HC Deb 09 July 1851 vol 118 cc393-406

Order for Committee read.


said, he believed that at this stage of the hon. Member for Gateshead's (Mr. Hutt's) Bill, he was permitted, according to the forms of the House, to move the Instruction of which he had given notice. He had to apologise to the House for intruding upon its time on the present occasion; and the more so as, after the declaration of his noble Friend at the head of the Ministry in the early part of the present Session, and the intentions he had expressed of considering the extension of the suffrage on an early opportunity, he little thought it would have been his lot to have supported, still less to have proposed, in the present Session, any question touching the reform of our representative system. He would have been quite ready to have left the whole matter in the hands of his noble Friend, who was the person best qualified to bring it forward, and who alone, as he believed, possessed either the experience to devise a scheme, or the influence to carry it into effect. For this reason he had voted against the Motion of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. L. King) in the early part of this Session; not because he disapproved of extending the right of suffrage in counties to 10l. householders, but because, after the intimation given by his noble Friend, he considered it most inexpedient to raise questions of that nature at present. But when the hon. Member for Gateshead introduced a Bill, which, in his humble opinion, tended to extend and give additional Parliamentary sanction to a system which he considered utterly unsound, he felt it his duty to take that opportunity of calling the attention of the House to a still wider question, and appealing to Parliament as to whether a property qualification was any longer necessary to be preserved. In order to place the matter fully before the House, he would first go through the Acts under which the qualification was established. The period of our history at which it was introduced was one of the last which he should be willing to search for constitutional precedents. He would describe that period in no language of his own, but in terms far more forcible and of greater weight than any he could have used, by referring to an Essay on the Constitution, published by his noble Friend at the head of the Ministry, who thus characterises the period when this restriction on the free choice of members by the constituent body was first imposed:— Aud here begins the history of those last few years of Queen Anne, in which the press was restrained, intolerance favoured, our allies deserted, our enemies encouraged, and a disadvantageous peace concluded: indeed, had not Queen Anne died before the measures of the Jacobites were prepared, the Elector of Hanover might never have been enabled to ascend the Throne to which the Act of Settlement had called him. The Act of 9 Anne, c. 5, which was passed at this disgraceful period of our history, was not, he believed, introduced with any view of promoting the general welfare of the country, but for mere party purposes, and in fact to pave the way for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. In proof of this, he would quote the words used by his noble Friend (Lord John Russell) when the hon. Member for Southwark (Sir W. Molesworth) brought forward a similar Motion in 1837, on which occasion he is reported to have said— The change, with respect to qualification, was effected in the reign of Queen Anne, owing to the jealousy which then unfortunately prevailed between the landed and the trading interest. The trading interest was known to be favourable to the Hanoverian succession, and to those principles of liberal policy which did not suit the taste of the landed gentry; and it was to check the increase of the trading influence that the landed interest introduced this innovation into our Parliamentary system." [3 Hansard, xxxvi.548.] The Act was not indeed extended to Scotland; and Tindal, in his History of the Reign of Queen Anne, expresses an opinion that the reason for this was the small-ness of the landed property in that part of the Kingdom; but perhaps it might be accounted for from the well-known inclination of the great majority of the Scotch gentry towards the House of Stuart, which rendered it superfluous to take any additional precautions for ensuring the return of a Jacobite Parliament. But the Act of 9 Anne, which merely obliged a Member to swear to his qualification, if required, was found to be totally inoperative. The petitions against Members for the want of qualifications were abandoned, and it was found necessary, in 1717, to amend the Act by the somewhat extraordinary method of a Standing Order of the House, requiring the Member petitioned against to state the rental and particulars of his qualification, by what conveyance or act of law he claimed the same, and the names and residences of the witnesses to the conveyance and payment. It was not, however, till 1760, by the Act of 33 George II., c. 20, that the House obtained direct cognisance of the matter. By this Act every Member was required, before taking his seat, to deliver to the Clerk of the House a paper stating in what parish and county his qualification was situated, and also requiring him to swear to the truth of his statement. Thus, a vicious system once introduced, by degrees was more stringently enforced, and no change was attempted between 1760 and the Scotch Reform Bill of 1832, when it was proposed to subject Scotland to the same restrictions which had been imposed on English constituencies, in exacting a qualification of 400l. a year from Members of Scotch counties. The Lord Advocate of the day—the late Lord Jeffrey, one of the most distinguished men who ever filled that office—with a frankness that did him infinite honour, before attempting to pass the clause, consulted his countrymen as to the proposed measure. The result of his inquiry I will give in his own words, from Hansard:— The Lord Advocate admitted that there had not been much time to take the opinion of Scotland upon this clause, but the time that had elapsed had been industriously employed for that purpose. As soon as the clause had been printed, he sent off 250 copies to the different boroughs in Scotland for their consideration. Among the answers he had received (thirty-six in number) there was not one which approved of the proposed in-crease in the amount of the qualification, but every one of them exclaimed against it. He was sure that the rules as to qualification had not been of benefit in England; but he was even more fully convinced that, if they had been innocuous here, they would be actually injurious in Scotland."—[3 Hansard, xiii. 1060.] He (Mr. Tufnell) had no doubt but that if the people of England had been appealed to in a similar manner, they would have returned as indignant a remonstrance as the constituencies of Scotland against this attempt to restrict them in the free choice of their representatives. Even during the present Session a remarkable scene, had been witnessed, when the Members for Cork, Boston, and Leith, took their seats on the same day—the two former being Obliged to produce their qualifications, whilst the right hon. and, learned Lord Advocate, as Member for Leith, took his seat without passing through any such ordeal. It was impossible to defend such anomalies in our constitution, or to maintain, for any length of time, a different system in the two countries. In 1837 the hon. Baronet now Member for Southwark, had introduced a measure similar to that to which he now called the attention of the House, and in a most able speech had shown the injustice and absurdity of the present system. Although the Motion of his hon. Friend was not then carried, still the discussion had been most useful, and led in the following year to the introduction of Mr. Warburton's Bill, which to a certain extent mitigated the rigour of former Acts, by allowing personal property as well as real property to serve as a qualification for a seat in that House. But the Act was so framed as to open the door still wider than had originally been intended. The Standing Order of 1717 was no longer enforced, a declaration was substituted for an oath; and so loose and vague a description of property was required, that a candidate might completely comply with the requirements of the Act, and, at the same time, defy the most sharpwitted Committee to find out whether his qualifications were valid or not. It did indeed sometimes happen that, through the ignorance or blunder of his solicitor, an innocent Member, possessing substantially every qualification, might become a victim to the absurd state of the law, and lose his seat. An instance of this had been seen in the present Session, where Mr. Prinsep, who filled the important station of an East India Director, and who in order to be elected to that office must be qualified by the possession of 2,000l. in East India stock—now worth between 4,000l. and 5,000l. in the market, and returning an income of 200l. a year—was turned out of Parliament in consequence of not having made out a sufficient qualification. His qualification was stated to be a pension of 1,000l. per annum, and a mansion in Hyde Park Gardens, in the county of Middlesex. The pension he had purchased by annual contributions whilst he was in the service of the East India Company; but the corpus of the fund being in India and not in England, the Committee very properly decided that it gave him no qualification. The house having been ascertained to be mortgaged, was also clearly insufficient. If his attorney, possessing the wisdom of the serpent, had, instead of giving this accurate description of the premises, merely stated all that was necessary under the provisions of the Act 1 and 2 Victoria, c. 48, and described the qualification as consisting of "Leasehold Estate in the Parish of Paddington, in the County of Middlesex,'' it would have been morally impossible to have disproved his possession of property to the value of 300l. a year in that parish; and the ingenuity of all the lawyers, as well as of his right hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. V. Smith), would have been completely baffled. It was thus shown, therefore, that under the present system no real safeguard existed. Indeed, upon principle, although it might be extremely proper that the elective body, who were not chosen, but at once set apart by law for the exercise of those important functions, should themselves possess a certain qualification, yet to a body thus constituted it seems ridiculous not to entrust the free choice of their representatives. The true test that should, if possible, be required for a seat in that House, would be talent, character, and habits of business: but these qualifications it was impossible for the elective body to measure by any particular standard, and property had therefore been fixed upon as the only test which could accurately be ascertained. But if the Bill of his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead should pass into law, and if property, in New Zealand or South Australia should be considered as sufficient to qualify a person for a seat in this Parliament, it is evident that property would lose the only quality which made it valuable as a guarantee, and become as difficult to measure as character or talent. In the French Chamber of Deputies, under Louis Philippe, the necessary qualification was the payment of 500f. a year of direct taxation, and it was clear that if any qualification was at all desirable, this plan was infinitely better than our own, and could not as easily admit of evasion. If the present system were to be persevered in, it would be but reasonable to make the law more stringent and searching, and it was well known that the House would prove content to do so. It had been said by some that if the law could not be carried into effect, it was at least innocuous, and that therefore there was no reason for change; but was it nothing that Members should be in the habit of breaking, without the slightest hesitation, the law which they themselves had made? Was it not a bad example to show to the people how that law was constantly evaded? Was it nothing to refuse to the people, without any reason, that confidence of which they were well worthy? But the law, besides being inoperative, was also clogged with exemptions offensive to the rest of the community. He had previously asked why the constituencies of England should not be allowed the same latitude of choice as those of Scotland, whose representatives were not inferior in character, talent, or station to those of any other parts of the United Kingdom. He would now ask why the Commoners of England in general should not be put on an equal footing with the eldest sons of Peers and of Bishops, with members for the Universities, and sons of persons qualified for being Knights of Shires, who might all sit in Parliament without any qualification. In the present state of public feeling these exemptions were offensive, and could not he maintained. The law, if good at all, must be universal, and affect all alike. He thought he was justified, on this occasion, in appealing for support to the Protectionists on the other side of the House, as it was notorious that many of the agricultural constituencies had expressed a strong wish to return tenant-farmers, under the impression that they were fully as capable of representing their interests in that House as the landed gentry; and, for his own part, he could not but think that an infusion' of Members of that class might be of great advantage in their deliberations. The only obstacle which stood in the way was the Qualification Act, as the tenant-farmers were too poor to possess 600l. a year, and too honest to evade the Act by a fictitious qualification. If this barrier were once removed, the wishes of the agricultural constituencies might forthwith be realised, and he appealed therefore with confidence to Gentlemen on the opposite side to support him in his Motion. He had now shown that the law of which he complained had sprung from a corrupt and tainted source; that the promoters of the Act of 1711 were influenced by motives which he was sure would in the present day meet with no sympathy in that House; that as subsequently altered it was completely inoperative and constantly evaded; and, under these circumstances, he called upon the House to support him in his attempt to return to the old practice of the constitution, to give to the constituencies which had been created under the Reform Bill, and to those which he hoped would be soon created, the liberty of returning to that House those men whom they thought best qualified by talent and character to represent their interests, and, finally, to allow the people of England and Ireland that same free and unfettered choice of their representatives which the people of Scotland enjoyed.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That it be an Instruction to the Committee, to provide for the abolition of any property qualification for the Election of Members to serve in Parliament.


seconded the Motion. He thought his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Mr. Hutt) was entitled to credit for introducing the present Bill; but he considered the principle should be extended so as to embrace the object of his right hon. Friend (Mr. Tufnell), and that the anomaly should no longer exist, that while the Members for Scotland and for the Universities were allowed to take their seats without producing any property qualification, all other Members must show that they possessed a certain amount of property. The qualification was an unconstitutional demand, and it was time it was done away with.


said: The proposal which my right hon. Friend (Mr. Tufnell) has now made comes before us, as I think, in a rather singular shape. The Bill which the House has under its consideration is a Bill for extending the qualification of Members of this House to a certain other description of property which is not now admitted as forming a qualification for Members to sit in Parliament; and my right hon. Friend's proposition is that, by way of amending that Bill, we should strike out all property qualification, and abolish the existing qualification altogether. But that is a totally different thing from the proposition involved in the Bill. It is a totally different question, whether or not there is any real utility in keeping up the present qualification for Members of Parliament; and I think my right hon. Friend's arguments on that point are arguments which have in them a great deal of weight. As my right hon. Friend has alleged, there was in former times reality in the provision that those who represented shires should be knights girt with swords; and that the representatives for boroughs should be burgesses belonging to and residing in the boroughs for which they were elected. That was a qualification which was no doubt a reality, and so long as it was in accordance with the state of society it might have been desirable to continue that law. But the state of society, as it was in those times, does not exist now. The knights girt with swords no longer appear here as the representatives of the shires, nor are the representatives of the boroughs in general burgesses residing in those boroughs. So far, then, circumstances have altered; and, so far as they are concerned, Parliament has abolished the provision with regard to boroughs, so that a person not residing in the borough and not being a burgess may he elected and sit as its representative. But in the reign of Queen Anne, Parliament, being jealous of the increasing influence of trade and commerce, thought of a new qualification, and the restriction then imposed appears to me to be at variance with the ancient formation of Parliament; for, as the citizens and burgesses representing cities and boroughs were previously required to he persons residing and trading in those cities and boroughs, and whose property was only in their trade—the manufactures and wares in which they dealt—it was then insisted that henceforward they should be landowners, possessing a certain property qualification in land. That provision, I hold, was a very unadvisable one; but it was one, no doubt, intended to strengthen the landed interest in this country. The law became certainly in a more reasonable condition, and was brought more in accordance with the present state of society by the alteration made in it some few years since at the instance of Mr. Warburton—a gentleman who is no longer in this House, but who was for many years a very distinguished ornament of it while he had a seat in it. He suggested in a manner that convinced the House, that the basis of the qualification should be extended so as to embrace persons who had acquired property of different descriptions which had grown up since the days when the previous qualification was established, and which in the time of Queen Anne ought to have been the ground of the qualification. But now that these things have been done, and these various alterations made, is there, after all, in effect any security in the property qualification as it now exists? Is it not notorious, as my right hon. Friend has said, that persons elected to this House, who have any credit at all, or any connexions which can help them to a qualification, find no difficulty in obtaining one, and sit here on a qualification perfectly good in law, although, in fact, they do not possess the amount of property requisite to qualify? Every now and then, however, there occurs a case in which the objection is raised before an Election Committee that such a Member has no property qualification; and, although there may be fifty or sixty other Members sitting in the House without such qualification, that unfortunate Member is unseated. Therefore, I say, there is no security in the present state of the law as regards the qualification. Another notorious fact—that which has been alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart)—is that all the Scotch Members sit without any property qualification. And I feel that I should be paying a very ill compliment to them, and should make a most undeserved and unfounded statement, if I said they were inferior in rank, in property, in intellect, in business habits, or in capacity for legislation to the Members for England or for Ireland. That being the case, I certainly cannot see why this whole question of qualification should not be taken into the consideration of Parliament. But I own it does not appear to me that this is the way in which it should be done. To propose to amend a Bill providing a certain new qualification, in addition to that we now have, by saying we will have no qualification at all, does not seem to me to be a proper mode of bringing the question under the consideration of Parliament. I think it rather should be done by a special Bill, brought in with a view to abolish property qualification altogether, or by a Bill for the general purpose of improving our whole system of representation, in which it might form a clause. And whether such a Bill be introduced by my right hon. Friend or any other Member, I shall be willing, certainly, to give the question a favourable consideration. Then it is to be considered whether there is any danger at all—supposing this qualification done away with—of Members being admitted to this House who are not in all respects as perfectly well qualified as those who are now Members to sit here. I own it appears to me that what forms in effect a real qualification—whether it be desirable or not—must be matter of dispute. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Newdegate) may dissent from that view; but what does form an effective property qualification is the fact that no person without some means—at all events, no one who does not reside in London—is able to maintain the state and bear the expense of coming to London, leaving his own business, to attend here as a Member of Parliament. Take the. ease of a tradesman in a small town, or a farmer—such as my right hon. Friend has put—and I have no objection to see the tenant-farmer in this House, if the freeholders and the electors choose to send him here; but, for his own sake, I should think his attendance here during the spring and a great part of the summer would be very injurious to his ploughing, his sowing, and his other farming operations. So, likewise, with regard to the small tradesman, his custom would very much suffer if he were compelled to attend here during the whole of the Parliamentary Session. We know, as it is, that there are many persons with incomes considerably larger than usually pertain to the class I now speak of, who, after two or three years' attendance in this House, find that they cannot afford to continue the expense, and to sacrifice their business by remaining Members; so that, in effect, you have, by the nature of things as they exist, a real property qualification, without requiring it by law. It is true, that if you were to have the People's Charter, and Members were paid for their attendance in this House, that argument would not apply; but I certainly do not mean to give my vote in favour of the payment of Members. With regard to the matter of the qualification, though I cannot vote for the present Motion, I can assure my right hon. Friend that whenever it is brought forward as a whole and separate question, I shall give it my best consideration and support.


said, that on the other side of the House there appeared to be a perfect scramble among the would-be Reformers. They seemed determined on depriving the noble Lord at the head of the Government of the paternity of every part of the anticipated Reform Bill, so that the author of the Reform Bill of 1831 might have as little as possible to do with the Reform Bill of 1852. He (Mr. Newdegate) had never seen such a want of confidence in the leader of a party. Hon. Gentlemen who professed to support the noble Lord, distrusted him so much that they were supplanting him on every important public question, The present proposal had been brought before them, as the noble Lord had truly stated, in a very singular manner. The hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Hutt), feeling probably that the colonies had not met with fair play in that House, had proposed that the possession of property in any colony should be a qualification for Members; and what was the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Tufnell) to that proposal? The right hon. Gentleman, rather than admit the right of the colonies to a representation in that House, would plunge the House into the wide question of the abolition of any property qualification whatever. The right hon. Gentleman would retain a qualification for electors, and yet he would abolish the qualification for Members; and if the measure for the introduction of Members of the Jewish persuasion to the House should be carried to its legitimate consequences, they would not only have the followers of every religious persuasion—Mahometans, Hindoos, and Buddhists—sitting among them; but for all that he could see they might also have unnaturalised aliens returned as Members of Parliament. He admitted that the law, as it stood, was defective. But if the law was too indefinite, let them define it—if it was too restrictive, let them extend it—if it was difficult to prove a compliance with its provisions, let them simplify it—if it excluded classes like the tenant-farmers, who ought, in his opinion, to be entitled to seats in that House in case they should find constituencies to return them, let the qualification be placed within their reach; but let not the House, because the present state of the law was imperfect, be plunged into the question of the abolition of any qualification whatever; and let them not by that abolition deprive themselves of the means of identifying those persons who might be returned as Members of Parliament. It seemed to him that that Motion was only an attempt to get rid of the Bill of the hon. Member for Gateshead by a sidewind, and that it raised at a most inconvenient period a question which the House was not prepared to discuss.


said, he agreed with the noble Lord at the head of the Government that the proposal of the right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Tufnell) had been introduced—he would not say in a very irregular, but certainly in a very inconvenient manner—.because by way of an amendment to a comparatively unimportant measure, a question of very considerable moment was brought under their consideration. He could not agree with the right hon. Gentleman who had brought forward the Motion, in his statement of the facts of the case. The right hon. Gentleman asked the House to restore to the people of this country their ancient rights in that matter. But he (Mr. Henley) could not find that there had ever been a period in the history of this country where Members had ever been returned to Parliament without any definition of their class or position. The law upon the subject had been altered in the reign of Queen Anne; but the change which had then been effected had merely substituted one species of restraint for another. The noble Lord (Lord John Russell) had stated that such persons as tradesmen and farmers would find it very difficult to leave their business, and to reside in London during each Session of Parliament. Now, every body who knew how much time was required for a proper discharge of the duties of Members of that House, would assent to that statement of the noble Lord. But he could not admit that the noble Lord had drawn a correct conclusion from that fact; because there existed in this country, as in every other country, a large class of persons who went under the designation of "gentlemen at large," and who might otherwise be justly designated as political adventurers, who would perhaps recommend themselves by very specious promises to different constituencies, and to whom it would be no. inconvenience to spend their time in that House, whilst he felt certain it would be a great national injury to have the House filled with persons of that description. The noble Lord said, that no real security existed in the present qualification against the return of improper individuals. But the noble Lord would excuse him if he stated that he had illustrated that position in a very extraordinary manner. The noble Lord had told them that persons of any credit or connexions had no difficulty in obtaining a qualification; but if a man had such an amount of credit, or such connexions as to induce another to trust him with the legal security of such qualification, at all events it proved that he must be a person not utterly unworthy of being considered of credit. He would not, however, enter further into that question. He had risen principally for the purpose of entering his protest against the statement of the right hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Motion, that the result of the adoption of that Motion would be to restore the law upon the subject to its ancient condition; and he entirely denied that it had ever been in the power of the electors of this country to return Members to that House without any restriction whatever.


said, he thought that his right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport had been somewhat unfairly blamed for the time and mode in which he had introduced the present Motion. In the first place, it should be remembered that his right hon. Friend had only just recovered his independent powers of speech by the cessation of his connection with the Government; so that it was rather unfair to attack his right hon. Friend as far as regarded his individual position in that instance. In the next place, he should observe that there was nothing unusual or remarkable in the proposal of his right hon. Friend, that when a measure was before them for the abolition of a portion of a restrictive system, they should at once do away with it altogether. His right hon. Friend believed that the entire system was objectionable, and he therefore wished that, instead of altering, they should wholly abolish it. The hon. Gentleman the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) was completely mistaken in supposing that the object of the Motion of his right hon. Friend was to continue a restriction which was unjust to the Colonies, for his right hon. Friend only sought to remove every restriction whatever in the case under their consideration. He believed that the Bill of his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Mr. Hutt) had been introduced in consequence mainly of the proceedings before the late Harwich Election Committee. He (Mr. V. Smith) had himself been a Member of that Committee, and it was with the utmost reluctance he had felt himself obliged to find that a gentleman possessed of an ample amount of colonial property did not possess a proper qualification for a seat in that House. He hoped his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead would support the larger measure which had been proposed by his right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport; and he also hoped that his right hon. Friend would not then press his Motion, but would leave the matter in its present very favourable position.


said, that he thought he would best serve the cause of reform by leaving the question in the hands of the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and he would therefore beg leave to withdraw the Instruction which he had moved.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


said, that after the declaration of the noble Lord at the head of the Government, he should not proceed further with his Bill. He thought that the decision in the Harwich case was one of great hardship, for Mr. Prinsep proved that he had an annuity of 1,000l. a year charged on the Bengal civil fund; but, notwithstanding that, because the corpus of the fund was in India, the Committee was obliged to declare that he had no qualification, the words in "Great Britain" being specially mentioned in the Act of Parliament. This Bill was not founded on that case, for his object was to do what he considered a measure of justice to the Colonies.

Order for Committee discharged; Bill withdrawn.

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