HL Deb 21 May 1821 vol 5 cc853-8

The House having resolved into a committee on this bill,

The Earl of Liverpool

said the first enactment declared that the borough of Grampound should cease to return members to parliament. With this enactment be entirely agreed. It was a distinct proposition from the remainder of the clause which proposed to provide for supplying the deficiency created. As this latter part might form a subject of discussion, he would propose that all that part of the clause which follows the word "parliament," should be left out.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that although he objected totally to the principle of the bill, yet as parliament had frequently passed bills for disfranchising voters, he thought he should be doing more than he ought to do, if he proposed any thing more than to make this measure consistent with the precedents established by former bills. Those who had not been proved guilty should not be punished. He therefore proposed, that there should be inserted in the clause these word.s:—" That henceforth the burgesses of the borough of Grampound which have not been convicted, shall be the only electors for that borough."

Lord Erskine

was decidedly in favour of the bill as it stood, and would vote against the amendment. He had heard, with a great deal of satisfaction, the noble and learned lord, because he liked to hear arguments against bills of pains and penalties from the highest law authority in the state; and he never could wish that any man should forfeit by the law what he held under the law. Here, however, a systematic corruption had been proved, and called for the visitation of a remedial law. The true question was, were theirs lordships satisfied that the corruption of the electors of Grampound had been systematically such, as to disqualify them from exercising the elective franchise? He was satisfied that they could not return members of parliament purely and independently. Their lordships had not before them a question of personal rights, but of national policy; and he supported the bill, because he saw in it a regulation which it would be for the benefit of the public to adopt. When their lordships saw a disposition to revile and disparage the House of Commons, which could not be done without making the constitution suffer in every part, they ought to be sensible of the necessity of adopting a measure which was calculated to remove objections to the constitution of that House, which existed in the minds, not only of the persons called radicals, but of the most respectable classes of the community.

The question, as proposed by the earl of Liverpool, being put,

The Earl of Harrowby

thought it became the duty of parliament, when such cases of gross and notorious corruption were brought before it, to meet them. With respect to the present being a bill of pains and penalties, such a measure was clearly a remedial law, and applicable in the; deficiency of the existing law. What, indeed, was the system of English law but punishing in many cases the: innocent with the guilty? From the Revolution to the present hour, it unfortunately so happened, that descendants were punished for the offences of those who preceded them. Had not their lordships for centuries past been punishing the innocent Catholics for guilt that was attributed to their forefathers? The system was to be deplored; but it appeared to be inseparable from the nature of things.

The Earl of Westmorland

thought the principle of this bill was most pernicious. There were at present Jaws against corruption, which punished the guilty much more effectually than any of these remedial innovations upon the constitution. It confounded the innocent with the guilty. It made the former answerable for crimes which they had never committed while it passed over the crimes of the latter with comparative impunity.

Lord Melville

defended the principle of the bill. He said it was no sufficient objection to the measure to say that it involved the punishment of the nocent. Such punishment was alrea- dy known to the law. There were many cases in which the public welfare rendered this hardship necessary. In the case of the hundred being sued for damage done to individuals during riots, the innocent might be said to suffer, because the exacting of the damages from the hundred was not merely meant as an indemnification for the loss sustained, but as a punishment for not preventing the riot. Cases had occurred in Scotland, which were applicable to the present. Some years ago, a corrupt agreement was proved to have been entered into by certain members of the corporation of the borough of Kinghorn. They were sued before the court of session, and that court decided that the corporation could not be reduced. This judgment was brought by appeal before their lordships' House. What was then done? Their lordships reversed the decision of the court of session. Sometime after, three individuals belonging to the borough of Stirling were proved to have entered into a corrupt agreement, and this question came again under the consideration of the court of session. That court profiting perhaps by the decision of the House of Lords in the former case, reduced the corporation. This judgment was also appealed against; but their lordships affirmed the decision of the court of session. These cases proved that they had already acted on the principle laid down in the present bill.

Lord Redesdale

objected to the measure, on the ground that it was completely revolutionary in its principle. It was argued, that the number of representatives in Cornwall was too large. If that argument were admitted to be valid, they must proceed to remodel the whole constitution. To agree to the measure would be to proceed to sea without compass or rudder.

The Earl of Liverpool

remarked, that his noble friend had completely misapprehended the argument of the advocates of the bill. That argument was, that whatever might be the number of electors in a. place, while they exercised their right justly, they ought not to be deprived of it; but that if corruption were proved against them, it was the duty of the legislature to apply a remedy. As to punishing the innocent with the guilty, was not that done at the Revolution, when by the change of dynasty, the descendants of James the second were punished for the crimes of James the second, because it was for the public interest? In the present case, the most systematic and long continued corruption had been established; and therefore he contended that the borough ought to be disfranchised. He objected to simply opening it to the hundred, because that would be to increase the local representation. The best way to resist speculative reform was to listen to every case in which a practical evil was alleged, and when sufficiently proved, to remedy it.

The Lord Chancellor

could not agree to a measure which must have the effect of confounding the innocent with the guilty. He did not consider the cases referred to as having a bearing on the question. He had concurred with Mr. Fox and Mr. Ellis in opposing the bill for the disfranchising Stockbridge, and conceived that the same objections applied to the present measure. In order to disfranchise a borough, nothing more would in future be necessary, but to get a majority of the electors to take money. The place would then be deprived of the right of election, and the innocent punished for the guilty.

The Marquis of Lansdown

argued in favour of the bill. If, when by the lapse of time, and by other circumstances, a borough was reduced to a state in which the electors were incapable of discharging their duty with fidelity, the legislature refused to exercise their power of transferring the elective franchise, they abandoned one of their most important duties. With reference to the objection, that the innocent would suffer with the guilty, that was the necessary result of many legislative measures; for instance, the act of 1805, by which the inhabitants of any district in Ireland were subjected to heavy fines in the event of the discovery of illicit distillation in that district. As to the place to which the franchise should be transferred, he ridiculed the theory that there was in the surrounding district an inherent right to it. He was certainly in favour of transferring the franchise to some populous and unrepresented place; because, however averse to any sweeping change in the representation, he was yet desirous to repair the inroads of that great innovator time, by connecting more intimately, whenever an opportunity occurred, large bodies of the people with the representatives of the people.

Earl Bathurst

thought, if the House adopted the principle of depriving a body of electors of the right of suffrage, they should proceed upon a principle as little arbitrary as possible. He was of opinion that it was better to extend the elective franchise to the adjoining hundreds.

The Earl of Carnarvon

contended, that there never could be a stronger case for legislative interference than the present. As to any danger from speculative opinions on the subject, he maintained that the fear was utterly groundless.

The Earl of Lauderdale

opposed the bill, because it yielded to the reformers all that they could wish, and legislated by carrying further than the existing law the system of disfranchisement. It was a law new in its nature, and one to which, in his conscience, he could never assent.

Marquis Camden

was of opinion that the bill went td establish a new principle of legislation. He thought parliament should mark its sense of the gross corruption which had existed at Gram-pound; but he could not see why it should alter the mode of legislation which had been adopted in all similar cases.

The Committee divided: For the Earl of Liverpool's Motion, 60; Against it, 26. Majority, 34.

The Earl of Liverpool

then urged the propriety of granting to the county of York the privilege of henceforth sending four members to parliament instead of two. He thought it was best in the first instance of departing from the principle of extending the right of suffrage to the hundreds to transfer it to the county of York. He also preferred to extend the right of voting to the county of York, in preference to Leeds, because the change would involve no principle of a new mode of election.

The Earl of Carnarvon

would not oppose the motion, but hoped, if other bills of a similar nature should come before their lordships, they would grant the elective franchise to large towns, which would be the means of removing one great existing cause of discontent.

The Earl of Harewood

was of opinion that the proposition would, if acted upon, create great inconvenience to the county of York. It would afford an opportunity for any individual to offer himself as a candidate and by keeping the poll open, to put his opponents to considerable expense.

The Marquis of Lansdown

suggested, that the evils contemplated by the noble earl might be avoided by causing two members to be returned for the north riding of the county, and two for the remaining parts.

Earl Fitzwilliam

objected to the transfer of the elective franchise to Leeds. He however wished to be understood as not objecting to the principle of bestowing the right of suffrage on large towns. Alluding to what had fallen from the noble marquis, he feared it would be impossible, without completely altering the constitution of the country to divide it in the manner proposed.

Lord Redesdale

thought the suggestion of the noble marquis might easily be acted upon, as the county was already divided for every purpose except that of election.

The motion was then agreed to.