HL Deb 29 July 1861 vol 164 cc1712-24

Order of the Day for the House to be put into a Committee upon the Appropria- tion of Seats (Sudbury and St. Albans) Bill read.


, in moving that the House do go into Committee on the Bill, gave a short explanation of its objects. The noble Earl was understood to say that, as the practice of the Constitution had provided that the House of Commons should consist of a certain number of Members, the Government had, in the absence of any strong feeling in either House of Parliament in favour of a general measure of Reform, thought it their duty to make a proposal for filling up the vacancies occasioned by the disfranchisement of the boroughs of Sudbury and St. Albans—a measure in the adoption of which two noble Lords opposite were concerned. Their first proposition was that two seats should be given to counties and two to boroughs, and the boroughs selected were Birkenhead and Chelsea with Kensington. That scheme was not accepted by the House of Commons, and as the Bill now stood the West Riding of Yorkshire was to be divided into two divisions, each of which was to have two Members, Birkenhead was to have one Member, and a Member was to be added to the two now possessed by South Lancashire. He would not attempt to anticipate the arguments which might be urged against the Bill, but would at once move that their Lordships should go into Committee upon it.

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


, after showing that the Government and its supporters were not in any way committed to this measure, since it was not the same the Government had introduced in February, and they had disapproved the changes it received, said, the Motion for referring the Bill to a Select Committee may be viewed either as intended simply to arrest it, or as implying that its details are in want of such an agency to sift them. In both these lights it is defensible. If viewed in the first light the lateness of the Session is not an argument against it, but an argument in favour of it. The lateness of the Session would prevent a Select Committee from reporting. But the lateness of the Session renders the Committee of the Whole House utterly inoperative. In point of fact it is unwarrantable to proceed with such a Bill at such a moment. The Standing Order of the House year by year has given a formal voice to the legitimate opinion that, after July 25th, mea- sures ought not to proceed without reasons urgent and exceptional, and such as, in this case, are well known to be wanting. It is true that it was read a second time on the 19th. But it was read pro formâonly. It now comes before us for the first time to be discussed. If the opinion which used to be embodied in the Standing Order, and which still prevails, although from temporary circumstances it has not this year been embodied in it—arrested ordinary Bills, how much more ought it to arrest a plan which, as it alters the Reform Act, must influence the dignity, prosperity, and future legislation of the country? It is unjust to ask noble Lords who, from February last, have patiently attended the business of the House to compromise their health, to waste their powers, and even sacrifice their duties by remaining in town a day after July is ended. And yet unless the Bill is hurried, against all decency and precedent, the day after it is first discussed into a law it must run into August. What is the result? That, to the loss of the community, and to the injury of the House itself, it goes, without consideration and discussion, through its stages. For who can venture to discuss it? If any one, a year ago, had given notice to submit the question to the House of how these seats should be appropriated; if long before that time he had formed opinions on the subject; if he saw the present Bill to be impolitic, and felt an obligation to examine it, in what position would he stand? He would have to choose between the fatal evil of addressing an impatient House and the yet more serious calamity of allowing what he saw to be a legislative error to pass unexposed and unquestioned to the statute book. Although no Member of the House would shrink from any task which duty urges on him, the Government are not entitled to place men in such a difficulty unless necessity controls them. But does it in this instance? In the other House of Parliament the Bill was read a second time on the 25th February. It went into Committee on the 11th June. Was such an interval inevitable? It reached this House on July the 11th, and now, upon the 29th, we are beginning to debate it. Was that interval inevitable? But, setting that aside, is this Bill forced on at this late period by some popular opinion it would not be prudent to resist or disappoint? It is well known that it has not any popular opinion to support it, and that the democratic party in the State would applaud the House if they rejected it. Is the Government engaged per fas et nefas to advance it? It is by a course of Ministerial defeats that it has gained the form in which it reaches us. Are the Opposition deeply and irrevocably pledged to it? In the other House of Parliament the Opposition have declared themselves in favour of a different project. But is the public bent upon obtaining it? That most distinguished organ of the general opinion three times advised the Government in a friendly spirit to renounce it. Never was a Bill, therefore, which came more thoroughly within the prohibitory spirit of the Standing Order, or which it was less essential to set at nought by proceeding with that spirit. If, therefore, you view the Motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee as a Motion to reject it, on these grounds it is legitimate to do so. But if the Motion is regarded as a Motion for inquiry, it is far more easy to defend it. For, as regards the present Bill, one thing must be admitted, namely, that the onus probandi falls not on its opponents but its advocates. To increase the House of Commons by four Members, so far as the mere numerical addition goes, by all conversant with the subject, is regarded as an evil. The excess of numbers may disturb and compromise political assemblies as well as the privation of them. In the House of Lords the evils which result from the want of numbers have been frequently referred to. In the House of Commons the reverse of such a picture is displayed. It is usually admitted that before the Irish Union swelled it by a hundred, the assembly was more adapted to the purposes of the business than it is at present. The room in which the House meets will not accomodate six hundred. And unless night by night for at least three hours, the usages of Parliament reduced the number present to a small proportion of the whole, it would be impossible to go through the clauses of the Bills and through the items of the Estimates. No kind of Parliamentary or public inconvenience has resulted from the want of the four Members. It has been convincingly explained that 658 was not a constitutional, but accidental number. It was only upon Irish grounds that the House of Commons was ever carried to that limit; and it is not on Irish grounds that this Bill can be supported. The questions must, therefore, force themselves upon us—Cui bono is the Bill brought forward?—what end does it attain?—what advantage does it furnish?—what complication does it remedy?—what popular demand does it assuage?—what interest requires it?—And if these questions have not been answered in debate, the Select Committee might dispose of them. Another ground for the inquiry would occur from the number of interests and claims to be adjusted. Salford, Burnley, Middlesex, and Kensington, the Inns of Law, and Scottish Universities, the London University have all pursued the gift to be distributed. In 1852, in 1854, in 1859, in 1860, and at present, Governments have offered different modes of dealing with these vacancies. It is, therefore, clear that no strong or general conviction has been formed as to the proper manner of disposing of them. And while this is so the claims which it is not proposed to satisfy may fairly ask inquiry from the Legislature before that doom is finally pronounced. But such inquiry may be asked upon a ground far more imperial and general. The public has a claim distinct from, and superior to, those I have adverted to. So long as these seats are unappropriated, we have it in our power to deal by-and-bye with one of the most fatal and notorious defects of the Reform Act. And if you fill them up as it is proposed, you lose your chance of doing so. The Reform Act has, no doubt, succeeded in expressing the opinions of the country. It has succeeded in forming an assembly equal in intelligence and station to the work which comes before it. But it has not succeeded in the third great function it aspired to, the function of returning to the House of Commons all those who, having sat there, ought to have a seat in it according to the judgment of the public and of Parliament. It can only discharge this function when you have, as before 1832 you had, a corrective power in the State to do what the country wishes to be done, when the general election happens not to do it. By the judicious use of these four seats you might perhaps arrive at such a power; but if you rashly part with them, when no kind of popular demand asks you so to do, you will not arrive at it except by increasing the numbers of the House of Commons beyond 658. And this would scarcely ever be regarded as admissible. But as regards the proposition that the general elections since 1832 have fallen short of one result they were intended to accomplish, it is easy to establish it by re- ferring to a series of distinguished men who since that epoch have, for longer or shorter times, been thrown out of Parliament, while not one could be considered as excluded by the wishes of the country. Sir William Molesworth, Lord Macaulay, and Sir Edward Lytton are sufficient illustrations. They suffice at least to prove that, be a man connected with the Radicals, the Whigs, or the Conservatives, the support and admiration of the country are no security for constant access to the Legislature in which he has attained them. They suffice to show that public life is unhappily distinguished from every other line of effort by the perpetual risk of arbitrary exile. It was not possible at such a time to explain how that great anomaly existed, or to what political calamities it tended. But in order to remove it, it was only necessary that the public should have some means, after a general election, of giving force to its opinion. We all know that if it had these means, neither Sir William Molesworth, Lord Macaulay, Sir Edward Lytton, Lord Carlisle, or Mr. Cobden would have been for years condemned to all the evils of inaction. Whatever plan you might adopt — and some have been suggested—it would naturally occupy the space afforded by these vacancies. If I am asked by what employment of these you could remedy the evil, I answer a Select Committee is the agency to which alone a question so delicate and gravecould be confided. And I express a firm belief that a Select Committee of the House would be a body not unequal to contend with the difficulty of the problem. But inasmuch as no Select Committee can approach the problem for the present, I will revert but only for a moment to the question, ought the Bill to be proceeded with. It requires much consideration to decide how far it is expedient to transfer power, as the Bill does, from the southern to the northern portion of the kingdom; to give, as it does, to counties vacancies arising from disfranchisement of towns, and to convert, as it does, seats which were open to the mass of politicians to seats which are only open to persons locally connected with them. But such grave consideration it is not in the power of the House to grant to all these topics. And it should never be forgotten that the gratitude the measure will excite bears no proportion to the discontent it will occasion. It is allowed that in the West Biding no strong opinion has been formed as to the advantage of dividing that constituency. There has been no apparent movement in South Lancashire in favour of the gift to be conceded to it. But the Scottish Universities will receive a blow and disappointment from the measure. The only consolation you can offer to Burnley, Kensington, and Salford is to keep the vacancies suspended. In point of fact it is obnoxious to the interest which calls out for change in the Reform Act. It may be sometimes indispensable to offend that interest by standing still, but it appears to be the height of folly to offend it by legislation which wants at once the sanction of the Government and the approbation of the public. If a general and comprehensive measure of Reform is by-and-bye presented, the scheme is utterly uncalled for. If it is resolved to act by isolated measures, that policy will not be happily inaugurated by a Bill which overlooks a problem entitled to the care of statesmen, and which, from many of its features, may be made use of at a future time to create among the body of the people the passions it is most essential to prevent and to assuage. On these grounds the noble Lord moved that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.

Amendment moved, to leave out from ("that") to the end of the Motion, and insert ("the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.")


My Lords, I suppose I may assume that it is not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to accede to the suggestion of the noble Baron of referring this Bill to a Select Committee, which would probably present its Report about the middle of August. And for my own part I never recollect a Bill for which there appeared less reason to refer it to the consideration of a Select Committee than this. The facts are plain and undisputed. There are no very complicated details of arrangement which can be more conveniently considered in a Select Committee. It is a Bill of a very plain and straightforward character, which can be perfectly well discussed in your Lordships House. For my own part I have no fault to find with it. I think it has been greatly improved by the manipulation which it has undergone in its progress through the House of Commons, and which I give the Government credit for having sanctioned with the most exemplary resignation. It is very much like the Bill which the Government with which I was connected had the honour to propose in 1852, and which was mainly rejected through the influence of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who until a short time ago was one of the most prominent candidates for one of the seats which the Bill proposes to create. It is true there is this difference, that we proposed in 1852 to confer two seats on the West Riding and two on South Lancashire. I have a very strong preference in favour of two seats for a county over the inconvenient plan of three; but in 1852 Birkenhead had not risen to the importance which it has now attained, and I can find no fault with the selection of Birkenhead for one of the vacant seats. If, indeed, it were in the contemplation of Her Majesty's Government to introduce a very large or extensive plan of Parliamentary Reform, I think they would be acting most improvidently and unwisely in hampering their discretion by the introduction of this smaller measure. In that case I should think there was some reason in the complaint of the noble Baron, that it would prevent due consideration of the claims of places which have a right to be considered in any general measure. In the measure of 1859, which the Government with which I was connected introduced, not only were all these seats provided for, but provision was also made for other places. The London University, the Scotch Universities, (the borough of Chelsea and Kensington was provided for in a different mode by subdividing the county of Middlesex); and I believe by that Bill the claims of all the principle places for representation were satisfied. But it did not please the different parties to allow that measure to pass, and I certainly bow with submission to the determination at which they arrived, and am perfectly ready to give my support to Her Majesty's Government in adopting and approving this partial measure. I presume Her Majesty's Government have no very extensive scheme of Parliamentary Reform to bring forward; first of all, because I think recent experience has forcibly shown them that small and not wholly independent boroughs are not without their use in the political system of this country. They will not say they are, but I am sure they just now cordially wish that there were "six Richmonds in the field." For other reasons I am inclined to suppose they have no such scheme. The noble Lord—I do not know whether we can yet call him the noble Earl, whom we shall very shortly have the satisfaction of seeing in this House, and whom all your Lordships on every side of the House will rejoice to see here, has expressed very honestly and very candidly his opinion that there is no use in bringing forward a measure of Reform unless there is a strong feeling in favour of it among the public at large, and he left it to be implied that there is at the present moment no such feeling, and consequently no such temptation to Her Majesty's Government. It is not only from what the noble Lord has said, but from what the noble Lord has done, that 1 augur there is no wish to introduce a Reform Bill, because the noble Lord has selected this precise moment for a change in his position. Like another Astræa, disgusted with the follies and iniquities of the lower world, he has left it. He is about to rise to a higher, a calmer, and, I hope, a purer atmosphere; and I cannot wonder that the noble Lord, who has devoted so much time to the labour of reconstructing the plan and building up the political edifice of the Constitution, should be glad to take the opportunity of finishing the work, and filling up the gaps which for so many years have deformed its beauty, filling up those gaps in the representation by the additions of the West Riding, South Lancashire, and Birkenhead. Extrema per illos Justitia excedens terris vestigia fecit. This is to be the concluding scene of the noble Lord's efforts in the cause of Parliamentary Reform. I have stated that to the Bill I have no objection to offer, and no doubt it will be on the whole a very satisfactory measure, as soon as it has received a few alterations at the hands of the Committee—first, for the purpose of making it English, and next for the purpose of making it sense. Whatever may be the ulterior views and whatever may be the ultimate wishes of Her Majesty's Government, I seriously hope that what has passed on the subject of Parliamentary Reform in the course of the last two years will be a warning to the present and all succeeding Governments not hastily to bring forward or promise, or still more hastily and inconsiderately to pledge the name of the Sovereign to the introduction of large and extensive measures which they do not feel perfectly confident of being able to carry. There are great and serious evils in the perpetual introduction of Bills which are perpetually rejected, and the Sovereign is placed in an undignified position in pledging Parliament year after year to consider Bills which cannot possibly be passed. In 1858, when I was in office, I felt bound earnestly, seriously, and honestly to endeavour to give effect to pledges which on high authority had been given to the House, and I did apply myself to the introduction of a measure which I hoped would satisfy rational and moderate men. It did not meet with the success which I anticipated. I have no doubt that Her Majesty's Government were equally sincere, but equally failed in success. From the failure of successive measures introduced by successive Governments I hope it will be clearly understood that neither this nor any other Government are under any obligation to deal at any future time with this question, but that it is a question which must be left to the discretion of any Government to introduce or not, and that they are not to be reproached for violating pledges if they abstain from bringing forward a proposal on so delicate and difficult a subject. I have no wish to interfere with the progress of the Bill. In Committee I shall venture to suggest two or three Amendments, but they are entirely consistent with the principle of the measure, which I shall be glad to see receive the Royal Assent.


— My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Earl in the opinion that it would be undesirable to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, and I presume that my noble Friend who moved that Amendment is satisfied with having given himself an opportunity of stating his views on this subject, which I know he has considered very much for several years. This is a measure affecting the constitution of the other House of Parliament, and that House has not thought it necessary to refer the measure to a Select Committee—indeed, it is not usual to refer constitutional questions to Select Committees and although, no doubt, it is the duty of this House to oppose this or any other measure which appears to it not to be founded on a right principle, yet, if no such objection can be raised, I think your Lordships would naturally be disposed to receive from the other House the details of a Bill which appears to them to offer the best means of filling up any vacant seats in their own Assembly. To refer the Bill to a Select Committee at this time of the Session would be to reject it altogether, and I hope, therefore, that my noble Friend will not persist in his Amendment. As to the Government proposals respecting this Bill, it is agreeable to find that the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) regards them favourably, and I think your Lordships must, at all events, be persuaded that in submitting them we were not actuated by any party motives. Nor were the changes introduced during the progress of the Bill in the House of Commons of a very grave character. The measure remained the same as before, with the single exception that no seat was given to Chelsea and Kensington, and that a seat was instead bestowed on the West Riding. The noble Earl opposite has made a pointed allusion to my noble Friend Lord John Russell. Had I known that it was his intention to do so I would have asked your Lordships to postpone the Bill till to-morrow, when I trust to have the honour of introducing my noble Friend, who has been so gracefully referred to by the noble Earl, and to whom I am sure your Lordships will extend that hearty welcome which is never refused to a man eminent in any line of life, and which I am sure will be given to one who has played so great and important a part in directing the affairs of this country, and who combines with his public eminence a singularly high private character. The noble Earl has told us what should be the conduct of the Government in respect of future Reform Bills, and with great fairness administered a reproof to his own and to the present Government for having introduced Reform Bills which did not meet with general assent. I entirely concur with him that nothing would be more improper, after the experience we have had, than for any Government lightly to introduce a Reform Bill without a reasonable hope and expectation of carrying it through Parliament. I say this, though at the same time I am strongly opposed to all finality, and to the notion that it is impossible to improve the Constitution of the country, believing, on the contrary, that an extension of the suffrage may be most just and reasonable, and may in the most Conservative spirit be accorded to the people. I repeat, however, that, like the noble Earl, I think it would be rash in any Government beforehand, and without reviewing the whole circumstances of the case to pledge themselves to a Reform Bill without having some probable reason to suppose they would be able to carry it. The Amendments suggested by the noble Earl are very slight in their character; they are indeed similar to those of which I have given notice, and I have no objection to adopt them.

Amendment (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

Then the original Motion was agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

Clause 1 (Providing for the Dissolution of the "West Riding of Yorkshire),


said, that, although the House had, as he thought, unfortunately decided to go on with the Bill, a middle course was open to them. The Bill fell into two parts. By one it was to give two seats at once to South Lancashire and Birkenhead. By the other it gave two, prospectively, at the next general election to the West Riding of Yorkshire. There was not the least occasion for the latter proposition which Clause 1 contained. Common sense revolted at the wanton sacrifice by Parliament of its future right to deal with, these two seats, when the West Riding might not for three years borne into possession of them. It was loss to the whole country, and was not gain to any section of it. As well might a man part with a fund to some one who received it with the condition of its being locked up in a box for a considerable period. Why did he part at all with his discretion as regards it? No man was so foolish as to think that a necessity existed for appropriating all the seats together. A hundred circumstances might occur all showing the impolicy of giving two to the West Riding as compared with other applicants; and they were now asked not to give them, but to pledge them three years before the favoured party would be benefited by this superfluous and reckless prodigality. He suggested that all the clauses should be Struck out until they came to those which are on South Lancashire and Birkenhead.

Amendment negatived.

Clause agreed to.

Clauses 2 to 7 amended, and agreed to.

Clause 8 (Making Provision for the Issue of a Writ for South Lancashire),


said, he had to propose an Amendment to this clause. The clause gave the Speaker of the House of Commons the option of issuing the writ at any time before the dissolution of the present Parliament. He had every confidence in the right hon. Gentleman who now occupied the Chair of the House of Commons. He had known him for fifty years; thirty-five years ago they were travellers together, and somewhat later they were fellow-travellers in another sense, being both members of a small but select party known by the name of the "Derby Dilly." He had ho idea that the power given in the clause would be abused by the right hon. Gentleman; but a corrupt Speaker might issue the writ to suit party purposes, and might even postpone it till the eve of a dissolution and after a registration had taken place. He thought the time for the issue of the writ should be more definitely fixed, and that no unnecessary delay in doing so should occur. If it took place later than the middle of next month it would interfere with the harvest, and he need not point out the inconvenience of having an election at a more advanced period of the year. He would, therefore, propose, that instead of the words "at any time before the dissolution of the present Parliament," the clause should run, "as soon as may be after the passing of this Act," and that in the next line the word "shall" should be substituted for "may."


said, he had no objection to the Amendment.

Clause amended and agreed to.

Remaining Clauses agreed to, with Amendments; the Report of the Amendments to be received To-morrow.