HC Deb 22 March 1854 vol 131 cc1206-11

Order for Second Reading read.


having presented some petitions in favour of this Bill, said, that it was founded upon the common law of the country, and was merely a declaratory measure. The principle for which he contended was, that by the common law the inhabitants of towns had a right to adopt such measures as would tend to secure the common good of the district. Proofs of the right for which he contended were many and various. One of these was mentioned in Coke's "Reports." It was the case of the Chamberlain of London, in the reign of Elizabeth; and according to the judgment in that case the inhabitants of a town might make ordinances and by-laws for the reparation of the church or the highways, or for any such things as were for the good of the public. This right had, however, like many others, been overruled by the construction of various Statutes; and it was the object of the present Bill to enable parishes and towns to exercise the right without let or hindrance. Every part of the machinery of the Bill was consistent with constitutional and statutory precedent. The first clause provided that a vestry, summoned according to law, might appoint a committee for any special object—a practice which had been recognised by Acts of Parliament in the case of the highway board, the inspectors appointed under the Lighting and Watching Act of William IV., and the appointments made for the purposes of the Burial Act of 1852. The Bill further provided that such Committee should be held to be a body corporate for carrying out the special objects of their appointment, to which special objects their functions would be limited. It also secured their responsibility to the vestry, and required them to keep strict accounts, and produce the same to the vestry annually. It would empower the inhabitants of a parish to create for themselves a permanent local committee; and if the measure passed into a law, he believed it would effectually supply a want that was very much felt at the present moment by the towns and parishes generally throughout the country. With regard to the metropolitan parishes he also believed it would effect a great deal of good for them. But on this head he spoke less decidedly. He knew that the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was independent of the parishes, that it exercised irresponsible power, and had a right to tax the parishes without the authorities of the latter having any control whatever. So, too, in the country towns of England, the Board of Health had power, not only of taxing the inhabitants, but of mortgaging the rates and taxing posterity as well. That Board had been most disastrous in all its undertakings, among which were the drainage and water supply of the metropolis, and the subject of intramural interments. On the latter point an Act was passed in 1850, which had to be repealed in 1852, and it was left for the Government of Lord Derby to settle the questions, both of the water supply of the metropolis and of intramural interments, on sound principles, which had been adopted by the present Government. He protested against the renewal of the Board of Health as a board of works, for in every town in which it had interfered in that capacity its proceedings had been characterised by arbitrary and oppressive conduct. All classes of persons combined in wishing to have more control of their affairs than they at present enjoyed, and this Bill would enable parishes to perform for themselves all such works as were now performed by the Board of Health, except such as required the mortgaging of the rates. He hoped, then, the House would allow the Bill to be read a second time. He had received letters from all parts of the country in its favour. It was founded on the principle of reposing confidence in the good sense and intelligence of Englishmen, and of admitting their competency to manage their own affairs. True, it did not contain any compulsory powers, though he had nothing to urge against such powers. His only Object was to prevent an arbitrary and oppressive interference on the part of unconstitutional authorities; and with these views he begged to move that the Bill be read a second time.

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


said, he had hoped that at least the hon. Gentleman who had just resumed his seat would have made out some case for departing so much from the usual practice, and for giving such large and responsible powers to irresponsible bodies as was proposed by the Bill he held in his hand. The hon. Member, however, had made out no case at all for this measure. So far as he (Mr. Fitzroy) could gather from the observations of the hon. Gentleman, his principal reasons for introducing this Bill were that the Commission of Sewers and the Board of Health were likely soon to close their existence. If that were so, it might or might not be a reason for the adoption of this measure; but he could inform the hon. Gentleman that both these bodies were likely to be renewed. Whether they would be renewed in their present form was another question, but there was no intention that the functions of either of them should expire at the close of the present Session. He (Mr. Fitzroy) should not object to this Bill, as had been anticipated by the hon. Gentleman, that it contained no compulsory powers; but he thought that the circumstances of its introduction showed the inconvenience of introducing Bills involving great interests and important questions such as were dealt with in this measure, without the proposed powers of the Bill being more clearly defined than they had been. Now, what were the provisions of the Bill? The first clause proposed to give to the parish vestry power to appoint a committee, without any qualification whatever—they need not be even a committee of ratepayers—a committee who should be a body corporate (which the vestry that constituted them was not), for the purpose of carrying out any objects confided to it by the vestry, or any purposes which were judged by the vestry to be for the common good of the parish; and, for the purpose of carrying out these objects, this committee was to have the power—though, be it remembered, they themselves were not necessarily ratepayers—of levying a rate on the inhabitants of the said parish, "or of some specified part thereof." Thus, the committee might exempt from the rate any part of the parish they chose, and might levy upon the rest of the parish such rates as they might think fit for the purpose of carrying out the objects of their appointment. These were powers so arbitrary, so extensive, and, as far as he was aware, so unknown to legislation, that he felt convinced the House would not entrust them to the vestry of any parish. With respect to the expense to be incurred in carrying out this Bill, he saw that provision had been made for the auditing of accounts, but no provision had been made for disallowing or disapproving any of those accounts; so that the only advantage gained by auditing them would be the expense of the auditors. A still more extraordinary provision was that these accounts, thus audited, without any power of disallowance, should be printed and distributed through the parish, so that the ratepayers were not to have more control over the matter than the inhabitants of the parish generally. The expense of auditing, printing, and distributing the accounts was to be paid "out of any parish moneys or rate which the vestry may think fit to charge with the same." Thus, having first allowed this irresponsible committee to levy a rate, they were then to have the power of laying this additional expense upon any rate they might think fit for the purpose of carrying out these propositions. But the Bill of the hon. Member went further than this. Under the fifth section it gave to this irresponsible committee—a committee not necessarily of ratepayers—all the judicial powers which were given to justices of the peace under the Removal of Nuisances Act and under the Public Health Act. Consequently, this irresponsible body might summon the owner or occupier of premises to appear before them, might order the removal of the nuisance, and, in default, inflict a fine of 10s. for every day such nuisance continued; and the expenses attending the cleansing of such premises might be recovered by this committee from the owner or occupier. At present, again, two justices might certify for the payment from the public rates of the expenses of the officers employed in the execution of this act, and he supposed two members of this irresponsible committee would have the same power. One justice—and therefore one committee-man—might inflict a fine of 5l. upon any individual who should violate the general orders of the Board of Health; and the occupier of any premises who should refuse to allow the carrying out of these orders might also be fined 5l. a day during his refusal, and in default of payment might be imprisoned for three months. Were these powers which the House of Commons would be prepared to give to a body of gentlemen with no qualification, and with no cause shown whatever? The second clause of the Bill required the churchwardens, upon the requisition of any five inhabitants where the population of the parish was less than 1,000, and of ten inhabitants where the population exceeded 1,000, to summon a vestry, however often, the effect of which could only be to keep up an incessant system of agitation in every parish. He could not believe that the House of Commons would seriously entertain such a Bill as this for one moment, and he should accordingly move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.

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


said, he had seen many attempts at experimental legislation, but he must confess he never had seen any- thing to compare with this. [Cries of "Withdraw!"] Of course, if the hon. Member were prepared to withdraw the Bill, it would be unnecessary for him to occupy the time of the House in commenting upon it.


said, the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Fitzroy) might think he had made out a very conclusive case, but, if he yielded to numbers in withdrawing this Bill, he was not at all convinced by any argument which the hon. Gentleman had adduced. He (Mr. Evelyn) was convinced that the principle upon which the Bill was based was a sound one, and while withdrawing it, he must be allowed to say that be was quite certain that, at some future day, another Bill, drawn up by abler hands, but founded on the same principle of local self-government, would meet with the assent of the House.

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

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.