HC Deb 09 June 1809 vol 14 cc975-87

On the motion of Mr. Curwen, the house proceeded to the order of the day, for the further consideration of the Report of the Seats in Parliament Bill. On the question that the Amendments be read a second time, Mr. G. Johnstone stated, that having some further observations to make upon this measure, he should reserve what he had to say till the question should be put, that the Bill be engrossed. After a short conversation between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Bankes, and lord Porchester, the house resolved itself into a committee to reconsider the bill, so far as related to the first clause.—In the committee, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed an amendment, by which the penalty for making a gift or promise of money in order to obtain a return to parliament, was fixed at 1,000l. (besides the original 5001.), and the person so making a gift or promise of money was to be rendered incapable of sitting in parliament for the county, city, borough, &c. for which he should be in this manner returned. This amendment was agreed to, after a short discussion, in which Mr. Bankes, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Ponsonby, the Solicitor General, and Mr. Tierney, participated. The Report was then brought up on the house being resumed, when Mr. Bankes moved an amendment to the amendment adopted in the committee, that the disqualification should operate as to the whole of the parliament, to which such undue return may have been obtained. A short discussion ensued, when a division took place. For Mr. Bankes's amendment, 49—Against it, 71. Majority 25.

On the re-admission of strangers, we found the house occupied ingoing through the various amendments of the bill. Upon reading the clause originally proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for imposing a penalty on persons transferring services for seats,

Lord Milton

moved, that the word "express" should be left out of that clause. The effect of leaving that term in the bill would be to augment the baneful influence of the crown in parliament, by throwing into the patronage of the Treasury all the boroughs of the kingdom. But the bill had been so mutilated in all its parts, and was so ill calculated to effect its professed objects, that although he might succeed in persuading the house to leave out the term to which he objected, he should still feel it his duty to vote against the bill.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

contended, that if the word objected to by the noble lord were to be left out, the clause would be monstrous, and no person who might be returned after a contested election, could have any security, if he had at any time within the preceding seven years procured an office for a friend, that it might or would not be charged upon him as having been obtained with a view to the election. He was therefore of opinion that the word should stand in the bill.

Lord Porchester

thought that nothing could be more puerile, or preposterous, than the bill with this expression in the clause. He contended, that neither a jury, nor a committee of that house, on their oaths, would put any but the fair construction upon such grants as those alluded to by the right hon. gentleman. It was, in fact, required of them in this instance, to give that confidence to ministers, which they were not to give to the courts of justice, or to committees of that house. If they should adopt the clause with this word in it, what would the country think of them, but that they gave not only a pre-emption but an exclusive right to the Treasury, and that, too, at a time when they professed it to be their object to do away the practice of disposing of seats altogether? If they should not get rid of the word, he thought that they ought at least to get rid of the clause.

The Solicitor-General

argued in support of the clause as it stood. He did not think that any very serious danger could result from its operation, because the administration could not possibly have at their disposal places enough to barter for all the seats for boroughs; but if they had, they could not do better than to give them to the friends of their opponents, and then they might get rid of them altogether. On the whole, he thought the particular wording of the clause absolutely necessary to the efficiency of the bill to its object; because the great purpose for which it had been brought in was to prevent the wholesale disposal of seats in that house for money.

Sir F. Burdett

thought the bill itself so nugatory, that he felt no interest for its success; but he thought the zeal of the learned gentleman who spoke last had got the better of his prudence, as a member of the government. While he was arguing so strenuously against the amendment, he was always supposing such a corrupt state of things to exist, as absolutely made it necessary for something to be done. The whole effect which his speech had produced upon his mind was to make him think that the amendment against which he had argued ought to be adopted. He seemed to take for granted that the existence of administration was only to be preserved by corruption, which was precisely what this bill proposed to counteract. As to the distinction which had been taken between giving money and giving an office for the purpose of obtaining a seat, he was so far from agreeing with it that his opinion was directly on the other side. The learned gent. had said, that offices might be given innocently, but money never could, and the guilt must necessarily attach to the person giving money. He would allow that giving money was now prohibited, and therefore it was illegal; but if it was not that it was prohibited by law, he could not see how more guilt could attach to giving money, than to giving an office, or to any other species of corruption. He thought that of all species of corruption the giving of money was not only the least injurious, but the most innocent. If those boroughs must be still kept open for the purpose of traffic, it was the least mischievous mode of trafficking. He knew that it was a common saying, "the man who buys supposes that he has a right to sell," but he also knew many instances of persons who purchased their seats with the intention of acting independently, and who did so act. A member who came in as representative of his own money might act independently if he would; but those who were returned by the corruption of office, come into the house bound, as it were, hand and foot, and had not the power of acting independently. As to the pensioned parliament of Charles II. that had been so often thrown in the teeth of the Tory administration of those times, the excuse given was, that such was the modesty of those times, that many would accept a pension secretly, who would be ashamed to hold an office. In the present times it was also known, that many would accept a bribe when gilded with the name of an office, who would be ashamed to take a bribe in money. He, therefore, thought, that, of all manner of corruptions, corruption by offices was the worst and most dangerous. As to the influence of the crown, he always thought that the monopoly of the borough mongers was as injurious to the legitimate rights of the sovereign, as to the interests of the people. The argument of the learned gentleman had been defective in supposing that it had ever been represented that all the seats in parliament could be purchased directly by offices. What had been said was, that the patronage of the ministers would, when all competition was taken away, have a preponderating influence in the boroughs. Every body, however, knew that the patronage of ministers went much further than the word offices expressed. Government had patronage enough not only to purchase a majority of seats in that house, but to purchase almost the whole of them if they thought proper. It was from the speech of the learned gentleman, that he was convinced that the amendment was proper.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, that the inconveniences which would follow from adopting the Amendment, appeared to him to be far greater than those which would follow from rejecting it. If this word, "express," were inserted in the bill, then it would be found impossible to convict any body under the strongest and clearest circumstances, to prove that guilt, which the object of this bill was to guard against. By leaving this word in the bill, they would be doing nothing less than proclaiming to the people, that offices, titles, situations and contracts, might be used secretly for the purpose of procuring seats in parliament; for unless it should appear to a jury, a judge, or a committee, that an express contract or agreement could be brought forward, no punishment should follow. He thought that when money was excluded from the market, offices, titles, and other favours which ministers had to bestow, would be more operative. If it were once laid down, that money might not be given, but that offices, contracts, and such like might, it could not be denied that these considerations were equally corrupt, and ought equally to be guarded against. He did fear that this one word "express" would do more to increase the influence of the Treasury than the rest of the bill would do to diminish it.

Sir W. Lemon

was ready to agree to any measure for reforming the existing corruptions, but must unquestionably vote against the clause, if the word "express" were retained.

Mr. Curwen

thought that the adherence of gentlemen to this word, did call very much into question the sincerity of their offers of supporting the bill. From what he had observed of the administrations of the country, the government appeared rather inclined to rule by numbers than by the affection which must result from promoting the happiness of the people. It appeared to him that this word would defeat the main object of the bill, which was to rescue the character of the house, and gain the confidence of the people. He thought the people would construe this clause as a mode of protecting that corruption, which it was intended to destroy. He certainly did think that the corruption of money was of all others the most debasing, but he contended both against the corruption of money and of office. If he could, however, remedy only one of them at present, he thought it was an object gained of too much importance to abandon the bill, even though loaded with clauses and provisions of which he did not approve.

Sir John Newport

said that there was a double disadvantage in the corruption by office. The office was badly discharged, and the country had neither an independent member, nor a good officer.

Mr. Grattan

agreed entirely with his hon. friend, in wishing for the adoption of the bill. The rejection of it might insure ministers a corrupt majority in parliament; the adoption of it would afford the people, at least, a chance of independence. He declared his intention to vote against the insertion of the term "express," although it was his determination to support the bill were that term even admitted to stand part of the clause. There were defects in the bill, which did not arise from the hon. mover, but were introduced from a quarter not equally interested in its success; still, however, he would support it, because it appeared to him to be a declaration of the common law of the land, and a reassertion of the constitution. By the common law of the land, any minister who procured by money seats in parliament was guilty of a breach of the constitution, and punishable by impeachment. He would suppose a consequence of that bill, which he was not inclined to admit in fact, that the entire monopoly of the purchase of seats would be exclusively confined to the ministers. If any minister did act upon such a principle by taking advantage of his exclusive possession of the market, he (Mr. Grattan) was certain that the notoriety would be enough to remove him. He would rather that the whole clause should be expunged than the word "express" should be retained but at all events, he should vote for the bill, as he considered it the restoration of a constitutional principle; the common law was now practically repealed, and it required to be revived by statute. The bill (owing to its modifications) might not immediately produce the benefits intended; but it might operate slowly, and in the end produce such happy consequences. He was in favour of the oath; there were many other clauses which he considered advantageous, but so great was his attachment to the principle, that he would take it even destitute of those provisions.

Mr. Secretary Canning

agreed with what had fallen from the right hon. gent. who spoke last. He thought that it was of the utmost importance to the house and to the country, that this bill should pass. Compared with the advantages of passing such a bill, he thought the objections to any particular clause or amendment were unimportant. The principle of the bill was of more value than the details, and yet it appeared to him that the attention of the house had been this night distracted from the principle, in the consideration of the wording of this Amendment. If they were to look at the history of the bill, they would find that it originated in considering the broad fact of persons obtaining seats in that house by the payment of a sum of money. Another case afterwards arose in the course of the debate, of offices being transferred for seats. If, then, the house were now to provide remedies for the two cases which had been so stated, it appeared to him that they would have fully discharged their duty. The whole object of the clause introduced by his right hon. friend (the Chancellor of the Exchequer,) was, that the house should take care, while they punished the guilty, not to spread a net which might catch those who had disposed of offices with the most innocent intentions. He could not agree with those who thought that this clause, having the word "express" in it, so vitiated the whole bill, as to make it useless. He was sure that his right hon. friend who introduced it could not have intended it as a screen or protection to himself, for no one man could be freer from suspicion of such practices; but the danger of punishment was not so much for those who gave offices as for those who asked for them and obtained them. If this opinion of implied contracts were to prevail, a minister must no longer consult his friends upon appointments to office, but must go among the ranks of his political enemies, to consider who had been so decidedly hostile to him either in private life or in public, that he might venture to give him a place without suspicion of looking for a vote. We should soon see it in the papers that on such a day a gentleman went over to the other side of the house, and made a furious attack upon ministers, for the purpose of qualifying himself to hold a high situation. Suppose, for the sake of argument, his hon. friend, the member for Yorkshire (Mr. Wilberforce), should be asked to recommend any voter to a vacant place, say that of receiver general, why his catechism must be this:—"Did you vote or procure any vote for me at the election, or did any person in affinity with you, or any person connected with you, vote for me"? and if the voter answered in the affirmative, why his hon. friend must in prudence say—"Then I cannot recommend you, Sir, for there is a case in which the suspicion of an implied contract might arise, which, under the provision of Mr. Curwen's Bill, may expose me to the loss of my scat." [Hear! hear!] This would be the aukward situation to which members would be reduced. It was impossible that any minister could be personally acquainted with all the men that it was necessary for him to place in offices. He could only take the recommendation of his friends, and of those gentlemen, who, from their local situation, were acquainted with the persons, or their fitness for the offices to which they recommended them. If local influence was to be altogether abolished, it would be necessary in every office as well as in the Excise, to transplant men from Lancaster to Cornwall, or the most distant parts of the kingdom, in order that they might have no local attachments, nor the power of obliging any one by a vote. He hoped that notwithstanding the paternal feeling which the hon. gent. (Mr. Curwen) might be naturally expected to entertain for his bill, he would not altogether abandon it on account of this alteration.

Mr. Whitbread

said, that if the object of the right hon. gent., was merely to entertain the house, and display his great command of the English language, he certainly had accomplished that, object, as he had amused the house, and shewn his power of words; but if he expected to convince any single member of that house that the word "express" ought to be suffered to remain in the clause, he had completely failed. He had concluded by saying, he hoped the hon. gent. (Mr. Curwen,) would have too strong a parental feeling for his bill, to abandon it in consequence of this alteration. Although the original bill might be called the child of the mover, yet if that child had been changed, and another put in its place of very different features and complexion, he did not see that any parental feeling called upon him to adopt what was not so much his own child, as the child of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He thought light and darkness were not more opposite than the principle of the original bill, and the clause which was now proposed to be amended. As to the history of the bill, he must beg leave to set the right hon. the Secretary right. It did not originate from a discovery that seats had sometimes been obtained for a sum of money, but it was at the time that the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer was bringing in his Bill against brokers trafficking in places and offices, that his hon. friend had proposed to introduce a clause against trafficking for Seats in Parliament, which it was afterwards thought better to bring forward, in the shape of a separate bill. The necessity of some sort of a bill to prevent this corrupt traffic was made most evident by the specific and unmistakeable transaction of lord Castlereagh. He considered that that decision would remain on the records of the house, a lasting memorial of the intention of the house to screen delinquents. After that transaction, it was impossible that his hon. friend (Mr. Curwen,) should not have the corruption by the grant of offices, fully as much in his contemplation, as the corruption by money. If the right hon. Secretary would now lay aside all the fanciful suppositions and extravagant conceits with which he had amused the house, and come to sober reasoning on the subject, he thought it was impossible for him to say, that such a case as he had supposed for his hon. friend (Mr. Wilberforce,) or such topics as he had urged, could by any possibility have the least weight before any committee of the house, or any jury, or any man upon oath. He would indeed appeal to the right hon. gent. himself, dropping the extravagance of his conceit, whether he could seriously believe that any committee of gentlemen, upon their oaths, could possibly decide that such a case came within the purview of this clause, or whether any jury could so determine? Sure he was, that it would not require a tenth part of the ingenuity to guard against any such decision that was this night employed to palliate the proposition of ministers. The apprehension was quite fanciful, and the bill would, in fact, be nugatory, if this word "express" were not omitted. If it were retained, his full persuasion was, that its effect would be to protect the corruptions of government, and to deprive the people of any advantage which the bill was otherwise calculated to afford.—A right hon. and learned gent. (the Solicitor General) had stated, that if this word "express" was not to stand in the clause, the table of the house would be covered with petitions, which would have no other foundation but some of these implied contracts. Now, he would tell that right hon. and learned gent., that if he happened to argue professionally against the petitioners under such circumstances, he need not exert much, of his zeal, or much of his eloquence, to persuade the committee that such petitions should be rejected as frivolous or vexatious. This being the case, the evil so much feared, of the table being covered with frivolous petitions, would be able to correct itself. As for the supposition of the ministers ever being obliged to go to their political enemies to recommend them persons to fill offices, that supposition could have been only made to produce a laugh: for he would venture to say, that if any of the opponents of the ministers were to recommend a person for a place, ministers would always shew sufficient firmness to resist such a recommendation. The alterations which had been made in the bill were in its most important and efficient parts. In the first place, the house could not bear that its members should be obliged to take the oath with the penalties of perjury annexed to it. Those who elected them were, however, obliged to take such an oath, and therefore it appeared that it was not intended that there should be any equal justice between the electors and the elected. The people must believe, that the reason the oath was left out was, that the house wished to screen corruption in its own members, and were afraid of their incurring the penalties of perjury. After they had thus got rid of the most operative part of the bill, they introduce this word "express," which they did not borrow from any act of parliament in existence, and which would effectually protect all corrupt proceedings of theirs in the disposal of offices. He would ask whether had this bill passed some time ago, gentlemen would not have been found to defend the traffic of lord Castlereagh with Reding, upon the ground that it was not an "express" contract? [No, said Mr. Perceval across the table.] Mr. W. declared his belief of the contrary; and, if the right hon. gent. thought otherwise, why did he defend the act of lord Castlereagh, which, according to the undisputed authority of the chair, was a violation of the law of parliament, and which law the preamble of this bill declared to be the principle of the constitution? But he valued not that declaration of the law of parliament as much as other gentlemen did. What availed the recognition or a principle, if that recognition was accompanied by a palliative for its violation? If ministers were provided with a protection which would enable them to violate the law with impunity, the law would be utterly useless. Indeed it would be worse than useless—it would be mischievous; and, however the house might be deceived by such a measure, they might rely that the public would not be deceived by it. The public would see that a bill originally introduced to guard against the operation of undue influence in that house was so contrived in its passage through the house, as to aggravate the evil complained of by giving a predominant influence to government. In fact, such a bill, with the insertion of this word "express," promised no good, and threatened much harm. The people of England would naturally enough believe that this word had been introduced as a shield for all manner of corruption on the part of ministers, and to take away all protection from it on the part of the country. He had so strong an objection to this word standing part of the clause, that if it were to continue in it he should find himself obliged to vote against the bill.

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, that in the case alluded to, with respect to the barter of a writership for a seat in parliament, it was determined that the intention of the agreement had not been carried into effect, and that was the cause of the transaction not being punished, which was an acknowledgment, that if it had been carried into effect it would have been punished, and this implied acknowledgment ought therefore to be satisfactory on that head.

Mr. Lyttleton

said, he was a friend to parliamentary reform being brought about by moderate means, and as such hailed the present bill with pleasure; but the alterations it had undergone had changed its character, and reduced it to a mere nullity. He had expected much from this bill at the outset, but it had since been so mutilated, and would be so totally changed if the word objected to were retained, that he could not think of supporting the shadow when the substance was gone. He lamented very seriously the conduct of ministers, who were pursuing a course calculated to disappoint the reasonable expectations of the country, for that moderate reform which he would prefer to any violent change.

The question being loudly called for, the house divided and the numbers were,

For inserting the word "express" 97
Against it 74
Majority —23

Upon the motion that the bill be engrossed,

Mr. Whitbread

declared, that not expecting to be present at the third reading of the bill, he took that opportunity of declaring his most decided disapprobation of it as it now stood, as considering it at once scandalous and disgraceful.

Mr. Curwen

declared his determination of supporting the bill even in its present shape, under the hope that it still would be productive of some good, for he could not believe that any ministers would dare to abuse the principle so openly acknowledged by it.

Mr. W. Smith

conceived that the bill as it stood, if disgraceful to the house, as asserted by his hon. friend, would at least not be so to the bringer in of it. But he considered that the effect of it would be to narrow the entrance into that house, between the Treasury and the popular boroughs.

Mr. Tierney,

though unwilling to accede to the bill in its present mutilated state, yet would not oppose it for the little good it might effect.

Mr. Whitbread

declared, that in the present state of the house, after members had gone away, he would not delay the public business, by dividing it on the question.

Lord Milton

had no idea of gentlemen retiring from their duty as a reason for not taking the sense of the house, where he felt his duly required if, and determined to do it on the present occasion.

Mr. Ponsonby

said that under the understanding general on these occasions, he would be better pleased not to divide the house; but if it took place, he would give the same vote he meant to give on the passing of the bill. He was never better satisfied of any thing than of the purity of the hon. member who brought in the bill. But when he found the bill as it now stood contained only three lines and a half of that which was originally brought in, it would do more to destroy the Constitution than any act passed since the Revolution.

The house divided on the motion, when the question of engrossment was carried;

Ayes 84
Noes 33
Majority —51