HC Deb 06 June 1849 vol 105 cc1236-45

Order for the Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, thought it the most judicious course to state, explicitly, that the measure now introduced was, in all its main principles, much the same as that which the House had fully discussed on a previous occasion. The principal alteration was, that it was proposed to place insolvents and bankrupts upon the same footing, and thereby to get rid of a very invidious distinction which existed between Members insolvent who were traders, and Members insolvent who were not traders. The opposition raised to the Bill in its previous form, and in nearly its final stage, had been raised solely upon constitutional grounds. The hon. Baronet the Member for the Tower Hamlets, for instance, was clearly of opinion that the Members of that House should be as amenable to the law for the payment of their just debts as any other men. The only difference which existed, was as to the mode in which the object they had in view in common should be carried out. He thought it quite impossible that a Member of Parliament, if annoyed by his tailor or his washerwoman, could pay that attention to his legislative duties which he otherwise would, or that he could expect to maintain that respect to which his position entitled him. It was said that tradesmen were very often induced to give credit to Members of Parliament because of the respectable position the latter held; but that was no reason why any obstacle should be thrown in the way of the recovery of just and lawful debts. One objection to the former Bill was, that it precluded an insolvent Member from re-election; but, according to the present measure, it was provided, that an hon. Gentleman was eligible for re-election provided he obtained his discharge from the Insolvent Debtors' Court. He would briefly explain to the House the process by which, under this Bill, creditors would have an equal chance of recovering debts due from Members as from persons who had not privilege of Parliament. Thus if any Member found judgment debts against him which he was unable to satisfy, he would have the opportunity of filing a schedule of all his debts in the Insolvent Debtors' Court, and claiming the protection of that court; the process of rendering his person and filing the schedule could always be done in twenty-one days; upon which an immediate hearing of the case is ordered by the Commissioner, and his discharge granted, unless fraud is proved against him, or very strong circumstances of suspicion, as to withholding or fraudulent concealment of a portion of his property. Thus, in the course of about four weeks, any Member who may have, by his own imprudence, or the dishonesty of others, been thrown into pecuniary difficulties, would be at once cleared of them, and the House be spared the discreditable imputation of being a refuge for dishonest insolvents, or, what was still worse, of harbouring within its walls Members who, destitute even of the means of daily support, were peculiarly obnoxious to those pecuniary temptations which their position commanded, and their urgent necessities required. Consequently, it would be seen that, under the provisions of this Bill, the rights of constituents were carefully preserved, excepting in the case of a Member proving a knave and swindler: in such cases, undoubtedly, the Insolvent Debtors' Court would withhold its discharge, and the Member be incompetent for present re-election; but he had yet to learn that constituencies were fond of being represented by rogues, and least of all by pecuniary rogues. He regretted, therefore, that his hon. Friend the Member for the Tower Hamlets, instead of giving notice of his intention to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, had not rather given notice of some amendment by which the object they professed to have in common might be better carried out. It had been asked by some, "Why do you interfere at all; the existing system does no great harm?" He (Mr. Moffatt) thought, on the contrary, that it did a great deal of harm. It involved a very doubtful principle of morality, and was calculated to lower the character of the House in the estimation of the country. He could not help expressing his surprise that he should have encountered any opposition in attempting to carry out such a desirable measure, and he considered that his motives had been very much misrepresented. The case was simply this—a remedy was proposed by which fraudulent insolvents would no longer be able to make the House their sanctuary; the remedy was only applicable in the case of proved or judgment debts; and it was now for the House to decide whether so worthless and rotten a privilege should be retained or abandoned.

The Motion for the second reading having been seconded.


moved, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months. He gave the hon. Proposer full credit for the motives which had induced him to introduce the measure, but in his (Sir W. Clay's) opinion, it was objectionable alike in principle and details, and he felt it to be his duty to offer to its further progress a determined opposition. Since he had originally interfered to delay the passing of the Bill (and his first interference was in a great measure accidental), he had conversed with many hon. Friends to whose opinions he attached great weight, and the result of such and of his own reflection was, that the measure deserved fuller consideration than had yet been bestowed on it by the House. The objects of it were, that if any hon. Member should be indebted by the judgment of any court of record in any sum not secured by a lien on real property, his creditor might apply to the court to fix a peremptory time for the payment of the debt; the court might then fix a day for its payment, not less than 21 days distant; and if payment were not made in conformity with the order, the creditor might apply to the Insolvent Debtors' Court in England or Ireland, as the case might be, and serve on his debtor a copy of the affidavit and notice to pay; and the Insolvent Debtors' Court must order payment to be made in six months; and then if payment were not made, a certificate to that effect was to be transmitted to the Speaker, and the Member's seat would immediately become void. The adjudication would bring into operation all the stringent powers of the Insolvent Debtors' Court; and the unseated Member would be ineligible for re-election until he was purged by that court. He (Sir W. Clay) did not recollect any measure which had been ever introduced to the House of a more objectionable nature than the present. He was not opposed to giving increased facilities for the recovery of debts from hon. Members of that House; and if this measure had merely contemplated the giving of such facilities, by means less objectionable than those now proposed, not only would be not oppose it, but any provisions of the kind would receive his cordial consent. He should support any measure which enacted that after certain conditions of application to a Member for payment of a debt had been made, the powers of the Insolvent Debtors' Court should be called into operation, so far as regarded an entire cession of property; but he would not consent to the sacrifice of the seat of a Member. It appeared to him that, by excluding Members who did not pay their debts, Parliament would be stepping out of its legitimate sphere, would be meddling with matters which did not belong to them, and would be infringing one of the most important and valuable privileges of the people—viz., the privilege of having an unrestricted choice of persons whom they considered most fit to represent them. The Bill proceeded upon the assumed ground that such exclusion was "necessary for the preservation of the dignity and independence of Parliament," But he contended that in attempting to enforce such exclusion, they were doing what they had no right to do, and which, even if they had the right, it would be highly inexpedient to do, inasmuch as they could not do it efficiently. He confessed he had no high idea of the "independence" which was secured by Act of Parliament. He believed that independence depended far less upon external circumstances than upon innate qualities of mind and heart. There were many other circumstances which affected the morality of the House much more than the payment of debts. Some hon. Members might desire to get appointments for their friends—they might look for office for themselves; in either case the preferment might be the reward of a legitimate ambition, or the base hire for dishonesty and corruption. But how was the House to judge? The Bill had this great defect—it punished alike the innocent and the guilty. The House could not decide whether any man contracted debts honestly or dishonestly; they could not judge of his moral guilt, and, therefore, they could not say it was contrary to the dignity of the House that one of its Members should be unable to meet a pecuniary demand. But supposing they could do so, was it for them to say what amount of moral delinquency ought to incapacitate a man for sitting in that House? He had thought the discussion on Wilkes's case had settled that question long ago. But the details of the measure were still more objectionable, if possible, than its principle. It subjected the privileges of the House of Commons more to the discretion of courts of law than any measure he ever knew. It would be in the power of the original court to decide when the period of payment should commence; and, therefore, that court could determine when a man should cease to be a Member of that House. In the same same way the Insolvent Debtors' Court could influence the fate of Members, and decide when they should be capable of being re-elected. There was another grave objection in the enormous power the Bill would give over Members of the House. It would be in the power of any wealthy individual or corporation interested in a Bill which they had reason to believe would be opposed by some active and energetic Member, but who was under some pecuniary pressure, to buy up a debt owing by such person, and having taken the preliminary legal steps, to have his seat in their power. For his part, he did not wish to extend mammon worship in this country—to give one additional pang of humiliation to honest poverty—or to extend the power of mere wealth. A similar measure had been opposed by the noble Lord the Member for the city of London, and Lord Althorp in 1832: that Bill, after passing through several stages, was lost; and he trusted the present Bill would meet with the like fate.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day throe months."

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


Sir, this is a question of considerable importance in its principle, and, feeling that importance, I will take the liberty of saying a few words on the reasons that will guide my vote on the occasion. If any one looks over the Parliamentary history of this country, he will find that the privileges, in certain cases, of the Members of this House are of considerable antiquity—nearly as old as the assemblage of the Commons of England. In those early days, these privileges were of much importance, as this House, at that period, required all the props it could obtain, to withstand the powerful influence both of the Crown, under the Tudors and Stuarts, and also of the great barons by whom the other House was composed. I say, in every point of view, those privileges of the Commons were then of the utmost moment to keep up the tottering influence of this House against the preponderant influence of the other branches of the Legislature. But how much the relative position of the three branches of the Legislature has altered since these days that are gone! This House is now, perhaps, more powerful than it ought to be, when compared with the other branches of the Legislature, and stands not in need of most of those privileges by which it was formerly surrounded. It is a maxim of law, Cessante ratione, cessat et ipsa lex. Now, let us for a moment see how these privileges have gradually diminished, and are now gradually decreasing. I will add, and it is worthy of remark, that while the influence of the House of Commons has for the last century and a half been constantly increasing, what are styled the privileges of the House and its Members, have been decreasing in nearly equal proportion. Now, for instance, it is little more than a century that it was a great indignity to report what was said in this House. On the 13th April, 1738, the House resolved, "it was a notorious breach of the privilege of this House for any printer or publisher to give any account of the debates or other proceedings of this House." In 1771, the debates began to be published, and a contest arose between the publisher and the House, which occupied the House for three weeks, to the exclusion of all other business. Here again the House gave way. Again, in the case of Mr. Alex. Murray, in 1751, as mentioned by Horace Walpole, who refused to kneel at the bar, a long debate ensued, and all sorts of punishments proposed in the House, for the man who refused to kneel. On 18th March, 1772, a standing order—a very appropriate order—was made, that all persons brought to the bar should be reprimanded standing. Now, Sir, can any one admit that such a privilege as that of nonpayment of debts should remain in the nineteenth century in this House? Dr. Paley has truly observed that all privileges given to any class, must be given for the good of the community, otherwise they inflict injury on the public. Now, what possible benefit to the country can it be to have insolvent Members in this House? The hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Cambridge said, the other night, speaking on the subject, that both Pitt and Fox were in debt, and could not have been in Parliament, had a Bill like the present existed. This seems a wrong conclusion from the premises. These great men were in debt, and, in the event of this Bill being the law of the land, their party or their friends would have come forward and paid their debts. Now, to the case of individual Members of this House as relates to themselves, if there are any such, which I much doubt—what possible benefit can any one do himself by remaining in this House, if unable or unwilling to pay his debts? Had he not better give up his tinkering at legislation, and turn his attention to his own affairs? If he cannot manage his own affairs, is he likely to arrange those of the nation? As regards this House, is it not desirable that every individual Member of which it is composed, should be deemed in in a condition to pay his debts? It cannot for a moment be imagined that this privilege will continue; it cannot possibly continue ten years; we may, therefore, as well have the credit of giving up the privilege at once. Considering therefore, Sir, that this privilege is injurious to the respectability of this House; that it answers no purpose; that it prevents individuals from attending to their private affairs, and that it cannot long continue—I shall give my vote in favour of this Bill. The noble Lord at the head of the Government said, some time since, when this Bill was first agitated, that he would give his support to the measure, if the details could be satisfactorily adjusted. Now, can any doubt be entertained that these details in Committee can be arranged, with such a host of learned Gentlemen of high standing in their profession, Members of this House? Without detaining longer the attention of the House, I will only add, that by passing this Bill, which you must do within some years at farthest, you will not obtain the credit with the people of giving up an useless privilege, and yielding to the strong sentiment of public opinion.


wished to point out that the distinction which some hon. Gentlemen wished to draw between the principle of this Bill and its details was far from being a practical or sound distinction. The principle of this measure was made up of the details, and the details involved the principle in every line of them. The question was not whether it was better that reprimands should be given at the bar sitting or standing; but whether they would lay it down that the length of an hon. Member's purse should constitute the standard by which to measure public morality and private purity. He was afraid those who thought so were too much disposed to measure respectability by the length of a man's purse, and that they and his hon. Friend the Member for Lymington were too ready to adopt the argumentum ad crumenam. Many a man might have an estate burdened by private debts and judgments against his ancestors—the property might be onerously loaded by the accumulation of jointures and family settlements; and, although from no fault of his own, it might be impossible for him to go into the money market and obtain the means of relieving himself from his embarrassments; and would it be just to say that such a man was not as worthy in point of morality to sit in that House as any other individual? When they talked of immorality, criminality, or culpability, who, he asked, had a right to go round the House, and measure the moral guilt, or whatever they liked to call it, of his fellows? As to the argument that insolvent Members had better be attending to their own affairs than meddling with duties of legislation, without offering any disparagement to any one in particular, he would ask whether there were not many hon. Members now in that House, coming from the north, south, east, and west, who would have quite enough to do in looking after their own affairs, without attending, at great personal sacrifice and inconvenience, as many of them did? And the same argument that was used against insolvent Members was equally applicable to them. But, after all, the real question they had now to consider was this—was the evil complained of, of such frequent occurrence, that to find a remedy we ought to incur the dangers of altering the whole commercial law of the country "at one fell swoop," and cause a continual collision between that House and the constituencies? The hon. Gentleman who spoke last had said, the House did not enjoy the respect of the people at present.[Mr. MACKINNON explained that what he had said was, that the adoption of this Bill would increase the respect of the people for that House.] He would ask the hon. Gentleman to tell them arithmetically how much was added to the existing stock of disrespect for the House by hon. Members refusing to pay their debts? Ought the House to embark in such contingent danger for an object not deserving of support, and not worth the amount of contingent mischief that the Bill might entail? The clauses about the service of notice upon individual Members, would operate most mischievously. A man might be absent from the country without any intention to abscond, when a notice might be left at his home; and all the ignominy and disgrace that might properly attach to a person under different circumstances, would be inflicted upon him. He maintained that it would be impossible to work the Bill for any useful purpose; and in the long course of his experience in that House, he had heard so little of hon. Members claiming the privilege of protection from arrest for debt, that he believed the benefit the measure would secure, would not be anything like commensurate with the risk of legislative and constitutional evils which its adoption would create, and therefore he must strenuously oppose its second reading.


considered the object of the measure to be a good and legitimate one; but he did not think the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dartmouth would arrive at his object by means of this Bill. He believed it would put greater power over the House into the hands of creditors than it would be safe for them to possess, and, instead of rendering Members liable to exclusion from the House for insolvency, he believed, if they were made liable to arrest during the recess up to a short time before the meeting of Parliament, no one would enter the House for the sake of protection from his debts.


would support the Bill, because he believed that persons who were not independent in their circumstances were destitute of one of the essential qualifications of a Member of that House. Bankrupt Members were not now allowed an immunity from the claims of their creditors; but with regard to insolvent Members there was an entire denial of justice to the creditor. The insolvent Member could dispose of his property without being liable to be examined before the ordinary tribunals of the country as to whether he had fraudulently made away with it or not. It had been objected to this Bill that it would exclude Members guilty of no immorality themselves, but whose estates had been heavily encumbered by their predecessors. But the fact was, that no man was personally responsible for the debts of his ancestors; and if the owner wished to go to the money market to relieve himself from his embarrassments, he had only to let the creditor know that he was ready to give the security of his estate, and the creditor would be glad to accept the terms.


would support the Bill, because he thought the reason for these privileges had ceased, and that if they were retained they ought not to be allowed to be exercised for discreditable purposes.


considered that their privileges formed a very important subject, securing as they did the independence of the votes of the Members of that House; and he held that that object could not be secured consistently with this Bill. For what was the principle of the measure? Why, to enable the creditor of any Member of that House to take steps in a summary way that might deprive that Member of his seat. And let them just conceive what would be the position of any Member liable to such proceedings by an individual creditor who wished to secure his vote on any particular question. He said, that anything more degrading than the situation of that Member whose independence might be thus struck at, it was impossible to conceive. That consideration of itself was sufficient to induce him to give his decided opposition to this Bill; for while he admitted that at present, in a sense, an injustice was done to the creditor, at the same time the paramount consideration he had mentioned ought not to be lost sight of. And he must say, that he was not aware of any case of practical inconvenience suffered by a creditor by reason of the privileges of Members of Parliament.

The House divided:—Ayes 55; Noes 45: Majority 10.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Bremridge, R.
Arkwright, G. Bright, J.
Armstrong, R. B. Brotherton, J.
Bass, M. T. Buxton, Sir E. N.
Blair, S. Campbell, hon. W. F.
Bouverie, hon. E. P. Cavendish, hon. C. C.
Christy, S. Masterman, J.
Clive, H. B. Mundy, W.
Colebroke, Sir T. E. Palmer, R.
Compton, H. C. Pechell, Capt.
Davie, Sir H. R. F. Pilkington, J.
Ellis, J. Plumptre, J. P.
Gordon, Adm Portal, M.
Grenfell, C. W. Pugh, D.
Grey, rt. hon. Sir G. Romilly, Sir J.
Guest, Sir J. Simeon, J.
Gwyn, H. Stansfield, W. R. C.
Harris, R. Talfourd, Serjt.
Hawes, B. Thicknesse, R. A.
Hayes, Sir E. Thornely, T.
Heald, J. Tufnell, H.
Houldsworth, T. Verney, Sir H.
Jervis, Sir J. Wellesley, Lord C.
Kershaw, J. Williams, J.
Lewis, G. C. Wilson, J.
Lewisham, Visct.
Mackinnon, W. A. TELLERS.
Magan, W. H. Moffatt, G.
Maitland, T. Mullings, J. R.
List of the NOES.
Barrington, Visct. Mahon, Visct.
Bernal, R. Meux, Sir H.
Brackley, Visct. Miles, W.
Bromley, R. Morris, D.
Buller, Sir J. Y. Muntz, G. F.
Bunbury, E. H. Newdegate, C. N.
Burke, Sir T. J. Nicholl, rt. hon. J.
Burroughes, H. N. Packe, C. W.
Clay, J. Pakington, Sir J.
Deedes, W. Patten, J. W.
D'Eyncourt, rt. hn. C. T. Roche, E. B.
Fitzroy, hon. H. Russell, Lord J.
Foley, J. H. H. Smith, rt. hon. R. V.
Freestun, Col. Spooner, R.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H. Stanley, E.
Hale, R. B. Taylor, T. E.
Harris, hon. Capt. Thompson, Col.
Hayter, rt. hon. W. G. Waddington, H. S.
Hildyard, T. B. T. Willyams, H.
King, hon. P. J. L. Wilson, M.
Legh, G. C. Wood, rt. hon. Sir C.
Lockhart, A. E. TELLERS.
Lockhart, W. Stuart, J.
Lygon, hon. Gen. Clay, Sir W.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2o, and committed for Wednesday next.

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