HC Deb 29 April 1858 vol 149 cc2003-8

Order for Second Reading read.


, in rising to move the second reading of this Bill said, that it had been suggested to him to postpone it until after the county meetings on the 30th April; and he certainly had the greatest desire that it should be submitted to the consideration of the county meetings. But the question was not a new one, for it had been before Parliament two years ago, and it was identical with the provisions struck out from a Bill which passed two years ago. But, further, he thought that the House might naturally feel a jealousy in submitting a question affecting the constitutional rights of voters in Scotland to the deliberation of those bodies. He had himself taken part in these deliberations, and he had submitted the matter to a meeting of the county which he had the honour to represent, and the meeting had by a considerable majority decided against the measure. He had, therefore, brought it forward in the teeth of their opinion; but he did it in the full belief that he was supported by the great majority of the electors whom he had the honour to represent. Two years ago the law on this subject, both in boroughs and counties, had been put on the same footing as in England; but by the passing of an Act relating to the valuation of land in Scotland an improved system had been introduced, which rendered an easier system of registration possible. By that Valuation Act lands were valued according to the full value of the subject, and it was only necessary for a clerk to transfer the names of all persons who had a sufficient qualification to the electoral registrar. The measure, as introduced by the late Lord Advocate, had passed a second reading, and, after being referred to a Select Committee, the decision of that Committee was unanimous in its favour; and on a division on going into Committee the principle of the Bill was affirmed by a. large majority. It was not for him to suggest what had been the reason for withdrawing the clauses relating to the counties; but it was supposed that their withdrawal had facilitated the passing of the measure as to boroughs. He wished to know why the principle should not apply to counties also? It was not for him to anticipate objections to the measure; but if there were objections they could not be founded on principle, because the principle had been applied to part of Scotland; and the law was in full operation throughout the whole of Ireland, where, he believed, it worked satisfactorily, and at very little expense. Fortified by these authorities he had little doubt that a similar measure would be adopted throughout England, if the system of property admitted of such a convenient system of registration. The valuation roll would in Scotland operate, nearly without exception, as a perfect electoral roll. There was certainly a limited class of voters who received a small quit rent for their property, but who, as not being liable to taxation, did not appear on the valuation roll. But, even supposing that the system he proposed could not be made to apply to them, that was no reason for debarring others of the benefit of the improved system. If the House would allow this important measure to be introduced, he would name a distant day for the Committee to consider its provisions.

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


said, this Bill was only printed on Saturday; it contained thirty-nine clauses, many of them requiring consideration, and hon. Members could not have had time to make themselves acquainted with its provisions, before the House was asked to read it a second time. On the 30th of April in every year a county meeting was held in every county in Scotland, and those meetings were attended by the gentry, who had then an opportunity of discussing all matters concerning the public interest. He thought it hardly fair in his hon. Friend to press the second reading of this Bill on the very day preceding all those county meetings. He knew that the gentry of every county in Scotland would feel disgusted that they had not been at all consulted in this matter. The Bill, among other of its provisions, involved a total change in the valuation schedules, which it would be unfortunate to make rashly. It would also entail considerable expense on the counties, which, what with prison boards, police boards, and the rest, were already taxed heavily enough. He moved as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


seconded the Amendment. He was not aware that a single petition had been presented in favour of this measure, and when sometime ago a Bill similar in substance was introduced, it was withdrawn at the almost unanimous request of the counties of Scotland. He objected to the Bill, because the assessors of the counties in Scotland, who had up till this time never mixed themselves up with politics, would be turned into political officers. Of all persons the assessors of the property of a county should be kept clear of every possible suspicion of being actuated by any political motive whatever. Again, there was a just complaint that the property of Scotland was ground down by assessments charged upon it year after year. Of all the assessments, that which this Bill sought to impose was the most useless, uncalled for, and objectionable. He, therefore, entirely opposed the Bill.

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

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


said, he was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dundas) state, that it was unfair to propose to read this Bill a second time until the gentry assembled in their county meetings in Scotland gave their opinion upon it. He (Mr. Cowan) would ask on what ground they were to suspend legislation, in order to have the opinion of but a fraction of the electors of Scotland? If the hon. Member was sincere, let him move for leave to bring in a Bill to suspend all legislation relating to Scotland until after the 30th of April in each year. He was surprised to hear his hon. Friend the Member for Elgin (Mr. C. Bruce) ground his objections to the Bill on the trifling expense which it would entail on the counties. If the property in Scotland had been charged of late years with additional assessments, it was right to bear in mind, what he had been told was the fact, that the value of land in Scotland had increased 20 or 30 per cent. Again, the state of the rolls in the counties was positively disgraceful; a great number of the persons whose names were upon them, had either no longer any existence or no connection with the property in respect of which they were enrolled. He hoped the House would pass the Bill now under consideration. So far as the experience of a kindred measure passed for the cities and boroughs of Scotland had gone, it was altogether satisfactory.


said, it appeared to him that the Bill under consideration was somewhat uncalled for. His hon. Friend (Mr. Cowan) sat for a city in Scotland, and, when he grounded his support of the Bill on what he called the satisfactory operation of a similar measure for cities and boroughs, he (Lord Elcho) was reminded of the fable of the fox that had lost his tail. He should like to know what the expense entailed by the Act relating to cities and boroughs really was, and what its effect had been on the borough rolls. If he was correctly informed that expense had been very considerable, and he did not see any reason for throwing on the counties an unnecessary outlay. They heard a great deal of the value that was attached to the franchise in the present day, but he could not think a man attached very great value to it if he was not inclined to pay the small sum of 2s. 6d. for its exercise. This Bill, indeed, was properly an instalment of Parliamentary Reform; and he therefore thought it would be better to postpone it to next Session when they were sure to have a Reform Bill. All he would say on that point was, that he feared they would obtain from the Gentlemen now sitting on the Treasury bench, one of the most radical Reform Bills ever proposed.


protested against the principle, that a man was not to be allowed to exercise the franchise without being called on to pay for it. He thought the payment, small as it was, ought to be abolished. The principle embodied in this Bill had worked well in boroughs, and he did not see why it should not be applied to counties. They ought, at any rate, to give it a second reading, which merely affirmed its principle.


said, it was not without some difficulty he had arrived at the conclusion that it was not necessary, in order to give effect to the objections he had to certain parts of the Bill, to vote against the second reading. There was one objection to the Bill started by the noble Lord the Member for East Lothian (Lord Elcho), which they were not at present in a condition to deal with, because the settlement of that question would depend very much on the experience of the Scotch boroughs—he meant the question of expense. He believed that before they arrived at the other stages of the Bill there would be before the House returns of all the expenses in the different boroughs of Scotland during the two years the present system had been in operation. If those returns showed the expense to be trifling, then the objection to that part of the Bill would be obviated; but he could not help believing that a somewhat different state of things would be the result. Another objection to the Bill was, the manner in which it was proposed to make up the valuation roll. He did not think that would turn out to be a necessary part of the measure, as the object in view could be equally well obtained in making up the registration roll. What he (the Lord Advocate) said on a former occasion had been much misunderstood. He bad then stated that the claims of the Bill of 1856 relative to counties had been given up in deference to the opinion of that House. And he must take that to be the case, because while the portions of the Bill relating to counties were abandoned, those relative to boroughs were agreed to. He must say he did not see any objection to the second reading of the Bill, and therefore would not oppose it; but there were objections which would deserve the consideration of the House in Committee.


wished to say, with reference to the last Bill, it passed through both a committee of Scotch Members and a Select Committee of that House in 1856; but when it came to the House, its supporters found that in consequence of the opposition of a few Scotch county Members they were likely to lose the Bill in consequence of the running out of time. No borough opposed the Bill, and it was therefore thought better to try the experiment with respect to boroughs, reserving its application to counties to a future period. They now proposed to do so, and he believed that when the returns that had been moved with respect to boroughs were before the House it would be seen that the success of the measure in regard to boroughs warranted its extension to counties. Before the Bill passed the borough registers were in a most unsatisfactory state, and he must say the county registers were still more so. He had been called on to examine a considerable number of county registers, and he found that hundreds, aye thousands of voters were not on the roll who ought to have been so, and that in one case there were on the roll the names of more persons disqualified than of persons who were qualified.


said, that after what had fallen from the Lord Advocate, he would not press his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main question put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Thursday, 3rd June.