§ Mr. Hunt
presented a Petition from the Reform Association of Manchester, complaining of the cumbrous machinery, and the many inconvenient provisions of the Reform Bill. They prayed, that the whole of the Bill, with the exception of the disfranchising clauses, might be repealed. If some remedy was not applied before the next general election, to remove the objectionable provisions, it would be fatal to the peace of the country. This petition came from those very persons from whom the member for Westminster (Sir John Hobhouse) presented a petition, upon a former occasion, in support of the Bill.
§ Lord Althorp
said, that he would take that opportunity to make a few observations in reference to what had fallen from the hon. and gallant member for Rye, on a former evening, with regard to the disqualifying effect of the Reform Bill, in Manchester and other places. Before doing so, however, he begged to remark, with respect to the present petition, that as it went to the extent of calling for the repeal of the whole of the Reform Bill, with the exception of the disfranchising clause, it would, should its prayer, by any possibility, be 1403 granted, go to deprive Manchester, and other large manufacturing towns, of Representatives. He, therefore, thought, that such a petition was entitled to no attention. His hon. and gallant friend (the member for Rye) stated, on a former evening, that the effect of the Reform Bill, unless some alteration should be made as to the payment of the rates, would be, that in Manchester there would be only 758 persons entitled to vote; that in Salford there would be only forty; in Bolton only 84; in Blackburn only 78; in Warrington 40; in Oldham 40; in Rochdale 38, &c. Now, he (Lord Althorp), in consequence of that statement, had received a communication from a most respectable gentleman in Manchester, well known to him, and who had ample opportunities of being accurately informed on the subject, and that gentleman's statement was, that instead of 758 voters, there would be, in the township of Manchester alone, 4,400 persons qualified to vote, and that the entire number of voters for the borough of Manchester would amount to from 7,000 to 8,000; that, in Salford there would be from 1,100 to 1,200 voters; that in Bolton, instead of only eighty-four, there would be 1,000 voters, there not being above ten persons there, who would be entitled to a vote under the Bill, disqualified from the non-payment of the rates, and that in Blackburn there would be 1,000 voters instead of seventy-eight. The information with regard to Blackburn came from a gentleman who had already actually canvassed 800 out of the 1,000 voters in that borough. He had not received any information with respect to Warrington, but, from the statement to which he had adverted, he felt warranted in saying, that the lowest number of voters in any of the boroughs that had been alluded to by his hon. and gallant friend, would be upwards of 700, which was, by no means, an inconsiderable constituency. He knew not on what grounds his hon. friend had made the statement in question; but it certainly was a most incorrect one. He could state that, at Preston there would be from 6,000 to 7,000 persons qualified to vote. He (Lord Althorp) felt happy in being able to make this statement, as he certainly confessed, that at the time his hon. and gallant friend made the statement to which he had alluded, he felt considerable apprehension lest the disqualifying effect which he attributed to the Reform Bill should proceed to the extent he represented. That statement, he was glad to find, was, 1404 as far as Lancashire was concerned, greatly exaggerated; and he hoped that the same would be found to be the case throughout the country.
§ Mr. Macaulay
had that morning had an opportunity of conversing with a gentleman from Yorkshire, who had told him that no inconvenience, such as that described by the gallant Officer, had been felt about Leeds, for that there the generality of the rates and taxes had been paid up, and he believed that the same statement might be made with respect to all the manufacturing towns in Yorkshire.
was very glad to hear the statement that had just been made by the noble Lord; and, in fact, if the noble Lord had not made that statement, he (Colonel Evans) should have risen for the same purpose, because he himself had received letters confirming the account just given by the noble Lord. In the reports that had been given of his former speech on this subject, it had been made to appear as if he had positively stated that the numbers in these different towns were such as had been just recounted by his noble friend. But the fact was, that he had only stated a supposititious case. He had said, "taking the standard of the parish of St. James in London, and reckoning the towns in Lancashire by the same rule, the effect will be so and so." He must, however, again repeat his belief, that it would be found that great disfranchisement would prevail at the time of registration in the metropolitan districts.
§ Mr. Duncombe
The noble Lord, on a former occasion, stated, that any scot-and-lot voter who had paid his rates up to the day of registration would be entitled to vote. I wish to ask him whether he meant the rates due to 5th April, or the rates due to the day of the registration?
§ Lord Althorp
I really think that these questions would be more fairly addressed to a lawyer than to me; but I apprehend that the law formerly was, that all rates must be paid by the scot-and-lot voters up to the day of the election; and all that is done by the present Bill is to put the day of registration vice the day of election. Therefore, where a voter claims under the old law, all rates must be paid up to the day of registration; and this would have been the case if we had adopted the proposition of giving all scot-and-lot voters, throughout the kingdom, the elective franchise.
§ Mr. Duncombe
Then I am able to state that not one elector in the parish of 1405 St. George, Westminster, will be entitled to vote. They have paid their rates up to 25th March; but, if required to pay them up to the day of registration, not one will be able to do that; indeed, I believe that it is already too late now to take such a step. I had an opportunity this morning of ascertaining that not one of the. 5,144 rate-payers in St. George's has qualified according to the opinion just delivered by the noble Lord; while, on the other hand, 4,180 of them have paid their rates up to Lady-last. And now the simple question is—Can they vote?
§ Lord Althorp
I omitted just now to state what I have already frequently stated, that those only are disqualified who refuse to pay when the demand is made on them. That is the old law of scot and lot voting; and that is equally applicable under the present Act, Besides, if they have all paid up to Lady-day, such as occupy 10l. houses will be able to vote on that claim.
Sir John Hobhouse
When the collectors of the taxes give in their accounts to the Public Treasury, they are obliged to make affidavit that they have made the demand on all the rate-payers; so that it is impossible that any can escape that way.
§ Lord Althorp
My right hon. friend I having so long been a Member for a scot-and-lot borough, I am surprised that he is not aware that payment of taxes is not necessary to entitle a scot-and-lot elector to vote.
§ Sir George Warrender
wished to ask whether the Government would allow the register to be postponed? He understood the Paymaster of the Forces to have intimated that, in all probability, no new election would take place before December, in order to admit of the registration being perfectly completed. He, therefore, wished to ask the noble Lord whether there was any chance of a general election before the register was complete?
§ Lord Althorp
I think that it is quite impossible for a Minister of the Crown, consistently with his duty, to give an answer to that question. I, certainly, did state, on a former occasion, that there would be a great inconvenience in a general election taking place before the register 1406 was complete. I am willing to repeat that statement; but I think that I should be guilty of a dereliction of duty, were I to give any pledge as to the dissolution of Parliament; and I must, therefore, decline giving any answer to the hon. Baronet.
§ Sir Edward Sugden
apprehended that there was no danger of a general election, until the new bill had come into complete operation, and until after they had the benefit of the registration. Indeed, it would be the greatest calamity to the country if a dissolution should take place before that period. He was quite satisfied from the statement of the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) on a former evening, that there would be no dissolution until then, unless a great public necessity called for it. He, for one, always thought that this Bill imposed too many restrictions on the right of voting. He had endeavoured, when the measure was before the House to do away with some of them—such, for instance, as the payment of a shilling for registering; and he was sure that their existence would be productive of much dissatisfaction throughout the country.
§ Lord Althorp
said, the reason for this part of the Bill, requiring the payment of a shilling on registration, was a very general complaint, that if the expense were thrown on the poor-rates, it would fall as well upon those who had no vote as those who had. He confesssd that, at first, he felt great objection to it. Country gentlemen complained that the burthen would press hard upon the payers of poor-rates if the expenses were charged upon that fund, and it was upon this consideration that it had been resolved that the payment of 1s. should rest with the party obtaining political privilege. It, certainly, was but a small payment, and those who objected to such a payment could not care much about the possession of that privilege which it was intended to secure; probably they did not want to have a vote at all. If the regulation respecting the payment of 1s. had been productive of so much evil as hon. Gentlemen represented, he, certainly, should deeply regret it; but still, the balance of inconvenience would have been the other way, had the other suggestion been adopted.
admitted that he had not foreseen the inconvenience or evil of the regulation for the payment of 1s. for registration. But the clause respecting the payment of rates and taxes was that which had been productive of the most mischief. Ministers had been warned of this effect of 1407 the clause by an hon. friend near him, who pointed it out as a fruitful source of bribery. He had himself seen letters, offering votes, upon the condition of the taxes of the voters being paid; and this proposition arose out of the distress of the voter, rather than any other feeling. The class now most distressed in the country was the class of tradesmen. He hoped that when the Bill came under consideration again, this provision of it would be duly modified. He was certain it would never give satisfaction until the qualification by payment of rates was changed, and he hoped that change would soon be effected.
§ Lord Althorp
could not help expressing his surprise at hearing the hon. member for Preston cheer the hon. member for Middlesex in the concluding sentences of his speech; for, if he was not very much mistaken, that hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hunt) had himself brought forward a motion to exclude all who had not paid their rates from voting.
§ Mr. Hunt
observed, that this was the second time the noble Lord had tried to put him in the wrong. The noble Lord was, however, himself in the wrong. The motion he had made, and to which the noble Lord had referred, was not one of an excluding nature, but the contrary. The object of his motion had been to include in the right of voting all who paid scot and lot. He thanked the noble Lord for his kind intentions, but he guessed he had taken nothing by his motion. He (Mr. Hunt) hoped this tax qualification of voters would be altered. As to the effect of the clauses of this Bill, that effect would not be determined by the opinions of hon. Members in that House, but by the opinions of Barristers out of it; and if the Barristers did their duty, he affirmed that the greater part of Manchester would be disfranchised.
Sir John Hobhouse
wished his noble friend (Lord Althorp) would answer the question of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Duncombe), according to whose account a whole parish in Westminster would be disfranchised, by a mistake respecting the period up to which it was requisite their rates should be paid. The inhabitants of the parish in question had paid their rates up to the 25th of March, and the question was, whether they ought to have paid them to April? He hoped his noble friend would be able to give some satisfactory answer upon this point.
Sugden hoped that the noble Lord would give no answer to the question put to him. The interpretation of the Bill 1408 did not now belong to that House; it was in other hands, and must take its course as all other Acts did. However respectable the opinions of Members of that House, they would not in fact alter the true legal construction of any part of the Act. It was, therefore, most advisable, as well with reference to the respect due to the House itself as to the opinions of those who would have to decide upon the strict legal bearing of the Act in all its parts, without regarding the opinions of any, that they should abstain from uttering dicta which could not be availing.
wished to be informed whether the old right of voting would be altered by the present Bill.
§ Lord Althorp
could not determine upon the legal effect of any particular clauses. His own opinion was favourable to the right.
said, it appeared by the noble Lord's statement that the only way to obtain an opinion upon the meaning of any of the clauses was for the unfortunate candidate to come to that House and to have an Election Committee ballotted for. They were told not to give an opinion upon the subject. But, when he saw such a place as the city of Westminster nearly disfranchised by this Bill, he could not refrain from giving it as his opinion that it would be much better to have a short Session before dissolution than to go to an election with so imperfect and mischievous a measure. In the parish of St. Clement Danes, he understood, a great doubt existed about the franchise. The rate, it appeared, had been made up to June 2,5, and it was not called for from the inhabitants till the 2nd of August. Now the question was, whether the whole of that parish was disfranchised or not? The noble Lord (Lord Althorp) told them that the rate must have been demanded before the voter could be disqualified. But there were decisions of Committees of that House directly to the contrary effect. How were they to determine with such contradictory decisions before them.?
§ Sir George Warrender
thought it pretty clear, from the present discussion, that the Bill was good only for one party in the State, and that party was the lawyers. One man, it appeared, would be disfranchised because he did not choose to pay 1s.; another, because he did not pay his rates when they were demanded; and a third, because he did not pay rates before they were due, and before any application had been made to him for them. Thus was this incongruous 1409 and inconsistent Bill, fit for nothing but to furnish a rich harvest to be reaped by the lawyers.
The Attorney General
strongly condemned the system of asking and discussing questions upon points of law in that House. There were thirty or forty Gentlemen, each coming from a different place, and with different local circumstances as the foundation of his question, and each expecting to get an answer satisfactory and conclusive. He had always said, he would not answer any question which he had not on black and white, with the circumstances fully before him. He had given the same answer to his right hon. friends near him. For his own part he did not anticipate that there would be those difficulties in the way of the voter under this Bill which some imagined there would be; but he was quite sure that opinions hastily given, various and contradictory, such as were uttered in discussions of the kind then going on, and which by some means found their way out of doors, could only be productive of mischief.
thought his hon. and learned friend forgot that they sat in that House to correct the law. It was their duty to change the law if it was not adequate to its purposes; and if they were not to be permitted to discuss the state of the law, how could they discharge that part of their duty? As to the Reform Act, if it were to be allowed to go to the country in its present state, so far from there being any tribunal for interpreting its meaning hereafter, he did not believe there would be Members enough to form even one Election Committee. He had risen to mention a report he had heard very much to the credit of the right hon. Secretary for Ireland (Mr. Stanley), namely, that he had summoned all the practising barristers to Dublin to consult upon the Bill, and come to some understanding upon its provisions, in order that there might be but one interpretation of it extant in the elections. He hoped this report was true, for it was a most discreet and useful step.
§ Colonel Torrens
said, that from his information it did not appear that there would be those obstructions to the voters, which were anticipated from the defective wording of the Bill.
§ Mr. Harvey
did not think it just to require any pledge from Government respecting the re-assembling of Parliament, until they had seen the Returns from different parts of the country. If they then found that the constituency generally was much narrowed, Parliament, no doubt, ought to 1410 be called upon to apply a remedy. But if the inconvenience existed in one or two places, the mere result of accident, then he thought it would be unreasonable to put hon. Members to so much inconvenience.
§ Petition ordered to be printed.