them have one entire system of franchise: let it be known what they were to register, and then, with a proper mode of registering, all the difficulties which beset the question would vanish.

Leave given.

House adjourned at a quarter past Eleven o'clock.