HC Deb 10 May 1819 vol 40 cc274-84

Lord Clive moved, that this bill be read a second time.

Mr. Bernal

said, he was anxious to state to the House his reasons for opposing the bill. Those reasons appeared to him strong and convincing, and he was satisfied that the House would never pass such a bill without full inquiry and much deliberation. In the opinion he had formed upon the bill, he differed from many whose sentiments he much respected; but although he should be the last man to stand up for corruption, he would willingly be the first man to call for justice. In the three cases in which the interference of the House in a similar manner had been called for, the corruption proved was much greater than in the present case. He alluded to the cases of New Shoreham, Cricklade, and Aylesbury. In New Shoreham a club had been established called the Christian Club. The meetings of this club were of a most secret nature. They had a committee who were proved to have put up the borough to sale. In this case not less than 60 or 70 electors had been declared incapable of being any longer electors. In Cricklade, a club called the Gridiron Club was established, and a person went about the streets with a gridiron, containing five bars, in his hand, intimating that such electors as voted in a particular way were to receive a certain sum for each bar. In 150 actions, 150 verdicts had been obtained; the whole number of voters having been 204. In Aylesbury similar abuses were detected, and the evidence of corruption was strong and satisfactory. But in the present case such strong evidence was wanting; and surely the House would never agree to such a bill as the present without the fullest evidence. He needed not to remind gentlemen conversant with the history of parliament, of the great antiquity of Barnstaple: it sent members in the time of the Saxons: its first charter was from Henry 1st. Would the House proceed to pass a bill affecting the character and rights of this ancient and distinguished borough without the most complete evidence? Now, there was no positive evidence that more than five voters had received money for their votes. If Mr. John Gribble's evidence was admitted in one view, it ought to be admitted as of equal force in another view. But Mr. Gribble swears that he had never given any voter reason to suppose that he had promised him money for his vote. It should be recollected, that many of the voters were out voters, and chiefly from London. It appeared in evidence, that every out voter from London was to receive 10l. for a single vote, and 20l. for a plumper. The distance from London to Barnstaple he might state at 200 miles. No statute or committee had ever declared a seat in a coach to be a bribe. What was the proof of corruption then? Why, it was no more than giving 1s. per mile for travelling expenses. Was there a Christian club? Was there a Gridiron club at Barnstaple? The evidence did not warrant the House in adopting measures of equal severity with those applied to New Shoreham, Cricklade, and Aylesbury. The House would, he trusted, exercise its most strict circumspection and its wisest prudence. The bill now before the House went to disfranchise all the non-resident electors. Even in the three cases to which he had alluded, such severity had not been exercised. He therefore moved as an amendment, "that the bill be read a second time this day sis months."

Mr. N. Culvert

opposed the amendment. He thought the bill only put the electors in a situation in which they had less power to injure the constitution and sell their own rights.

Mr. Bennet

said, that the question for the House to consider, was, whether a majority of the electors had not sold themselves, and had been in the practice of selling themselves. In Mr. Gribble's evidence it appeared, that a majority of the resident voters had received bribes. Out of 61 who had voted for sir Masseh Lopes, 40 had received bribes. Owing to some compromise between the parties, the full details of bribery and corruption had not come to light. This was a great inconvenience, to which election committees were, exposed. Although the case might be manifestly strong, and fully made out, yet if parties choose to compromise, the committee would proceed no farther with the investigation. Mr. Bremridge, agent for Mr. Ommaney, was proved to have given money to the voters on loose grounds. The evidence was sufficient to convict the agent, but not sufficient to reach the principal. The committee took it so. But the electors at least were affected by this evidence. This, too, had been the system of the borough.. All who were not gentlemen got something for their vote. At this moment much canvassing was going on among them, and their resolution was, to wait till some rich turtles should come down from London to offer themselves [A laugh]. Mr. John Gribble, in his evidence, stated, that 5l. were to be given to each elector as before. It appeared that 10l. had been offered by others. If the money paid had been confined to the expenses of travelling, the committee would not have passed any censure upon it. But all the electors in this case received money for their votes, except a few who were too proud, and a few—a very few indeed—who were too honest to take a bribe. He should therefore give his support to the bill.

Sir Robert wilson

was sorry that he roust give his decided opposition to the amendment of his hon. friend. He now gave notice, that he would, move, in the committee upon the bill, that Barnstaple be disfranchised, and that the elective franchise be bestowed on one of the unrepresented large cities.

Mr. Barkam

said, that the House ought to act upon an uniform principle. Nothing could be less becoming its dignity, or Jess effectual in correcting abuse, than to be at one time rigid, and at another time lax. He wished to know upon what principle the House were bound to act in such a case. If there was any proportion of voters, however small, who had been convicted of bribery, were they bound to disfranchise the borough? If out of 100 voters, only one had accepted a bribe, would the act of that individual be a sufficient ground for depriving the remaining 99 of their elective franchise? Such a supposition would be ridiculous. Supposing, again, that the numbers of the innocent and of the guilty were equal, how were the House to draw a line of distinction? He apprehended that they should decide on the disfranchisement of a borough only in cases where a majority of the voters had accepted bribes. Another question was, whether a borough was to be disfranchised for its own immediate act? Or, as was the case in the present instance, was the conduct of those who had voted many years ago to be urged as a ground of criminality against those who at present exercised the elective franchise? It was also necessary to consider on what sort of evidence the House were to build; whether on evidence given before an election committee, or evidence given at the bar of the House; and also what other species of evidence should be admissible. It was the duty of every man to ascertain the principle on which he ought to act; and as he could not perceive the principle on which the House was bound to decide in the present case, he should not vote at all upon the subject.

Mr. Bathurst

spoke in favour of the bill. It was impossible, he said, to establish any precise principle that should be applicable to all cases of corruption; the utmost the House could do on such occasions was, to act on a principle broad enough to embrace every degree of corruption. In the present instance it was known that an immoral practice had been systematically pursued. Mr. Gribble, the banker, admitted in his evidence before the committee, that the electors—it was not said a majority, or a minority of them—but, "the doctors," having received money formerly, naturally looked to receiving the same again; and that he did not indeed promise them any particular sums, but merely informed them that they should get the same as they usually received. It was stated broadly, that this system was usually practised, and that it was complied with in the present instance; nay, the very express sums laid out appeared in evidence. The act could not be brought home to A, B, or C, and therefore it was impossible to go with the case to a court of law. The fact, however, of the general practice of the borough was sufficiently established, and to look to a remedy or a prevention from, any other quarter than from that House was vain. The privileges of the present electors would not be completely taken away by this bill, although they no doubt would be diminished by the right of voting being extended to the adjoining hundred; but that such an extension had produced the desired effect, in all similar cases, was a strong instance in favour of adopting the same course in the case of Barnstaple. The hon. gentleman who opposed the bill had talked of travelling expenses incurred by out-voters. It appeared, however, that a sum paid to a resident voter, was entered in Mr. Gribble's book as travelling expenses. The money, in fact, had not been paid to discharge travelling expenses but to purchase votes. On the whole, he thought the case was made out so far as to justify the House in adopting the measure which the bill proposed. He would not say that the present case was the same in every respect as any former one, and he cared not so long as there was sufficient evidence to warrant the adoption of a course which had in former instances been productive of so much good.

Sir John Newport

read an extract from the evidence, to show, that the bribery oath was not tendered at the election to any of the voters. This coupled with the statement, that at several elections sums of money had been given to the electors for their votes, showed that a regular system of corruption, which called for the intervention of the House, was constantly acted on.

Mr. Bernal

said, it appeared that, at the last election, the bribery oath had been administered to Mr. Catton, one of the electors.

Sir John Newport

said, he drew his in- formation from the documents before the House.

Mr. Martin

, of Galway, thought, the House should not resort to this extraordinary measure, until it had been shown that legal means had failed. The right hon. baronet's reason for thinking that the borough ought to be disfranchised, was the very reason why he (Mr. Martin) thought otherwise. If they had been guilty of bribery because the bribery oath had not been tendered, it followed, that if the dark of the peace had administered the oath, they would not have acted as they had done. He was not disposed to go farther than to disfranchise those persons who had accepted bribes, because he thought it the very essense of injustice to punish the innocent for the guilty. He remembered a case in the Irish House of, Peers, in which it was proved, that some members had prostituted their votes; but it never entered into the head of the legislature to disfranchise the whole peerage on that account. For himself, he must say, that such a proposition was unjust, and therefore he felt it his duty to support the amendment.

Lord Milton

observed, that the hon. gentleman who spoke last was in error, in supposing that it was intended to disfranchise the electors of Barnstaple, as the object of the bill was only to multiply the voters for that borough. Such a measure could not then be deemed disfranchisement, unless it were concluded that the franchise of an elector for. Westminster, where the electors were comparatively so numerous, was of less value than that of an elector for Grampound. An hon. gentleman had suggested the propriety of laying down some specific rule to guide their decisions as to the disfranchisement of boroughs that came under their cognisance. The hon. gentleman, however, must be aware that it was difficult to settle a priori the grounds on which they were to decide, the House must act on the case as it came before them, and must be guided by the general practice, and the nature of the particular instances of corruption proved against a borough, rather than by any fixed and definite principle. If the House took the advice of those who opposed the bill, it might be alleged, that however ready they were to inquire into other abuses, they were unwilling to remedy any abuse that existed among themselves. He could not conceive that the giving the elective franchise to the hundreds would take any of their power from the present electors of the borough; it would only have the effect, by increasing their numbers, to prevent the recurrence of that system of bribery which was complained of. It should be remembered, that the elective franchise was not given for the personal benefit of the electors themselves. It was a trust given for the good of the public, and like the vote given by a member of that House, the vote of an elector was supposed to be given, not for particular but general good. Holding a favourable opinion generally of such measures as those embraced by the bill before the House, he regretted that occasions for them so seldom occurred [A laugh]. He would repeat the expression—he regretted that occasions for such measures so seldom presented themselves, because he thought there were many instances where the same principle was prevalent, and which the parties concerned so managed as to keep from the view of the House. There were several flagrant cases, of which the House could know nothing, and where, as was notoriously the case in the Grampound election in the present session, a compromise between the parties prevented the disclosure of facts upon which it might have been necessary for the House to have taken strong measures. There were, he had no doubt, many cases, where the compromise, as in the instance just mentioned, secured impunity, and the parties went on in the same career of corruption as before. It was on this ground he regretted that occasions like the present were not afforded to the House of detecting and providing against corruption. But, concurring in the general principle of the bill, as he did, he saw no particular claim which the neighbouring hundreds had to the elective franchise more than persons in other parts of the country. The principle of extending the right of voting might be good in such cases, and he had no doubt it was, but then the claim of many other portions of the community were as strong, and in some instances stronger, than those of the next hundreds. There were, for example, a vast portion of the public who did not enjoy the elective franchise at all, and who had a right to it from property and situation in life. He alluded to the copyholders and householders, so many of whom were scattered over the face of the country. Of the latter he would admit that a considerable portion enjoyed the elective franchise, but where this occurred it was only in large towns; but the householders, who were resident in small hamlets, or scattered over the country, were excepted from the elective franchise as such. He should wish to see the elective franchise in such cases as the present extended to such a description of men, and their claim was greater than that of the inhabitants of the neighbouring hundreds, inasmuch as many of the latter were already freeholders. On the whole, he gave his hearty concurrence to the bill, the passing of which would prevent the belief on the part of the country, that the House were lax in the support of those principles which concerned its own honour and the general interest of the nation.

Mr. Waithman

said, he fully concurred in almost every sentiment expressed by the noble lord. He could not see why the House should not prosecute such a measure as the present for the sake of its own honour and character with the country. The worthy alderman proceeded, but was for a short time rendered inaudible by loud coughing in several parts of the House. He paused for a moment, and when silence was in a great degree restored, he thus continued. If he pressed unnecessarily on the time of the House—if he occupied its attention for any time, however short, with any remarks which he did not conceive tended to the point in debate, he should be the last to forgive himself; but when he only rose to express his honest feeling, however humbly he might be able to give it utterance, he did not see why he should be met in the way he just now had been. He could not see why on every occasion several members in that House should exert themselves to cry him down [Hear hear]. If that system were to be continued, what ever might be his feelings as an individual, and however little weight might attach to his opinions, in the humble way in which he expressed them, yet he could not by silent submission compromise the trust he held from his constituents, or his own privilege as a member of that House. "I remember, Sir," continued the hon. member, turning towards the Speaker, "when I heard you, and heard you with delight, a short time back at the bar of the House of Lords, beg the unrestricted liberty of speech for yourself, and every member of this House. That freedom of expressing our opinions we all possess, as representatives of the people; but it will be worse than mockery to boast of it, if, however humbly we may acquit ourselves, we are liable on any occasion to be put down by clamour." For his part he was determined not to surrender up the privilege which he enjoyed, or in any way to compromise the rights of his constituents. If there was any one subject more than another which called for particular attention, it was that which concerned the principle of election; and therefore he felt the less inclined to yield to the attempts which were made against his being heard. He would repeat it, that however humbly he might express his opinions, he would not suffer them to be stifled by clamour; and if that clamour should again be raised, he should appeal for protection where he knew the appeal would not be in vain—he should seek for protection from the Chair [Hear]. These observations were heard with considerable attention, and for the remainder of the worthy alderman's speech, not the slightest symptom of impatience was evinced in any part of the House. He then continued—Having made this digression, which was forced upon him, he begged to say a few words upon the question before the House. He was a sincere and warm advocate for parliamentary reform, though not, as some members, might imagine, a supporter of the wild principles of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. He wished for a reform which was practical, and which would be effectual. He therefore thought the present question one of great importance; one in which the House ought to interfere. He agreed with the noble lord in his opinion respecting copyholders and householders. They were too little attended to: the householders were in many cases excluded from the elective franchise, though men in trade and of considerable property; while the outvoters were, on every occasion of election, sent down in large numbers to give their votes. He would, if there was no other, vote for the bill, though he conceived the time was come when the House were called upon to do a great deal more. There were householders and freeholders in many of the great trading towns with the enjoyment of the elective franchise; and in London it was remarkable, that no freeholder had a vote as such. He would recommend that the franchise should be extended to these.

Mr. V. Blake

spoke against that part of the bill, which admitted non-resident householders to the right of voting.

Sir J. Mackintosh

observed, that the opinions of the noble lord and the worthy alderman would come better at another stage of the bill. It should be recollected, that the present was not a penal bill: it was not to punish particular individuals—that could be obtained by the courts of law; but the object of the bill was a general one, and done to guard the House against a gross invasion of its privileges—to prevent, by enlargement of the number of voters, a corrupt body of men from again bartering their rights, and sending their purchaser to take a seat in that House. The hon. member then went on to show the impropriety of looking at the present bill as a penal law against a particular body of men, and maintained that it should only be viewed as a law in support of a general principle—a principle which the House was bound to support. As to the question of general reform, he should not say more than that he would consent to no reform where a great practical evil did not exist, and to which a probable remedy could be applied. The House, he contended, were bound, for the sake of their own character—for the sake of that respect which it was essential they should be held in by the country, to pass the present measure. The great mischief which the country was likely to sustain from violent declaimers on the subject of reform, arose from those single instances of corruption being suffered to pass unnoticed, or with impunity. Such tales passed from mouth to mouth, and from generation to generation, and contributed more to alienate men's minds from the constitution than any other which could be devised. They were used by incendiaries for their own purposes, and were always productive of a lasting impression against the government. A single instance of such a case was calculated to do more mischief than many of perhaps better-founded objections. The hon. gentleman went on to show the bad effects of such practices being suffered to pass with impunity, when they were urged by political incendiaries; and after a few comments on the argument of extending the franchise to some great towns instead of the neighbouring hundreds, which he thought would be inconvenient, concluded by expressing his concurrence in the general principle of the bill.

Mr. Forbes

spoke in favour of instituting prosecutions against the guilty.

Lord Clive

said, that in forming this bill, he had no other object in view than that of preventing the recurrence of those disgraceful scenes, which, it was proved in evidence, had been prevalent at the last election. If there were any objectionable points, they could be amended in the committee.

The gallery was cleared for a division, which, however, did not take place. The bill was then read a second time; and the Speaker was ordered, not to issue his warrant for a new writ till the 1st of June.