HC Deb 22 April 1863 vol 170 cc536-44

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. COLLINS moved the second reading of this Bill, which he said was intended to get rid of an electoral anomaly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had last week proposed to get rid of what he called certain fiscal anomalies, and on the previous evening the House had been engaged in discussing an anomaly with regard to the City Police, and this Bill was intended to remove a legislative anomaly which was really an absurdity. The Reform Act provided that the burgesses of boroughs who resided within seven miles of the borough should be entitled to vote for the election of Members of Parliament, and the anomaly which he complained of was that with regard to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, there were different modes of measuring the seven miles; and in the boroughs of England this was productive of positive injustice to a certain class of electors. This Bill was to establish uniformity in the three kingdoms upon this matter. In Wales, as to one class of voters, the distance was measured from some place scheduled in the Reform Act; in Scotland the sheriffs had a great deal to do with fixing the boundary of measurement; in Ireland the distance was measured from the usual place of holding the election; while in the English boroughs there were two modes of measuring the seven miles. With regard to the ratepayers of a borough who resided out of the limits of the borough, the distance was measured from the boundary of the borough; whereas with regard to the freemen in a borough, the distance was measured from the chief polling place. The effect of this was to deprive many freemen of their franchise, although they lived within seven miles of the borough. The whole course of the legislation of late years had been to establish uniformity in the law. No doubt there were many hon. Members on that (the Conservative) side of the House, such as his hon. Friends the Members for West Norfolk (Mr. W. G. Bentinck) and Northamptonshire (Mr. Knightley), who were satisfied with the Reform Act as it stood, but he thought they could scarcely oppose this Bill; and he could not understand how any Liberals could be opposed to any extension of the franchise, and he thought that some good reason ought to be shown for the maintenance of the existing anomaly, which in some instances had the effect of disfranchising a considerable number of electors. It might be thought that as the Bill came from the Conservative side of the House, and though calculated to extend the franchise, it ought not to receive support; but although he sat on the Conservative side, he was not trammelled by party ties, and this Bill had been introduced by the hon. Member for Nottingham, who was a Whig and something more, and by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets, who was a Radical and something more. He would be glad to know what was the opinion of the Members for such boroughs as Liverpool with regard to this measure, creating identity of residence between the old and the new class of electors. He could not believe that they would be desirous of keeping up the existing distinction. A ground of objection to his proposition might be that a great part of the corruption which had been shown to exist in certain boroughs was traceable to the freemen voters, but that was hardly a sufficient objection, because recent experience had shown that in constituencies which were the creatures of the Reform Act, and where there were no freemen, there had been equal corruption. Even if in some cases freemen had been found tainted with corruption, they were the freemen resident in the borough, and not the outlying freemen. He hoped, that upon the grounds of common sense and common justice, he should receive the support of the House on the Motion which he made that the Bill be now read a second time.

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


said, that in the absence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. E. P. Bouverie), who had given notice of an intention to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, he should himself propose that course to the House. He thought that no good reasons had been assigned for changing a state of things that had endured since the passing of the Reform Act. If there was any anomaly, it was not of such a character as to call for express legislation, but he denied that there was any analogy between occupying householders and freemen. These classes of voters were dealt with, specially and intentionally, in separate sections of the Reform Act, and the Legislature at the time evidently thought that there was good reason for the distinction. No doubt the reason was that Parliament thought it desirable to limit as much as possible the number of freemen voters. Originally, it was proposed that the freemen should be left out altogether; but that giving rise to much opposition, the present provision was agreed to as a kind of compromise. This was a Bill certainly intended to extend the suffrage; and if it were only in the right direction, he should be inclined to support it. But as at the time of the passing of the Reform Act the freemen enjoyed a certain notoriety for accessibility to bribery, which they still retained, he did not consider they were specially entitled to legislative interference in their behalf. There was a reason for the distinction made by the Reform Act. The lists of occupying householders were made out by the overseers of each parish and thus the labour was divided. But the list of freemen voters was to be made out by the town clerk, and it was necessary that there should be some fixed point from which the distance of the freeman's residence should be measured; otherwise, if the distance were reckoned from any part of the borough boundary a special measurement would be necessary in very many cases. He thought there was no necessity for the change proposed; for if the Bill would cure one anomaly, it would leave untouched a greater—the different mode of measurement adopted respectively in the cases of Parliamentary and municipal voters. He thought that no case had been made out in favour of the Bill, and would move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

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


said, he was not going to speak about the Bill, because he did not know much about it; but he wished to repel an imputation upon the hon. Member for West Norfolk and himself, whom the hon. Gentleman who moved the second reading had described as being satisfied with the Reform Act of 1831 as it existed. Now, his hon. Friend and himself had always stated that they were not satisfied with it, and had protested against the Act as unfair and inequitable towards the rural districts, and that, whether population or property be accepted as a test, they were entitled to a larger representation. He thought it a monstrous anomaly that a small peddling town like Knaresborough should have two Members while large and influential constituencies like West Norfolk and South Northamptonshire possessed only an equal representation. He would certainly support a Bill to disfranchise Knaresborough, provided the two Members were given to the counties.


said, that against uniformity of measurement itself nothing could be said, but it could not be overlooked dint there was a great distinction between freemen and householders. It was just and reasonable that men possessing property within a borough, but not actually living within its limits, should not be precluded by that latter fact from Voting for Members of Parliament. In the case of a freeman, however, when he removed from the borough, his interest in it was gone. If this Bill were passed, it might happen that a man having acquired the freedom of a borough by apprenticeship might leave it and take up his abode in another borough ten miles distant; but as his residence might be within seven miles of the nearest boundary of the first borough, he would retain a right to Vote where he had ceased to possess any interest. The different mode of measurement prescribed by the Reform Act had been adopted after full discussion, and it must be assumed for good reasons. It had been agreed on both sides of the House that the present suffrage was too restricted, and ought to be extended; but he had never before heard of any proposition to that effect which was not based upon the possession of property or superior intelligence or education. The effect of this Bill would be to increase considerably the number of freemen in some boroughs, the aggregate number of freemen in all the boroughs being some 40,000. Surely the freemen were not a class deserving of being treated with special favour. Upon no ground could he discover any necessity for the Bill, and therefore he hoped the House would not assent to the second reading.


, in reply, said, that no good reasons had been urged against the Bill. In the Reform Bill as originally introduced, with the concurrence of the entire Cabinet, was the very provision which he now sought to establish by his Bill, and the alteration was only made in the course of discussion, by Lord Althorpe, at the suggestion of Mr. Rigby Wason. It was true that there was an anomaly in the differences existing between the Parliamentary and the municipal franchise; but he hoped that anomaly would be removed, and the same mode of measurement adopted in both cases.


said, that he had been accidentally absent in the early part of the discussion; but he wished to point out to the House that there really was no anomaly to cure. The distinction between householders and freemen was a substantial one, and the only effect of the Bill would be to enlarge the area of residence for one particular class of voters. The Reform Act required residence within the borough as a condition from the freeman to entitle him to vote; and the substantial effect of enlarging the area of residence to seven miles from any part of the borough would be to introduce a class of non-resident freemen as voters—the very worst class of voters that could be found. He was an advocate for an extension of the suffrage, but not in favour of that class of which the records of the House bore testimony that those who composed it were the most corrupt portion of the most corrupt constituencies. Any one who desired to promote purity and economy in elections would be slow to add to that class. Having referred to some of the Reports of investigations that had taken place by direction of that House, he was able to cite a few proofs of how undesirable it was to increase the number of freemen voters—a class that, happily, did not exist in Scotland. In the ease of Hull, the Commissioners, who reported in 1852, said — There remain 1,017 cases of persons on the register of 1852 who have been proved to have been bribed at one of the three elections of 1841, 1847, and 1852. Of these, 177 are occupiers and 840 freemen. But it is clear that 840 are not all the freemen on the register of 1852 who had been bribed at one of the three elections. We are fully justified in concluding, that of the 1,494 freemen, whose names appear on the register of 1852, 1,100 were bribed at one or more of the three elections just mentioned. More recently, in 1860, the Commissioners appoined to inquire into the proceedings at elections at Gloucester, speaking of the freemen, reported— The Reform Act, although it mitigated, failed to destroy the evil thus introduced. It lopped off, indeed, a large and costly portion of the constituency, but it retained the portion most calculated to infect, by its presence, the new class of electors whom it had created. The Commissioners then referred to a practice of paying for the admission of freemen, and then added — Such a system is essentially corrupt, and the evidence we have received has left on our minds a strong impression that the perpetuation by such means of a class of electors whose hereditary corruption has greatly deteriorated the character of the constituency, is most calculated to nourish and permanently maintain the demoralization which we have found prevailing at Gloucester. The next instance he would give was in the case of Great Yarmouth, where it was proved to the satisfaction of a Committee of that House, and they reported, that gross systematic bribery had prevailed, and they recommended disfranchisement of the freemen. A Bill to that effect was introduced by the Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Ker Seymer, and the freemen of Great Yarmouth were disfranchised. In a still more recent instance, that of Berwick-on-Tweed, the Commissioners reported— The freemen were generally represented to us as the class most accessible to the influence of bribery. Mr. Weatherhead, the Conservative agent, said he thought he had heard that head money was considered by the freemen as a sort of right; it went by the name of 'gooseberries.' Mr. Forster, thrice returned as the Liberal Member, stated that his own impression was, that while he sat for the borough 'two-thirds of the old freemen and some portion of the householders were corrupt.' He contended that that class of voters formed a permanent element of corruption. The freemen were the source of most of the corruption and bribery which entailed so much trouble upon the Legislature and such discredit upon our constitutional system. The hon. Member for Knaresborough (Mr. Collins) asked the House to enlarge the area of residence in favour of that class; but if the House did so, after all its legislation with the object of putting an end to corruption, it would lay itself open to the imputation of not being really desirous of putting an end to such disgraceful practices.


said, he felt bound to notice some of the observations which had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bouverie); but he wished first to express his concurrence with the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Mr. Knightley), with regard to their disapprobation of certain provisions of the existing Reform Act; for they had always held that nothing could be more unjust or unfair than the present state of the representation of the country, by which the rural districts were compelled to bear more than their fair share of the taxation of the country, and he had always been ready to give his assistance towards removing that evil. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock had told them that he was not in favour of the extension of' the franchise in the particular direction suggested by the Bill of his hon. Friend (Mr. Collins). Was that because he apprehended that the class of electors so enfranchised would be unfavourable to the opinions he held? That was obviously the meaning of the opposition of the right hon. Gentle man. Now, what were the arguments in favour of that view of the case? The right hon. Gentleman said that this class of electors were those who were always found to be venal. But the right hon Gentleman advocated lowering the borough franchise. Had he forgotten the fact that almost all the grossest cases of venality were found to exist among the lower classes of borough electors? But the two grossest cases of corruption brought of late years under the consideration of the House had occurred in constituencies — Huddersfield and Wakefield — in which there were no freemen. He was at a loss to know upon what ground the right hon. Gentleman ventured to tell the House that there was more corruption among the freemen than among the lowest class of borough voters. He could only understand it upon the assumption that in the eyes of the right hon. Gentleman corruption was extremely objectionable when the result was unfavourable to the party whose opinions he shared, and highly desirable whenever it would conduce to the spread of those opinions.


said, he could not understand the logic of the argument, that because freemen were corrupt, therefore honest working men who desired to enjoy the franchise would also take bribes for their votes. In the case of Wakefield the bribery was indiscriminate. About one half the voters were bribed, and the amount reached £100, £200, and even, he believed, £300 for a vote. From a want of honesty among thieves—the bribed voters on one side offering to take bribes from the other —discovery had followed. But, where all classes were tainted, no inference could be drawn that £10 householders as a class were venal. He believed that in large constituencies they were not open to bribery at all, and that the working classes, except where they were exposed to the pressure of strong intimidation, exorcised the franchise as honestly as any other portion of the community—much better than any above them, who ought to know better. No one disputed that freemen, whose numbers this Bill would increase, were venal, and that the effect would be to add largely to the number of out-voters, who were the most expensive voters to poll. He should therefore vote against the second reading.


said, he should be glad to see persons punished who were convicted of bribery, and prevented ever afterwards from voting. But Parliament seemed rather chary of following up the precedent of St. Albans. He believed the best mode of reform was to take away the representation of such places and to give it to large counties, such as had been mentioned by the hon. Member for Northamptonshire (Mr. Knightley). As to the argument of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), it amounted to this—that because some freemen were bribed, others, who were not bribed, should not be allowed to vote. If the right hon. Gentleman were a sincere admirer of the political wisdom of the Reform Bill and a devout believer in the theory that everything in that Act must be right, and everything not in it must be wrong, he ought to perceive that by its provisions the freemen were preserved; and if the franchise was preserved to them, they ought to have the opportunity of exercising it.


said, that instead of disfranchising all freemen when the Reform Bill passed, a compromise was effected, retaining those who resided within seven miles of the principal polling-place. The freemen in Ireland were exclusively Protestant, and, as a general rule, belonged to one particular party. This Bill would disturb the settlement arrived at in 1832, and introduce in Ireland a new set of freemen exclusively of one religion and one party.


said, he was not aware before that hon. Gentlemen on the Government side of the House deemed Protestantism a positive disqualification for the elective franchise in Ireland. The freemen were the lowest class of voters, and the liberal party pretended to wish to extend the franchise to the very class whom they now charged with being most corrupt. He should not vote for the Bill, because he had no desire to see the franchise extended to these persons. He did not object because they were freemen, but because they were a low class of voters.

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

The House divided:—Ayes 171; Noes 135: Majority 36.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Monday next.