HC Deb 05 March 1850 vol 109 cc382-9

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to abolish the payment of fines and stamp duties on the admission of freemen into corporations. He thought it right to give some explanation of the Rill which he was then seeking to introduce. It would be in the recollection of the House that, by the 5th and 6th William IV., the Corporation Act, under the third clause all fines upon freedom were abolished, so far as regarded municipal towns and cities in England and Wales, with the exception of the metropolis of London. He was willing to acknowledge, when he first gave notice of the present Bill, it was more with regard to London itself; but, on submitting it to inspection, hon. Gentlemen on the Ministerial bench were kind enough to inform him it came under the denomination of a private Bill. He, therefore, enlarged his notice, and included all the municipal cities of England and Wales; and he rejoiced at having done so, because great injustice was being enacted to a large portion of the electors of this country by the present system. He asked the House to consider the privileges burgesses enjoyed. Every person who served an apprenticeship was compellable to be enrolled by the town clerk. The fines on that enrolment were very serious, amounting from 6s. to 38s. and 40s., and that merely for servitude. He asked the House to consider was that a matter of justice to those persons, many of whom were extremely poor, after having served an apprenticeship to an humble calling, to be required, on attaining their majority, to pay for enrolment some 38s. or 40s.? He had heard in that House many denunciations of the corruption of the old burgesses connected with the boroughs. But there could be no doubt whatever, if they charged persons 38s. and 40s. for their freedom by way of enrolment, they taught them in effect the way to sell their votes, as well as to purchase their freedom. He bad no hesitation whatever in saying, that it was owing to that system the old burgesses were called the corrupt burgesses, and said to be purchaseable. The Municipal Act had abolished all fines upon residence in every city with the exception of London; and it was most unjust and impolitic not to have included London also. In London the lowest and poorest persons who got into business—whether retail shopkeeper, tailor, greengrocer, or publican—all were alike compellable to take out their freedom, and pay down a sum of money before they were permitted to become inhabitant householders of the city. If the practice had the merit of uniformity, it might be entitled to some support. But the wealthy merchants, professional men, and bankers, as well as wealthy private individuals, put to scorn all attempts to impose fines on them for residence. The question was not of small importance or insignificance regarded either in a pecuniary or political sense. He might state that the city solicitor had, within the last four years instructions to prosecute upwards of 3,000 persons for not paying up their enrolment fees, and there were at present before the Court of Aldermen 2,000 persons who refused to pay the fine of residence. Now, he conceived such proceedings as these were contrary to the spirit of the ancient charters of London; because, by the ancient charters, occupiers were entitled to residency and citizenship. He did not ask the House for power to bring in a Bill which would have the effect of depriving the corporation of an iota of the property possessed by those bodies, or that would in anyway curtail their privileges; but he asked permission to bring in a Bill which would have the effect of removing a great injustice from many poor voters. If the House considered it of small importance that these parties should pay 2l. to obtain their freedom, why lot it be pronounced, that it might go forth that they should pay for the privilege of exercising an independent trust, and that they were to be mulcted for the benefit of other classes; at the same time, he cautioned them they would be teaching these persons how to sell their votes. In London the matter was of more importance than a pecuniary fine involved. They had had for centuries a constituency of municipal voters of 50,000 or 60,000, with a Parliamentary constituency of some 30,000 or 40,000 voters; whilst at the present moment he believed they had not more than 5,000 or 6,000 persons entitled to exercise the civic franchise in London, with a Parliamentary constituency ranging over 20,000 voters. The municipal roll of the city of London contained only 6,018 names, and the Parliamentary roll comprised 20,000; whilst in Manchester, Leeds, and most other largo towns, the proportions were reversed. Then, again, the 6,018 municipal electors were scattered through 25 wards, in five of which the number of voters did not amount to more than 70 or 100, whilst in others it reached to only 100 or 120. Now, he asked was that right, in such a community as the inhabitants of the city of London—the wealthiest in the world? The corporation of that city possessed funds to the amount of 200,000l. per annum, clear of taxation. Yet, notwithstanding, their constituencies went down from between 30,000 and 40,000 to 5,000 individuals. He asked was it right that they should not have even a fourth of municipal voters compared with Parliamentary, when it was well known that in every other town and city the inverse ratio existed? When these fines were first originated, they no doubt were enforced to recruit the exchequer of the corporation; but that excuse could not now be pleaded, because the funds in that exchequer had been greatly increased in amount. In the year 1750, the corporate funds amounted to some 50,000l. per annum; in 1808, they increased to 100,000l.; and in 1848, to nearly 200,000l,; therefore, it could not be justified in continuing to exact the fine of residence for the purpose of recruiting the municipal funds. If he should be asked, "was the fine serious?" he would admit it had been greatly reduced. At present it was comparatively small, being 3l. 6s. 4d. on a government stamp of 3l., whilst formerly it amounted to 30l. However, he did not intend occupying the time of the House; though he should say it was with surprise he had heard it was the intention of the Government to oppose the introduction of the Bill. The only argument he had hoard against the Bill was, that its effect might be to affect the revenue some 700l. to 1,000l. annum. But that ought not to form a reason why Government should object to the introduction of a Bill. He submitted that, as in 1835 the Government repealed the stamp duties in every city with the exception of London, they should not at present seek to perpetuate an injustice on that city, which they had abolished in every other. If he were given the opportunity of bringing in the Bill, hon. Gentlemen would see that he sought nothing but the removal of a very great injustice.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the payment of Fines and Stamp Duties on the Admission of Freemen into Corporations of Cities and Boroughs in England and Wales.


seconded the Motion.


said, that the Bill which the worthy Alderman wished to bring in was one of that class to which the right hon. Secretary for the Home Department referred at the commencement of the Session, when he suggested the propriety of the House refusing to permit measures to be introduced which there was no probability of ultimately carrying. Moreover, the Members of Her Majesty's Government had reason to complain of the course adopted by the hon. Gentleman who sought to introduce the measure. The hon. Gentleman admitted that his object heretofore had been to remove the fines within the city of London, and for that purpose he submitted a Bill to the right hon. Gentleman the Speaker; but finding from his opinion that the Bill was a private one, and that notice should be given in order that the corporation of London, whose interests were certain to be affected by it, might be made aware, the hon. Gentleman renewed his Motion, and embraced within it other cities and towns in England and Wales, with a view to the wholesale confiscation of their corporate funds. The hon. Gentleman assigned as a reason, that the municipal constituency of London decreased in proportion as the Parliamentary constituency increased. Why then did not the worthy Alderman bring in a Bill to make the municipal vote depend upon rating, as it did in Manchester and the other towns to which he had referred? But the remedy for the city of London was simple, and might be effected by the corporation of the city of London, bringing in a Municipal Reform Bill if they saw the necessity for it? But surely it was no reason for the abolition of municipal fines, because the municipal constituency did not keep pace with the Parliamentary. The Motion of the hon. Gentleman went directly to touch the property of the corporations of England and Wales; and he (the Attorney General) wished to know what right the hon. Gentleman had to interfere to such an extent without the consent of these corporations, and without even having made application to a single member of the London corporation to inform him of his intention to endeavour to abolish these fines? The corporations, if they wished, could abolish these fines themselves; and if the House interfered at present, they would be depriving the corporation of the principle of self-government invested in them. He begged to ask the hon. Gentleman why not allow the corporations to remove these fines themselves? The Common Council was at present an elective body, returned every twelve months; and their constituencies, if they thought fit, could make it a condition of their return at the time of election that they should vote for such abolition of fines. He warned the House, if they recognised the principle of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, they would be entrenching on the principle of self-government, and interfering with property without solicitation or invitation. Now, as regarded the corporation of the city of London, he wished to know did the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill express the wish of the burgesses of that city? [Alderman SIDNEY: Yes, yes!] Well, there had been no petitions to that House from them.


Yes, I myself presented one on the subject.


did not know of that; but he did know that the corporation of the city of London did not agree in thinking with the hon. Gentleman.


I believe they do; and a great portion of the Court of Aldermen also.


The corporation was invested with the principle of local government, and it was not fair that, because one member of it, who happened to be a Member of that House also, differed with the entire body, the hon. Gentleman should seek to convert that House into a high court of appeal on the question. He (the Attorney General) would not stop to consider the question of the propriety of increasing the freemen. The hon. Gentleman said his Bill would merely affect fines and stamps; but if he proposed to abolish the creation of freemen by purchase, he was taking a strong measure wherewith to alter the entire constitution of the corporation of the city of London, without even the justification of an application on their part. The hon. Gentleman had also stated that the question did not involve more than about 600l. a year, which was a mistake, as the amount would reach between 2,400l. and 3,000l, no inconsiderable sum. There was no complaint on the part of the citizens as regarded the corporation; and, therefore, he thought the corporation should be left to effect such change as they deemed improvements, particularly when they possessed the power within themselves to do so. He should therefore oppose the introduction of the Bill.


considered there should be a thorough and searching reform in all corporations. The hon. and learned Attorney General asked, why not leave these reforms to the corporation itself? Now, he (Mr. Forster) was certain that the hon. and learned Gentleman was the last man that expected they would ever do so. There certainly had of late been some improvements in corporations, but it was not creditable to the Government to allow of such practices as still existed under the London corporation. The hon. and learned Gentleman inquired for the petitions; but it was well known how such could be prevented. To expect that the corporations would amend themselves, was simply absurd. However, he thought it would be better to allow matters to remain as they were until they could have a thorough and searching reform.


could not give the Motion his support, as he looked upon the Bill as one which was only introduced for the city of London, and not for all municipal towns in England and Wales. There would never be a reform in the corporation of London, as long as the Prime Minister was one of its representatives. He agreed with the hon. and learned Attorney General that this Bill was an improper interference with private property, and he therefore recommended the worthy Alderman to withdraw his Motion.


said, that the House probably was not aware of what had been done in the city of London. It had been ststed that no inquiry had taken place into that corporation, whereas one of the most searching inquiries which had ever been made into an institution of the kind had been carried on and completed under the superintendence of Mr. Blackburn, the late eminent counsel, and Sir E. Palgrave, with regard to the corporation of the city of London. Their report would be found in the library. They had carried out the reform of the municipal corporations in spite of the resistance of those bodies; but he regretted that the principle was not applied to the city of London. As he understood the matter, the worthy Alderman wished to abolish the fines and stamp duties on the admission of freemen in the city of London, as in other places. This had been effected by the Bill introduced by Mr. Williams, the late Member for Coventry; but the Government at the time, at the instigation of the corporation of London, exempted it from the operation of the Bill. It probably would have been better if the hon. Member had postponed his Bill until the returns on the subject were laid on the table. He would ask Her Majesty's Ministers whether it was not their duty to redeem their pledge, and carry out the same principle of reform to the corporation of London, which they had applied to other municipal boroughs?


did not suppose that the Bill would be attended with any great advantage if it should be allowed to be introduced; but he did not think the time of the House had been thrown away, as it had introduced the subject of the unreformed state of the corporation of the city of London. He was a Member of that House when the Municipal Corporations Act was brought forward, and carried; and he regretted that it was not made to apply to the city of London; but at that time there was a distinct pledge on the part of the Government that a distinct measure should be brought forward for the purpose. He was glad that that conversation had taken place, as it would direct public attention to the subject. The hon. and worthy Alderman said that the funds of the corporation exceeded 200,000l. a year, over which Parliament and the public had no control; and he (Sir B. Hall) thought this was a sufficient reason for the condition of the corporation being fully considered in that House, with a view to such a reform as to give the inhabitants of the City a control over the expenditure of that large income. He did not mean to say that the corporation of the city of London was as corrupt as some of the old corporations were before the Municipal Act passed, but still they stifled inquiry; and the aldermen, as soon as they put on their gowns, notwithstanding the opinions they might previously have expressed, threw over reform. They ought to get rid of the system of electing aldermen in the City for the period of their lives, instead of for a limited period, as in other municipal boroughs. He believed the Bill to be hardly worth noticing, although perhaps it might be regarded as of some importance in Stafford. He recollected being asked, some years ago, to stand as a candidate for the representation of that borough, and one of the conditions proposed was, that he should pay up the fines for the admission of a number of freemen, which he, however, refused to do.


, in reply, said that the corporation, as a body, was anxious for reform, consistent with the privileges they enjoyed. The hon. and learned Attorney General stated that the present measure would interfere with the legitimate powers enjoyed by corporations; but if these gentlemen inflicted fines not consistent with justice, was not that House the tribunal to step in and rectify such? He did not seek by that Bill to invalidate the property of corporations in England and Wales; he only asked to be allowed to introduce the Bill that severe and unjust burdens might be removed. However, as certain returns had yet to be laid on the table, he would not hesitate to withdraw the Bill, promising that he should again seek to introduce it after these returns had been laid before the House.


objected to any such course, as he was opposed to the principle of the Bill. He should, therefore, persist in giving the negative to the Motion.


considered it to be a great evil that every ratepayer in the city of London had not a vote in the municipal affairs of that corporation. Among other reforms, he would suggest that the aldermen should be elected for only three years, instead of for life. He believed there was no corporation in the empire which was uncontrolled by the ratepayers, which performed its duties in a more satisfactory manner than the corporation of London; still he thought that reform principles should be applied to it.

Motion negatived.