HC Deb 28 February 1877 vol 232 cc1157-64

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, the object of the measure was to abolish the property qualification for members of Town Councils and Local Boards, and to substitute for it the more ancient qualification, by which any person who had been duly enrolled as a burgess of a borough, and who had resided in such borough during the 12 months immediately preceding the day of election should be duly qualified for office on these Councils or Boards. In submitting this Bill he was not proposing any innovation, but was simply going back to the old lines of the Constitution. All our writers praised our local institutions as the means by which we had maintained the principles of self-government, and had kept alive the spirit of political freedom. It was through such institutions that we had acquired the habit of submitting to the will of a majority, and had secured the large measure of freedom we now enjoyed. Sir Erskine May, in his Constitutional History, speaking of our local government, said the history of municipal corporations afforded an example of encroachments on popular rights; that the government of towns under the Saxons was no less popular than their other local institutions; and that the constitution of corporations, at a later period, was founded upon the same principles—namely, that all the settled inhabitants and traders of corporate towns, who contributed to the local taxes, had a voice in the management of their own municipal affairs. For some centuries after the Conquest the burgesses assembled in person for the transaction of business—they elected a mayor or other chief magistrate; but no Governing Body, or Town Council, to whom their authority was delegated. The burgesses only were known to the law; but as towns and trade increased, the more convenient practice of representation was introduced for municipal as well as for Parliamentary government. The most wealthy and influential inhabitants being chosen, gradually encroached upon the privileges of their inferior townsmen, assumed all municipal authority, and substituted self-election for the suffrages of burgesses and freemen. Corruption went on until the reform of all our Corporations in 1835. Property qualification was first proposed in the reign of William and Mary. In that reign—namely, in 1696, a Bill was brought in which proposed that an annual income of £600 from land should be the qualification required for a Member for a county, and that an annual income of £300, also in land, should be the qualification of a Member for a borough. That measure originated in the jealousy felt by the landed classes towards the rising commercial influence in the country; but William of Orange, who leant rather toward the commercial interest, refused his assent. In the following year a similar Bill was passed by the Commons, but rejected by the Lords; and it was not until the reign of Anne that the qualification was finally adopted. Sir Erskine May, referring to the operation of the Act establishing a property qualification for Members of that House said, that in its original form, the Act was invidious and unjust, and that from beginning to end it had been systematically evaded. Indeed, it was well that it was so, for some of the brightest ornaments of that House had come there without any property qualification. Somers and Sheridan did not possess the necessary qualification—and even William Pitt could not make the declaration that over and above his debts he possessed £600 a-year in land. Many Cassandra like prophets had predicted that the abolition of that qualification would be ruinous to the best interests of the country; yet, undeterred by those gloomy vaticinations, Parliament had wisely abolished it, without any evil results—and it was a Conservative Government that abolished it ! The same thing would happen in regard to the present property qualifications for municipal and local offices, which lie desired to see equally swept away. There were none of those qualifications before the Municipal Corporations Act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., and that Act passed the House of Commons without any of the qualifications: they were inserted by the House of Lords at the instance of those who sought to modify the democratic constitution of Town Councils, and the House of Commons, against its will, yielded at the last moment to that alteration in the measure as a sort of compromise. Things had greatly changed since then. Not only had the property qualification for Members of that House been done away with, but the number and also the functions of our local institutions had been largely increased. In 1870, a new provincial body, School Boards, were established by the right hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster) and the only qualification required — irrespective of sex—was that the person elected should be of full age: yet no public Body in this country had on the whole more ably, or with more dignity, conducted their business than had the School Boards. Under the Education Act of last Session, where no School Boards existed, their functions were confided to other local Bodies. The Artizans Dwellings Act had likewise lately been passed—a measure in the application of which the working classes were specially interested, as also in sanitary improvement generally. Purchase in the Army had been abolished—in fact, all qualifications, except those to which this Bill related, and which hindered working men from rendering good service to their country, had been taken away. To exclude men, therefore, from any share of local self-government, simply because they did not happen to be large ratepayers or to have a certain amount of property was not only injurious to the good working of local institutions, but contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. In what then did the exclusion consist? It existed through the operation of the rule providing that a member of a Town Council in a borough in which there were more than four wards must either be rated at £30 a-year, or be able to declare that he was worth £1,000 in money or money's worth. If the borough had four or fewer than four wards, he must be rated at £15 or declare that he was worth £500. Analogous restrictions existed in regard to Local Boards, according to the amount of population in the particular place or district. The effect of that system was to disqualify in the large boroughs more than 80 per cent of the burgesses, and in some cases even from 85 to 90 per cent. In his own borough—Sheffield—something like 80 to 90 per cent of the electors were thus disqualified from offering themselves to the town council. In Sheffield, however, they had one working man in the Town Council and two in the School Board, all discharging their duties to the eminent satisfaction of the community. In one town a man who was returned to the School Board by a large majority was afterwards elected to the Town Council; but, it being found that he was disqualified for the latter body, some friend put a thousand pounds' worth of notes in his pocket — thus giving him what, after all, was only a colourable qualification, but being then in possession of £1,000, he could sit. And this he was afraid was being done all over the country. Men whose standard of morality was lower than the conventional one, and who were inclined to laxity as to oaths or declarations, were not excluded by those restrictions. Again the penalty of £50 to which a man was liable every time he acted as a Town Councillor, unless he had the requisite property qualification was very harassing, and calculated to make a scrupulous man retire. But, further, many absurd anomalies and much injustice arose from the working of the present rule. For example, when a borough of four wards received any addition to their number, the amount of the property qualification required was immediately doubled; so that men who had served the borough before on a rating of £15 a-year could no longer serve—and these, perhaps, were the very men whose energy had contributed to the prosperity and enlargement of the borough. He could cite many illustrations of the effect of this, but he would content himself with one. At Hythe there were four wards; but an extra ward having been added by taking in Sand-gate, a gentleman who had served the public well with a qualification of £15 rating and £500 in money, had to retire because the qualification was thus arbitrarily raised. It had been said that if this Bill passed they would lower the character of the administrative body; but surely this was a matter in which the electors were bound to take care of themselves. Nor was there any weight in the argument that the small rate- payer would be careless of expenditure, because they had no interest in checking it; on the contrary, he (Mr. Mundella) said that they were the very class who most felt the pressure of rates; and if there was a tendency to extravagance in local bodies, it came generally from the rich, who did not feel the pressure, and who often had large ideas and favoured grand schemes. His own fear rather was that the small ratepayers might be too parsimonious; although he held that it was most desirable they should receive the education derivable from taking their part in the conduct of local affairs. But the most conclusive answer to the objection that his proposal would tend to excessive expenditure was furnished by the fact that in Scotland there was no property qualification, and nothing to prevent a man, however poor, if his name was on the burgess list, from being elected Lord Provost of Edinburgh or of Glasgow. In conclusion, he appealed to the House to fall back upon the ancient lines of the Constitution, to remove an invidious distinction, to leave the electors themselves to judge who would serve them best, and to give every man, whatever might be his position, the opportunity, if lie had the noble ambition, to render good service to his country.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Mundella.)


said, that no one in that House would desire to rely on a property qualification as being essential to the due conduct of the public business to which a man's fellow-citizens might appoint him. Still less would the present Government, some of the Members of which were responsible for the abolition of the property qualification of Members of Parliament, wish to stop a measure which had for its object the repeal of what might seem an antiquated or unnecessary restriction attached to the discharge of public duties. At the same time, he did not think the property qualification for Members of that House was exactly on all fours with that for members of Town Councils and Local Boards. The political element entered only in a minor degree into the business of those local Bodies, whose duty it was more exclusively to deal with the expenditure of money levied from the ratepayers of their localities. When those qualifications were established, it was doubtless thought necessary that the owners of property in a district should have some security that the expenditure of the rates which they paid should be directed by persons having some substantial interest in that expenditure. A more potent argument might have been that the small ratepayers, especially those in districts where their rates were paid for them by their landlords, would not feel the effect of extravagance in their disbursement, and might so be under the control of their landlords. But the main point which he now desired to put before the House was, that this Bill had been brought forward with very little Notice, and it remained to be seen what view was taken of it throughout the country. Very few complaints had ever been made about the present system —certainly the attention of the Government had not been called to the matter by complaints as to the exclusion of proper persons from those local Bodies from the want of a property qualification. The hon. Gentleman had referred to certain anomalies now existing, but he had also indicated that means were now found for providing a qualification for a person supposed by his neighbours to be fit to discharge those public duties. Another reason why he had a difficulty in giving his assent to the measure was that it did not deal with the Improvement Commissioners' districts—about 40 or 50 in number, and some of them very important districts of England. Even, however, if the Bill were read the second time that day without comment, it would be necessary that time should be given before it was taken in Committee, in order that it might be generally known throughout the country, and that its various points should be examined by those whose interests were at stake. If the hon. Member for Sheffield would adopt that course and fix a day after Easter for the Committee, the Government would not object to the principle of the measure. Further than that he would not commit himself.


said, the hon. Member for Sheffield could not have expected a more favourable reception, and would advise him to accept the fair offer made to him on the part of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down (Mr. Sclater-Booth) seemed to have some misgivings on the subject, and intimated a doubt whether it might not be desirable to retain a property qualification for Town Councils and Local Boards, because the members of those Bodies dealt more directly and exclusively with property than did the Members of that House. But the argument really told the other way; because if this Bill passed, and if working men became members of Town Councils or Local Boards, and advocated increased expenditure, this expenditure must be met out of increased rates, and these would be felt by the working men in the shape of increased rents; so that the ultimate incidence would be both upon the poor and the rich; whereas the Members of that House, if they chose to be so unwise, could impose taxation on one class which would not affect another, and could, in fact, shift the burden from one class to another. The local Bodies could not separate classes so as to throw the burden on one. Moreover, that House would soon have to address itself to the great question of a re-organization of our system of local self-government and its relations to the Imperial Government; and then it would be found impossible to maintain qualifications for Town Councillers which were not required for Members of Parliament. They would have to enlarge both the area and the functions of local government, as well as to widen the basis of local representation. Believing that the present Bill was simply an instalment of that coming larger reform, he gave it his hearty concurrence.


said, that in this matter he thought that the Government might take a good example from Scotland. There they had no property qualification, and yet there were no complaints of the working of the system. In his own burgh, not only was the law such that any voter might represent the constituency in the Municipal Council, but it was the invariable practice to have one or two working men as members of the council. That system acted extremely well—so well that he believed it would be considered in Scotland that no other system could work, and that it would be impossible to carry on the local self-government of a burgh without some members of the most numerous class being on the Council. He could also testify to this—that, so far from there being a tendency to extravagance on the part of these representatives, the contrary was the case, and they inclined to a wise economy. Therefore if the right hon. Gentleman had any lingering doubts as to the propriety of this system he hoped he would pay an early visit to Scotland, where he was sure those doubts would soon be removed.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Tuesday 10th April.