HL Deb 08 March 1838 vol 41 cc694-701
The Marquess of Lansdowne

, in moving the order of the day for the second reading of the Parliamentary Electors and Freemen Bill, said, it consisted of two provisions of a very plain and intelligible character, which, though somewhat different in form, were the same in their tendency. Their Lordships were aware, that by the Reform Act, a 10l. household constituency had been established, and that to render an elector eligible to vote, it was necessary that he should pay up all rates and taxes clue by him on the 5th of April before the 20th of July in each year. One object of the present Bill was to extend the time for the payment of those rates and taxes to the 11th day of October in each year. It was not intended to introduce a new class of electors, but to leave the body of voters in the country as they were constituted under the Reform Act. The other object of the Bill was to remove the stamp duty payable by freemen on their admission.

The Duke of Wellington

said, he should follow the example of the noble Marquess by occupying very little of their Lordships time on this subject. He should confine his opposition solely to the objects of this Bill. But he must claim for that House a right to consider the whole of this subject equally with the other House of Parliament; indeed, the noble Lord had not attempted to deny their Lordships that right. It was the duty of their Lordships, in considering the subject, to view a little what had been the working of the Reform Act in general, and whether it would be expedient at that particular moment to relax those provisions which had for their object rather the limitation, than otherwise of the democratical operations of that measure. The noble Marquess had stated that the object was solely to remedy the inconveniences which might be felt in cones- quence of the inattention of some of those who were likely to be called on to pay those rates and taxes which were required to be paid. If their Lordships would be pleased to advert to the provisions of the Reform Act, they would see that they provided, first, that a person should be in possession of the premises for which he claimed to vote for twelve months; next, that he should have paid his rates and taxes up to the 5th of April, and that he should have resided six months in the premises: complying with these provisions, he would be put on the register from the month of November, and have a vote. But what was the object of this Bill? It did not say that the elector was to have an additional notice from the overseers to let him know that he must take care and pay up his rates and taxes in time, but that he should be registered again, and put on the list of voters in the following November, if he would pay up his rates and taxes before the 11th of November. Thus it extended the time for the payment of rates and taxes, due on or before the 5th of April, for three months, and made a grant of six months in favour of persons whose names were on the registry. What would be the consequence? Of course, the effect of the measure would be to add largely to the number of voters throughout the country, and those voters would be of a different description to those at present on the registries. They would not be required to pay their rates and taxes up to the time they were required to pay them as the law stood at present; and that law had been framed after the most mature deliberation. It might therefore happen that many might be registered, and actually exercise the franchise, who were, in fact, unable to pay their rates and taxes, as required by the existing law. It was said, that at present many who were able to pay their rates and taxes were prevented from having their names placed on the registries on account of not knowing when those rates and taxes ought to be paid, and this measure was proposed as a remedy for that inconvenience. But no proof had been tendered showing that any inconvenience actually existed, and before such a measure was adopted, he thought the fullest proof of inconvenience should be required. It was also argued that for want of notice of the time when the payment of rates and taxes was required by the law, many neglected to make payment till the time appointed for payment was past, and in consequence were disqualified from being placed on the registry; and it was therefore concluded that the payment of taxes at the time required by the law as it stood should be remitted, and that persons wishing to exercise the franchise should only be required to make payment in the October of the year preceding that in which they claimed to be placed on the registry, But that was a proposal which he thought their Lordships ought not to adopt, as if such a proposition was carried, a door would be opened for the admission to the registries of those who were in reality unable to pay the rates and taxes required by the law. Their Lordships ought also to recollect, that since the passing of the Reform Bill the taxes payable by householders paying 10l. of yearly rent had been greatly reduced, and he believed, that the poor-rates had also been diminished. These reductions had afforded great relief to that particular class of persons, more than had been given to any other portion of society; and he thought that under the circumstances the amount of qualification ought not to be further diminished, for if it were, a worse description of electors would be the inevitable consequence. He perfectly recollected that a noble Friend of his, whom he did not then see in his place, had warned their Lordships, on a former occasion, of the danger of making any approach to democracy in a measure like this, and he told them if once such a measure was adopted, they could never return back. If it was found, when carried into operation, to act injuriously,—if its tendency was found to be destructive to the peace and well-being of society, still they could not step back to the place from which they started, for, if once granted, the measure must be permanent. Seeing no necessity for a measure like the present, and fearing the consequences which might result from its operation, he, for one, could not consent to its being read a second time. He recommended their Lordships not to pass this Bill, and, convinced that it could be productive of no good, that its adoption would only encourage further demands for other changes in the existing law, he begged leave to move, as an amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

The Earl of Radnor

said, that the noble Duke seemed to think that the respectability of the voter depended on the payment of rates. Such, however, was not the case, for his respectability was tested by the sort of house he occupied, the law requiring that that house should be of the value of 10l. yearly. The noble Duke was afraid of lowering the respectability of the electors by such a measure as the present; but that respectability depended, not on the payment of rates and taxes, but upon the position in society of the individuals claiming to be placed upon the registry; and therefore the respectability of the voter could not be affected by any alteration in the time appointed for the payment of rates and taxes. The present measure tended only to relieve the voter from a great inconvenience, and did not operate to lower the standard of respectability or intelligence. Great difficulties arose from the parish officers giving no notice of the time when the rates and taxes were payable, and frequently, when persons came to pay, the parish officers were not to be found, and many persons fully entitled to the franchise were, in consequence, disqualified. To remedy that inconvenience, the present measure was proposed, and he contended that it would not have the effect of lowering the standard of respectability of those persons who had to vote for Members of the other House of Parliament. Persuaded that the measure would be productive of the most beneficial consequences, he would cordially support the second reading of the Bill.

The Earl of Haddington

said, the noble Earl who had last addressed their Lordships seemed to think that it was a sufficient test of respectability that the person claiming to be placed upon the registry occupied a house of 10l. yearly value. He, however, differed essentially from the noble Lord, and if the noble Lord would look back to the discussions on the Reform Bill, he would find that, even at that period, great difference of opinion existed on the subject. The qualification which was settled at that time was a mixed one. The claimant was required to have paid his rates and taxes up to a certain time, and he was also required to live in a house of the value of 10l. The object of the Reform Bill was, by this combination, to ascertain the respectability of the voter, and the effect of this measure was to do away with one of the tests of respectability required by the existing law; and the consequence would be, that a number of persons, by no means so respectable as the present electors were, would be admitted to vote. Their Lordships should recollect that a desire widely existed to increase the number of voters, and the present measure was one of the most moderate that had been proposed for the purpose of effecting that object. But their Lordships might be assured that the present measure would not satisfy those who were more zealous for an extension of the suffrage than were the framers of the present Bill, and if this measure were allowed to pass, those more violent supporters of a more extended suffrage would have good grounds for urging their Lordships to make still further concession to their demands. He told them that this measure was materially connected with the question of the ballot; it was materially connected with the question of universal suffrage, and with the question of short Parliaments; it was materially connected with all those Radical theories, and he therefore trusted that the Bill would not be read a second time. He hoped their Lordships would take their stand upon the Reform Act, and while they maintained the Bill, and the whole Bill, that they would grant nothing but the Bill.

The Lord Chancellor

observed, that the noble Earl who had just sat down rested his opposition to the present measure on the ground that it was a violation of the Reform Act; and if the provisions of the Bill really made a departure from the principles of the Reform Act, he would allow the noble Lord's argument to be a good one. If, however, the present measure did not violate the principles of the Reform Act, then the noble Lord's argument had no force. What then was the object of the Reform Act? It gave the 10l. householder the right of voting, provided he was not in arrear as regarded the payment of rates and taxes. The question then was, what was to be understood by "being in arrear," According to the law as it at present stood, if the householder did not pay his rates and taxes due on the 6th of April before the 20th of July, his right to be placed on the registry was lost. If that fact was universally known, and if there was no neglect and no inability on the part of the claimant, but if, in point of fact, the taxes due on the 6th of April were not paid till the 20th of July, merely from not knowing that the law required them to be paid before that day, it certainly could not be argued that there was any deterioration of respectability so far as the claimant to be registered was concerned. Now it was the practice in some places not to demand payment of taxes till the expiration of the three months intervening between the two periods he had mentioned, and a person was not considered to be in arrear till after that period had expired. The householder had no notice, nothing to call his attention to the fact, that the law required him to pay his rates and taxes by a particular day, and he was only made aware of the fact when he found on application that he had no right to be registered. Certainly under such circumstances the non-payment of taxes before July did not detract from the respectability of any individual. He had, however, no doubt that from want of knowledge of what the law required, and from want of notice of the time of payment, many individuals were prevented from exercising the franchise to which they had a just right. Taking all these circumstances into consideration, he thought the present measure would be of great advantage to the country, as it would give more certainty to the existing law, and afford greater security for the exercise of the elective franchise by those who had au undoubted right to vote

The Earl of Harrowby

thought this measure went a great deal further than its supporters were willing to allow, and if it was adopted, he thought they might at once introduce a bill rendering the payment of rates and taxes altogether unnecessary. By the Reform Bill, as it was originally framed, the payment of rates and taxes was not only rendered necessary, but the payment of rents was also required, as well as the occupation of a house of 10l. yearly rent. The test of respectability required by that bill was a mixed one—namely, the punctual payment of rates am taxes, and the punctual payment of rent joined to the occupation of a 10l. house The payment of rent was not persevered in, but the payment of rates and taxes was an essential feature of the bill. During six years that provision of the bill hat been rigidly enforced; but it seemed that the experience of those six years had beet lost, and that the people of England were ignorant of the actual state of the law, although at the registration courts they were every year afforded an opportunity of knowing what the law required from them before they were allowed to exercise the elective franchise. He certainly did not expect to have heard such an argument advanced by any one; but that it should have been brought forward by the noble and learned Lord on the woolsack, was to him a matter of astonishment. He had hitherto thought that the constitutional maxim was, that every man was bound to know what the law was. That doctrine was perhaps strict, but in the present case the law was every year brought under the notice of every one claiming to exercise the elective franchise, so that there could be no valid plea of want of knowledge. It was stated that this measure would make no alteration as far as regarded the pecuniary respectability of the voters. The effect of the Bill would, however, be to insure a continuance on the register of persons whom friends might have enabled to qualify for the first time, after they had ceased to have any valid claim to be registered. It did therefore appear to him that the measure would affect the pecuniary respectability of the electors of England, and he was determined to oppose the second reading, as he considered the bill as the first of a series of innovations on the law which had been framed after the most ample consideration.

The Duke of Richmond

said he would be a party to no measure which would infringe upon the principles of the Reform Act; but he conceived that the present bill had no such tendency, and that its object simply was to prevent persons from being deprived of their rights either by their own laches, or by the neglect or fraud of any other party. He knew that many persons who did not happen to belong to a political club in the borough where they resided frequently received no notice that their rates were due, and were consequently deprived of their rights as electors. With regard to the argument that the payment of debts when due was a proof of respectability, all he could say was, though he did not know what was the practice at the Conservative Club, that at White's and Boodle's it was not the rule to call for a payment of the subscriptions until a whole year after they had become due. He should certainly vote in favour of the second reading.

Lord Alvanley

said, that in all parts of the country where the Poor-law unions prevailed, the rate-payers were obliged, by the rules of the commissioners, to pay their rates three months after they became due. He considered the present bill as the commencement of a series of invasions on the Reform Act, and should accordingly vote against it.

The Duke of Richmond

observed, that the Reform Act required the payment of other rates besides the poor-rates.

The House divided on the original motion.—Content—Present 45; Proxies 37–82.—Not Content—Present 67; Proxies 80–147:—Majority 65.

List of the CONTENTS.
Lord Chancellor Montford
DUKES. Fingall
Somerset Leitrim
Devonshire Uxbridge
Cleveland Bolingbroke
Sutherland Torrington
Argyle Melbourne
Hamilton BARONS.
Lansdowne Say and Sele
Breadalbane Foley
Clanricarde Hill
Headford Lynedoch
Sligo Seaford
Conyngham Plunket
EARLS. Glenelg
Huntingdon Lilford
Albemarle Chichester
Radnor Derry
Chichester Durham
Minto Ely
Durham Hereford
Burlington Lichfield
Paired Off.
Duke of Norfolk Lord Reay
Marquess of Anglesey Earl of Coventry
Earl of Roseberry Earl of Cawdor
Earl of Carlisle Earl of Clare
Lord Byron Earl of Winchilsea