HC Deb 06 May 1858 vol 150 cc222-7

Order for Second Reading read.


observed, that a statute requiring a property qualification for Members of Parliament was first passed in the reign of Queen Anne with the avowed object of excluding the trading classes from Parliament and admitting only persons connected with the landed interest. Fictitious qualifications became so common that in the reign of George II. this statute was followed by another which made it necessary for Members to make an oath that they possessed the required qualification. The qualification was fixed at £600 a year for counties and £300 a year for boroughs, and in both cases it was confined to real property. It became matter of notoriety that persons in taking the oath made false representations, stating that they had incomes from and interest in real property which they did not really possess. Since her present Majesty ascended the Throne the oath was repealed, and a declaration substituted, allowing personal property to be used as a qualification where real property did not exist. The practice of making false representations was, however, very common, and he was told that after every general election there were usually from fifty to sixty cases in which persons declared themselves qualified who were not so. The anomalies of the system were very great. The Scotch Members, who certainly were not the least respectable Members of that House, required no qualification. The Members for the Universities required no qualification; the eldest sons of peers and of persons qualified to sit as Knights of the Shire, that is to say, of persons who had £600 per annum in real or in personal estate were also privileged to sit without a qualification. It was a remarkable fact that, since personal property had been substituted for real, the eldest son of a person who had £20,000 in the funds was entitled to sit without producing a qualification. There were other anomalies. The Members for Liverpool, for example, were qualified if they had £300 a year, while the Members for the smallest county in England—say the county of Rutland—must have £600 a year. There were some Gentlemen who thought it necessary to retain the property qualification, with all its anomalies and absurdities, because it excluded Chartists and other persons holding extreme political opinions. He would not enter into the question of Chartism, but he might observe that it was the opinion of many that it would be better as a safety valve to give Chartists the opportunity of expressing their opinions in that House than compel them to do so out of doors. While they excluded Chartists they compelled the younger sons of peers and landowners to come to their table and declare they had a qualification of which it was notorious they were not the bonâ fide possessors. In most instances these younger sons had from their parents an allowance of so many hundreds a year, but in law that was no qualification for a seat in that House. It was high time to do away with this kind of legislation, which encouraged Members to make false declarations at their table, and to recur to the old practice of giving to the electors the freest choice of their representatives. He hoped the Government would not offer any opposition to this Bill, but that they would show, by giving it their support, that they were really in earnest in their desire to give useful reforms to the people. The hon. Member then moved the second reading of the Bill.


said, that he did not intend to oppose the second reading of the Bill in the then condition of the House, and at that late hour of the evening (eleven o'clock) but he could not allow some of the remarks of the hon. Member to pass unnoticed. The hon. Member had misrepresented the object of the existing enactment when he stated that that object was to exclude from the House all but landed proprietors. There was a broad distinction drawn between landed representatives and borough representatives, inasmuch as in the case of the former the qualification required was double that of the borough Members. [Several hon. MEMBERS: "The qualification for all was a landed one originally."] The original object of the law was sound and rational. It was to prevent persons being Members of that House whose financial position was not such that they could devote their time exclusively to the business of the House, without prejudice to their personal affairs, or could be free from the dictation to which it was said, however unfairly, that Members were sometimes subject. Nor did he think it would be without prejudice to the public interests, or to the character of the House, if the alteration of the law should have the effect of introducing such persons. The exceptions to which the hon. Member referred only proved that the original object of the law was what he had stated. He would not go into the question whether or not it was desirable to introduce into that House persons of extreme opinions, but he was inclined to agree with the hon. Member on that point. He thought that in respect to such persons that House would act as a safety-valve, for it was found that persons who had distinguished themselves out of doors by extreme opinions were apt to modify them in that House. If, however, this Bill was passed, he must say that, taking human nature as it was, and admitting, as they must admit, that men under certain circumstances were open to certain temptations, they ought to insure the purity and patriotism which it was evidently the object of that House to attain, by doing away with all salaries to public officers, so that no hon. Member, whose position was not such as to place him above the suspicion of temptation, might be exposed to imputation by his acceptance of office. He feared that that proposition would not be acceptable to hon. Gentlemen on either side of the House; but if they did not adopt it, they would place Members in a position in which they should not be placed.


said, that at present either landed or funded property to the amount of £300 enabled a man to stand for a borough. Did any one suppose that because a man had £300 a year, he was placed beyond the reach of temptation? Had not the House been long acting on a falsehood, for had every Member really the necessary qualification? He believed not. If so, let them not mix this subject up with the Reform question, which was only an internal reform of their own House. If the £10 householders found amongst themselves a person of ability who had not £300 a year, and chose him as their representative, they ought to have the power of sending him to that House. He looked to Scotland. Hon. Members for that country had no qualification, and he was sure the House had no reason to be ashamed of those hon. Members who represented Scottish constituencies. Last year he (Mr. Miles) had supported a Government winch had promised a Reform Bill, and he voted against the proposition of the hon. Member for Surrey; but now he was at liberty to express his opinion. This was not a question to be introduced into a Reform Bill, but it was a question whether a gentleman who had not £300 a year should or should not represent a constituency. He had not the slightest difficulty in assenting to the Motion, and he hoped and trusted that among the millionaires whom the hon. Member for Norfolk wished to introduce into Parliament, they should have men of humble means, but great ability, returned by such constituencies as selected them.


said, he had no objection to the Bill, but if it passed, he thought they ought to recommend to the mercy of the Crown the unfortunate gentleman who was now suffering under a condemnation for having sat in that House without a qualification. He apprehended that his legal delinquency was not greater than that of others who had walked up to that table, and he might mention as one instance, since it was a matter of public notoriety, that one of the hon. Members for Greenwich could scarcely have been qualified when he took his seat.


said, he must express his concurrence in the suggestion of the hon. Member with reference to the gentleman who was now undergoing punishment for having sat in that House without a qualification. He was placed in a peculiar position, politically speaking, with regard to Mr. Glover; but as the present representative of that constituency which returned him to Parliament, he could without hesitation affirm that no act on the part of the Government would be so acceptable to his supporters as their now discharging him from his sentence. The punishment inflicted upon him was a very severe retribution for what might have been an error in judgment only; and the House must recollect that the jury strongly recommended Mr. Glover to mercy. Should the Bill become the law of the land, acting in concert with the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, he would spare no effort to induce the Home Secretary to remit the sentence the ends of justice have already been fully satisfied.


said, that this question had often been before the House, but he was not aware that its merits had of late years been much discussed. Last year it was brought before the House, and its postponement was urged on the ground that it ought to form part of a larger measure of Reform, and that all questions of Reform should be put off till the following Session. The House had now to consider whether it was advisable to continue the property qualification, as originally introduced in the reign of Queen Anne, and as subsequently modified in the reign of the present Queen. There were two reasons which had always been forcibly urged in favour of the maintenance of the existing law. In the first place it was supposed that by requiring Members to possess a certain income as a test of their eligibility, an amount of independence on their part might be secured. The second reason urged in favour of the law was that it would prevent speculative candidates coming forward, and putting their opponents to unnecessary expense. With regard to the independence of the Member that was to be secured, he very much doubted whether the law in question secured that at all. The mere circumstance that a man had a qualification of £300 a year for a borough Member, and £600 a year for a county Member, would not necessarily make him so independent as to place him above any inducement that might shake his independence. But, apart from that question, there were two great reasons against the first argument which had been urged in favour of the existing law. The first related to the inconsistency of requiring the Members from one part of the country to have a property qualification, and those from another to have none. It was utterly indefensible to maintain the law in that state; and if we were to have a property qualification at all it ought in justice to be extended to the Scotch Mem- bers. The second reason which had always weighed on his mind was that, whatever know the law was evaded. Qualifications were given to Members in order to enable them to sit in the House of Commons, and it ill became Parliament to maintain what in those cases might be called a great sham. Those two reasons convinced him that the existing law did not answer its purpose and ought not to be continued. The second argument urged in favour of the law was that it prevented speculative candidates from putting bona fide candidates to unnecessary expense at elections. There might be something in that argument, but we might set against it the necessary expenses which candidates must incur, not merely the fees paid to the election auditor under a recent Act, but the cost of the hustings, to which every candidate must contribute. Even if that reason did not prevail we should bear in mind that by the operation of the present law we prevented able men with large professional incomes from taking their seats in the House of Commons, merely because they did not possess realized fortunes of £300 a year, and thus deprived Parliament and the country of the services of such men. For these reasons it seemed to him that the law could not be maintained in its existing state, and thinking that upon the whole much good would be gained by leaving elections perfectly free to those who might be willing to offer their services, and by allowing the constituencies to choose such candidates as they might think best able to represent them in Parliament, he had arrived at the conclusion that the Bill of the hon. Member for East Surrey had much more to recommend it than any of the arguments used against it could outweigh, and therefore, that it ought to be read a second time.

Bill read 2° and Committed for Tuesday next.

House adjourned at half after Eleven o'clock.