HC Deb 05 May 1809 vol 14 cc380-92
Mr. Madocks

rose to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice some days ago, relating to corrupt practices of the Treasury with respect to the return of Members to Parliament. He observed, that he was fully aware that he had no claim on the attention of the house, but that which he derived from the very important nature of the subject that he felt it his duty to lay before them. The task he had undertaken was most ungracious and unpleasant; and nothing but a strong sense of public duty should have induced him to place himself in the situation of becoming the accuser of any man. It would not be necessary for him to trespass long upon the indulgence of the house. The substance of the motion he meant to propose lay in a very narrow compass. It consisted in a charge of corrupt practices against two of its members. He wished only to be permitted to make one prefatory observation, and it was this, that the facts that came to his knowledge were so dangerous, so prejudicial to the genuine spirit and principles of the constitution, that he would have justly merited to be stigmatized as a traitor to his country if he had declined to lay them before the house. Before he proceeded further, he would move that the several entries on the Journals relating to the proceedings against the two Shepherds, members of that house, be read. [The clerk here read the entry, dated the 13th of Feb. 1700, in which it was stated, that Samuel and Francis Shepherd, esqrs. members of that house, were ordered to attend in their places, on charges of corrupt practices respecting seats in parliament; also the entry dated Feb. 15, 1700, specifying, that corruption had been practised on the electors of Newport, in the Isle of Wight, Malmsbury, Wootton Basset, and other places; also the entry of March 18th, 1700, stating, that Messrs. Shepherds had been heard in their places, and by their counsel at the bar; finding the charges proved, and ordering that Samuel Shepherd, senior, be committed to the Tower, and his agent to Newgate.] He wished to call the attention of the house to the form of the proceeding on that occasion. It appeared first, that information of the corrupt practices was laid before the house; next, that the two Shepherds were heard in their places; and thirdly, that they were headed by their counsel at the bar. The Charges he had to bring forward were against two of his majesty's ministers; one against the right hon. Spencer Perceval, for having, through the agency of the hon. Henry Wellesley, late Secretary to the Treasury, and late a member of this house, and also by other agents, been guilty of corrupt and criminal practices, in order to procure members to be elected into this parliament: The other was against the right hon. lord viscount Castlereagh, a member of this house, for similar practices. He would take up the time of the house no longer, but move that these Charges be heard at the bar of the house, on Tuesday next.

The motion having been read from the Chair,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

(rising under evident agitation) said, that he knew not what course was pursued in 1700, the æra of the hon. member's precedents; but through the whole of his acquaintance with the proceedings of that house, he never knew any instance when an accusation was brought forward against a member, that the substance of such accusation was not previously communicated to him; and that, through the common courtesy of the house, he was not allowed to be heard in his defence. The hon. member, however, was the best judge of the course he meant to pursue. Under these circumstances, nothing remained for him but to make his bow, and leave the question to the decision of the house. [The right hon. member immediately left the house].

Sir J. Anstruther

said, that the form of proceeding proposed by the hon. member was one of the strangest he ever heard. The house would pause before it came to so extraordinary a resolution. Whether the persons accused stood there as his majesty's ministers, or whether they were the lowest members of society, they were entitled, before they were called on for their defence, to be acquainted with the nature, at least, of the crime with which they were charged. What information, he would ask, had the hon. member given, to call upon the house to adopt so solemn a proceeding, as a hearing at their bar? What charges had he specified against Mr. Spencer Perceval or lord Castlereagh? Would any court, which deserved to be called a court, conduct itself upon such principles? Was it ever heard, that a person was to be set down as one under accusation, without the slightest information having been laid before the house? The hon. member told them, that he was informed a member of that house had stated in a former debate some instances of corrupt practices within his knowledge; and upon these grounds he preferred a charge, which had the effect of obliging the right hon. member to quit the house. If every member, against whom vague and indefinite charges of this kind might be brought forward must withdraw, as a matter of course, the hon. member might soon have the whole house to himself. He deprecated the scattering of loose and unfounded accusations. The hon. member was totally mistaken in his precedent. As far as his recollection served him, it did not sanction the form of proceeding he recommended. The charges against the Shepherds were the subject of long and frequent examinations before committees of that house. There was no precedent for putting a man on his trial on such slight grounds?

Sir F. Burden

observed, that his hon. friend had no objection to state the particulars of that information, which he meant to lay before the house. He always understood that a member informing the house that a report had reached him of corrupt practices, was held sufficient grounds to proceed upon. The house had often proceeded to hear evidence at the bar, upon even slighter grounds than the mere knowledge of members.

Mr. Biddulph

thought it was the duty of the right hon. members against whom the charges were brought, to stand up and second the motion, if it were only for the purpose of clearing their characters. After what had been said in that house, respecting these corrupt practices, it was impossible not to take notice of the subject. The house could not, maintaining any regard for its character, pass over so extraordinary a circumstance. Some of his majesty's ministers were charged with being active agents in corruption. The tone and dignity of that house must be gradually falling, the feelings of ministers themselves must be wofully blunted, indeed, if they could sit in their places, and hear such accusations. The hon. member was entitled to the attention of the house, if it were only on account of the grave and important nature of the Charges he brought forward. It was, in substance, no less than this, that two of his majesty's ministers were accused of corrupt practices, to procure the return of members to parliament.

Mr. Bathurst

conceived there was something extremely irregular in the form of proceeding proposed by the hon. member. It was a form of proceeding better adapted to the genius and spirit of one of the meetings that were so frequent, and so industriously promoted, than befitting the temper and dignity of that house. It would well become that meeting in which the extraordinary proposition was made and approved, that a man holding a place under government was not fit to sit in that house. Such propositions were not intended for the sober consideration of parliament. No; their object was to increase the popular ferment, to add fuel to fire; and to encourage and propagate that dangerous spirit that was circulated with a diligence the most suspicious. Spargere voces in vulgum amhiguas"— seemed to be the grand principle of action of the leaders of these meetings. Their aim was to cry down all public men; to render them objects of distrust and suspicion. He could perceive no good, no substance in a motion grounded on undefined Charges of this kind. For his part, he must require something tangible, some statement that would enable him to determine whether the charge was fit to be entertained, and what were the grounds of suspicion. With respect to the precedent read, it did not stand upon the loose grounds that the motion of the honourable member did. It was not because one member should say that another did so and so, that that other member should be called upon to negative it. Where the charge was direct, the course of proceeding was plain. Instead of seconding the motion, the right hon. member could only do as he had done; and they were bound to support him against a most unfair mode of endeavouring to implicate the house.

Mr. Biddulph

thought it extraordinary that the right hon. member, with whom he had not the least acquaintance, and who knew but little of him, should charge him with participating in factious meetings, and—

Mr. Whitbread

rose to order. It appeared to him that the hon. member totally misunderstood the last speaker.

Mr. Bathurst

explained, that he certainly had no knowledge of the hon. member. What he said relating to factious meetings was meant to apply to the honourable member; but he now understood that he never attended any of those meetings, and he therefore begged pardon for having so alluded to him.

Mr. Madocks

said, that when he gave notice of the motion which he brought forward that evening, he stated the substance of it as fully and explicitly as he could. He conceived that he would best do his duty by resting his proceeding upon precedent. If, in pursuing this course, he could be supposed to have acted uncandidly towards the members against whom his charges were directed, he begged to apologize to them. It arose from ignorance; for he could assure those hon. members, and he trusted the assertion would be believed, that he was anxious to bring the subject forward as fairly as possible. He was ready to adopt any mode of proceeding the house should recommend. It never was his intention, indeed it would be unfair, to send out a story to the country, without being prepared to prove the fact.

Here the Speaker interposed, and said, that after what had just fallen from the honourable member, he felt it imperative upon him to submit to the house his sentiments on the course of proceeding. If it was fit that a member should be heard in his place, it was also fit that he should hear the charges against which he was to defend himself. No charges could be stated against any absent member. In respect to the notice, the hon. member would allow him to tell him, that any notice against ministers applied to the whole of the administration, and that it was not the practice of ministers to withdraw, except the charges were personal. The notice the hon. member gave was against ministers generally. With respect to charges, the house always received them with great strictness and deliberation. They ought to be brought forward in the most solemn manner. There were two modes of proceeding; either by impeachment, in which case they were decided by another tribunal; of sometimes oral charges were heard, against which the parties accused defended themselves in their places, and frequently by their counsel at the bar; and upon the whole matter the house came to such conclusion as it thought proper. With respect to the precedent that had been read, there was, to be sure, no speech on the Journals; but there was enough to imply that the substance of the motion had been previously given to the house. Without premises, no opinion was to be expected. A charge implied that the person accused was to be heard; that there was something on which he must be heard. After hearing the person accused, it would be for the house to say aye or no, whether they should proceed further. Reverting, therefore, to the subject, it was his opinion that no particulars of charge could now be stated. This opinion, however, if adopted by the house, shut out no further inquiry; shut out no hon. member from proceeding at any other time. The motion of the hon. member came as much by surprize upon him as upon the house; so much so, indeed, that he was not able to afford him that assistance he wished. If it should be the sense of the house not to proceed, as he thought it ought, it would be his duty to take its sense, aye or no, on the motion.

Mr. Madocks

said, that he would be the last person to staff any thing to the house which he conceived to be improper.

Mr. Secretary Canning

thought there could be but one sentiment in the house on the subject of the present motion. Considering the mode in which it was brought forward, and the mistake in the case of the precedent referred to, he was convinced that the house ought to mark its opinion in so decided a manner, as not to render itself liable to a recurrence of such a proceeding. He rose, therefore, to advise the house not to agree to the withdrawing of the motion, but without intending any personal disrespect to the hon. mover. He should consequently oppose any motion of that nature, and call for the marked opinion of the house.

Mr. Whitbread

rose to offer a few words. He commenced by noticing the curious reason assigned by the right hon. the Secretary of State for refusing to permit the motion to be withdrawn, and then negativ- ing it; namely, that the house would thereby prevent the recurrence of similar errors. But it was for all that right hon. gent's ingenuity to find out how such a result as that was to be produced by the naked entry on the Journals of a proposition made and negatived. How could the negativing of the motion prevent any future misunderstanding of Shepherd's case. But the hon. member had not shewn any desire to withdraw his motion. As to the motion itself, notwithstanding the able exposition from the Chair, given with all the knowledge which characterized the right hon. gent. who was at all times so ready to give his assistance to every member of parliament, yet it appeared to him that any person might be misled by the Entry. There was no record of any, or what information was given in the instance of Shepherd's case, and therefore we were quite in the dark on that point. Shepherd protested his innocence, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer might have protested his innocence in this case. The Secretary of State himself had not been backward in proposing a resolution without a previous notice. The hon. member behind him had made a general charge, and had declared his readiness to tell his story to the house. He had, in his opinion, a perfect right to do so. The house had been warned against the effects of what had been termed "wide-wasting motions," which were inconsistent with the duty of members to each other, and to the state. To avoid such objections as were made against the activity of Committees, the hon. member had preferred a general charge of corruption, in the first instance, and had selected and specified two individual ministers of state, as parties against whom he declared himself ready to enter into the case, taking upon himself the responsibility and peril of the task. A right hon. gentleman had stated, that this charge might appear to be a trifling matter, when examined, and therefore, that it was necessary to know its nature beforehand: in short, to have it brought before the house in a 'tangible shape.' A tangible shape, he (Mr. W.) thought rather an aukward expression at present. The house had recently had pretty strong calls upon them, for tangible shapes, and these tangible shapes had not turned out exactly as they were wished and expected to turn out. For his part, he thought the moment for putting the present charge into a tangible shape would be precisely that, when the witnesses were called to the bar of the house to be examined upon the subject. This motion, it appeared, was treated by honourable gentlemen opposite as one part of a general system organized for the attack of all public men. This he must deny. Where was such a systematical plan to be discovered? What was to be expected from the feeling of the public, when they saw lately such an instance of the judgment of that house in a case where the accusation was brought home to the accused person, who confessed the commission of the offence, and whose confession was upon record; and yet that house, (always so watchful of its privileges and its dignity,) took no notice of what was proved, and saw no necessity of coming to any criminating Resolution? A right hon. gent. had thought proper to make some remarks upon gentlemen's attending certain clubs and societies existing for the purpose as he supposed, of exciting the public mind and inflaming popular passion. What had, in fact, excited the public mind? What, but the results of recent investigations into transactions of public importance! What, but the refusal of the house of commons to do justice on a member and a minister who did not deny his offences! What, without imputing such a design to ministers, would be the consequence of an attempt to stifle the expression of the public voice? He readily avowed, that during the whole of his political life he had been in the habit of attending meetings of the people. Every word he had said on these occasions he considered himself responsible for. He would not retract one word that he had used on such occasions. He was not one of those who would say they were sorry for having been at public meetings. He thought it fair to speak out, whatever marks of displeasure or censure he might observe on the countenances of gentlemen opposite, for he was neither afraid nor ashamed to avow that his not having been present at one meeting in particular, recently held, which gave great offence, did not arise from any thing he disliked or thought improper in the object of that meeting. He thought, indeed, that advantage might be taken to excite and inflame the public against the persons and principles of the friends of Reform. He professed himself to be strenuously for a Reform in the way in which it was defined last night, as an alteration in the constitution of that house. In noticing the remarks of the right hon. gent., he applied to the tendency of part of his speech the quotation he (Mr. Bathurst) had used— 'Spargere voces in vulgum ambiguas. That right hon. gent. supposed that the results of such a Reform as was proposed, would be to exclude all public men from sitting in that house. He did not think so. He was not himself of that opinion, for he did not think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or the First Lord of the Treasury, or the Secretary of State, or any of the great and efficient officers of the crown, should be excluded from seats in that house. He would not go to the same extent as the Act of Settlement; but he must say, that he did see many before him holding places, who, without meaning any thing personal to them, he did think ought to be excluded. When a cry was raised against public meetings, because two ministers were charged with corruption, he felt desirous to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer a few questions with respect to the means of inflaming the public mind. Was it meant to say that the few persons who were at the recent meeting could be so extremely dangerous? Was it true or not that gross corruptions existed? He would admit not so gross as in former times, but yet gross enough. Were we so purified? Had we really done enough in the progress of Reform? No, we could never do enough; if the work of Reform ceased, while human nature was human nature, corruption would succeed and triumph. We know that members were formerly paid by the crown so many pounds a year for their votes and support in the house of commons. Corruption was nut now so gross; but in those times they had the benefit of arguments against Reforms similar to those used at present. Could any man arraign the conduct of his hon. friend who made the motion, and venture to say, that there was no corruption in the election of members to parliament? He had never been in office, and therefore had not the means of such particular knowledge of these things as some others; but he could speak from that sort of general knowledge that he had acquired on the subject, and was desirous that it should pass under close examination. He thought his hon. friend might fairly stand on the question of form, and take the sense of the house.—It was improper now to enter into particular observations while the parties accused were absent; but he contended that cases might occur, in which a member might not have a quarter of an hour's notice, to bring general charges. The Secretary of State wished a negative to be put upon this motion, to serve as a sort of land-mark to prevent future attempts at encroachment. He, too, wished the sense of the house taken, to serve as a land-mark of the privileges and duties of members of that house. Corrupt conduct was imputed to Mr. Spencer Perceval and lord Castlereagh. The responsibility was on the mover, and let the house decide fairly; the withdrawing of the motion might carry the appearance of mistake in the mover. It might have been more prudent to consult the opinion of the Chair; but the motion being made, he thought the principle of the right ought not to be yielded. This was an attack, not upon all public men, but on their corrupt practices; and if defeated in the question now, he hoped it would be brought on again almost immediately. They all knew of these practices, and they had recognized them. The house of commons had passed over a case proved before them, and the man remained a minister of state. Did not that transaction shew that abuse was not corrected or checked? and those men who did not wish for a Parliamentary Reform, should look well to the remedy of what was practically wrong, and for which members might be sent to Newgate. A member offers to prove the existence of ministerial corruption, and up jumps some lion, gent., and charges him with attacking all public characters, and endeavouring to destroy the constitution from the foundation, and to build up some new edifice. He denied again the truth of such charges. He saw no proof or just suspicion of such a system as was alluded to. If the house would not give the people the right of public investigation into abuses, the people might be quiet; but they would see, that they who refused inquiry, refused to them the British constitution.

Sir John Anstruther

explained, that he did not state that the attack on lord Castlereagh was part of an attack on all public men, whatever opinion he might entertain on that subject.

Mr. Yorke

spoke with great animation in reprobation of the motion. He considered it as unjust and ridiculous. Were honourable gentlemen so ignorant of the history of their country, of the forms and privileges of that house, in which they had the honour to sit, as to encourage a motion so unjust and unprecedented? Every man who was conversant in the pro- ceedings of the house, who had the smallest ideas of justice, of liberty, of the laws under which he lives, must give to it his decided negative, and not allow a refuge to this unjust, this ridiculous motion.

Mr. Gooch

, noticing the observation, that attempts were made to throw a slur on the conduct of persons attending public meetings, said, that if the speeches attributed to particular persons were literally so, they went near to destroy what was the most desirable of all things in the present state of the country; he meant the unanimity of the public mind; and tended to more mischief than all their authors could retrieve, if they lived to sit in the house for a hundred years to come. He would give his feeble assistance to the prevention of real abuses, but not to those general attacks of abuses, never known as such till these pure days. These public meetings could only do mischief. He did not impute improper motives to individuals, but as to voting public thanks to a gentleman for his patriotism, he would as soon vote them to Mrs. Clarke for her virtue. (A laugh. Hear! hear!) He would not be deterred from his opinions by the sentiments of any set of people. The expressions he had heard imputed to an hon. gent. did him no credit as an Englishman. He hoped always to see respectable persons opposing government. They were the guardians of the public interest; but there was a power behind those benches (the opposition benches) greater than those benches themselves. That power looked not to parliament, but to a faction who would get rid of all parties, and represent themselves to the country as the concentrated essence of political purity. (Hear!) The hon. baronet opposite (sir Francis Burdett) with whom he was once in friendship, acted, he believed, honestly and conscientiously in public life, or else his nature must have changed since he knew him; but his political proceedings had his total dissent, and he trembled at the consequence of his enthusiastic conduct.

Mr. Lyttleton

had never heard of such charges, unsupported by proofs, as were made from the opposite side of the house. The benches below him were, it seemed, the guards of the public purse. What then, became of ministers, and of all the rest of the house? The most severe remarks had been introduced upon public meetings. He had happened to attend at one of them for the specific purpose of celebrating, in common with all the na- tion, the conduct of that minority of 125, of which one gentleman in particular was the leader. The nation had expressed its sentiment of that minority in a strong and audible voice, and he thought that gentlemen ought not to hesitate to treat that voice with respect, though an honourable member might charge such celebrations as attempts to create contusion. The object of the meeting he attended was definite and honourable. He did not go to the Crown and Anchor, for reasons similar to those already stated (by Mr. Whitbread). If the house adopted a moderate and just Reform, he believed that the public meetings would be fewer, and less alarming to government. They were the natural consequences of the misconduct of the house, and there was no prevention of them by absolute force, but by timely Reform. As for misrepresentations of the press, which were complained of by gentlemen opposite, had not others, and particularly an hon. baronet, been treated to the full with as little ceremony. He could not believe that the nation would impute to the advocates of Reform what the press imputed to them. Indeed, such reports of public meetings would be trampled upon, if the grievances themselves did not actually exist. He thought, after what the Speaker had said, it would be more regular to withdraw the motion; but not to withdraw it so as to yield a privilege. He concluded by declaring his opinion, that the ministers of the crown possessed an undue influence in that house.

Mr. Brand

expressed his astonishment to hear accusations and censures on gentlemen for an ancient, acknowledged constitutional practice of Englishmen, in attending public meetings. This, he had been always taught, ignorant as perhaps he was of the history of the country. Meetings of the people for the attainment of a moderate Reform, conducted with regularity and order, did not lead to public mischief, but to open the eyes of the country and of the house. He avowed that be was a steward at one of those meetings, and joined in recommending to the counties to petition parliament for the desired Reform, temperately, vet urgently. That embraced the entire object of the meeting. He was ready at any time, to defend his conduct on the principles of our forefathers, and should continue to be guided by those principles. He rose chiefly at present to repel unfounded aspersions.

Mr. Sturges Bourne

said, that no distinct charge had been proposed against either of the two parties accused. He never knew any motion more contrary to justice in that house, or elsewhere. He was even surprized to hear it defended by an honourable member opposite (Mr. Whitbread) versed, as he was, in his favourite character of a public accuser in the British house of commons. Was a charge of personal corruption to be treated like a general charge against an administration? He was proud that he was no party to such resolutions as those lately published, stating a clause in the Act of Settlement as the existing law of the land, which never was law. [Here it was observed that it was four years before it was repealed.] Never till lately had it been seen in this country that bodies of people, not present during a judicial examination, had met to arraign the conduct of those who found it their duty to acquit one who was accused. He never till now heard of condemning the house of commons in this manner, for the exercise of their duty in an acquittal. He could not conceive how those who called themselves the great friends of the country could reconcile it to their feelings to degrade the character of the house of commons.

Mr. Hutchinson

had not attended any of the public meetings, and from his habits of life it was not likely he should attend them; but he joined in expressions of surprize at the language he had heard. If such language was correct, be should suppose that the house of commons had nothing to do with the people, but were of their own creation. If the tendency of the doctrines he had lately heard were encouraged and acted upon, he should bid adieu to the liberties of the country, and should account his being sent to parliament not an honour but a degradation. If it were thought just and expedient to attack the meetings of the public, it would be better at once to vote the constitution at an end. He conceived it to be a public duty to obtain reform in every constitutional way.

Mr. C. Wynn

thought the motion irregular, as it contained no specific charge, nor had been introduced with any detail of circumstances or statement of facts.

The question being put, the motion was negatived without a division.