HL Deb 25 February 1859 vol 152 cc838-50

rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire whether the Act 13 & 14 Vict., cap. 99, for the better assessing and collecting the Poor Rates and Highway Rates in respect of small Tenements, and of the Act of last Session, cap. 43, to amend the Municipal Franchise in certain cases, have produced any Change in the Character of Municipal Elections and Town Councils, and in the Mode of conducting the Local Government of Corporate Towns. The noble Earl said, that he trusted to be able to show that the subject on which he was about to address their Lordships was one of considerable importance. Their Lordships would recollect that by the Act of 1835, the right of voting in boroughs, for municipal purposes, was conferred on all resident householders who had been rated for any amount, for a period of three years, and who had paid all rates imposed in those three years, except those that had fallen due within the last six months of that period. There was a clause also in the Bill to preserve the right of voting of persons who might have changed their houses, provided they had been householders and ratepayers for three years continuously. In 1850 a Bill was brought into Parliament to enable parishes, if they so thought fit, to rate the owner instead of the occupier, where the rateable value of the tenement was below £6. While that Bill was going through Parliament, a clause was inserted that escaped the attention of almost every Member of Parliament, and the importance of which was not perceived at the time. The effect of that clause was to permit persons, though they had not paid rates themselves, to claim their votes if their landlord had been rated. By the original law, in order to obtain a vote, the occupier must have been rated himself and paid his rates, or if his landlord had been rated and paid, the occupier must claim to pay them; but by the clause inserted in the Act of 1850, this was entirely altered, and it was provided that every man who paid rent for premises for which the landlord was rated, should have a right to vote. The consequence was that the occupiers of a large number of small tenements, who had never been rated, were enabled to claim the right to vote. In the last Session of Parliament another Act passed, which extended the same principle to other cases where the landlord was rated instead of the occupier. By the change made in 1850, the number of voters in towns was largely increased. In Newcastle, for example, the number voters in 1853, before the Act came into operation, was 4,363; in the present year they were 9,850, being an increase of more than double, or of 125 per cent. He had taken pains to ascertain the effect of this change, and had received very conflicting statements. He was informed that in some towns the Act was working well, that in others it had had no perceptible effect, but that in others it had been attended with most injurious consequences. It was complained that one effect of the Act had been to throw the whole power of local government, in some cases, into the hands of one particular class of persons. For example, in the ward of All Saints, in New-castle, the number of voters on the roll was somewhere about 700 before the Act came into operation; it had now increased to 2,300, and of these 2,300, about 1,500 were occupiers of small tenements. And this remarkable fact was to be observed in regard to this ward, that the property occupied by these 1,500 persons, who had engrossed the whole power of the ward, was assessed at only £2,000 a year, though the total assessment of the ward was £34,000. Therefore, it came to this, that the whole power of the ward, and the management of its local affairs, were given to those who paid 7 per cent of the rates, while those who paid 93 per cent were practically excluded from all power and influence whatever. It was further stated to him by persons whose opinions were entitled to great weight, that in many towns this large augmentation in the number of voters had been attended with a very lamentable alteration in the character of the municipal government. He was informed that under the original municipal franchise the town-councils usually consisted of the most respectable inhabitants of the towns—of men fitted by their intelligence and their interest in the affairs of the towns to be intrusted with their local government; but that since this great augmentation in the number of voters took place bribery and treating and personation were often resorted to, to a great extent at the municipal elections. He was inclined to believe that in some cases this must be true, because he observed by the "Votes" of the other House of Parliament that a Bill had been introduced for the purpose of making it a penal offence to be guilty of treating and personation at municipal elections. He must be permitted to say, however, that where temptations to practices of this sort existed, and the disposition to be guilty of them, he was persuaded that mere penal enactments would never be successful in putting them down. He was inclined to believe that allegation about treating and bribing, because he found that at a contested election last year in the ward of All Saints, in Newcastle, to which he had already referred, a public meeting took place at which the parties mutually charged each other in the strongest terms with these corrupt practices. He had also been informed that in consequence of the change which elections were carried on, there was a growing reluctance on the part of these men who were best fitted to occupy seats in the town councils to go through the ordeal of election. They would not submit to go through the meetings in publichouses and the kind of canvassing that was necessary in order to be returned; and in con- sequence the seats in the municipal councils were gradually falling into the hands of an inferior class of persons. The effect of the change was also perceptible in the manner in which the public business was carried on, for he was told that in some cases there was a suspension of business altogether; and in others it was asserted that the proceedings of Town Councils, which were formerly decorous and orderly, were now carried on in a very different manner. Communications had been made to him on this subject from both sides. He did not presume to say which were the correct representations of the effect of the change that had taken place in the law, but it appeared to him to be a subject that well deserved inquiry, and therefore he proposed to ask for a Committee for that purpose. Municipal government was in itself of great importance. Almost all towns in this country of any considerable size were now incorporated, and the manner in which the local government was carried on affected the welfare of large portions of the population. Local government affected the well-being of the people almost as much as imperial Government; and it was also by local government that the people were best trained for the exercise of their higher political powers. He did not attempt to disguise from their Lordships that his principal motive for asking them to enter on this inquiry at the present moment was, that he believed it would bring out information of no slight value as regarded a question of far higher importance; He alluded to the great question of Parliamentary Reform. From Her Majesty's Speech, and from the notice which had appeared for some days on the "Votes" of the other House of Parliament, their Lordships might expect that in the course of the present Session they might be called on to consider a Bill for altering the existing law relating to elections of Members of the House of Commons. He was convinced their Lordships, when called upon to deal with the subject, would all feel the responsibility under which they acted in considering a measure of such great moment to the future prosperity of this great empire. From the fact that none of their Lordships were dependent on constituencies some parts of this measure they might, perhaps, be in a position to consider in a more deliberate and dispassionate manner than the other House of Parliament, and therefore Amendments of a valuable character might be in- troduced into the measure in their Lordships' House. But, in order to enable their Lordships to discharge with effect the duties devolving on them in considering; the provisions of such a Bill, he could not help thinking they ought to have more information than was at that moment before them; and he regretted Her Majesty's Government did not think fit to adopt a suggestion which he ventured to make in the course of last Session, that during the autumn means should he taken for collecting information bearing on this subject; for if that suggestion had been acted on their Lordships would have learnt a great deal that would be useful in considering the provisions of such a measure in reference to the machinery by which the choice of the electors is determined in large constituencies; they might have learnt the manner in which representative; institutions in the various localities and in other countries did their work; and such information would have been of great assistance to them. It was now too late to obtain the greater part of that information, but he thought it was of the utmost importance to ascertain the effect of increasing the municipal voters in the way he had described on the working of our municipal institutions. Their Lordships were all aware that a gentleman well known and of great ability had recently suggested that a franchise should be adopted for Parliamentary elections corresponding in a great degree with that which obtained with respect to municipal elections under the law as it was altered in 1850; and he had stated, as one of the grounds for recommending the adoption of such a franchise, that it had answered so well in corporate towns. It seemed to him (Earl Grey) that it was desirable to ascertain how far that was really the case; because if it was true that that great extension of the right of voting in municipal boroughs had worked well—if it could be proved that a very large proportion of the inhabitants of boroughs who had been enabled to exercise the right of voting, had done so without injurious consequences, He admitted that such a fact would weigh very materially in favour of the argument for the adoption of a similar principle with respect to Parliamentary elections; but, if the contrary should turn out to be the case—if it should be proved that that alteration had not worked well in our municipalities—then he thought the experience of its operation would afford a good reason for the exercise of caution in adopting such a right of voting for Members of Parliament. Those were were the simple grounds on which he asked for this Committee.


said, that when he saw the notice of the noble Earl's Motion yesterday he was desirous, before expressing any opinion on the question of granting this Committee, to hear on what grounds and with what objects the noble Earl moved for the appointment of such a Committee, and what end he proposed to himself from it. After hearing the noble Earl's statement, he should have been glad if some other of their Lordships had expressed their opinions with respect to the Motion under consideration, and how far they concurred in the noble Lord's statements, before he had been called on to do so. He hoped the noble Earl would forgive him if he declined to follow him into the question of the franchise about to be proposed by Her Majesty's Government.


said, he had never adverted to Her Majesty's Government in connection with any franchise they might be about to propose.


said, he had misunderstood the noble Earl in that respect. Although he thought the Report of such a Committee as the noble Earl proposed could not be made in time to have any bearing on the consideration of the question of Parliamentary Reform in that or the other House of Parliament, he ought to have extended the terms of his Motion, and to have moved for a Committee to inquire into the general practical working of the system of municipal government throughout the country. The noble Earl had correctly stated that the Bill of 1850 gave power to the vestries to allow landlords to compound for tenements below the value of £6, and to permit the occupiers of those tenements to exercise the right of voting at municipal elections, notwithstanding the rates were paid by the landlords. The other provision to which the noble Earl had alluded was introduced in the course of last Session; for, by a former Act landlords could compound for the rates of houses up to the value of £20; but the occupiers of those houses the rates of which hail been so compounded for were excluded from voting at municipal elections. It was quite clear that that was an injustice and an anomaly, and the Bill of last year was introduced in order to cure that anomaly. The noble Earl said he thought the opera- those several Acts was a question which ought to be seriously inquired into. He (the Earl of Derby) was not one who would desire to see the influence of property swamped in a representation of any description, nor would he then give any opinion whether the changes introduced by those Act were desirable or not. But the noble Earl said that the alterations effected by those Acts was a matter which deserved serious inquiry; he said that in some boroughs the alteration had been productive of considerable advantage, whilst in others it had produced an injurious effect. But the noble Earl should observe the Act to which he had referred did not introduce to the municipal body a lower class of electors than had previously existed, because all those persons, if they had paid their own rates, would have been entitled to vote, and all that the Act did was to prevent them from being disfranchised because the rates were paid by the landlord, who, of course, calculated them in the rent he asked for his houses. The question raised by the noble Earl was, whether the municipal franchise, as it now stood, gave an undue advantage to one particular class over their more wealthy neighbours; but the Committee, as proposed, was not to inquire into the general working of the municipal system, but only the practical effect of the Act of 1850. How did the noble Ear propose to institute that inquiry, and to what points would he direct it? What he might consider to be an injurious effect others might regard as a beneficial result. An inquiry must be instituted into every corporation in the kingdom connected with municipal institutions in order to ascertain what had been the operation of the Act of 1850; for, of course, it would be impossible to trace the effects of the Act of last year, which only came into operation last September. It might be that there was a growing unwillingness among the best classes to take upon themselves the duties of municipal offices; but, even so, did the noble Earl intend to conclude that it was the consequence of this particular Act of Parliament? To ascertain the real causes a much wider inquiry must be instituted. But supposing that the Committee, if appointed, should arrive at the conclusion by inference or conjecture that the Act had worked injuriously, what would the noble Earl propose to do? Would he propose to repeal the Act of 1850, and disfranchise those persons in municipal boroughs who had been enabled to vote by the Act of 1850? Before they entered upon an inquiry of that nature they should make up their minds to the consequences. If it should be shown that the Act had worked injuriously in some boroughs and beneficially in others, how could the noble Earl distinguish between them? He must either continue the grievances in those boroughs where they existed by leaving the Act untouched, or he must deprive those boroughs where it had worked well of the advantages it had produced by repealing the Act altogether. Surely the noble Earl would not propose to Parliament to withdraw a franchise once granted without the strongest reasons. Then, he must ask again, how would the noble Earl act if it should be found that the Act had worked ill in twenty boroughs and well in twenty others? Individually, he (the Earl of Derby) had not the slightest objection to such a Committee as that proposed; but before assenting to it he thought the House should be satisfied that some real advantage would be derived from the inquiry. If their Lordships generally thought it desirable to accede to the Motion of the noble Earl, upon the part of the Government he should not resist it; but he could not avoid stating that, in his own opinion, the inquiry would be exceedingly vague and unsatisfactory, and would probably lead to no practical result.


thought an inquiry into the conduct of all the town councils would be an exceedingly invidious inquiry and one which it would be exceedingly difficult to carry out. It would be necessary to find adverse witnesses willing to give evidence, and then all the mayors and town councillors of a considerable number of boroughs would claim as a right to be heard in their own defence. The noble Earl desired information upon two points—first as to the results of the Act upon the character of town councils, and next he desired information which every one must admit to be necessary to obtain to the fullest possible extent before Parliament was called upon to deal with the question of amending the system of Parliamentary representation. He quite agreed that it was almost impossible to over-estimate the value of any information which could be obtained upon that point; but, at the same time, he doubted whether, considering the kind of information they were likely to derive from the labours of this particular Committee it would be worth while for the House of Lords to give a colour of truth to a notion—a most unfounded notion, he believed—which did prevail in certain quarters that that House was less disposed than the other branch of the Legislature to consider fairly and liberally any proposition for the extension of our institutions. It might give some colour to such an idea if their Lordships were to consent to a Motion which, to a certain degree, would imply a belief that town councils had degenerated in consequence of an extension of the franchise, and that therefore a large number of those councils were to be put upon their trial. With respect to the other branch of the proposed inquiry, much might be said in its favour; but he did not agree with the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) that the terms of the Motion should be extended. It would be in his opinion better to limit the terms of the Motion, so as to except the invidious words at the end of it, as now proposed. There was no doubt that great and increased bribery took place at municipal elections, but that increase was connected with the prevention of bribery at Parliamentary elections by the severe penal statutes now existing. Both parties exerted their utmost efforts to succeed in those municipal contests, because thereby an influence was exercised upon the subsequent Parliamentary elections. If the fact of bribery at municipal elections was so notorious that a Bill upon the subject had been already introduced into the other House, then there was no reason why their Lordships should not examine into the matter before they were called upon to deal with the Bill. At the same time it appeared to him that a Motion of this kind would be of no use if the Government disapproved of it, and he gathered from the noble Earl opposite that he was of opinion that no Committee should be appointed. Although he should have supported the Motion if the inquiry was limited to the working of the municipal system, yet under the circumstances he should recommend his noble Friend not to press it.


thought it very necessary to inquire into the conduct of the corporations since the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act in 1850. The best test of good government was economy, and therefore he should like to know at what expenditure municipal government had been carried on before, and at what expenditure since the passing of that Act. It would, too, be interesting to learn how far the police had been made efficient in these corporations, and how far they had been left in a state of inefficiency. He himself should much like to know how far those who had no property had protected the lives and property of others. The noble Earl (Earl Granville) seemed to think that this question of bribery at municipal, bore chiefly upon Parliamentary, elections. Now, money was never given unless with the hope of getting money's worth in return; and if there had been, as he suspected, an enormous increase of expenditure in boroughs owing to the alteration of the Municipal Act—if there had been, as he thought might be shown, enormous jobbing, exercised in favour of the persons who had helped to elect low men to situations which ought to be filled only by the most respectable—then a point of great importance would be established, and one which would probably induce their Lordships to reconsider the principles upon which this measure was founded. These were the opinions he had formed during the course of this debate; for he had not previously had the smallest idea of the object which the noble Earl (Earl Grey) had in view.


agreed with his noble Friend (the Earl of Ellenborough) that the examination of the Municipal Reform Act might properly be undertaken with a view of benefiting by the many years' experience which we had now had of its working. He did not understand his noble Friend to propose doing away with that important measure, the benefits of which he (Lord Brougham) regarded as very greatly outweighing whatever defects might be found in it. He therefore rejoiced that his noble Friend near him (Earl Grey) had brought forward his Motion, and hoped he would extend the inquiry in the Committee so as to make it more general. The bearing of the information to be expected from that inquiry upon the subject of the Parliamentary representation was quite manifest, and had been adverted to by both his noble Friends. That was a subject at all times of the greatest importance, and never more so than at the present time, when it was rather forced upon the people than much or generally deserved by them. He had taken leave the Session before the last to state his views upon the subject to their Lordships, and to declare his opinion that the best and safest course would be carefully examining the great measure of 1832 by the light which the experience of more than a quarter of a century afforded, and correcting whatever defects were found in it, and making any additions which were proved practically to be necessary and to be safe. Since that time very valuable accessions, both of information and of enlightened opinions, had been acquired by this important subject. He might mention the able and useful treatise of his noble Friend (Earl Grey), in much of which he was disposed to agree, though in some parts he materially differed. There was another work of great value, both for the information which it contained, and still more for the profound views so ably expressed, and let him add, so honestly avowed by its highly gifted author, Mr. Austin, lately professor of jurisprudence, and one of the most learned lawyers and most able men of his time. He trusted their Lordships had benefited by a perusal of this able, conscientious, and manly production. Mr. Austin avowed himself as having been of the school of Bentham, and imbued, indeed, with what he terms Radical opinions. But longer experience, deeper reflections, intercourse with other countries, seeing many cities and the manners of many nations, a residence of some years in Germany and in France, had in some respects changed his opinions, and he now feels the greatest apprehension when he sees the headlong course which some friends of Reform are bent upon pursuing. With the learned professor's opinions, he (Lord Brougham) might not by any means agree; but in his apprehensions he shared, and though very far from being an alarmist generally, he confessed that he saw some grounds for uneasiness at the present time. That any sudden blow could fall upon our constitution he had no fear. From violence, from convulsions, it had little to dread. They who held the Government in 1832 well remembered the somewhat near view of Revolution which they then had, and its aspect was not so engaging, so attractive, as to make them at all desire a nearer approach. From violent changes, therefore, from storm, he deemed our system—that precious system which secures the rights of the people with the stability of our institutions, he considered it was exposed to no hazard; but it might be in equal peril from the operation of sap—it might be slowly, gradually undermined, and by piecemeal, by successive alterations, each seemingly unimportant, might be made gradually to crumble away. Constitutions were not to be made; they were, if of any value, the growth of time, and the result of experience, and of successive corrections, and adaptations; nor was there any manufacture for which he had less respect than that of the constitution-maker. But the reverse process of destruction is also gradual and the work of time; and it behoves us most carefully to beware how we help it on; lay, or suffer it to proceed. Nothing more natural for human indelenee and men's sanguine temper than to shut our eyes to what we fancy may be trifling changes, and to slumber over a succession of them as unimportant, till we awake from our dreams and find the constitution gone. I feel (said Lord Brougham) no anxiety about measures likely to be introduced by the noble Lords opposite; they of the Government are not very likely to propose a measure, at least knowingly and aware of its consequences. tending to the overthrow of the really free system of our mixed monarchy, and plant in its place the intolerable tyranny of a wild. unbridled democracy. But from whatever quarters such attempts may proceed, wherever such speculations may be broached, I hope to be spared the fate of witnessing their success. One can have but a short time to remain here, and after what one has seen and suffered there is no reason to wish it longer. But if the opinions and the feelings said to prevail in many quarters shall be the guide of our councils, short as that time is. I may survive all that is most valuable in our constitution, and may have to read over its ruins the sad lesson how impossible it is for the best of human institutions to be lasting, and how possible for a people to be very great and very wealthy without being very wise.


said, he shared in the apprehensions which had been expressed as to the delicate nature of the inquiries which would necessarily be carried on before this Committee. He would suggest that touch of the information sought for—for instance, the proportion between the number of different classes of voters find the property which they represented, and the police expenditure in boroughs—might be obtained by Returns moved for in this or the other House of Parliament; and their Lordships would not then run the risk of making that general accusation against the character or the position of municipal voters, which would be so unpopular—and justly unpopular—throughout the country


in reply, intimated his willingness to modify his Motion so as to limit the inquiries of the Committee to the operations of the two statutes in question. He earnestly hoped that the Government would grant the Committee in that form. He entirely concurred in the justice of the observation that no one ought to be deprived of the privilege of the franchise unless some abuse were shown to exist in connection with its exercise. Now it had been asserted—he did not know whether truly or not—but it had been positively asserted that since these Acts had come into operation the practice of bribery, personation, and treating at municipal elections had become infinitely more common. He was informed that in one borough they were so convinced of this, that having adopted the Act of 1850, they had subsequently abandoned it, and by so doing deprived themselves of the great advantage of rating the owners of small tenements, rather than the occupiers, from whom practically the rates could not be got. It was further said that since that Act a large share of influence had fallen into the hands of publicans; that in one borough the chief constable had been adjudged by the watch committee unfit for his duty because he frequented low public-houses, and was dismissed. That the publicans, however, signed a round robin to the watch committee, who were so afraid of their influence in municipal elections that they consented to reinstate the person they had removed. He ventured to ask for a Committee in the modified form which he had mentioned.


said, he had not the least objection; in fact, he had intended to suggest to the noble Earl to put his Motion in the form which he had now adopted.

Moved,— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the operation of the Act 13 & 14 vict. c. 99, for the better assessing and collecting the Poor Rates and Highway Rates in respect of small Tenements, and of the Act of last Session, c. 43, to amend the Municipal Franchise in certain cases:"—agreed to.