HC Deb 28 March 1873 vol 215 cc310-5

rose to call attention to the mode of electing Representative Peers of Scotland and Ireland. The hon. Member said, that on a previous occasion he had called attention to the defects of the present system of electing Representative Peers both in Scotland and Ireland. It was generally admitted that the existing system was unsatisfactory, and that its revision and reform were urgently called for. In 1869 he obtained leave to bring in a Bill on the subject; but by the advice of the Prime Minister, who, agreeing with him in the need of a reform, thought that an opportunity should be afforded to the House of Lords of taking the initiative in the matter, he did not attempt to carry it beyond the first reading. Subsequently, in the same year, a Bill was introduced in the House of Lords by Earl Grey, which was an improvement, in one respect, on the measure he had himself presented to this House. His proposal was to restrict the votes to be given by each Peer to a fewer number than the number of Peers to be returned. He had followed the precedent furnished by the House of Lords itself, which had introduced the three-cornered constituencies into the Reform Bill, not venturing to go further. Earl Grey's Bill was based on the principle of the Cumulative Vote. In that way it was hoped that the representation of a minority might be secured. At present all or nearly all the Representative Peers were of one complexion, and did not fairly or adequately represent the various opinions of the constituencies by whom they were supposed to be elected. The noble Earl (Earl Grey) by his Bill interfered with the provision contained in the Scotch Act of Union, under which the Representative Peers were elected for each Parliament. This was probably the reason why the Bill met with considerable obstruction, though not actual opposition in the House of Lords. The Duke of Buccleuch, who always took a great share in the return of Representative Peers for Scotland, moved its reference to a Select Committee, and upon that Motion a debate arose in which the Duke of Argyll, Earl Granville, and several independent Peers spoke in favour of the Bill. The Marquess of Salisbury also expressed himself to the following effect:— If the present Motion were for rejecting the Bill I certainly should not vote for it. In the present state of my convictions I am not disposed to vote against the principle of the Bill."—[3 Hansard, cxcv. 1688.] Lord Cairns, himself the author of the Minority Clause in the Reform Bill was the chief speaker against the Bill on that occasion. But he thought it might be fairly said that no one objected to its principle. For even Lord Cairns was not satisfied with the existing state of things. The noble Lord was in favour of some system by which all the Scotch and Irish Peers might eventually take their seats in the House of Lords; but he, for one, was opposed to such a step, which would be contrary to the agreement made with those countries at the time of their respective Unions. Lord Cairns' argument was open to an easy answer. The noble Lord had maintained that because Scotland had so increased in relative wealth and population since the Union that she had been found entitled to an increased number of Representatives in the House of Commons; therefore she was entitled to an increased representation in the House of Lords through Representative Peers. But this argument entirely lost sight of the fact that there had been no Peers of England created since the Union. The only Peers created since the Union with Scotland were Peers of Great Britain and Peers of the United Kingdom, the former before and the latter since the Union with Ireland. A Scotch commoner had always as good a chance as an English one of being made a Peer of Great Britain or of the United Kingdom. It was true that for 80 years Scotch Peers, not being Representative Peers, were excluded from the House of Lords, although they had been created Peers of Great Britain, or had even inherited English Peerages. But that disability had long been removed; and no one could deny that the posssession of a Scotch or Irish Peerage was a vantage ground which gave a man a better chance of getting into the House of Lords than that possessed by a commoner of equal means and position. A Committee of the House of Lords was appointed to consider the Bill, and the proceedings were very dark and very curious. They took evidence, but it was never distributed, except among themselves, and he could never procure a copy of it. A still more extraordinary thing was that the Report they presented had little or nothing to do with the subject-matter of the Bill. The division in the Upper House on the Irish Church Bill gave rise to further discussion on this subject. On that occasion four Irish Representative Peers voted with the Government; but this circumstance only showed that the time had come for the passage of that measure, and not that a great change had occurred in the feelings of the Representative Peers. When the important question of the Abolition of Purchase arose, 29 Scotch and Irish Representative Peers voted against it, and only three for it. This was followed by the publication in The Times of a very strong article insisting on the necessity of changing the mode of electing Representative Peers. There was this difference between the Scotch and Irish Representative Peers—that the former were elected at the commencement of every new Parliament, while the election of the latter was for life, and consequently an election took place on the death of every Representative Peer. There would be no difficulty in introducing the Cumulative Vote at the Scotch elections. An arrangement would be necessary in the case of the Irish elections, and might be made in the way he would indicate. The four seats in the House of Lords formerly occupied by the Irish Bishops and Archbishops were now vacant, and he thought, in justice to Ireland, those seats should be filled up. At least, the number might be fixed at not less than 28, and not more than 32. By that arrangement the elections could be by batches of five, and then the Cumulative Vote would have full play. The change he recommended was clue to the minority, who at present were excluded from any share of representation in the House of Lords; and it was also due to the Hereditary Peers of England, for it often happened that, while a majority of those Peers voted upon the popular side, the vote was changed by the dead-weight of the Representative Peers.


said, he did not remember any proposal being made by the House of Lords to alter the constitution of the House of Commons. The proposal of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Berwick was to alter one of the fundamental articles of the Act of Union. It was true that one of the most solemn Articles in the Act of Union had been violated by the measure which swept away the Irish Church. But the more the clauses of the Act of Union were altered, the stronger was the argument for repealing that Act altogether. The hon. Member had spoken of the Irish Peers being generally of one complexion in their political view. No doubt this was so, and the reason was that the constituency were all of one complexion. Still, of late years there had existed very little difficulty in distinguished Conservative Irish Peers finding their way into the House of Lords by being created English Peers. His own impression was that by this means an inequality arising out of the elective representative system was corrected by the large number of Irish Liberal Peers who had been created English Peers by successive Liberal Governments. Very few instances of such creations had taken place under Conservative Governments, and therefore he was of opinion that the House should be very careful in dealing with any proposal to trench upon the privileges and alter the constitution of the House of Lords.


said, that when this subject was before brought under notice by his hon. Friend, he had stated it was in the House of Lords that the question must originate if any practical result were hoped for. He was sorry that august Assembly had shown no disposition to deal with the present method of electing Representative Peers. It might appear that upon such a question anyone upon the Liberal side of the House must speak from party interest, because the existing mode of election operated very disadvantageously to the Liberal party. He could not help saying, however, that, while he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli) in strongly opposing the principle of minority representation in the House of Commons, one essential reason for this opposition was that the variety existing among the constituencies provided effectually for the representation of every variety of sentiment in the House, so that the House of Commons, on the whole, corresponded with the political opinions of the people from time to time. But this argument against the representation of minorities in the House of Commons entirely failed against the representation of the Scotch and Irish Peers, who were not represented in conformity with the various shades of opinion existing among them. The only argument in favour of the present mode of election was that just used by the hon. Gentleman opposite—"It is the mode provided in the Act of Union;" but, inasmuch as Parliament had altered the Act of Union in other points, it might alter the Act in this point. The evil, however, had been borne for some generations, and they must probably be content to bear it for some time longer. His hon. Friend suggested that the Government should propose in the House of Lords the change which he thought necessary. He could not, however, pledge himself to act upon this suggestion. The Government were in a decided minority in the House of Lords, and could not, therefore, with any advantage, take the initiative upon a question of considerable importance bearing on the constitution of the House of Lords. It was difficult for this, as for all Liberal Governments, to conduct the ordinary business of this country in the House of Lords; and he did not think it would be right on the part of the Government to endeavour to effect a change going beyond the ordinary course of business unless there was reason to suppose, from declarations made by the Members of the Opposition in the House of Lords, that they wore inclined to give it a favourable reception. The practical mischief of the system of election was restrained partly by the number of Irish and Scotch Peers who had received peerages of the United Kingdom, and partly, also, in the case of Scotland, by the reduction in the aggregate number of those peerages. He could only say that, although hope did not always afford the prospect of a very substantial repast, they could only feed themselves with the hope that if a proposal something in the nature of minority representation should be introduced into the elec- tions of Scotch and Irish Peers, as it had been introduced with advantage into the Governing Bodies of the Universities, that proposal might commend itself to the general sense and judgment of the House of Commons. It certainly would be more likely so to commend itself if they avoided anything like an attempt at officious pressure; and although he did not believe that his hon. Friend was in the slightest degree open to that charge, he did not think that the Government would be regarded as free from that accusation if they held out any expectation that, under the present circumstances, they contemplated making any proposal in that sense. He wished, too, that the public mind had been more turned to this question than appeared to have been the case. He could only account for the general indifference to the subject on the part of the public by the pressure of other important matters, combined with the sense that it was impossible to deal with them all effectually. He could not help feeling that they were indebted to his hon. Friend for bringing the subject before the House, and he could only express his hope that a view so reasonable as that of his hon. Friend would find favour at some happy juncture, though the time might not be quite close at hand.


while he acknowledged, also regretted the public apathy in this question, but regarded the indifference of Scotchmen to ther belief that in sending so many Liberal Members to that House they had secured sufficient and forcible expression of their opinions. He thought this was a question that ought not to be forced on the other House by this.