§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.
§ LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
moved the second reading of this Bill, the object of which he said was to settle doubts that had arisen in consequence of a recent decision of the Court of Queen's 1725 Bench, and to make the position and privileges of mayors in provincial towns the same in law which they had been in practice since the establishment of municipal corporations. In consequence of the increased facilities of communication afforded by railways it would no longer be insisted upon that magistrates should reside within seven miles of the borough in which they officiated, on condition that they occupied a house or office within the borough; and it was proposed to extend to magistrates in boroughs where no Quarter Sessions were held the same powers with regard to licensing as were exercised in other boroughs where these Sessions took place. A clause to which the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) took exception a few evenings since had been withdrawn. He, therefore, hoped there would be no objection to the Bill.
§ LORD WENSLEYDALE
said, many of the clauses of the Bill required modification, and as the matter was not one of pressing importance it ought to be more maturely considered. He objected to the clause providing that mayors should preside at all meetings of magistrates, because a person who had only just been elected mayor might not be the best qualified to discharge the duties of presiding magistrate. The object of this clause was to set aside a decision of the Court of Queen's Bench, which was unquestionably right, as grounded on the soundest principles. Why should not the borough justices have the same right as the magistrates of counties who, being obliged for the due conduct of their business to have a chairman, elected that magistrate in whom they had the most confidence, from the knowledge of his character, his knowledge and ability, and habits of business? The circumstance that the office was elective was a great encouragement to the younger magistrates, by study and attention to business, to obtain that distinction. It is true that in counties, due respect would be given to persons of station and consequence in society, if duly qualified, but no more, and the like preference in case of voluntary selection would be given in boroughs. He had a still greater objection to that clause in the Bill which took away the jurisdiction of county magistrates to license in boroughs having no quarter sessions. The object of this clause, also, was of the same objectionable character. It was to overturn a decision of the Court of Queen's Bench, which, also, was in his opinion very clearly 1726 right—and in cases where those boroughs sent Members to Parliament, the transfer of the power of licensing from the magistracy of the county at large, to the smaller body of the borough justices, who would have local connections, would be likely to lead to the corrupt exercise of that power, for the purpose of obtaining political influence in elections, especially in the smaller Parliamentary boroughs. He had himself on this ground principally opposed a Bill of his noble Friend (Lord Ravensworth) to give the exclusive power of licensing to the magistrates of the borough of Sunderland, some two years ago, and with perfect success.
§ LORD CHELMSFORD
thought that there was a good deal to be said in favour of the postponement of this Bill, because he hoped to satisfy their Lordships that in its present state it ought not to pass. The sixth clause had been given up; the second and third had been, as his noble Friend said, introduced to correct a decision of the Court of Queen's Bench; but, surely, it was a strange kind of legislation, when the Court of Queen's Bench had pronounced a decision giving what was unquestionably a true interpretation of the Municipal Corporations Act, immediately to introduce a Bill to overrule that judgment. The provision that mayors should preside at all meetings of magistrates within the borough by virtue of his office, was, in his opinion, unnecessary and contrary to good policy, and would create great dissatisfaction throughout the corporate towns of the kingdom. It was unnecessary, because, as the noble Lord who had charge of the Bill had admitted, mayors were invariably asked to preside at such meetings, and even at Birmingham, from which the complaint in this matter proceeded, that courtesy had not since the decision of the Court of Queen's Bench been withheld from the mayors. It was a violation of principle to take from the magistrates the power of electing their own chairman. As a general rule the person of the highest rank present was chosen to fill the chair; but still the right of choice lay with the meeting, and if any one insisted on presiding as a matter of right it would be resisted. As had been admitted, the mayor was usually elected chairman, except where, as sometimes happened, he was unfit for the post; but the effect of the Bill would be to compel the magistrates to submit to his presi- 1727 dency even when notoriously unfit. Although the magistrates, in nine cases out of ten, voluntarily paid a compliment to the mayor by selecting him, they would naturally resent being forced to do so, and ill-feeling would be apt to be produced by that provision. He, therefore, hoped that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill would not insist upon retaining it.
§ LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
observed that the noble and learned Lord had proceeded on the erroneous assumption that the mayor was generally chosen to be chairman as a mere compliment. He believed that the prevailing understanding was that the mayor was ex officio the chairman of the meeting, and such was obviously the intention of the framers of the Municipal Corporations Act. He was of opinion that to confirm that impression by law would be much more likely to remove ill-feeling than to allow the matter to be the constant subject of dispute.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
said, that what he had remarked in conversation on this Bill to the noble Earl opposite was that in his opinion the question of the precedence of mayors was very unimportant, but that he did not see that there would be any great advantage in the Bill in that respect. He added that if Her Majesty's Government were desirous that it should be carried he would not offer any opposition to it. He stated, also, in the same conversation, that it was Clause 6 of the Bill which he deemed most objectionable, and that the question of granting licences was one on which there was a good deal to be said. After that conversation, he felt bound in honour not to oppose the second reading of the Bill, but be held himself at liberty in Committee to deal with the remaining clauses, apart from that on the precedence of mayors, as he thought fit.
§ On Question? their Lordships >divided: —Contents 44; Not-Contents 27: Majority 17.
§ Resolved in the affirmative.
§ Bill read 2a, accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House Tomorrow.