§ MR. WHALLEY
asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, If he intends to proceed with the Prison Ministers Bill at this late period of the Session; and, if so, if he would state to the House the considerations which induce him to consider the measure as urgent?
said, the second reading of the Bill was down for Monday, when he hoped to have an opportunity of bringing it on. The urgency of the case depended upon those general considerations of justice, mercy, and humanity which induced the House some years ago to pass a measure on this subject that was undoubtedly imperfect. A Committee of the House had recommended an extension of the Act; the other House had approved such extension by passing this Bill; and he hoped this House would pass it too.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
Sir, I wish for one moment to allude to a matter connected with the passage of this Bill through the House which has been touched upon by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire, and commented upon by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury admitted that he had threatened this House with a change of its forms in consequence of the conduct of hon. Members who sit principally on this side of the House, and I desire to call the attention of the House to the particular occasion on which the menace was used. How the right hon. Gentleman is to change the forms of the House without its consent, I know not; unless it is through the absolute command which he supposed he could exercise over the majority, but that menace was made, Sir, before the Bill went into Committee. And what was the occasion on which it was made? By some arrangement there was no debate on the second reading of this Bill. There were some hon. Members, however, including the Member for the Eastern Division of the West Riding (Mr. Fielden) and myself, with other hon. Members of this side of the House, who desired to take part in the debate, and we adopted a perfectly legitimate means of procuring a debate upon the principle of the Bill, but then the First Lord of the Treasury rose and 1089 threatened to change the forms of the House, unless we consented to yield our privileges. Seeing, then, that our discussions were commenced in Committee with a threat like this hanging over us, I ask whether it is not almost inevitable that certain feelings should enter into the discussion of every clause, and that Members should insist upon discussing the clauses, and endeavour not only to amend the form of the Bill, and thus to save the credit of the House, but also strive to vindicate the independence of the great body of Members of this House against an attempt at coercion I really think without parallel, far more audacious than the examples of coercion which have been adduced by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. H. Richard), on the part of the Court of Chancery over the tenants and farmers in Wales. I wish to call the attention of the House to this. I am weary of hearing hon. Members opposite proclaiming that the establishment of secret voting is to be the foundation of freedom. Why, this Bill has been canvassed and commented upon in the United States, and the Americans say that its stringent provisions, its attempts to enforce secrecy, are of such a character that they would not be submitted to by the people of the United States, who would consider such provisions a gross infraction of their freedom. I would advert to another circumstance, I adverted to this yesterday, but it was in a very thin House. It is well known that in the United States a system of coercion is practised under the Ballot, and more effectually practised when the Ballot has been most secret than when it has been most open. Under that system whole sections of voters are coerced into voting not only for an individual candidate, but for an entire list of candidates, which often include amongst them persons to whom they have the greatest objection. That is a known fact. It is admitted in the document which I read to the House; and to tell me that we are to promote the real freedom of the subject by adopting a system fraught with this covert coercion, which compels men to vote for candidates by the ticket or in the lump, is nothing else than to insult the understanding of those who know that this House has, by the measures it has adopted to secure purity of election, secured freedom, as far as it is possible 1090 to do so, in the election of Members of this House. With the view I suppose, however, of counteracting this American system of coercion what do we find in this Bill? We find that the regulations which are rendered necessary by its imperfect form and want of adequate details, are all to be made by a political officer of the Crown, a distinguished Member of this House, who must be a partisan. Nay, it may be that the Secretary of State, in whom this vast discretionary power of making rules which are to have the force of law, will be a Peer; and I ask whether a greater infraction of the whole system by which the freedom of election to this House has been secured, can be contemplated than is contemplated by the clause which enables a Secretary of State, it may be a Peer, and certainly a partisan, to frame rules which are to have the force of law in regulating the returns of Members to this House. I am sorry that what I said yesterday on this subject does not appear to have reached the public; but I will take care that it shall reach the public. The House of Lords has recently had experience of a rough exercise of the Prerogative, and when we hear ambiguous threats held out against that branch of the Legislature, if it exercises an independent judgment, following upon menaces to this House, I call upon the Peers, as I call upon every Member of this House, and every citizen, to repudiate this Bill, and thus secure the independence of both branches of the Legislature, which I hold to be deeply imperilled by the character of this Bill, which, in examination in the United States, has been condemned as containing provisions which the Republicans of that country would never submit to. I entertain a strong objection to the whole system of secrecy, because it tends only to promote the action of faction underground; secrecy is everywhere and always the forerunner of despotism, the precursor of a loss of freedom.
§ MR. SPEAKER
said, the Bill stood for consideration on Monday next, and therefore it could not be discussed now.
§ MR. NEWDEGATE
said, he was speaking of the manner in which the Order of the House had been used. The Bill was brought from the Lords on the 27th of March, it was printed on the 30th, and that morning at 3 o'clock the second reading was deferred for the 14th 1091 time. He was sure, from observations which had fallen from the Secretary of State, that he had postponed the Bill intentionally until a great number of Members had left town. He moved the adjournment of the House.
§ MR. WHALLEY
said, he rose to offer further justification of the Question he had addressed to the Home Secretary. The considerations of humanity and justice pleaded by the right hon. Gentleman would be appreciated when it was remembered that a Return presented to that House showed that only 4 per cent of the Roman Catholic prisoners wished to have the ministrations, or, in other words, the control, of their priests. The Bill, therefore, was brought forward not on behalf of the prisoners, but solely on behalf of the priesthood.
§ MR. WHALLEY
said, his observations bore directly upon the very words of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State's reply. The conduct of the Government with regard to this Bill was calculated to lower the character of the House and to deprive them of that moral influence and authority which were so beneficial in their legislation.
§ MR. COLLINS
said, as one who supported the first Prison Ministers Bill, and in the West Riding had voted for the appointment of a Roman Catholic chaplain, he thought the House had some reason to complain of the postponement of a Bill of this magnitude, which involved the important principle of substituting compulsion for permission.
said, that he, too, supported the original Prison Ministers Bill. He thought the Bill was one which could not be properly considered at the fag end of the Session.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.