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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter XI. — Their Jealousy of Local Self-Government

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Chapter XI.

Their Jealousy of Local Self-Government.

The House of Lords, being an hereditary and aristocratic Chamber, has always shown a morbid jealousy and distrust of local self-government. This is perhaps inevitable. It is fortunately impossible to graft hereditary [unclear: egislators] upon the freely elected local bodies upon which the local [unclear: administration] of the country depends. Therefore the instinct of the hereditary Chamber is to limit their liberties, to curtail their authority, and [unclear: to] deny them the powers necessary for the due discharge of their functions. They have always done so, and so long as they remain the one unreformed [unclear: institution] in the country they always will. Considerable indignation was expressed, not unnaturally, at the conduct of the House of Lords in the last lays of the session of 1906, when they mutilated the Feeding of Children [unclear: in] Schools Bill by striking out the clause relating to Scotland. The Bill was an enabling measure giving permission to local authorities, if they thought it necessary in the interests of humanity and of education, to make provision for feeding children who came hungry to school. The Lords, [unclear: even] the most impecunious, have always enough to eat. None of that [unclear: fellow]-feeling which makes one wondrous kind moved them to have pity upon the hungry urchins who came breakfastless to school. There is little [unclear: doubt] that if they had followed their instincts they would have thrown the Bill but altogether. But they dared not do that. Scared by their own success [unclear: n] wrecking the Education Bill, they did not venture to reject that for the [unclear: Feeding] of Starving Scholars. But they could not resist the temptation [unclear: o] maim the Bill, and so they refused to allow it to apply to Scotland. The [unclear: case] in favour of extending it to Scotland was even stronger than that [unclear: n] favour of applying it to England and Wales. When the Bill was [unclear: before] the Commons it was opposed by several English members, but the [unclear: nly] opposition from the north of the Tweed came from a single member [unclear: sitting] for a University constituency. All the Scotch members elected by [unclear: Scotch] householders approved the Bill. In the nature of things Scotch [unclear: ocal] authorities are much less likely to abuse the permission given them [unclear: y] the measure than those in the South. But it so happened that although [unclear: Mr.] Craik, the solitary Scotch opponent of the Bill, utterly failed to gain [unclear: he] ear of the House of Commons, he had influence with Lord Balfour of [unclear: Balcarres], and B. of B. was the Lord of the House of Lords so far as Scottish [unclear: egislation] is concerned. Therefore the clause extending the Bill to Scotland [unclear: was] struck out. The Commons growled, but the last day of the session [unclear: ad] come, and they had to choose between the loss of the entire Bill or [unclear: f] acquiescing in what is facetiously described as the Lords' Amendment. [unclear: They] chose the latter alternative.

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It is very provoking no doubt, but, to use a homely metaphor, what can you expect of a pig but a grunt? The Lords but acted as they have always done. The real blame lies at the door of the nation which has, in its indolent apathy, suffered this obstructive institution to survive till the twentieth century.

The House of Lords has contributed but little to the constructive legislation of the last century. Its function has been negative, obstructive, and destructive. It has rejected measures of constructive statesmanship retarded for the lifetime of a generation the removal of ancient abuses and by the short-sighted Conservatism which has led it to reject reforms it has contributed to the destruction of institutions it sought to preserve. But with the exception of the three-cornered constituency, it has hardly created anything since the Reform Act of 1832 but the alderman. The alderman may indeed be regarded as almost the solitary monument of the legislative genius of the Upper House. He is a curious product of the attempt of the Peers to create a privileged order in the heart of our municipalities and county councils, and his existence recalls what was one of the most serious collisions between the Peers and the nation which have taken place since 1832.

The Municipal Reform Act of 1836 is justly regarded as one of the greatest of the reforms which owe their origin to the energy of the first Reform Parliament. But this great measure, which created anew the whole machinery of municipal government, narrowly escaped defeat through a collision between the two Houses. If the Bill had perished, the popular movement against the House of Lords would have assumed serious proportions; but the crisis was staved off by a series of mutual compromises, of which the alderman remains as the most conspicuous memorial. The Municipal Reform Bill, as it was sent down by the Lords to the Commons, was an entirely different measure from that which the Commons had sent up to the Lords. Not daring to reject outright a measure of reform which was not less obviously required by the necessities of the times than it was urgently demanded by the popular voice, the Peers allowed the Bill to pass its second reading, and then eviscerated it in Committee, exactly as they did with the Education Bill of 1906. The alterations which they effected afford a striking illustration of the extent to which their lordships, while appearing to improve a measure, can transform it so utterly as to make it unrecognisable by its authors. The Commons proposed to establish the municipal government of our boroughs on the broadest popular foundation. The householders were to elect the councillors by whom the whole government of the town, even to the nomination of its justices, was to be exercised. All the old system was swept away at a stroke, and the new corporations were left untrammelled to carry out the wishes of their constituents. Such was the Bill as it entered the House of Lords; such was not the Bill when it was sent back to the Commons. Unable to save the corrupt old system en masse from extinction, they endeavoured to snatch as many brands from the burning as they could. All the freemen were restored to the burgess roll. All the old town clerks were made irremovable. All the existing aldermen were secured the possession of seats in the new town councils for life. All the justices who sat on the bench in their corporate capacity were secured fixity of tenure. aldermen were to be elected for life by the town councillors, to form a kind of municipal life peerage in the heart of each corporation. The right to nominate justices was taken away from the councils. A high property page 66 qualification was insisted on for councillors, and Nonconformist councillors were excluded from any share in the exercise of corporation Church patronage. The appearance of the Bill as it emerged from the Upper House created a storm of indignation throughout the country. Ministers were implored to reject the Lords' amendments en bloc. This course was strongly pressed upon the Government by Mr. Roebuck; Mr. O'Connell was equally defiant of the Lords, but he thought the best method was to make what concessions they could, and then dare the Peers to throw out the Bill. His advice was taken. The Ministers refused to assent to the perpetuation of the town clerks and aldermen of the old system; they refused to re-enact the Test Act in relation to Church patronage; but they assented, with modifications, to the property qualification which lasted down to the last Parliament, to the continuance of the freemen, to the loss of the right to nominate justices, and to the institution of aldermen for a term of years. Thus the alderman was saved from extinction by the House of Lords, which renewed the lease of his existence and enabled him to secure to this day in Liverpool and elsewhere a Conservative majority in councils where, but for his presence, power would have passed into the hands of the Liberals. It is, perhaps, a righteous Nemesis that the aldermen in the London County Council were in after years to give solidity and strength to the Progressive majority in the body which rekindled the faith of the nation in democratic institutions.

There was some very plain speaking in the Commons in those days upon the conduct of the Lords. Sir William Molesworth declared that the Commons had gone too far in the path of compromise and concession.

Of what use was the House of Lords? Their conduct afforded the nation an easy and simple reply to that question. Their conduct was politically evil. On that subject every second person with whom he conversed held opinions not very dissimilar from his own. Let them pursue their course a little further and the period would quickly arrive (which he for one would be glad to see) when an end would be put to the privileges of an hereditary aristocracy—of that body which in his solemn belief could never be reformed save by being dissolved.

The reason for this irritation was stated by O'Connell, in a passage which is worth quoting, if only to illustrate the extent to which the House of Lords operated as a check on public business:—

See what an immense quantity of most useful measures had been stopped in the other House during the present session! Take England. What had become of the Executors and Administrators Bill—a Bill of the utmost importance, doing away with some of the grossest absurdities of the law? It was cushioned. What had become of the Execution of Wills Bill? Cushioned. What of the Prisoners' Counsel Bill? Cushioned. What of the Imprisonment for Debt Bill? Thrown out. Turn next to Ireland. What had become of the Irish Church Reform Bill—the first honest experiment to conciliate the people of Ireland by the Government of England? It was treated with indignity, wholesale indignity. Twenty-five clauses annihilated at one breath; they were struck out by the gross, and wholesale contumely as well as injustice was cast upon Ireland. What had become of the Irish Marriage Bill? It was thrown out; and what was the result? Why, that in every instance where illegal marriages had been effected the innocent child alone was left to be punished. What had become of the Irish Constabulary Bill? Thrown out on the most frivolous reason ever heard of. What had become of the Dublin Police Bill and the Irish Registry of Voters Bill? It was not yet destroyed; but he need not boast much of the spirit of prophecy to foretell what would become of that Bill. In short, as regarded England, the other House had evinced a determination to stop everything that was useful; and as to Ireland, they treated everything of conciliation or of justice with contumely and contempt.

The Dublin Police Bill and the Irish Registration Bill shared the fate which O'Connell predicted. The great Agitator spent the recess in haranguing vast assemblies in the North of England and in Scotland on the evils of the House of Lords.

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Thirty-seven years later the Peers threw out a bill introduced by Mr. Gladstone's first Administration for devising a method of terminating by the deadlock that had arisen over the question of the terminating aries of wards. Lord Salisbury detected in the proposal some political plot, and the Lords threw the Bill out by 77 votes to 56.

Between 1835 and 1872 the Lords enjoyed many opportunities of expressing their jealousy of the democratic system of opportunities of ment. In 1836 they refused to sanction the Poole Corporation Re-election Bill, which provided for the re-election of the Poole Corporation on account of the gross fraud which characterised the first election in that borough; and rejected by 43 votes to 27 the proposal to permit affirmations in lieu of oaths to coloration officials. So stubborn were they about the matter, that when the Commons, to meet their views, detached all the clauses to which the Lords had objected from the Municipal Bill and sent up a new measure consisting only of matter which had already received their lordships consent, it was incontinently rejected. Two years later a Bill giving borough justices the same control over borough gaols as that possessed by county justices over county gaols, permitting the appointment of a chaplain other than a clergyman of the Church of England and increasing the power of the Secretary of State, was rejected by 33 votes to 32. Nearly forty years later a Conservative Ministry carried a Prisons Act far more centralising than that which the Peers rejected in 1838.

In dealing with the question of Poor Law relief the Peers do not appear to so great a disadvantage as compared with the House of Commons. In the great Poor Law Act of 1834 most of their amendments were agreed to by the Commons, Lord Althorp somewhat significantly expressing his gratitude that their alterations had not made the Bill much worse. They occasionally have thrown out Bills providing for the more effective management of charitable trusts, but their action seems chiefly to have been prompted by an excessive jealousy of Nonconformity and an equally excessive anxiety for the protection of vested interests. For instance, Lord Lyndhurst complacently justified the rejection of the Charitable Trustees Bill of 1836 because it would have admitted Dissenters, if members of town councils, to a share in the management of funds hitherto exclusively in the hands of Churchmen. In 1835 they rejected a proposal to appoint Charity Commissioners to inquire into the public charities of England and Wales. Sometimes they interfered, as in 1836, to perpetuate the exemption of privileged corporations from liability to poor rate; and sometimes they interposed a peremptory veto upon a necessary measure for the reform of local taxation, as in 1873, when they rejected the Rating Act. Once in 1870 they went so far as to throw out a Bill, the loss of which, if it had not been promptly remedied, would have rendered it impossible to levy a rate for the poor in any parish in the kingdom; but this was exceptional.

The most conspicuous instance of late years in which the Lords showed their animus against the extension of self-government to the people of this country was the way in which they mangled the Parish Councils Bill of 1894. Here again, as in 1906, they shrank from giving effect to their feelings by throwing out a Bill they hated, so they set to work to mangle it. The story of their operations was set forth as follows in a leaflet issued at the time by the Liberal Publication Department:—

The first thing they did was to make the Parish Council optional in nearly 5,000 villages. The Commons, after several long debates, had decided that all parishes of more than 200 population should have a Parish Council. It took the House of Lords page 68 half an hour to alter 200 to 500. In other words, to obtain a Council in these villages with less than 500 population meant an agitation. Two Archbishops and 12 Bishops voted for and only 3 Bishops against this restrictive proposal, which was carried by 137 to 60.

The Lords then (by Go to 55) made District Councillors ex-officio members of the Parish Council. The desire for ex-officio members on elective bodies amounts to a passion with the Tory party.

The success of the first night's work was, however, to come—on Lord Selborne's proposal as to meetings in schoolrooms. The Bill provided that when no other public room is available the schoolroom of any school in receipt of a Government grant could be used for meetings (a) as to allotments, (b) by candidates for Parish Councils, and (c) for administrative purposes.

This most reasonable provision was soon swept away. In vain it was pointed out that in many cases the only alternativo to the schoolroom was the public-house. "Well," said Lord Salisbury, "why not?" All this objection to the public-house was "a mere piece of Puritanical humbug." The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on the same side. Two Archbishops and 13 Bishops voted in support of the public-house against the public schoolroom, and Lord Selborne's amendment was carried by 14S to 2S.

The second day in Committee was chiefly occupied with the allotment clauses, to which, as might be expected, the House of Landlords greatly objected.

The Liberal plan for acquiring land compulsorily was this: The Parish Council made a representation on the subject to the District Council. The District Council inquired into the matter and reported to the Local Government Board, who were empowered to make an order for the purchase of the land without any application to Parliament.

After Lord Winchilsea had substituted the County for the District Council, Lord Salisbury proposed that instead of a Local Government Board order, a Provisional Order requiring confirmation by Parliament should be necessary.

He would not be a party to "surrendering the guarantees which property has always had." The Earl of Selborne suggested that it might be loft to the County Council. This didn't suit Lord Salisbury at all—it was not difficult and expensive enough.

"Let them think," he said, "of the case of Wales, and having seen something of the operation of the County Council in that principality, consider how far it would be fair to landowners and large fanners to trust their interests entirely to those bodies."

This merely meant, of course, that nearly all the Welsh County Councils have Liberal majorities. Equally, of course, Lord Salisbury got (by 150 to 54) his Provisional Order. It need hardly be added that a Provisional Order costs a great deal of money, and involves much delay. It is because it is costly and dilatory that Lord Salisbury insisted on it.

The clause was finally mutilated by the Duke of Richmond's motion striking out the words which secured that no compensation was to be paid on account of the land being taken compulsorily. This was carried by 114 to 21.

The hiring clause was wrecked in a like manner, and thus the easily workable allotment clauses were altered in such a way as to make them practically useless.

The third day in Committee was largely spent on the compounding householder question, but time was found for spoiling the Charities Clause. The sub-section embodying Mr. Cobb's amendment, ana giving to the Parish Council the right of appointing a majority of the trustees for Parish Charities, was struck out by 80 to 19.

Lord Harrowby completed what Lord Selborne had begun by getting a new clause carried (by 103 to 23), omitting from the Bill all charities, vested in a minister either of the Church of England or of any other denomination. This kept under the control of the Church a host of charities which ought to be managed by the parish.

Lord Salisbury refused to strike out the clause by which magistrates were to be no longer ex-officio Guardians. Lord Salisbury's reason reminds one of the incompetent judge of whom it was said that even when he was right, he was right on wrong grounds. Lord Salisbury threw over the magistrates—because they might in future be appointed for party reasons! Now that the county bench is no longer to be a Tory landlord preserve, the Tories have to find some new mode of defending the sacred rights of property. It isn't safe any longer to look to magistrates who may not bo Tories.

The fourth day opened with the creation of some more ex-officios—County Councillors were to sit on Boards of Guardians, and Local Government Board nominees on the London Boards of Guardians were to be retained. More stumbling-blocks in the way of the elective system.

On the Tory proposal as to the compound householder, even the Duke of Devonshire page 69 revolted, and Lord Salisbury had to give way with the best grace he could after declaring that the principle of the Bill is to enable those who are not rated to rate those who are."

The Tories soon made up, however, for lost time. By 54 to 18 the clause was struck out by Which Chairmen of District Councils were to be magistrates. By 107 to 26 the Lords cut out the clause by which the London Vestries were to be elected on a demo cratic basis.

One of the excuses given for cutting out the reform of the London Vestries was that its effect was not sufficiently considered in the Commons. But this was a mere excuse The Lords did not hesitate to mangle clauses to which the House of Commons had given many days of discussion.

Thus ended a week's work at wrecking, and such would have been the Bill if the Lords had been allowed to have had their way.

The Liberal party, however, rejected all these amendments, and sent the Bill back to the Lords.

After much sending of the Bill backward and forward the Lords withdrew all the amendments to which the Commons seriously objected, excepting two: that 300 instead of 200 be the limit of population above which a village was obliged to form a Parish Council, and that in the case of non-ecclesiastical charities, where none of the trustees are elected directly or indirectly by the ratepayers, the Parish Council may only elect additional trustees as allowed by the Charity Commissioners. These were accepted under protest by the Commons.

It was in announcing the decision of the Government to accept these amendments under protest that led Mr. Gladstone, in the last speech he ever made in the House of Commons, to make his famous declaration of war against the House of Lords. He said:—

The question now is, whether the judgment of the House of Lords is not merely to modify but is to annihilate the whole work of the House of Commons—work which has been performed at an amount and sacrifice of time, labour, convenience, and perhaps health, totally unknown to the House of Lords. . . . We are compelled to accompany that acceptance [of these amendments] with the sorrowful declaration that the differences not of a temporary or casual nature merely, but differences of conviction, differences of prepossession, differences of mental habit, and differences of fundamental tendency between the House of Lords and the House of Commons appear to have reached a development in the present year such as to create a state of things of which we are compelled to say that in our judgment it cannot continue. . . . The issue which is raised between a deliberative Assembly, elected by the votes of more than six millions of people, and a deliberative Assembly occupied by many men of virtue, many men of talent, of course with considerable diversities and varieties, is a controversy which, once raised, must go forward to its issue. No doubt there is a higher authority than the House of Commons. It is the authority of the nation, which must in the last resort decide.—(March 6, 1804.)

In the same year, acting under the sinister guidance of Lord Balfour of Balcanes, the Lords made hay of the Scotch Parish Council Bill which the Government perforce accepted "under the pressure of superior numbers."

The jealousy of the House of Lords towards local governing bodies has been conspicuously demonstrated in its dealings with the London County Council. Although this body was brought into existence as the result of a measure passed by a Conservative Government, the Peers have ever acted as churlish obstructors of their own creation.

A whole chapter might be devoted to the dealings of the House of Lords with London. But their opposition to bringing the tramways across the bridges and along the Embankment is too recent to be forgotten, and as for their previous acts of hostility, it may be sufficient to quote here the words of the late Lord Hobhouse, himself a member of the House of page 70 Lords, although he had but slight respect for his fellow legislators. He says:—

In the session of 1893 there arose in the House of Lords what is known as the Betterment question. The London County Council had for some years been endeavouring to levy a special impost on properties enhanced by the expenditure of London public funds. After some objectionable plans, they produced one, on which in the Council itself there was no dissent, and which was approved by large majorities in the House of Commons. Now for some reason or other the London Council has from the moment of its birth been the object of extreme animosity among the Conservative party and in the House of Lords. When this measure came before the Lords it was practically (the exact form may be passed over) thrown out without examination. Their formal plea was that such proposals ought not to be made in a private Bill. The arguments presented were denunciations partly of something which, in the absence of examination, was supposed to be the measure, and partly of the London Council itself. Before the question came on again I took pains to make a detailed statement of facts, from which I showed—first, that the House, refusing a proper examination by Committee, rejected the proposal under glaring misconceptions of its nature; and secondly, that its action was unusual, harsh, and productive of great public inconvenience. I further showed that in the same session the Loudon Council had come to ask for just five things beyond their ordinary requirements—viz., the opening of Lincoln's Inn Fields; permission to spend some money on important inquiries; a voice in the conservancy of the Thames; a more adequate voice in the conservancy of the Lea; and Betterment. All five were granted by the House of Commons, and all five refused by the Lords.