HC Deb 14 February 1849 vol 102 cc673-80

said, the Bill of which he now rose to propose the second reading, was one of common sense and common honesty. It was one intended to apply to all Members of the House the same principles which were now applied to a certain class, and it proposed to withdraw' from all Members of this House the privilege of not being compelled to pay their debts, which other members of society had not. In introducing this Bill to the House, he had been especially careful to preserve the privileges of the House. He had framed it, as far as possible, on the model of the Act of 1812; and he therefore need nut say that it did not interfere with the inviolability of Members' persons from arrest. The principle which he did apply had been found to work well in all cases relating to acts of bankruptcy and he now proposed to apply the same principle to Members of the House who were not tradesmen. He thought, therefore, there could be no objection to the general principle; if there were, the House must either repeal the Act of 1812, or it must propose to maintain a distinction between those Members of the House who were traders and those who were not. He believed the House would not adopt either of those principles; and he derived a more thorough conviction of this from the fact that when he introduced a similar Bill into the House last Session, there was a general concurrence in the principle; and the only objections made were to the machinery, which he had since endeavoured to obviate. The process by which the object of the Bill was to be effected was precisely the same as that adopted in cases of bankruptcy, with this difference, that six months was now substituted for twelve, as the period during which a seat might remain vacant; because he thought it was not desirable that so long a period as the latter should be allowed to intervene before a seat could be filled up. He thought it would be needless to enter into arguments in support of the Bill. The only objection he had heard made to it was, that it did not go far enough, for many hon. Members had declared to him their entire willingness to abolish the privilege of freedom from arrest altogether. Having looked into the subject, however he must say that he had come to be of a different opinion, and he thought that in two words he could convince the House such a step would not be desirable. If that privilege should be abolished, parties who had claims upon hon. Members might suddenly arrest them; and they all knew what an important effect such a step might have in some cases of division. Then, again, if a Member were arrested for debt, his natural course would be to petition the House, declaring that his arrest was illegal, or that the debt was not due. This petition, would, of course, be referred to the Committee of Privileges, when the whole question of the debt must be gone into; and if the Committee should decide that the debt was not due, there would be a collision between the House and the courts of law, or the sheriff's officers he thought, therefore, it was better to preserve the privilege of freedom from arrest, while they secured themselves against all fears of its abuse by the measure which he proposed. Another objection had been urged upon him, that the measure was imperfect, by reason that it did not apply to the House of Peers. The allegation was, that if an insolvent Member of the House of Commons was to be compelled to vacate his seat, the same rule ought to apply to insolvent Members of the House of Peers. Now, in the general principle he entirely agreed; but there were two ways of doing a thing, one was a gracious way, and the other was a very un-gracious one. He believed if the House of Commons were to originate such a measure in relation to the House of Peers, they would act as he was sure the House of Commons would do if the Peers had originated such a measure with regard to them—that was, to reject it altogether. They all knew that there was a hereditary jealousy between the two Houses with regard to their respective privileges. On the other hand he remembered what the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth (Sir R. Peel) said when a similar subject was before them in 1835, that there was no privilege which this House had ever given up, but the example had been invariably and immediately followed by the House of Peers. At the same time he felt convinced that if that House refused any longer to be a refuge for insolvent debtors, the House of Peers would not long strive to retain for itself so discreditable and disgraceful a privilege. Those were the only objections which he had heard urged against the Bill. He trusted, for the character of the House, that no difficulty would be thrown in the way of passing this Bill. Any suggestions that might render its provisions more effectual he should be happy to adopt. He would only say that his object in introducing the measure was to maintain the dignity, the independence, and the character of the House.


hoped that the House would agree to the second reading of this Bill. When a similar measure was introduced last Session, he felt it his duty to caution the House against the adoption of the Bill, because, while he concurred generally with the principle, the provisions by which it was to be carried out were so objectionable, that the House ought not to sanction the measure. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Moffatt), however, had since reconsidered the matter, and a number of objections which attached to the measure last Session had been removed in the present; and though there might be some amend- ments still to be made in Committee—indeed, there was one or two which he meant to propose himself—yet he would advise the House to agree to the second reading. The principle of the measure was to assimilate insolvent Members to bankrupt Members, and he thought to that principle there would be no objection. He did not think the hon. Member need have made any apology for declining to interfere with the privileges of the House of Peers, with which this House had nothing whatever to do.


said, that last Session he had felt it his duty to object to this Bill. He considered that the Bill was then so encumbered, so loaded, he might say, with provisions, which would be found to be totally unworkable in practice, that he then felt it his duty to oppose the measure. In this Bill the principle was to be evolved, and extracted from its details. He did not mean to oppose the second reading, but he warned the House, and he warned his right hon. Friend (Sir G. Grey), that the details here were all important. In particular there was one clause which provided that a seat must be left vacant for six months from the time when a creditor applies to the Court of Insolvency for a vesting order on the insolvent's property. How far that was right to the constituencies of the country, he would leave to this House to determine; but he warned this House to look at the Bill with great caution and jealousy. It was all very fine to say, let us be moral, let us be just, let us act right; but, on the other hand, let them beware that, under cover of this justice and morality, they did not commit great injustice both to Members and constituencies. He held it as an axiom that a man might be poor, and yet just; that he might be very opulent, and yet immoral.


said, he did not intend to offer any opposition to the second reading of this Bill, but there were many points which required the serious consideration of the House. The hon. Member (Mr. Moffatt) who introduced the measure, had rather addressed himself to answering objections which had been urged against it, than to stating reasons in its favour; but as the Bill was altogether different from that of last Session, he (Mr. Goulburn) was of opinion that the hon. Gentleman should have stated some cogent reasons for its adoption by that House. The hon. Member's Bill was at variance with its provisions, for he said that he confined it to persons having privilege of Parliament, but it was confined to Members of the House of Commons. In former times the privileges of Parliament extended far beyond what they were at present. There was the privilege of not being sued in any court, which it was found necessary to abolish, and a Bill was introduced rendering peers and commoners equally suable. Under the statutes of Will. III. and Geo. III. the diminution of the privilege was applied equally to Members of both brandies of the Legislature. He was quite ready to admit that the circumstances which originally led to the general exemption of Members of the two Houses of Parliament from arrest, had become altered by the state of the law. When persons were arrestable on mesne process, there was a ready mode of preventing the attendance of any Member in his place in Parliament, by swearing to the debt, and confining him for a limited time until he obtained security to answer for the action, and that power might be used to prevent the attendance of Members, and might become a political engine for carrying measures in the House by a particular party. The abolition of arrest on mesne process, therefore, materially diminished the bad effect that might have resulted from the existence of the privilege, and arrest was now limited merely to cases where judgment had been obtained against the debtor. Although it was extremely desirable that they should preserve the character of the House by not allowing an insolvent debtor to be free from the general provisions of the law which applied to other insolvent debtors, yet he confessed himself extremely averse to making a particular provision for Members of Parliament in a particular situation; and if they were to legislate, he would much rather that legislation were directed to place Members of Parliament in the situation in which other members of society were placed, than to make a particular provision as to them. But in so doing, this circumstance must not be overlooked—that you added to the natural disposition of the creditor to recover that which was demanded, a strong political object, which might be attained by the enforcement of the demand. You did not in the case of a Member of Parliament merely apply the ordinary motives which a creditor had to enforce his demands; but you might discredit the character of an eminent Parliamentary leader—you might render it impossible for a man to render a service to his country—if you did not take care to guard against the vexatious use which might be made of a power of this kind. There had been men in the first stations who had been deeply involved in debt; there had been parties opposed to them when party spirit had been high, who would have been willing to avail themselves of the difficulties of the individual, caused often by the nature of the office he had held, to render that individual useless. These were considerations which must not be omitted, when you came to a consideration of the details of this question, which, upon the whole, he looked at as a question of Parliamentary privilege. It was one over which they themselves had the absolute power, without any interference with another branch of the Legislature; and if they looked at the proceedings of Parliament in antecedent times, they would find numberless instances in which Members had been arrested in consequence of judgments having been pronounced against them: sometimes they had been discharged by the House, and sometimes they had been permitted to remain in confinement on account of the debts for which judgments had been obtained against them. And there was this advantage in dealing with the question as a matter of resolution of the House, rather than by Act of Parliament, that if they passed an Act of Parliament, and they found by the provisions of the Act that their measure interfered with the proper discharge of the duties which were owing to the country by a Member of Parliament, they had no power of altering it without the interference of the other branch of the Legislature; whereas, if the matter were left to the discretion of the House, and they found any evils arising, they might make a modification of their resolution so as to meet those evils. He said not one word as to the general details of the Bill; it was in many respects undoubtedly extremely defective. It had a tendency to place the House of Commons in direct collision with their constituency, and was open to various other objections. He was only anxious on this occasion to throw out, for the consideration of those who took an interest in the particular Bill, the general line of objection.


said, that the Members of the House were much indebted to the hon. Member for Dartmouth (Mr. Moffatt), and nothing would tend so much to elevate the character of the House as the passing of this Bill; and he hoped he would extend the same principle to the other branch of the Legislature. At an election, if any Gentleman holding a seat in the House was found giving the smallest sum of money or treating, he was in danger of losing his seat; and, at the same time, he had the privilege of committing other acts equally objectionable. He hoped the Government would pass the Bill, and extend the principle to the other House of Parliament.


was anxious that the second reading should be postponed, that more time might be given for consideration before the House assented to the principle on which the Bill proceeded. The only ground which had been laid before the House, or rather the main ground, was to assimilate the case of those who were called insolvent persons with traders; but the cases were not at all analogous. The bankrupt laws were passed for the protection of persons in trade, who, from unforeseen circumstances, became unable to pay their debts, and, upon surrendering their property, received a discharge in full from all their creditors for the future. That was not the case with an insolvent. A bankrupt received his certificate, and became a clear man to be elected to this House; his debts were for ever gone. Not so with the insolvent. A man, for whatever imprudence or whatever cause he might have become insolvent, could not get clear under the insolvent court. It was true that they could take his property as effectually as in the case of bankruptcy, but they could not give him a discharge; and therefore there was a great difference in the two cases—the trader being a bankrupt could be elected—the insolvent could not be elected unless he had paid all his debts in full. A Bill of this sort depended upon its details. It seemed to be the opinion of the House that the second reading ought not to be opposed, and therefore he should not take upon himself the responsibility of that course. This privilege was not a privilege of Members; it was a privilege of constituents. That ought never to be lost sight of; and if they were going to exclude a certain class of persons in whom the constituency chose to repose their confidence, the House might get into squabbles from parties being continually re-elected, which it was not convenient to bring themselves into.

Bill read a second time.


suggested whether it might not be desirable to refer the whole subject to a Select Committee, for them to report upon it.


hoped that the hon. Member (Mr. Moffatt), who had introduced the Bill, would not consent to the proposal of the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mr. Greene), and refer it to a Committee upstairs. Investigation was much demanded by the public; be thought it a very reasonable proposition that the Bill should be postponed; but not that it should be referred to a Committee upstairs.


hoped that the right hon. Baronet (Sir G. Grey) would introduce the amendments some time before the Bill came into discussion. He could not conceive that it was the intention of Government to pass a Bill of this kind as it stood at present.


said, that the amendments would be introduced before the discussion on the Bill.


objected to sending the Bill to a Committee upstairs; but he did not object to postpone it for a fortnight.

Committed for February 28th.

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