§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. HUNT
said, he proposed to move the second reading of this Bill. He was aware that some opposition might be anticipated to the abolition of so ancient a privilege as that enjoyed by Members of the House of Commons from arrest for debt; but he might remind hon. Gentlemen that many of the privileges formerly possessed by Members of that House had been abandoned. At one time Members of the House of Commons could not be sued, their goods were exempted from distress, and even their servants were privileged from arrest; but those privileges had been abolished, and hon. Gentlemen now only enjoyed the privilege of freedom from personal restraint for debt. He believed that if no adequate reason could be shown for retaining that privilege, the House would be ready to relinquish it. According to Blackstone, the privilege of Parliament was established with the view of protecting Members of the Legislature from undue interference either on the part of their fellow-subjects or of the Crown; but he thought there was no reason in these days to fear oppression from the Crown; and the question was, whether Members of that House should be protected from molestation on the part of their fellow subjects, to whom they were indebted. The subject, ought to be considered, as it regarded the interests of creditors of Members of that House, and also as it affected the independence of Members of Parliament. Viewing it in the former light, the case stood on a different footing to what it did before the passing of the Act for the Abolition of arrest on mesne process. By the effect of that Act, none of Her Majesty's subjects could be now arrested save on execution after final judgment. He thought no one would deny that it was hard that creditors of Members of that House should be placed upon a different footing from that in which they stood with regard to the general community. It was said that the abolition of this privilege might subject to pressure 688 Members of that House who had contracted pecuniary obligations when any political crisis occurred, but he believed such an apprehension was purely chimerical; and, if there were in the House Members who were unable to face their creditors, they must be liable to continual pressure upon questions which were brought under discussion in Parliament. As the Legislature had determined to abolish the property qualification which the great majority of Members of that House were required to possess, men of straw might now be returned to Parliament as a sanctuary against their creditors, and he thought, therefore, it was desirable to abolish the privilege of freedom from arrest, and to have Members of the House of Commons in the same position with other classes of Her Majesty's subjects.
§ Motion made and Question proposed,—"That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ MR. E. P. BOUVERIE,
in moving as an Amendment that the Bill be read a second time that day three months, said, the subject was one which had been frequently discussed, and although the first impression might have been that the privilege ought to be abolished, it had always been decided after reflection, that it was better to maintain the existing law. The privilege of exemption from arrest, except in cases of felony, treason, and breach of the peace, was the most ancient privilege possessed by Members of that House, and it was the sole privilege of such a nature which they still retained. The hon. Gentleman seemed to have misconceived the intention of the privilege. It was not meant for the personal advantage of Members, but it was a privilege of the House of Commons, intended to secure the presence of Members in that House, and it was also the privilege of the constituents whom they represented. The hon. Gentleman appeared to entertain the idea that, as a consequence of the abolition of the property qualification, the House would he deluged with what he had called "men of straw." He (Mr. Bouverie) thought that was a mere chimera, for there were now in that assembly fifty-three representatives of Scotland who were not required to possess any property qualification, and he would venture to say that in point of solvency they were equal to any hon. Members in the House. If the House assented to this measure, it might happen that the Chairman of a Committee which 689 was appointed to consider a railway Bill, or some subject involving most important interests, might be in embarrassed circumstances; and any of the parties interested, finding that the Chairman was adverse to them, might get hold of a judgment against him, and might arrest him before the Committee could agree upon their report. When this question had been discussed on former occasions, the abolition of the privilege had been opposed by many hon. Members whose opinions were entitled to weight and authority. Pitt, Fox, and Sheridan had all been in embarrassed circumstances, and although they rendered most eminent services to the State, if the privilege which this Bill would abolish had not existed they would at any moment have been liable to arrest, and the Crown and Parliament and the country would have been deprived of their valuable counsel. He did not know on what ground it could be contended that a man who was in embarrassed circumstances was incapable of acting as a legislator. It was well known that in past times some of the most eminent statesmen of this country had been involved in great pecuniary embarrassment, and he thought the fact that a man devoted his energies and attention almost exclusively to public business might account for the derangement of his private affairs. This question was one which might affect the independence of hon. Members, for, although party divisions were not now very close, the time had been when there was not a majority of more than four or five; and it would not have been difficult. had four or five Members been in circumstances of embarrassment, and had not the privilege of freedom from arrest existed, to prevent the Gentlemen who formed the majority from giving their votes in that House. He thought the great mistake of the hon. Gentleman who brought forward this measure was in treating the question as one of personal advantage so far as hon. Members were concerned. The privilege of freedom from arrest for debt was enjoyed by barristers when in attendance at the courts of law or on circuit; but justices of the peace in attending sessions; by suitors and witnesses whose attendance was required in courts of law; by Her Majesty's servants, and by foreign ambassadors and their servants, on the ground that they had public duties to perform which would be interfered with if they were liable to arrest at the instance of private individuals; and he did not see why the Members of the 690 House of Commons should be deprived of a similar privilege. It must be remembered that Peers of Parliament, to whom the Bill did not apply, enjoyed exemption from arrest; and he wished to know on what ground the hon. Gentleman made a distinction between Peers and Members of the House of Commons, and why Members of that House, who represented the people, should be liable to be deprived of the opportunity of discharging their public duties, while Members of the other branch of the Legislature, who represented nobody, should be exempted from any interference in the performance of their legislative functions?
§ MR. CRAUFURD
seconded the Amendment, observing that if the Bill were adopted it would be impossible to enforce a "call" of the House.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."
MR. H. BERKELEY
said, if the Bill had put Peers on the same footing as the House of Commons he would have supported it, but while this distinction was made he would not support it. If they gave constituencies fair play they would always return proper persons to Parliament. No petitions had been presented in favour of the Bill; on the contrary, constituencies were proud of the privileges enjoyed by their Members. He could not see that this Bill was a consequence of the doing away of the property qualification for Members.
§ MR. HUNT,
in reply said, he thought the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Bouverie) had strengthened the case in favour of the Bill by his reference to Chairmen of Railway Committees. He (Mr. Hunt) was anxious that no hon. Member in embarrassed circumstances should act as the Chairman of a Railway Committee, or of any other Committee which dealt with important interests, and he hoped, therefore, that the House would assent to the second reading of the Bill.
§ Question put, "That the word now stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided:—Ayes 129; Noes 75: Majority 54.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read 2o, and committed for Wednesday next.
§ House Adjourned at five minutes before Six o'clock.