HC Deb 07 April 1819 vol 39 cc1441-8
Mr. C. Tennyton

said, he rose for the purpose of discharging one of those painful duties which sometimes devolved upon members of that House; a duty, however, of the most important and indispensable nature, and one, therefore, which, however unpleasant it might be to his own feelings, he should be among the last to shrink from performing. He held in his hand a petition, signed by a considerable number of highly respectable individuals, freemen of the city of Oxford, complaining of a flagrant breach of the privileges of the Commons by interference and undue influence on the part of the duke of Marlborough at the last election for that city. It would be in the recollection of the House, that some time since an hon. and learned friend of his (Mr. Denman), presented a petition on this subject, which, bearing, in the judgment of the House, the character of an election petition, it was determined to refer it to an election committee; but the parties to that petition not having designed to question the merits of the election, declined entering into the necessary recognizances, and the complaint in consequence fell to the ground. The petition which (in consequence of the supposed absence of his hon. friend on the professional duties of his circuit) he was then entrusted to present, varied materially in its frame from that which was so disposed of by the House, and was altogether free from those objections which had diverted the former petition from the course that had been designed for it by the petitioners. The petition stated, that his grace the duke of Marlborough being a peer of this realm and a lord in parliament, in violation and contempt of the resolutions of this House, concerned himself in the late election of members to serve in parliament for the city of Oxford; openly interfered by himself and his agents in such election, proposed one of the candidates to a body of the voters; wrote letters to others, and procured their votes for such candidate; expended large sums of money on his behalf, and otherwise used his influence to procure the return of that candidate as a member of that House.—He thought it better then to acquaint the House, that after this petition should have been brought up, he had two others on the same subject to present—one of them was also signed by several respectable freemen of Oxford who had not signed the original petition, and contained a more detailed account of the charge against the noble duke: the other was signed by the mayor of Oxford and six other most respectable magistrates of that city, confirming the statements in the second petition to which he had referred, and praying the attention of the House to this most important subject. It might not become him as a new member of the House to endeavour to impress upon it the propriety of complying with the prayer of these petitions, by directing to them its earnest and immediate consideration; but he hoped he might be excused for expressing his humble conviction that no matter of privilege more imperiously demanded the scrutinizing investigation of the House than the interference of peers in the election of its members, and he conceived that the House would think it due to its own dignity, to institute a most active and diligent inquiry when such a case as this was represented to be, of open and undisguised interference, was distinctly pointed out to its notice. The charges preferred against the noble duke, the petitioners had fully pledged themselves to substantiate. But though he entirely concurred in their sentiments, supposing those charges to be well-founded, he begged to be understood as in no degree participating in the responsibility of that pledge, which they had so given. At the same time he was fully persuaded, and this persuasion arose from the great respectability of the petitioners, that they entertained a perfect conviction of the truth of their statements; but he sincerely assured the House, and the connexions of the noble duke, if any of them were then present, that it would afford him genuine gratification to find that the petitioners had laboured under a misapprehension respecting the conduct of the exalted individual in question, the very mention of whose name and title brought with it some of the proudest recollections of which this country could boast, and he should most gladly be convinced that the noble duke had not been unmindful of the delicacy of that political station which a peer of this realm holds in the constitution. But if, on the other hand, it should appear that the privileges of that House had been infringed in any one of the particulars stated in the petition, he trusted the House would know how, by some decisive measure, to assert and vindicate those high privileges on the preservation and integrity of which all the freedom we had enjoyed, not only constitutionally, but practically depended. He then moved that the petition be brought up.

Mr. Bathurst

, after the result of the former petition, could not perceive how this could be received. The petitioners had had an opportunity of proving their allegations in the only way, in which charges of this nature ought to be decided—before an election committee. That was the tribunal to which resort ought to have been had; because the facts charged, if they could be proved, would go to vitiate the election itself; but that opportunity was not embraced; recognizances had not been entered into, and the matter was suffered to drop. He did not see what step the hon. member could take upon it as it now stood, except it would be to move a set of angry resolutions, and they would be productive of no other effect; at least not the effect of removing the member mentioned. He should therefore oppose the petition being brought up.

Mr. Serjeant Onslom

observed, that there was nothing before the House to justify the conclusion of the right hon. gentleman, that the subscribers to the present petition were those from whom the former petition emanated; and argued, that, from the rejection of the former petition, or the abandonment of that petition by the petitioners themselves, it did not follow that other gentlemen should be precluded from complaining of a breach of privilege; and in this case the breach was alleged to be of the grossest nature. It was the duty of the House, in his opinion, to examine this complaint, not with any view to the angry discussion which the right hon. gentleman deprecated; but in order that, if the duke of Marlborough should appear, upon inquiry to have been guilty of the improper conduct imputed to him, the House might come to an appropriate resolution, condemnatory of such conduct, and also pass an address, requiring the prosecution of his grace, by his majesty's attorney general. The House ought, indeed, in this case, to follow the precedent in the reign of Anne, when sir John Packington complained of a breach of privilege on the part of the bishop of Worcester, in using undue influence at an election for the city. But as this case was of great importance, he thought that time should be afforded for its further consideration, and therefore he moved an adjournment of the debate until the 27th instant.

Mr. Wynn

thought that the case of the bishop of Worcester was not relevant to the present question, as it did not arise but of any election petition. He did not know how far the present case ought to be considered as a breach of privileges. As far as he recollected the petition, it stated a distribution of money from the duke among the electors, and that one member had been actually proposed and supported by the duke. It would not, however, be right to receive these allegations as true, without examining into their correctness, as there was scarcely any question which affected an election that did not involve a breach of privilege. He threw out these objections cursorily, and should wish the House to determine whether they were entitled to have any weight.

Mr. Denman

thought that this petition ought to be read, as the House would then be able to understand the allegations of it. He deemed it to be extremely strange that the rejection of the former petition should lead to the rejection of this also. The question appeared to him to be within a very narrow compass, and to be in plain English, nothing more nor less than this, whether the House would or would not allow their privileges to be violated. When such a question was brought before the House, it was, in his opinion, the duty of the House, to enter into an investigation of it without delay. When he had the honour of presenting a similar petition from the same quarter, within the first fourteen days, it was objected that "here is a petition affecting the return of one of our members in a case upon which a committee is appointed to decide. It may prejudice the minds of that committee, if it be noticed by the House in another shape, and therefore to avoid the consequences the Grenville committee alone should decide upon it." This argument led the House to decide that the former petition should go to a Grenville committee. The fact was, that the former petitioners declined to prosecute their petition in this way, because they were not disposed to incur a most enormous expense of an inquiry before such a committee, the result of which might be the return of a gentleman about whom the petitioners felt no particular interest. The present petition, however, appeared to contain some additional facts as to the breach of privilege, discovered since the former one was abandoned, and as it was not open to the objections urged on the former occasion, he thought that the subject should meet with the se- rious consideration of the House. If it did not, the situation of that House would be singular, and he could not conceive upon what ground the petition, could be rejected, unless it were meant that no breach of privilege of that House should be investigated by the House itself. Was it to be understood that the interference of a peer at an election, or any other violation of the privileges of that House with regard to an election, could be taken cognizance of only before an election committee? All that the House had to do at present was, to receive the petition, and institute an inquiry into the allegations it contained.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that the learned gentleman had misunderstood the real question under consideration. The question was not, whether the House would not investigate a charge with regard to breach of privilege, but whether it would act according to law by refusing investigation upon such a subject in any other form than that which the law prescribed. For the sake of the character of the House, and the consistency of its proceedings, it became necessary to discountenance a petition of this nature.

Mr. Tennyson

observed, that as part of what had been said, particularly by the hon. member (Mr. Wynn) attributed to the petition statements which it did not contain, it was, in his opinion, clearly the proper course that the petition should be brought up and read, and then the debate might be pursued upon the question whether it should go to the committee of privileges. The former petition had been (as the House had determined) an election petition, from certain individuals who had not thought fit to prosecute it, and vindicate the privileges of the House at an enormous expense, a situation he thought the petitioners ought not then to have been placed in. The present was a petition and complaint from another set of individuals, upon a matter of privilege, and was quite another question. That it was so would be seen, if the petition was brought up and read. It had on the former occasion been urged, in debate, that the parties themselves, who were then sent to an election committee, might, if they did not like to prosecute their case, there, prefer another petition, confined to the question of privilege. This course had been taken; and they were now, to be told that the matter had been previously dispose of. Surely this would be a most ex- traordinary proceeding on the part of the House.

Mr. Denman

supported what fell from Mr. Tennyson as to the petition being brought up and read, and confirmed Mr. T.'s statement as to what had been said in debate on the former occasion.

The Speaker

said, that it was perhaps only proper that he should remind the hon. gentleman that the former petition did not, pretend to be an election petition, but only a petition regarding a breach of privilege. The original question was, that the petition be brought up; the amendment was, that the farther consideration of this question be adjourned to the 27th of April.

The question was then put upon the amendment, and negatived by 13 to 35. The original question, that the first petition be brought up, was negatived without a division.

Mr. C. Tennyson

then moved, that the second petition be brought up. He could pot conceive bow any question of privilege, which referred to the interference of peers at elections, could ever be brought under the consideration of the House, if this petition were not received. In the first instance, a petition is presented, the subject of which necessarily contains a mention of the election, at which the interference, is averted to have taken place. The moment it appears that the matter of the petition concerns an election, it is voted to be an election petition; the parties, however, are told that they may present a petition, confining themselves to the question of privilege, and avoiding all expressions which can be supposed to touch of the merits of an election. Now, he did not know where a person could be found who could shape a petition of this sort, without stating that it belonged to a matter of election. The petition he was about to offer was from other individuals than those who had been before turned round. Their object was merely to inform the House of a gross breach of its privileges, and not to seek for redress for themselves. But the House seemed disposed not even to hear their complaint read; for understanding that it concerned a matter (though a mere matter of privilege) which arose out of, and was connected with the Oxford city election, as to the merits of which a former petition had been presented and disposed of, they were about to decide that it could not be received.

Here a desultory conversation took place between Mr. Bathurst, Mr. Wynn, sir R. Wilson, Mr. Denman, and the chancellor of the exchequer; after which the question for bringing up the second petition was put and negatived.

Mr. Tennyson

then moved, that the petition of the mayor and other city magistrates, should be brought up. He said he should not regret that this debate had taken place, because it would be a warning which would in future prevent any one from making himself so ridiculous as to bring forward any question of this sort, since nothing but pain and discomfiture could recoil upon the petitioners. In his opinion, the best thing the House could now do, would be to rescind the standing orders of the House which solemnly declares that the "interference of peers is a high breach of privilege," and not by retaining it, delude the credulous and unwary.

The question was then put, that the third and last petition be brought up, upon which the gallery was again cleared for a division. The division, however, did not take place, and the question was negatived.