HC Deb 20 March 1855 vol 137 cc903-15

rose to move for leave to introduce a Bill to relieve Grand Juries in Ireland from fiscal duties, and to place the administration of local affairs in elected councils. As he understood that it was the intention of hon. Gentlemen opposite to take the unusual course of dividing against the Motion, he should be compelled to enter upon some explanation relative to the general spirit of the grand-jury system in Ireland—a system which afforded a curious illustration of the opposite views which might be taken of the same object by opposite parties in the same country;—for while the grand-jury system was described by some as an institution disgraceful to a free country, demoralising in its working, beneficial to the few and oppressive to the many—on the other hand it was represented by the opposite party as a venerable institution, beneficial in its effects, and loved by the people. He wished the House to be guided by neither of these statements, but to listen to him while he described the general system and working of the grand-jury laws, and then to say whether such a system ought to be allowed to continue in any civilised country.

Under the grand-jury system in Ireland all their public roads and works were made and maintained; it built and regulated all their court-houses and county establishments; it provided the funds for the payment of prosecutions and witnesses; their gaols and bridewells were constructed and regulated by them; and they had, at least, the power of checking all such expendi- ture:—they had, moreover, considerable power in respect of a portion of the medical charities. It appeared by the Report of the Devon Commission, that the amount of taxation levied by the grand juries for these purposes amounted on the average to more than 1,100,000l. yearly. This large sum was levied upon the holders of land. Hon. Members were aware that in Ireland every man contributed to the poor-rates who was rated at 4l.—or in some cities at 8l.—and it appeared from the poor-law returns, that there were, in 1843, 564,144 persons who were rated at and under 6l., and 401,291 who were rated above that sum—in all, very nearly 1,000,000 persons who were liable to be taxed by the grand juries to the expenses he had before alluded to. Now, by whom was the amount and destination of this large sum determined on?—by those who pay? Not at ail. By the gentry or the magistracy? No Peer could sit upon the grand jury—though his agent could, and thereby it frequently happened that a gentleman totally unconnected with the county might be put upon the grand jury—the ratepayers had no right to interfere; and as for the gentry and magistracy, except they happened to be selected by the sheriff, they had no right to take any part in the management of this local expenditure. The grand jury were thus constituted—the high sheriff for the time being selected twenty-three gentlemen of each county, and in these vested the whole power of local taxation—and the ratepayers of the county had no right and no power to interfere with this selection. It must not be supposed that the sheriff was obliged to select the largest ratepayers, or, indeed, any ratepayers at all—or that he took the men most popular with the ratepayers; so far is this from being a recommendation that any man who had been elected to that House on popular influence was nearly certain to be rejected. In some counties rank was the leading motive, and the sheriff who should omit certain persons from his list would be certain to give offence: in other counties the choice rested on mere caprice. There was but one restriction imposed by law upon the sheriff, and that was that from each barony there must be one 50l. freeholder—who that one should be was left entirely to himself; and as there were, on an average, ten baronies in each county, ten of the twenty-three grand jurymen were selected under this restriction—the rest were left entirely to his caprice. Was it likely that such a system would be either popular or satisfactory? The sheriff, moreover, held office for only one year; he could not, therefore, do justice by selecting the gentlemen of the county in turn—he generally took a few personal friends, and for the rest he had recourse to the names of those gentlemen who had usually appeared on the grand-jury lists. Was a system which placed the taxation of the county, and the granting or refusal of its public works, in a body so constituted, likely to be popular? Was it in accordance with the spirit of our institutions, which boast that no man shall be taxed without the consent of his representative? But it might be said that the matters submitted to the grand jury must have been previously brought before the ratepayers at the sessions. But this was a mere mockery—for how did the House suppose that the members of the sessions were chosen? At each assizes a list of the highest ratepayers was put before the grand jury, who selected from twelve to twenty-four persons to be associated with the magistracy. Thus all that connects the public expenditure in Ireland with the ratepayers, was a body selected by the grand jury themselves; and in practice the selection of the ratepayers for each barony was left to the grand juryman who was connected with the barony, who, of course, selected those persons who agreed with his own views. The crowning absurdity was, that the grand jury selected double the number wanted, and when the sessions came, if the whole twenty-four should attend, as only one half of the entire number can serve, their numbers were reduced by ballot—though nobody did attend unless canvassed to carry some job; and, finally, as if to take away all responsibility, all check and all interest in the county affairs, those who attend one sessions must be struck off the next list. The sessions thus composed of magistrates, and of ratepayers thus chosen, have only the power of deciding whether the work shall or shall not be submitted to the grand jury, they frequently knew nothing of the matter on which they were called to decide, they felt that the real decision did not rest with them, and that power merely of rejection placed them in an inferior and little creditable position—and the magistrates took very little interest except they have some personal interest to serve. Such was the Irish grand-jury system. There is no responsibility, and none of that moral feeling which resulted from responsibility. The grand juror and the ratepayer at sessions are alike ephemeral, they exist but for the day; they are not responsible for the results of their acts—they are not under the control of public opinion, for before it can be expressed they have ceased to exist. How could such a system be popular? He did not go into particular cases of abuse—he attacked only the principle—hon. Gentlemen around him, no doubt, did all they could to carry on the business of their counties honourably and well. But they deceived themselves; their influence enabled them to get what they wanted themselves, and to reject what they disapproved of, and they thought everything went on right. But the mass of the people thought otherwise—they saw nothing in the system but what worked well for the few and the wealthy, but which utterly ignored the interests of the great body of the ratepayers. The grand jury, then, was an irresponsible body; and an ephemeral body; it had no continuity of thought or action, and what was rejected by one grand jury as worthless might be carried by the next. It was totally irresponsible for the results of its acts, and acted therefore without conscience; it had no connection with the wants and wishes of the ratepayers; it was ignorant of the subjects on which it had to decide, and was led by those directly interested; it was a demoralising system, destructive of public opinion and public honesty, and compelled every man to resort to influence and combination; and it was utterly at variance with the spirit of our institutions, and was calculated to destroy all respect for them.

This was the system under which one-half of the local taxation of Ireland was administered. Compare it with the other half. The grand-jury rates were about 1,000,000l., the poor rates amounted to about the same sum. The grand-jury rates were levied on the barony, which is composed of parishes and manors, which again are subdivided into town-lands or ploughlands. The framers of the poor law found the baronies to be so unequal in size, so irregular in form, and so inconvenient—the portions so little connected in interest with the rest, and the chief places so ill situated, that they determined to discard them, and to form an entirely new territorial organisation. They took as many of the chief towns as they required, and made them centres, placing the workhouses there; they surrounded them as nearly as the physical features of the country, as identity of interests and consideration of property would admit, with combinations of townlands, forming them into electoral districts. The electoral district elected one or more guardians according to its size, property, and value, and these guardians with an equal number of magistrates formed the Union Board. It was not necessary to defend now the introduction of the magistrates; but as he proposed also to adopt the same principle, he might say that as the poor rates were paid by the non-occupying landlord as well as by the occupying tenant, he held it to be right that property, as distinguished from occupation, should be represented. Here, then, we have the occupier electing their representatives, and the intelligence and education of the country represented by the magistracy. This system was entirely new among us. Opposing and repulsive elements have been brought together; and men trained under the grand-jury system to believe that favouritism and the total abstinence of all public considerations where the interest of a friend was involved was a simple duty, have had to conduct a system which was open to every system of malpractice. The landlords, who thought that their tenants were bound to be their followers, and that as the land was theirs those who occupied it were theirs also, were brought into contact in the boardroom. No doubt, at first, collisions and jobs occurred; but what had been the result? All classes were now acting well together, business is well transacted, personal interests are not allowed to interfere, but above all a public spirit has been created, which was unknown before. He believed that this half of our local taxation was as honestly and as well administered as its authors could have anticipated—nay, he thought it did honour to the Irish character; they had been allowed to govern themselves; and they had done so well that the Government proposes, even to a greater extent than he approved of, to take away all restraint from the board of guardians, and to give up their power of supervision. We have only been eighteen years in existence as guardians, yet we can manage our own affairs, and can be trusted.

Such were the two systems under which the local affairs of Ireland were managed in nearly equal proportions. Under the one the taxation was carried on through an irresponsible body, totally unconnected with the body of the ratepayers and ephemeral; under the other they had responsibility to the ratepayers by representation; on the one side, we find their own affairs not managed by the ratepayers; on the other, we find the ratepayers managing their own affairs—generally with much prudence and good sense.

All he proposed was, that the system which was in operation in respect of poor-law affairs should be extended to the other half of the local taxation of Ireland.

Mr. Wyse, Mr. Smith O'Brien, Sir R. Musgrave, and others, had long since proposed county boards: there was nothing new in his proposition. If they failed, and if he (Sir Denham Norreys) hoped to succeed, it was not from any superior merit of his plan, but that he took advantage of an organisation which did not exist in their days.

The fact was, we have hitherto distrusted our countrymen, and have thought them unfit for self-government. It had been tried, and they were found quite capable of doing so. What was more calculated to elevate the character of our countrymen than to place in their hands all the powers of self-government which were not inconsistent with the general interests? What is so calculated to make a man throw aside the consideration of selfish and personal interests and views as the feeling that he is acting for the community—which would reward him with its approbation if he acted well, or disgrace him by rejection at a future election, if he was found incapable or dishonest? If they could not make men really honest, at least they could make them assume its semblance; and no society was so degraded, but that honesty and integrity were appreciated. They might be sure that the same desire to be well thought of by their country which actuated hon. Members in this house, also acted on the humble guardian, and that it would act on his class more largely in proportion as they the more entrusted to them the management of all their affairs.

He proposed to entrust to his countrymen the power of managing all their own affairs. Nay, he went further, and would propose to entrust them with far greater powers, with much larger discretion, than had been hitherto entrusted to grand juries. This might startle those who have no confidence in their countrymen.

The people of this country have begun to feel that they might learn from foreign nations. Unhappily we have had a severe lesson in the Crimea as to war—so, in ques- tions of peace, they were, on the subject of education, copying not only from America, but even from Austria. He would tell them how local affairs are managed on the Continent.

The system of dividing the country into small districts called communes, and giving them the power of electing their own council of management, subject to the control of superior councils also elective, was one of the greatest and most lasting results of the French Revolution. He would not speak of it as it exists in France, first, because they would not feel much inclined to follow the example of France in respect of its civil institutions; and, secondly, because he had had less opportunity of studying it—besides the present Emperor proposed to change its organisation, and assume more power over the communes.

But the House would probably allow him, as it was so connected with his plan, to refer to the communal system as it now existed in Belgium—in a country where the people were as free, as industrious, as steady in character, as moral, as intelligent, as in their own or in any other country in the world. He could do so with the more confidence, as Belgium, since the establishment of communes, had passed through many political vicissitudes; but then each change had been for the political amelioration of the people. The communal system had also been altered from time to time. He did not consider it perfect, but at least it had received such gradual amendments as the representatives of a free people had thought it prudent to make in it. He did not, therefore, hesitate to avow that he had borrowed as much from the Belgian communal system as he thought could be engrafted on the Irish poor-law organisation. Belgium was about the third part of the size of Ireland, and had not more than half its population. It was divided into nine provinces, each of which had its elected council, and into about 2,500 communes, each also having its council elected by the ratepayers. The provincial council was elected for four years, one-half going out every two; the communal council for six years, one-half going out every three years. The governor of the province was selected and paid by the Government. The council elected a permanent body called the "deputation permanente," which he might call its Executive Committee. The members of this Committee receive small salaries, one-half of which depends on the regularity of their attendance. The members of the council receive a small allowance for their reasonable expenses, and for the cost of travelling to and from the place of meeting. The number in the provincial council varies from thirty-four in Luxembourg to seventy-six in East Flanders, and there are in all 461. The number of councillors to each commune varies, according to population, from seven to thirty-one. Each commune has its burgomaster and two or four echevins. The burgomaster and echevins form the Executive Committee of each commune; the burgomaster and echevins are nominated by the Crown. This would at first view seem to be a faulty arrangement, but it would he unwise for a stranger to offer a decided opinion against its propriety. Perhaps its justification may be this; the communes have much power not only in respect of the administration of the law generally, but also in respect of general taxation, and the administration of hospitals, schools, the general militia, the maintenance of the churches, and so forth. The selection of the burgomaster and echevins by the Crown, is the representation in each commune of the general Government. Now these are great powers. He would give the House an idea of the classes by whom they were administered. There were 1,305 communes, with a population of 1,000 and under.—Nay, out of 2,524 communes, 2,250 have populations of only 3,000 and under; in fact, however small a commune may be, it finds seven persons within it who are competent to act as councillors—if its population amounts to 3,000, it has nine councillors, and so on to thirty-one.

There are nearly 21,000 persons who act as councillors—and so well do they act that the system is one of the most valued institutions of Belgian institutions—so well does it act that Holland has within a few years adopted the Belgian system; but he could not speak of this. He would not detain the House with the powers of their councils. They had generally the complete management of all the local affairs, subject to the supervision of the State; they are intrusted with most of the powers which poor-law boards, grand juries, ecclesiastical commissions, national education commissions, and municipal councils enjoy in Ireland. When, in Belgium, such powers are entrusted to the smallest communes, and that men are found everywhere who honestly execute them, why should he doubt that in the far larger districts which he proposed to form in Ireland, we should find men able and willing to manage their own affairs?

He had, he trusted, established that the grand-jury system was bad; that there existed in Ireland an organisation for the management of local matters which acted well; that the organisation which worked well might be transferred to that which worked ill; and that in a country smaller—certainly not wealthier than Ireland—the system of self-government worked well, and therefore might be copied.

He would now proceed to show how he proposed to make the change. He proposed that the Lord Lieutenant should have power to divide Ireland into districts, formed of electoral divisions, and as nearly the same as the present poor-law unions as possible; into counties which would be the same as the present counties, with such alterations of outlying portions as he might consider requisite. Each electoral division would elect one or more wardens. These wardens, together with the magistrates, would form the board or council of the district. There would then be two councils or boards in each union—the poor-law board and the new district council. Their districts would not in all cases be the same, but as nearly so as the retention of the old county boundary would admit; but, hereafter, he had no doubt that one council will suffice to administer all the affairs of the district.

In reference to the county, he proposed that the several district councils within a county should each select a deputy—one or more—who, together with an equal number selected by the magistrates of the county, should form the council of the county. He did not propose that either the district council or the magistrates should be confined to select from their own bodies; but that they should be at liberty to select the best men. There will thus be two classes of councils in the county. To the district council he assigned the care of existing roads and the formation of new ones, and also the levy and appointment of all rates required for the purposes hereafter described. To the county council he assigned all those powers and duties of grand juries, in which general interests, or works of a more permanent and expensive character, were involved; all county establishments, all expenses connected with the administration of justice, bridges and public buildings, piers, and harbours; also such roads as the council should determine to be of county importance.

Although the county council would be a superior council, and, on appeal, have power to coerce the district council, yet the district council would be, to a great extent, independent; e. g. at present a work proposed was approved by the sessions and brought before the grand jury; the grand jury knew nothing about it, passed or rejected it on the advice of one or two grand jurymen. Instead of this, application would be made to the district council in sufficient time to allow a general consideration by the engineer, and every councillor would have had notice of it. It would be brought before the first council.

The first council would simply approve or disapprove. If approved, it would be referred to the engineer and executive committee. The former would check the plans and examine the proposal; the executive committee would ascertain its cost and obtain contracts for it. The proposition brought before the council at its next meeting would have been well considered, and its full cost would be known by the court; it would then be granted or rejected. If granted, there would be a power of appeal to the county council, by a given portion of the council, by any electoral division at its own risk, or by any individual aggrieved, also at his own risk.

As the district council will thus be the representative of the wishes and feelings of the district, he proposed to give it considerable powers. In respect of these powers he would very nearly adopt the Belgian words, "le conseil règle tout ce qui est d'interêt communal." The district council will determine on all subjects connected with the interests of the district, subject to appeal to the county council, or, in respect of general interests, to the Lord Lieutenant in Council.

Every portion of the district will have its warden to protect its interests. In addition to this he would make the engineer of the district also responsible to the public. That is to say, if he neglects to bring the state of the roads of any portion of the district under consideration of council, he may be sued for neglect of duty; and if the council neglects its duties, the county council may interfere.

Each council will meet four times in the year. Each will elect a chief officer, called in the county, chairman of the county in the district chairman of the dis- trict. Each council would also elect an executive committee, with considerable powers. Each council may depute, by special minute to its executive committee, to act in the name of the council. As the chairmen and executive committees will have heavy duties, he proposed that their necessary expenses should be paid by the county, or the district, as the case may be.

He would not fatigue the House by going further into the details of his proposed measure; for, as the efficiency of the plan depended entirely upon those details, it would be better to let the House judge of them in their printed form. He would therefore now move for leave to bring in a Bill.


in seconding the Motion, said, that the Bill of his hon. Friend sought to promote self-government in Ireland. The principle had been tried with success in England under the Municipal Corporations Act, and he saw no reason why it should not be followed by the same beneficial results in Ireland. The poor ratepayers in Ireland exercised care and caution in the selection of the board of guardians because they had an interest in keeping down the rate, and the same principle should be applied to the grand-jury system.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That leave be given to bring in a Bill to relieve Grand Juries from Fiscal Duties, and to place the Administration of Local Affairs in Ireland in Elected Councils.


said, that he did not think it would be for the benefit of the country that so important a subject should be taken up by a private Member. There were a great many Members who thought that the grand-jury system of Ireland required amendment; but the Bill for that purpose ought to be introduced on the responsibility of Government. He begged, therefore, to move a negative to the Motion of the hon. Member for Mallow.


said, he fully concurred in the opinion that it was exceedingly inappropriate for any private Member to attempt to deal with the extensive and difficult legislation necessary to carry out the objects of the Bill. The grand-jury system in Ireland had often been represented as a nest of jobbing from which no benefit whatever was derived. He thought that was a most unfair representation. The grand-jury system was doubtless susceptible of improvement, but no one could deny that it was a cheap, safe, and expeditious sys- tem. They should not change a system which had been established for over 100 years for the mere sake of change. The grand-jury system was a representative and open system, and the works which it sanctioned must be approved of by the county surveyor. Under such circumstances, the grand jury were not likely to pass a work which was not necessary. But beforehand the cesspayers must in the first instance have sanctioned it, and, after all this, there was an appeal to the Judge of Assize. As an instance of the great superiority of the system pursued in Ireland, he would refer to the cost of the public roads. They kept in repair 40,000 miles of road in Ireland, at a cost of 327,000l., according to the last Report. In England, 26,000 miles of road were mortgaged to the extent of 9,000,000l. He would not oppose the introduction of the Bill, which showed a great deal of research, but he did not think that his hon. Friend had made out a sufficient case for the abolition of the present system.


said, the county cess, amounting to near 1,000,000 of money, was paid nine-tenths by occupying tenants, who had no voice in the assessment or in the applotment of that sum. In fact it was assessment by one class, and payment by another. His (Mr. M'Mahon's) impression was, that Ireland would never be right or prosperous until it was approximated, in point of local government, to England. The grand jury jobbing in Ireland was at the base of all the other jobbery which caused the misery and the misfortunes of that country. He thought much good would result from the measure.


said, as he understood the hon. Member for Mallow, he did not ask the House to do away with the grandjury system altogether, but to put it on a better footing. The grand jury were selected by the sheriff, who was an annual officer. The control of the expenditure of a vast sum of money was therefore in the hands of the sheriff, who was elected for the year, and the grand juries who were selected only for the assizes. The counties in Ireland complained that the money advanced by the Government was expended without their having any control. That was an argument in favour of the Bill of his hon. Friend. His hon. Friend proposed that there should be a direct responsibility instead of the present system of irresponsibility, and that was so reasonable a principle that the Government would not oppose the introduction of the Bi11. It was admitted by all that the present system was defective and required amendment, and no one who heard the speech of his hon. Friend could deny that he was competent to deal with it. Of course he did not pledge himself to the details of the Bill, of which they could not properly judge till the Bill was before them.

Leave given, Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Denham Norreys, Mr. Pollard-Urquhart and Mr. Fagan.