HC Deb 15 July 1861 vol 164 cc933-8

Order for Consideration, as amended, read.


I think, Sir, it is very evident that, if the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary had been acquainted either with the Corporation Reform Act or with the speech of the noble Lord at present at the head of the Foreign Department, on introducing that measure in 1835, he would not have made the assertion that this Bill would make no alteration in the state of things existing under the Corporation Reform Act. I shall not now attempt to go over again all the arguments on this subject which I used on a former occasion; but the case is this:—It has been decided in the Court of Queen's Bench that the mayor has precedence everywhere within the limits of the borough; but that he has not of right the chairmanship of the justices when they sit in petty sessions. That was explicitly declared to be the intention of the Act, when the Bill for that Act was introduced in 1835; and it has since been authoritatively decided by the Court of Queen's Bench that such is the purport of that Act. The object of this Bill is to enact that whoever is elected mayor, having become by that Act a justice of the peace for the year of his office and for one year afterwards, shall of right take the chair at all meetings of petty sessions and in all committees of justices. Now, I think that this provision is extremely stringent upon the borough justices, and I am not aware that they have done anything to deprive them of the right which belongs to all other responsible bodies—the right to elect their own chairman. There is an exception to this right in the case of Recorders at borough quarter sessions. The Recorder there of right supersedes mayor and the other magistrates, and sits as chairman and as Judge at the quarter sessions; but in other cases the mayor cannot take precedence of right over the other justices. I think the proposal of this Bill bears very hardly upon the borough magistrates, against whom no offence has been alleged; for these magistrates would not be allowed to exercise a power which belongs to the county magis- trates, who are entitled to exercise the privilege of choosing their own chairman. There is no reason for this, especially when it is remembered that in petty sessions every magistrate is individually responsible for the judgment that may be pronounced. That, I believe, is the law: so I have been advised by competent authority. Each magistrate is personally and individually responsible for every decision that may be given at petty sessions; and all I now propose is some valid security against in competence on the part of the mayor—for the House has decided that the mayor, though he may have become a justice for the first time by virtue of his election to the office of mayor, shall at once step into the chair at every meeting of the justices, and shall thus have authority over men who have been appointed to the office of justice for life, who may have acted for years in the administration of the law and the preservation of the peace, and may have exercised their functions most honourably and blamelessly. As the Bill stands the mayor will thus preside, though he may be without the slightest knowledge or experience of the business of a justice of the peace. That is a severe decision; and I ask the House to modify it. I ask the House to place the mayors of our provincial towns in the same position that the Lord Mayor of London occupies. No one can be elected to the office of Lord Mayor till he has served some time as alderman; and as alderman he exercises the functions of a justice. Therefore, before he is elected to the chair of the City of London the electors have had some experience of his conduct and capacity as a justice of the peace, because as an alderman he sits as a justice of the peace. My proposal is that this security be extended to the boroughs. In the course of a former debate reference was made to the borough of Birmingham, where unhappily the collision took place which led to the introduction of this Bill; and I believe that an impression has gone abroad from that debate that I am dealing with this question in a spirit of hostility to the Corporation of Birmingham. Perhaps the House may not be aware that I, along with my hon. Colleague, in opposition to the views of many of our own political friends, joined with the late Mr. Muntz and the present senior Member for Birmingham (Mr. Scholefield) in carrying through this House the Birmingham Improvements Bill, by which the Corporation of Birmingham became vested with powers as large, if not larger than the powers of any Corporation in England. The hon. Member opposite will bear me testimony that, in this respect, I acted in what cannot be otherwise considered than as a liberal spirit towards the Corporation of Birmingham—more so than many of those who agree with me in general politics were inclined to sanction. The House will see, therefore, that I entertain no hostile feeling whatever against the Corporation of Birmingham. Nevertheless, I am one of those who think that they are now urging us upon a course which is not likely to produce results that are either creditable to themselves or to this House. I ask the House this question—what good will they do, though they may by this Bill thrust a man upon the justices against their will, and make him their chairman of right, though he may have had no experience, and though he may be seriously objectionable in other respects? for the Bill contemplates only those cases where the justices, if left to themselves, would decline to elect the mayor as their chairman. In almost all cases the justices are only too glad to elect the mayor as their chairman, if he is competent; because he, in that case, brings the whole weight and influence of the corporation to support the authority of the justices. The 2nd Clause of the Bill, therefore, contemplates only cases of the character which I have before described, where the mayors are unfit persons, to whom the justices have an objection. This is all I ask: is it unreasonable that I should ask the House to adopt the same safeguard for other corporate towns which for many hundreds of years have assured the peace and prosperity of the City of London? Surely it is only reasonable that, if the mayor is to assume the chair as of right, contrary to the opinion of the rest of the justices he shall, at all events, be a man of some experience as a magistrate? I think that this is only reasonable; and I ask the House for one moment to look at what may be the consequence of refusing this proposal. I think the example of the United States of America is not calculated to commend to us the system of electing magistrates and Judges for short periods of office. The House has decided not only in favour of the election of a justice in the person of the mayor—that has been settled by the Corporation Reform Act—but that he shall be in the position of a Judge—to take precedence of all other justices; and yet this person, who will be entitled to rank as their chief, and expound and declare the law which the justices have to administer, may be himself utterly destitute of any qualification for the office, of any recommendation or security for its due performance, except that he has been elected by the ratepayers of Birmingham or any other town that may have elected such a man mayor of the borough for the year, under the influence of considerations totally apart from his competency as a magistrate, and in total ignorance of his qualifications as a justice; and this at a time perhaps—for the circumstance has happened and may happen again—when a collision may have taken place between the corporation and the bench of justices, and when there may be circumstances calculated to render the administration of justice, however pure and faithful, unpopular in the borough. And I ask the House, if this Bill is carried as it now stands, will it tend to raise the character of the Corporations? The House will, I hope, excuse me for a few moments, while I ask them to consider what may probably be recommended as a cure for this impending evil. What will that cure be? Why, the cure will be simply this: that hereafter there will be a total supersession of the justices by a stipendiary magistracy. If any such cases should arise, and they may arise as they have arisen; if the mayor should prove himself to be totally incompetent, the bench will be brought into disrepute, and we shall have the remedy of those who advocate what they call "progress;" we shall not be allowed to revert to the old custom of permitting the justices to chose their own chairman, but we shall have all the justices superseded, together with the mayors, by the appointment of stipendiary magistrates, with increased powers. I am sure that the mayors who originally urged on this Bill, and they are but a minority of all the mayors in the kingdom—40 out of 130—have not looked to the probable consequences of what they ask. It is to be presumed that under existing circumstances every individual who is elected mayor is competent to the position to which he is called? But those who urge this Bill overlook that, in insisting upon every mayor being of right the chairman of the justices, however incompetent he may be, they will bring the whole system into disrepute, and lead the Legislature to supersede both the justices and the mayors by stipendiary magistrates. I know some hon. Members will say, "Oh! leave it to the boroughs; we shall have a better class of mayors elected, when the inhabitants are made to feel and understand the position in which they place the mayor, and that their electing incompetent men is fraught with danger to themselves." But, I ask, is this right? Is it prudent; is it wise in hon. Members to yield to the pressure which I know is put upon them, without any security that the mayors shall be persons competent to fill the situation in which you propose to place them? The fact is that many hon. Members are, as I understand, voting under pressure upon this Bill. All I ask of them is that they shall take the same security that the ratepayers shall elect an officer who is competent to discharge the duties this Bill imposes; the same security which for years has contributed to the sound administration of justice in the City of London. I have consulted with several persons who are well acquainted with the working of the Corporation Reform Act, and there is not one of them but has assured me that the proposition I make is not only reasonable in itself, but is necessary to secure the dignity, the honour, and the efficient working of our corporate system. I shall, therefore, take the sense of House upon the addition of the following clause:— That the right to take the chair at such meetings of justices shall not attach to the office of mayor, unless the person filling that office shall have been commissioned and have been qualified to act as justice of the peace within the borough, at least three years before his election to be mayor.

Clause brought up, and read 1°.


said, he objected to the clause, as it would nullify the whole operations of the Bill, which at present carried out the intentions of its framers.


said, he should support the proposed clause, which he thought was a reasonable one.


observed that the clause did not state that the mayor "may" take precedence over all the justices, but that he "shall" do so.


said, that the words were "shall be entitled."


said, he put it to the right hon. Gentleman whether in practice those words would not have the effect of "shall." But supposing they only gave rise to a question on the subject, such an effect would not be desirable.


said, he had a great respect for the Birmingham justices, but he hoped that what might be said to be the universal practice would be carried out in that town, and that the mayor would there have that precedence which was accorded to him in other places.


said, the question was simply, would they give the mayor precedence in judicial matters? He thought they should not do so; and he would, therefore, suggest an Amendment which would, perhaps, be acceptable, to the effect that the mayor should not have precedence over the county magistrates, over the stipendiary, or any other body of magistrates engaged in judicial proceedings.


said, it might be supposed from the argument of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Newdegate) that no one was fit to be a justice who was not a lawyer. This, however, was a view which was not borne out by experience.


said, he should support the Amendment of the hon. Gentleman, as he had not heard a word uttered that at all showed the necessity for the Bill.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Clause be now read a second time."

The House divided:—Ayes 32; Noes 137: Majority 105.


said, at present words could only be altered by Act of Parliament, but the 6th Clause gave the power to the Home Secretary. He would suggest a limitation of the power, considering it too extensive.


remarked that the clause as it stood contained sufficient provision against any abuse of the power given.

Clause and the remaining Clauses were then agreed to.

Bill to be read 3° To-morrow.