HL Deb 25 July 1861 vol 164 cc1469-77

Order of the Day for the House to be put into a Committee on the University Elections Bill, read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on the said Bill.


said, their Lordships ought not hastily to make so great a change in the mode of voting in this country as was proposed in this Bill. He did not deny that there were advantages in the proposal, but, on the whole, it appeared to him that the disadvantages predominated. At first sight it might seem that a University was especially the constituency in which such an alteration of the law might most favourably be made; but, on reflection, it would be found that there were many other constituencies in which it might be done with more real benefit. One great objection to the Bill was that the Member for a University was intended to represent the University itself. Now, the special life of a University was embodied in the resident members rather than in those who, living at a distance, were subject probably to alien influences, and might exercise their franchise at variance with the interests and sympathies of the institution to represent which their Members were intended. Some check was imposed on these persons by the present system; which was also useful in bringing those who did vote into personal contact with residents. By that means the views of persons living in remove places, who had little intercourse with others and formed their opinions chiefly from the single newspaper which they read, might be remodelled in accordance with the feelings of the University. It was not right that a numerical majority of languid voters sending up their papers by post should be allowed to overpower the resident members, who represented the true mind of the body. He would not say that the Bill introduced the principle of proxy voting, but it certainly had a tendency to throw into the hands of certain resident members of the University a great number of non-resident votes, which they would have the power of presenting or withholding, just as they chose to sway the election. Such a practice would be very objectionable. The great University with which he was especially connected had never been consulted on the matter, and had petitioned against the Bill. It appeared to him most inexpedient at that late period of the Session to go into Committee on the Bill. He feared that many noble Lords who were in favour of the Bill would oppose Amendments intended to render it less objectionable merely in order to prevent delay by having it sent back to the other House.


said, he presumed the right rev. Prelate was not present at the second reading of this Bill, as he did not then oppose it, and had not given any notice suggesting opposition to it. So far from no notice of the Bill having been given to the Universities, it had been under the consideration of Parliament during the greater part of the present Session, and no petition had been presented from any one of the three Universities which were affected by the Bill against its provisions. In the House of Commons it had passed by a very large majority; and the President of the Council had been good enough to inform him that Her Majesty's Government would not offer any opposition to its passing in this House. From first to last he had never heard any objection to the principle which was involved in the measure, and he thought the objections of the right rev. Prelate not as conclusive as the arguments which they were accustomed to hear from him; but, on the contrary, somewhat contradictory. In the first place, the right rev. Prelate said that the Member ought to represent the mind of the University. But he would remind their Lorships that the University itself was more or less a representative body, and that one of the great interests which it mainly represented was the interest of the Established Church. The residents were, no doubt, a most useful and important body, but they were not the whole University body. An important component part of the members consisted of non-resident members, a large portion of whom were clergy of the Established Church resident in their particular parishes, and unable without great inconvenience to give their votes at a University election. The right rev. Prelate said the Bill would give undue power to the non-residents, and his next objection was entirely in opposition to that, because he said the residents would have an opportunity of exercising undue influence by collecting in their hands such an amount of voting papers as would turn the election. The right rev. Prelate said—First, that it gave too much power to the nonresidents; and, next, that it gave too much power to the residents. The right rev. Prelate said there were many other constituencies to which it could be more advantageously applied. For his part, if he thought that the plan of voting papers would give a chance of doing away with undue influence and corruption, he should be very glad to see the principle applied to every constituency in the kingdom. When he had the opportunity of bringing before Parliament the great question of Parliamentary Reform one of the provisions which he introduced was a power of voting by papers, because he believed that a great number of electors would be enabled by that means to give their votes who were deprived of the power of giving them now. But, if a general option of voting by papers was not to be given, it was quite clear that there was a much stronger case for giving that power to the Universities than for any other constituency, because the constituencies of the Universities consisted of a greater proportion of nonresident voters and those who lived at a distance from the place of election. It was desirable that those of the electors for the Universities who wished to vote should have every facility for voting. There were at present only two alternatives for the poor country clergy. One was coming up to the poll at their own expense, which few of them could afford; the other was coming up at the expense of the candidate, which made a contest enormously expensive.

Therefore, if there were any constituencies to which the principle of voting papers ought to be applied, they were the constituencies included in this Bill. Moreover, such was the character of these constituencies, that there was not the least reason to apprehend abuse, fraud, or corruption in the manner of dealing with the votes. The right rev. Prelate said that great advantage was obtained by the fact that members of the Universities who were resident in their quiet parsonages, reading only one paper a week, and taking their political views and opinions from that one paper, had the opportunity of coming to the University and partaking of the more enlarged views which prevailed there. But he confessed that he thought the time of a contested election an unfavourable moment for influence to be brought to bear upon the nonresidents, and the right rev. Prelate must, therefore, forgive him if he did not attach much weight to that argument. It must also be remembered that there was nothing in the Bill to compel them to send up voting papers if they were not inclined to do so, and that the power was only given in case it was inconvenient either for the voters or the candidates to incur the expense of their coming to the poll. The right rev. Prelate admitted that the Bill did not sanction votes by proxy. That was the great argument which had been used against the Bill; but there was nothing of the tendency in its provisions. The person who handed in the vote was no more the proxy of the person who voted than the Postmaster General was the proxy of the person whose letter passed through his department; and he did not think that the right rev. Prelate would have said the person who was intrusted with the votes might abstain from giving in the papers if he had looked at the last clause, which declared withholding votes a misdemeanour. He did not mean to say that the machinery of the Bill might not be better adapted for the purpose, but he thought it better not to run the risk of losing a valuable measure by proposing Amendments at this period of the Session. In his opinion it was expedient to agree to the Bill in its present shape, and leave the task of amending minor details for a future occasion. He admitted that it was an experiment, and an experiment upon an important subject. The principle was more easily applied to the Universities than to any other constituencies, and, if successful, he should wish it to be further extended.


said, he should be guilty of a dereliction of duty if he did not say that he thought the Bill would inflict great evils upon the University of Oxford. One of the objects of the reforms recommended by the University Commission of which he was a member was to increase the cumber of residents, and to make them a more important body than they were in former times. He had the deepest respect for the country clergy, but he did not feel that the Member for the University was in his proper place when he simply represented that body. He believed that the reason why many distinguished members for the University had held so high a position was because they wore supposed to speak with the authority of the residents. It was now impossible for the country clergy to come up in such great numbers as entirely to annihilate the votes of the residents; but under this new system he believed that the Member for the University would simply be the representative of the country clergy. He could well understand the consternation which, if this Bill passed, would be caused in Oxford by the arrival at the poll of some rural dignitary who coming, perhaps, at the last moment with some hundred proxies (if he might so call them) in his pocket, would turn the scale and nullify the decision of the resident Masters of Arts. He thought, also, that there was a great deal in the observation of his right rev. Brother that it was beneficial to the country clergy to be brought into local communication with the residents of the University, and he did not believe that the country clergy themselves desired to be put in such a position that they would never have occasion to visit the University during the rest of their natural lives.


said, he was astonished at the alarm expressed by the two right rev. Prelates at a measure which would really confer a great benefit on the non-resident members of Convocation, and would be no detriment to the character of the constituency. He had often heard clergymen express their regret that they had no means of recording their votes except either by going to an expense which they could ill-afford, or else by augmenting the expenses of the candidates to an unfair degree. The measure would give proper facilities to the non-resident members without unfairly affecting the due influence of the resident members, and he should, therefore, give it his support.


thought the right rev. Prelate's arguments required the legal disfranchisement of the nonresident University electors, rather than the maintenance of the present almost prohibitory tax of trouble and expense upon the exercise of their legal franchise. He, however, supported the Bill, not so much for the sake of the particular constituencies to which it applied, as in the hope that it was the precursor of sounder legislation with regard to the rights of electors generally. The Legislature, it was clear, had never intended the vote of an elector to be looked upon as his property, otherwise he would have been entitled to dispose of it to his own advantage. If it were not a property, it must he a trust; and it was a contradiction in terms that the Legislature should impose a trust upon a certain number of persons, and then put unnecessary difficulties in the way of their exercising it. He (Viscount Ebrington) had, like many of their Lordships, had a good deal of experience in contested elections both in large and small constituencies. He did not, however, speak from that alone, but from public notoriety when he said that, whereas, in small constituencies nearly the whole, or, at least, considerably more than three-fourths, of the electors generally voted; in large constituencies for the most part very little more than half did so; and it was generally the most educated and wealthiest portion of the constituency which refrained from voting. In the borough of Marylebone, for instance, something like three-fourths of the electors in Cromer Street and that poor neighbourhood voted, while fully an equal proportion of the electors in the rich squares and terraces of Tyburnia refrained from voting. It was the opinion of a gentleman who had been engaged in a great number of large elections since 1843 that a system of voting papers was indispensable to a true representation of such constituencies. The difficulty of organizing the wealthier and more educated classes, he said, was immense; but the obedience of the ignorant masses to their leaders was implicit: and he followed up this opinion by a warning that the blind obedience shown by the Trades Unions in their strikes would one day bo applied to political contests; and then it would be found how powerless was an unorganized, undisciplined, numerical majority, in presence of a well-organized and disciplined minority. He hoped that this Bill would lead the way to a better system of taking votes, and he should, therefore, support its committal.


said, the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) was quite correct in saying that it was not the intention of the Government to oppose the Bill, but at the same time they had not changed their opinions with regard to it. He quite concurred with the right rev. Prelate as to its practical effect.


said, that, so far from swamping the opinions of the University, it appeared to him that this Bill would ascertain the opinions of the University. If his right rev. Brother meant that it would swamp the opinions of the resident members, possibly that might be so; but it should be recollected that recent legislation had given a preponderating power to the resident members, and he trusted that those who resided at a distance would be allowed an opportunity of recording their votes at University elections. He had been strongly urged by his clergy to support this measure, and if a division took place he should certainly do so.


thought that most of the speakers had allowed themselves to be diverted from the interests of the University, and had argued the case on collateral points, some advocating the Bill on the ground that it would pave the way for a larger measure, and would in time be applied to other constituencies; others upon the ground that it consulted the interests of the clergy who resided at a distance. Now, he should be glad to relieve the clergy from any trouble to which they were put in voting at University elections, nor did he object to the adoption of the adoption of the system of voting papers in other constituencies, if means could be found for preventing fraud. Of this, however, he was not very hopeful, and until such a plan could be suggested the door would be opened to frauds which would more than counteract any advantages which could result from the use of voting papers. He could not help feeling, however, that the principle, whether it was good or bad, was a somewhat dangerous experiment as regarded this particular constituency. Some dangers would arise here which would not affect other constituencies, although the risk of fraud was not so great as it might be elsewhere. This measure would materially alter the character of the University representation. It would introduce a system of canvassing and electioneering among the members which would certainly be very undesirable. He doubted whether men of such high calibre as had hitherto been chosen would be elected as representatives of the University. But there was another evil as regarded the electors. If the Bill passed the country clergy in various districts would resolve themselves into a caucus, the influence of election clubs would be brought to bear, and much the same process would take place in the University itself, where influential members of the colleges would exert themselves to secure the return of a particular candidate, and there would be a Clubbing of colleges separately against one another, instead of voting as one body, to be represented on the interests common to all. For these reasons he looked with some apprehension on this measure. At the same time, the House seemed disposed to try the experiment, and, no doubt, the matter was one which, though of much interest to their Lordships and the country, mainly affected the constitution of the House of Commons. The noble Earl opposite admitted that this was an experiment, and that, had the Bill been discussed at an earlier period of the Session, the machinery provided in the Bill might in some respects have been improved. The noble Earl also suggested that in a future Session this machinery might, if necessary, be amended. Now, with a view to insure this result, would it not be desirable to limit the operation of the Bill, say, to three years? He was sure that their Lordships had the interests of the Universities alone at heart, and did not look upon this as any party question. For his part, he did not know how the Bill could affect the return of Members of one party or another. Now, if they made the Bill a temporary one, so that a general election might take place within the period it was in operation, their Lordships would see how it worked, and would thus effectually reserve to themselves the power of revision.


said a few words in reply.

On Question, agreed to;

House in Committee accordingly.

Clauses agreed to.


moved an additional clause, that this Act should continue in force for a period of three years or the end of the then Session of Parliament. ["Five, five."] He had no objection to substitute five years for three, if the House wished it.

Moved to insert the following Clause, That this Act shall continue until the First Day of August one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six, and no longer.


said, he felt no objection to the Amendment, but he ventured to suggest that at this period of the Session it would be very undesirable to send any Amendment down to the House of Commons which could possibly be avoided. By all means let five years be substituted for three; but he would rather the noble Duke did not press the Amendment.


said, he would withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

Bill reported without Amendment; and to read 3a To-morrow.