HC Deb 25 March 1811 vol 19 cc500-7
Mr. C. W. Wynn

in rising to move for the second reading of the Election Bribery Bill, deprecated the idea that this was a subject too delicate to be touched. He referred to the act lately passed, the provisions of which were not adequate to the purpose for which it was intended, as it was a notorious fact that seats in that House had been sold since. The only change it effected was that of sending the purchaser to the principal, and taking the traffic out of the hands of subordinate agents. The penalties attached to selling seats were now sufficient, but the difficulty of detecting them was still great; to remedy which he would propose, that those persons who had been bribed, and who came forward as evidence against the briber, should be indemnified against all consequences. He had seen members of that House give evidence against those they bribed. Another principle which he thought it would be right to adopt was, that of enabling a committee of that House to compel an answer to its questions, even from persons who were themselves concerned. The third provision was, that the petitioners might be examined; for as the law now stood, a man had only to sign his name to the Petition, and he could not be prosecuted. He would also propose that the petitioners should give security, not only for the due prosecution of the Petition, but for the defraying of the expence. And, lastly, he would recommend that the right of petition should be thrown open to every one. There were instances in which those who had signed petitions to that House did not pay the expences, and to remedy this and the presenting of frivolous and vexatious petitions, it was his intention to provide in another Bill, that they should enter into a bond for 500l. each. If the House was of opinion, that bribery should be kept out of sight, he was sorry they had agreed to the act, which was passed two years ago; for that was a pledge to the country, that they would investigate and prevent it. They knew, however, what had happened since, and the conclusions that were drawn from the exposure of a traffic from which, as it had been strongly and wisely said, our ancestors would have "startled with indignation."* He had been asked in private, whether he really wished to put an end to the sale of seats in Parliament? he bad no hesitation to state, that he certainly did; and he thought it wiser to adopt measures which would prevent the recurrence of such acts, than selecting instances for prosecution, which were the more excusable, as the practice was general. He thought the best course for Parliament would be, disclaiming all wild theories, to set about the correction of the abuse; but if they refused to look into it, the number of the discontented, he feared, would be greatly increased.

Mr. Brand

said that nothing but a plan founded on a comprehensive view of the subject could possibly do any good. He had no hopes from such partial measures as the present. The effect of them would be nothing else than to throw the monopoly of the purchase of seats into the hands of the Treasury. He was convinced his hon. friend would some time feel the difficulty of doing any good by applying partial remedies to a general evil. To the constitution alone they must look in devising a general remedy com- * See the. Speech of the right hon. the Speaker, on Mr. Curwen's Reform Bill, vol. 14, p. 837. mensurate with the evil. Into this, how ever, he would not enter at present, as after the Easter recess he intended to propose a general measure. The present measure would only be dangerous and mischievous. His hon. friend himself might be accused of bribery, and the wit ness being the only evidence, could not be convicted of perjury. The prevention of the practice of concealing bribery in the voter, by causing him to petition, was good as far as it went; but it was a very partial benefit. This much he had said on this Bill, because He was anxious that his constituents should be aware that the subject had not escaped his attention. But no great good was reasonably to be expected, except from a real, true, and moderate reform—and for this he was anxious. He wished his hon. friend not to press this to a division, as he must be aware that the Bill had a bearing which perhaps he himself had not observed when he brought it in.

Mr. Johnstone

opposed the Bill, upon the ground that no general or special reasons had been stated to shew the propriety of any legislative measure on the subject. No evidence was produced to prove that seats had been sold since the late act. For many years past the practice had been gradually decreasing; and there was more purity now in election cases, than in the boasted times of our ancestors. He could tell of some of their practices calculated to make their posterity blush for them, whether the conduct of their posterity would have made them start back with horror or not. In the case of Ashburton, in 1707, a motion was made in the House that the right of election was in the holders of land and tenements of the said borough only. An amendment was moved that the word "only" be left out. A ballot was called for—the clerks, with two of the members, went round with a box, into which the rest of the members put their balls. There had been a gradual improvement since. In 1807 no bribery had been proved before any of the committees; and treating was almost at an end.—He said that no cases could be produced to shew the necessity of the repeal of the bribery act, and, before the House could proceed to repeal it, it was necessary to state such necessity.—With regard to the clause respecting evidence, and which did not allow a witness to protect himself upon self-crimination, he was astonished that the hon. gent. who was bred up to the law of the land, could ever think of introducing such a clause. Had it been proposed by those speculative persons, who, in a comparison between the laws of England and the Code Napoleon, were of opinion that, in matters of evidence, it is impossible to say which abounds with the greatest evils, he should not have been so much astonished. Why was this fundamental alteration to be introduced into the law? He would ask how it happened that the law in this country was held in greater veneration than the law in any other country? And why was every body in this country anxious to bring criminals to justice? It was because the law never placed criminals or witnesses in a situation to criminate themselves, or directed the sympathies of mankind against the court. This Bill no doubt exempted the witnesses from punishment; but it could not exempt them from any disgrace. But why was this alteration in the law confined to minor offences? Why was it not to extend to greater offences? Why not to treason itself? Surely the sacred life of the sovereign and the order of society were objects of equal importance.—With respect to petitioning, the expence was such, that it could not be expected that any man from a sense of justice merely, would bring a petition into that House; and it could only be some speculative reformer, anxious to cast an odium on the higher classes, by holding them' out as borough-mongers, who would think of laying out 1,000l. on such an object. On the whole, he thought the law sufficient, without the present Bill; and if they had any suspicion of the insufficiency of the bribery acts, they ought to wait till a general election, when they would have a trial.

Mr. Curwen

thought that there were sufficient grounds for allowing the present Bill to go into a committee. The declaration of the Bribery Bill established the existence of that, which its enactments were found insufficient to remedy. He gave that Bill his support, differing from every one of his friends in his opinion of it, notwithstanding it was so mutilated and changed in its passage through the House by persons whom he never should have expected to see in the light of reformers, that he was convinced of its inefficacy, from an idea that some of the objections against it, ought to have been pointed out by some of his friends.—The hon. gent. who opposed the Bill, said that he could not see the necessity of it, as from our advancement in purity, there was now a great diminution of cases of bribery. When he heard this declaration, he could not but call to mind the speech which they had heard delivered with so much eloquence from the Chair, which deservedly endeared him to the nation and would endear him to posterity. It was notorious that the House of Commons was not possessed of that power and that influence which a House of Commons ought to have, but was stained with spots, which those who were best attached to it, could wish washed away. He confessed he was anxious for a considerable reform in the House. Let the House look to the present moment, and the present situation of the country, and then say if the greatest victory which could be obtained would not be a restoration of the purity of that House. It was well known that the Bribery Act was turned from the purposes for which it was intended. The hon. gent. asked for cases. There were cases with which the hon. gent. could not be acquainted; but if a single case could be adduced, was it not necessary to prevent the possibility of recurrence? It became necessary, therefore, to send the Bill to a committee, where the subject could undergo a complete discussion.—The hon. gent. asked if they would permit a man to come before the House who had no interest in the question? Gracious God! was there a man in the country who was not interested in every thing that concerned the purity of the House! He asked why the mode of evidence on the Bill was not extended to treason? The principle of the law of treason was deservedly the subject of admiration. It considered that he who was the presumed enemy of every man, should therefore be entitled to peculiar protection. But here the object was not punishment, but the preservation of the purity of the House, by preventing a man from sitting in it, who shall have committed au act of bribery, an object of much greater importance than the conviction of the offender, and perfectly distinct from it.—Those who were afraid of the advocates of reform out of doors would do well to consider, that the most effectual way to prevent converts to that doctrine elsewhere, was to do every thing themselves that was temperate and just; and if they were to put art extinguisher upon reform by strangling the present Bill, they would take the most effectual means of giving currency to the doctrines they dreaded. Let the Bill go through every stage, and let it be discussed with all the patience and all the attention of which the House was capable, and if they should so incline, let it at last be rejected. If it should now be strangled, and not allowed to go into a committee, what would be thought in the country? Not surely what the hon. gent. professed, that there was no corruption to reform, but that there was too much corruption to allow reform. The only way to obviate the dangerous tendency of the opinions which they dreaded, was to go themselves into every moderate plan of reform which was practicable. It was impossible to take a more unwise step at present, when all the attachment and all the exertions of the country were required, than to strangle the present Bill. Every man could wish the declaration which was made in that House blotted out from his remembrance; and as he wished to prevent the possibility of the recurrence of the evil, he earnestly requested the concurrence of the House in allowing the present Bill to go into a committee.

Sir John Anstruther

said, that he should oppose every alteration of the present constitution of that House, and had he merely heard the speech of the hon. gent. who spoke last, he should have concluded that such was the object of the present Bill. Notwithstanding all the lofty language which they had heard from that hon. gent., almost threatening them with the distrust and condemnation of the people if they did not accede to this measure, he would tell that hon. gent. that a Bill ought to be canvassed in that House on is just principles, and when those principles did not meet with their approbation, they did their duty in rejecting it; and in endeavouring to please the people in opposition to their own sentiments, they would not do their duty, but commit an act of injustice.—He then proceeded to discuss the clause relating to evidence, which went to violate a principle acknowledged in the laws of this and every other country. It was said that the witness was indemnified from punishment. But was it possible to indemnify him from the effect of moral guilt, from the loss of character sustained by the compulsive discovery. Another strong objection to this part of the Bill was, that it increased the temptation to perjury for the purpose of conviction or acquittal. An informer came into court with all the blackness peculiar to an informer, and his credibility was affected by it. But here he was relieved from all that odium. Why not introduce this principle to other crimes? He had therefore, great objections to the introduction of a principle of which he could not see the termination.—To the other clauses he had also great objections. From giving a general right to petition, little good could ensue, and a door could be opened to a great deal of mischief. He should therefore oppose the Bill going into a Committee.

Sir John Newport

thought it very natural that those who opposed every plan of reform which could have any practical effect, on some pretext or other, should also oppose the present Bill. All the reasons, however, which he had heard against committing the Bill, were, in his mind, so many reasons in favour of the measure. If the Bill was liable to the objections which had been specified, the way to purge it from those objections was to go into a Committee. What would be the conseqnence of a refusal? It would convince the people of England, that the former measures of the House were merely resorted to for the sake of tranquillizing the public mind for a moment, and not from any serious desire of reformation. The hon. gent. opposite (Mr. Johnstone,) had asked for a case. Why, the very evil was the secret nature of the act, from which, by the existing law, it would be impossible ever to make a discovery of it. If the offence could be discovered, the present law was sufficient to convict the offender, and there would then be no necessity of coming to the House for an alteration. He concluded with declaring, that he should vote for the Committee.

Mr. Morris

thought it impossible to look at the subject, without seeing that there was great room far improvement in the election law. It was not sufficient for the House, however, lo be convinced that there was this, that, and the other thing, to censure. They were to look at the question narrowly, and to see that in their desire for improvement they did not introduce an abuse rather than a remedy. He particularly objected to the clause, by which a person was compelled to make a disclosure of an offence in which he himself was implicated. This was lo oblige a jury to give credit to a person so circumstanced, whether he might be swearing true or false; and, at the same time, to leave the party against whom he complained completely at his mercy. He had only to name a time and place when no person else could be present, and in this way, must be certain of acquitting or convicting as he pleased, and at the same time of himself escaping detection. The remedying the abuses in elections, was a consummation devoutly to be wished; but, not at the expence of such a Bill as the present.

Mr. C. W. Wynn shortly replied, when the House divided, Ayes 17. Noes 64. Majority against the Bill 47.

List to the Minority.
Adam, W. Hussey, W.
Adair, R. Langton, G.
Aubin, Sir J. St. Moore, P.
Abercrombie, J. Newport, Sir J.
Burdett, Sir F. Ponsonby, G.
Babington, T. Thornton, H.
Curwen, J. C. Tracey, H.
Grattan, H. Wilberforce, W.
Hibbert, G. Wynn, C. W.
Hutchinson, C. H.