March 23, 1812: Bill Respecting Bankrupt Members

On March 23, 1812,  the Bill Respecting Members Who Become Bankrupts came for a second reading in the British House of Commons. The bill would force a bankrupt Member of Parliament to vacate his seat.  The bill was discussed on March 16, 1812. The British House of Commons maintains a vestige of this law in that Members of Parliament who become bankrupt or an equivalent status must vacate their seats. The vote was close with 22 for and 19 against the bill. One of the persons to speak against the bill was William Lamb, who would become prime minister, and is married to Lady Caroline Lamb. The debate of March 23, 1812 is reproduced below. 


HC Deb 23 March 1812 vol 22 cc146-8 146

Mr. Thompson moved the second reading of this Bill.

Mr. Wrottesley thought that it would be a hard case, in times like the present, for any man, who, by accident, might become a bankrupt, to be compelled to vacate his seat.

Mr. H. Smith could not see why persons who had suffered so severe an execution as an act of bankruptcy, should be more hardly punished than those who suf- 147 fered a less severe execution, but who were equally unable to pay their debts, The law ought to apply generally, or not at all. In the present situation of the country, the mere circumstance of becoming a bankrupt did not, in his opinion, render a man unworthy of a seat in that House. He trusted some consideration would be had for those whose bankruptcies were attributable to misfortune alone; and he declared that he had known more instances than one of bankrupts who had evinced by their conduct the highest sentiments of honour.

Mr. Lockhart thought great credit was due to the hon. gentleman who introduced this Bill into the House. So far were the provisions of it from imposing a particular hardship, that the various existing statutes, if they were strictly interpreted, would in his opinion disqualify a bankrupt from retaining his seat, and would authorise a motion for a new writ in the case of a bankruptcy. Now the proposed measure did not go to an immediate removal; but left the possibility of ultimately retaining the seat. He did not doubt that many bankrupts entertained sentiments of high honour; but such an argument as that, on that account alone, they should not vacate their seats, went against all qualifications whatever.

Mr. W. Smith contended, that the legislature had wisely declared, that a member of the House of Commons should have a certain qualification, that he might be independent of any corrupt motives. A bankrupt necessarily declared himself not worth a shilling, and were that the sole ground of objection to a bankrupts retaining his seat in parliament, he should think it amply sufficient.

Mr. Wynn observed, that the 300l. a year qualification required by the statute would be now equivalent to 1,000l. He thought it necessary to maintain the law of qualification in point of property in the elected as well as in the electors.

Mr. Lamb observed, that the Qualification Act provided, that a member should have a certain qualification when he took his seat, but further it did not go. He could not give his consent to a Bill which appeared to him to trench upon one of the first rights of the subject, namely an eligibility to sit in that House.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer allowed that the existing law was anomalous: for Irish members becoming bankrupts, vacated their seats, while English members did not; but the hon. gentleman who brought in the Bill, had introduced provisions from the Irish act, which were not applicable to the English law of bankrupts. To equalise the situation of the members of both countries in this respect, the law must be embarrassed with many provisions of a different nature. At present, the Bill appeared to him to be extremely defective. An interval of six months was allowed by it alter the bankruptcy, before the exclusion of the bankrupt from the House. In the course of that time, either by gift, bequest, or his own exertions, the bankrupt might become better qualified than when he originally entered parliament. On the whole, he thought it better to reject the Bill, than to admit it with all the embarrassing provisions with which it must necessarily be attended.

Mr. Thompson declared, that his object was to preserve, as much as possible, the independence of parliament, and to prevent persons who possessed no qualification, from sitting in that House, and making laws for the community. No doubt there were honourable bankrupts, but nine cases of bankruptcy out of ten, were attributable to folly and imprudence. A country magistrate would look shyly at a justice, who presumed to sit on the bench and admister the law, after having paid his creditors a shilling or half a crown in the pound; nor did he think such a person much more fit for a legislator.

Mr. Giddy supported the Bill, on the principle that power and property ought never to be separated; and therefore, that all members of that House ought to be duly qualified by the possession of certain property. Nothing had tended more to injure that House in the public opinion, than that bankrupts and insolvent persons had been allowed to sit among them; and he was anxious to remove this stain from their character.

The House then divided, For the second reading 22; Against it 19. Majority.

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