HC Deb 13 February 1849 vol 102 cc669-73

SIR W. SOMERVILLE moved for leave to bring a Bill to amend the Laws which regulate the Qualification and Registration of Parliamentary Voters in Ireland. He said it would be in the recollection of the House, that in the course of last Session he obtained permission to lay upon the table a Bill to amend the laws regulating the qualification and registration of Parliamentary voters in Ireland. He then took the opportunity of stating to the House the principle of the measure which he introduced on that occasion; and as the Bill which he would now, with the permission of the House, place upon the table, differed in no very material degree in the nature of its provisions from those of the measure he had previously introduced, it would be unnecessary for him to occupy the time of the House by any lengthened statement on the subject. It was not necessary for him to dwell upon the great importance of the question, or upon the unsatisfactory nature of the present franchise, and present mode of registering Parliamentary electors; nor was it needful for him now to comment upon the great desirableness of a change in both of these respects. The principle of the present measure was simply this—the doing away with all qualification requiring occupation, and the substitution of a simple rating to the poor-law instead. He proposed to fix the amount of the rating the same as he did last year, namely, at a net annual value of 8l. and upward. That would be coupled with a condition of having paid the poor-rates due within six months, not of the time of voting, as in the former Bill, but of the time of registration. He had intended last year to leave the borough franchise as it is now, with this exception, that he did away with the payment of all rates excepting poor-rates, which were, as in the case of the county franchise, to be paid previously to voting. He proposed, in this Bill, to adopt the same principle with regard to the borough franchise, as he proposed with regard to the county, namely, to do away with every other species of franchise requiring occupation, and adopt the 8l. rating in town and county to the poor-rates. Having gone fully into the subject last year, he would now merely lay the Bill, with the House's permission, upon the table, requesting a full, fair, and candid consideration of its details. With reference to the registration, he proposed the adoption of an annual system of revision, and an annual system of registration. He believed this measure would not have the effect of giving an undue number of voters in Ireland, as compared with England or Scotland. The right hon. Baronet concluded by moving for leave to introduce the Bill.


said, he could not help remarking the strange coincidence of the same Government, which had only a few nights ago come down to the House with a Bill for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland, now coming forward to propound a scale of political franchise for the same people lower than that enjoyed by the people of England. Let not the right hon. Baronet (Sir W. Somerville) flatter himself that because, with the thin attendance of Members now in the House, and the seeming acquiescence in his present Motion, that his (Mr. Stafford's) side of the House, in the least degree, pledged its assent to any one of the details of this Bill, or that it was in any way hindered from resorting to every legitimate means for opposing its final passing. With regard to the amount of the franchise, and with regard to the same qualification being adopted for both town and county districts, he (Mr. Stafford) would reserve to himself the most free and entire right of fully discussing and criticising each of these points. He also attached great importance to the question as to who should have to bear the expense of all this registration; and why the necessity of being registered, whether he would or not, should be forced upon the tenant in Ireland, as appeared to be contemplated by this measure, he would not now stop to inquire.


thought the remark of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Stafford) who had just spoken, as to the inopportuneness of the present measure, seeing it was only the other night they had been called upon to suspend the constitution in Ireland, was something very like mere child's play. For his part, he (Mr. Roche) did not think the measure was sufficiently extensive; instead of desiring to pare it down, he considered it did not go far enough. He had hoped, after the great examples given of late throughout Europe, of the extension of the rights of popular representation, that the Government of Great Britain and Ireland would not have lagged behind other nations, which formerly it was her glory and boast to excel, in the liberties and freedom enjoyed by her people—in the amount of concessions it would yield to the masses in this ago of advancement and popular enlightenment. With regard to the system of registration proposed, he hoped it would be at least the means of putting an end to the disgusting scenes that now occurred from time to time in the registration courts.


considered, in the present prostrate condition of Ireland, when they were called upon to make grants from the national treasury as subsidies to unions in Ireland overwhelmed with a rapidly increasing pauper population, that measures of a very different character from the present—which he could not but characterise as a party measure, intended by the Government as a bait to catch support from hon. Members in that House, and which could confer no conceivable practical good on the starving people or the desolate estates of Ireland—were imperiously called for, and demanded precedence from Her Majesty's Ministers. There were the medical charities of Ireland, affecting the interests of the poor, and also entailing heavy expense upon the most distressed districts; then there was a sanitary measure for the towns and cities of Ireland (the measure of last year having proved a complete failure); then there was the extension of railways in that country; next its fisheries, and a variety of other plans for developing the national resources of Ireland, which had all a prior claim upon the Government's attention. He strongly objected to the entire Irish policy of the present Administration, and considered it their duty, when they appointed the Committee on the Poor Laws, to have given the Committee some clue and guiding principles regarding the nature of the amendments required to be effected. With regard to the present measure, he must strenuously oppose it. He saw no ground whatever why the borough franchise should be interfered with.


said, that, considering the state of Ireland, a much more useful and necessary Bill might have been introduced by the Government. For to bring forward a measure like the present, was to give the Irish people a stone when they asked for bread. If, however, such a measure were necessary as a popular boon, let them, in common justice and common fairness, see that the existing valuation adopted in the different unions which this Bill proposed to take as its basis, should first he made of equal force and equal stringency, and be first remodelled upon an impartial and uniform scale. This would be an absolutely indispensable preliminary to the present measure, for the poor-law rating was not made upon the same basis in any two out of the total number of unions in Ireland.


thought no hon. Member need entertain any fear of an undue extension of votes in Ireland as likely to result from this Bill. The rapid breaking down of the small ratepayers, now unfortunately going on in that country, was quite enough to guard against any very largo accession to the lists of voters. Again, with respect to the towns, he was strongly of opinion that this franchise upon the eight pound rating, instead of increasing, would very much diminish the existing number of voters. It was the interest of the parties to keep the valuation down as much as possible; and certainly the advantage of the franchise would not prove a sufficient inducement to make them prefer rating, which they now strove by every possible shift to avoid. No one had more strongly censured the Government for not redeeming its past pledges to the Irish people; but he was glad to accept this measure as a step—though certainly a very small step—in the right direction. There was one excellent principle in this Bill—that was, it proposed to disconnect the franchise entirely from the tenure of the land, the unsatisfactory state of which had led to so many of the miseries of Ireland, and to so much bitterness between landlord and tenant in that country.

Leave given to bring in the Bill.

House adjourned at Nine o'clock.