§ Order for Committee read.
§ SIR CHARLES W. DILKE
said, that in the course of the last few days he had had the opportunity of placing himself in communication with the hon. Members who had placed Notices on the Book in regard to this Bill, and also with many of the hon. Members who had Amendments to move. He thought he might say of all those hon. Members that there was little or no difference of opinion with regard to the principle of the measure; but that there was a good deal of difference of opinion with regard to its clauses. All the hon. Gentlemen he had succeeded in seeing had agreed upon a course which he ventured to ask the House to take. It was that the Speaker should leave the Chair on the Bill to-night, on the understanding that 1249 the proceedings of the Bill in Committee would be postponed for a month from this day. In the course of the month he would place himself in communication with the representatives of the Corporations interested, and do his best for the views they might entertain. At this time of the night (12.40) it would not be considered necessary for him to make any detailed remarks upon the provisions of the Bill. The Bill was framed substantially upon the lines of the Report of the Royal Commission, and it was in the form in which it passed the House of Lords last year. There was only a change in regard to two Corporations. He would content himself by moving that the Speaker do now leave the Chair.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—(Sir Charles W. Dilke.)
§ MR. SIDNEY HERBERT
said, he was very glad they had had, after many years of waiting, a few remarks from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board (Sir Charles W. Dilke) on the subject of this Bill. It was a very curious fact that this was the first time in the course of the present Parliament that the right hon. Gentleman had vouchsafed any observations in regard to this measure; indeed, he believed it was something like six or seven years since the right hon. Gentleman had opened his mouth in respect to unreformed Corporations. The fact of the matter was that in 1875, when the right hon. Gentleman took up the question, he was an independent Member sitting on the Opposition side of the House; and it might be he was, in the words once used in the House of Commons, a reformer in search of a victim. In 1875 the right hon. Gentleman moved for a list of the Municipal Corporations that came under the Act of 1835, and for certain Correspondence; and he particularly mentioned the Corporations of Queenborough, New Romney, and Woodstock as needful of reform. He (Mr. Herbert) fancied the right hon. Gentleman withdrew that Motion, and that certain Correspondence regarding the noble Lord's (Lord Randolph Churchill's) borough was moved for in the shape of an unopposed Return. In 1876 the right hon. Gentleman again called attention to the unreformed municipal 1250 boroughs, and on that occasion he added to the list of boroughs which would come under his scheme for reform. He (Mr. Herbert) would not read the list, because hon. Gentlemen were acquainted with it. He was not sure whether, upon that occasion, the right hon. Gentleman moved anything; but, if he remembered rightly, his right hon. Friend the late Home Secretary (Sir R. Assheton Cross) agreed, on the strength of the evidence brought forward, that there should be a Royal Commission to inquire into the state and working of the unreformed Corporations. A Royal Commission was appointed, and in 1880 its Report was presented to Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman in charge of the present Bill brought forward all sorts of charges against different Municipal Corporations; and he (Mr. Herbert) was curious to ascertain how far those charges were justified. He had very carefully read through the Minutes of Evidence which was contained in a very large volume; and he found that, on the whole, a minority of charges was proved. That was, however, a matter of detail, upon which he did not now wish to enter. Last year a Bill on the lines of the Report of the Royal Commission was introduced in the House of Lords. The Bill passed through all its stages in the Upper House, not because no valid objection could be raised to it, but because noble Lords were hardly so careful in looking through their Parliamentary Papers as the Members of the Lower House were—in fact, it was owing to a want of vigilance that the Bill passed through the other House. What he objected to was that because the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board had brought certain complaints against certain municipal boroughs, and because some of those complaints were proved before the Royal Commission, the right hon. Gentleman should bring forward a Bill in which were included the whole of the Municipal Corporations that did not come within the scope of the Act of 1835 in one fatal Schedule, with the result that nearly the whole of them would be deprived of their present status, and, in the case of many of them, deprived of their Charters. He complained that the Royal Commission had put on the end of their Report an analysis of the complaints made against 1251 the different boroughs, without saying whether the complaints were proved or not. He re-asserted that in many cases the complaints were not proved; and he protested against Municipal Corporations which were perfectly pure being brought within the terms of this Bill and deprived of their Charters, because a few boroughs had shown themselves incapable of conducting their affairs properly. He had taken the trouble to analyze the list of Corporations, in order to see which had been complained of and which had not, and he would give the House roughly the result. In the first part of the 1st Schedule of the Bill there was a list of boroughs to which the right hon. Gentleman proposed, subject to the advice of the Privy Council, that fresh Charters should be granted. He found that of such boroughs there were 25, and out of this number 13 had had complaints made against them, though he did not think that more than half of the complaints had been sustained. In the second part of the 1st Schedule there was a list of 49 Municipal Corporations, of which only eight had had complaints lodged against them, and not all of thorn had been proved. The total result was that in both portions of the Schedule 74 Corporations were included, that in only 21 instances complaints had been made, and that in many cases the complaints had been groundless. He asked if it was just that those Corporations which had not given any cause of complaint should be included in a Bill of this character? The borough which he represented had not given the slightest cause of complaint; it had exhibited no indication of a wish to be changed; and, therefore, he asked why it should come within the purview of this measure? He regarded it almost as an insult to his borough that it should have been scheduled side by side with the borough of Woodstock, which was represented by his noble Friend (Lord Randolph Churchill). Complaints had been made against the Municipal Corporation of Woodstock. He did not say they had been proved—in fact, in looking over the Minutes of Evidence, he found the majority of them were not proved. He, however, objected to the Corporation of Wilton being placed in the same category as that of Woodstock, New Romney, or Queenborough. He could not see in the least why all the Corporations exempted from the pro- 1252 visions of the Act of 1835 were dealt with en masse in this sort of way. He did not see that there was any reason for dealing with any of the Municipal Corporations except those proved to be corrupt. If the inhabitants of the different boroughs had presented Petitions praying to be brought under the Act of 1835, he could have understood their inclusion in this Bill; but in many cases—in fact, in the majority of cases—the inhabitants were very much opposed to any change at all. He observed that a Petition was presented by the Municipal Corporation of Usk against any change. The inhabitants of Brackley and Great Tomline were strongly opposed to any alteration; and in the borough in which he was principally interested there was no feeling at all in favour of the change. He did not exactly understand the lines upon which the right hon. Gentleman desired to proceed with the Bill. If the right hon. Gentleman would read the Minutes of Evidence, he would see that in regard to Wilton there was every reason for retaining the Corporation as it was, and none for altering it. In the few remarks in which the right hon. Gentleman proposed the Motion now before the House, he did not say upon what lines he was prepared to accept Amendments. He (Mr. Herbert) strongly objected to the Municipal Corporation of Wilton being included in the Bill at all; and he, to-morrow or the next day, intended to present Petitions signed by all the principal ratepayers and inhabitants of the place protesting against any alteration being made in their constitution or Charter. This was not a measure of general importance, and he failed to see any reason why the House should force a Corporation to come under an Act of this kind, when it was absolutely and entirely against their own will, and against the wishes of the inhabitants generally. He could not help thinking that by far the best course which could be pursued with respect to this Bill would be to refer it to a Select Committee. The adoption of such a course would greatly simplify matters. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board might say that the whole thing would then have to be gone over again, and that there was nothing in the evidence given before the Royal Commission from which the House was not capable of drawing its 1253 own conclusion. It must be borne in mind, however, that circumstances could be adduced to prove that these Corporations ought not to be dealt with in one Bill. These Corporations differed from one another in status, and they were all managed in a different manner. In 1875, when the right hon. Gentleman first brought in the Bill, he said he was of opinion that when corporate bodies did not apply the funds under their control to proper uses the money should be taken possession of by the State. He (Mr. Herbert) was not going to quarrel with that proposition; but he pleaded that many of the Corporations included in the Schedule had been tried and not found wanting. The House would be acting contrary to all principles of equity if they allowed those Corporations which had boon proved to be pure, and which did administer their funds in the best possible manner, to be thrown alongside Corporations which he had no doubt, from the evidence he had read, needed reform. It was simply because he found that several Corporations did require alteration that he had not put down Amendments to the Bill; and he only now moved, as a matter of form, that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Bill be referred to a Select Committee,—(Mr. Sidney Herbert,)—instead thereof.
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ SIR CHARLES W. DILKE
said, he must thank the hon. Member for not putting down a blocking Notice against the Bill. He could not find fault with what had fallen from the hon. Member, as everyone had a right to his own view about his own Corporation; but the hon. Member was hardly correct in saying that this was a matter which concerned everyone in every borough. That was no doubt true, as regarded some of the boroughs in the Bill; but the Bill would not affect some of the boroughs which wore not mentioned in the Schedule. There had been cases of direct conflict of authority amongst the magistrates in some of these very small Municipalities; and, no doubt, right hon. Gentlemen 1254 opposite would remember some conflicts of jurisdiction between the borough and county magistrates, especially in regard to licensing matters, the result of which had been long and costly litigation. As to what had been said in regard to the borough of Wilton, there might be a case for the exclusion from the Bill of some of the Corporations which might be called purely "ceremonial Corporations." Some of these might be left out of the measure, although he very much doubted whether the borough of Wilton was one of this kind. The question, however, would be one for the Committee to consider when it came to the Schedule. He could not agree to the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee; but he would promise, during the next four weeks, to give the same careful attention to every case referred to him as would be given by a Select Committee. If the Bill were referred, as suggested, the only result would be that the Committee would again go all over the evidence given before the Royal Commission. If the Committee heard any, they would have to hear all cases; and. they would have to hear, not only the representatives of the Corporations, but also the inhabitants of the boroughs, who might not be satisfied with the views of those representatives. He (Sir Charles W. Dilke) must resist the Amendment of the hon. Member.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
said, he wished to ask one question. In many of the towns of Ireland the Town Councils were elected under entirely anomalous and ancient franchises. For instance, in the town he represented—Galway—there was a plurality of votes of a most antiquated and unpopular kind. He would ask, therefore, whether it would be possible to deal with the cases of these Irish Corporations in this Bill?
§ SIR CHARLES W. DILKE,
in reply, said, that the Bill before them was founded on the Report of a Royal Commission, which had considered the cases of the Municipal Corporations of England and Wales, which were subject to the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. It would, be out of the scope of the Bill to introduce Irish cases, because, 1255 in regard to them, no such inquiry taken place.
§ Question put, and agreed to. Bill considered in Committee.
§ Committee report Progress; again upon Monday 30th April.