HC Deb 15 July 1820 vol 2 cc479-85
Mr. Bright

presented a petition from an individual who signed himself "James Mills, a British Freeholder." The petition was brought up and read. It commenced by complaining of the burdens imposed on the people, and of the enormous expenditure of the late reign, amounting to 2,300,000,000l., being three times the amount of all the expenses incurred during the reigns of thirty-one preceeding monarchs, occupying the long period of seven hundred years. The petitioner contended, that the evils under which the country laboured arose from the present mode of returning members to the House of Commons, by which the people were excluded from the right of election, and a great majority of the House were returned by the influence of a number of peers, whose interference at elections was a breach of the privileges and: of the standing orders of the House. The petition then proceeded to name the peers possessing borough influence and patronage, and to enumerate the members returned to parliament by that influence, to the amount of more than 200, amongst whom were lord Castlereagh, Mr. Tierney, Mr. Brougham, sir J. Mackintosh, and most of the eminent members of the House. The acts of a House thus constructed he protested against, as not legally binding. The petitioner concluded by offering to prove at the bar that this influence existed, and calling on the House to expel such members, and to impeach the peers who had thus interfered with their privileges.

Mr. Hobhouse

rose to second the motion that the petition should be brought up. At the present moment the statements contained in it should, he thought, be especially noticed, when there was lying on their table a list of those members who were supposed to be returned by corrupt influence to that House. This was the more necessary, because the House of Lords were now about to give judgment on one of the most important measures that was ever submitted to the legislature —he meant the bill of Pains and Penalties. The House ought to take care, if that bill were brought down to them from the Lords, that it was not again submitted, in effect, though not in reality, to the same individuals, in the persons of those whom they had caused to be returned, by whom it had already been decided in the other House. If, as was stated in a petition which he had recently presented, 198 members were, in one way or other, returned by the influence of the House of Lords, what would the country think, should the bill of Pains and Penalties pass their lordships' House, when it was submitted to those whose elections were secured by such influence? People would be of opinion that the measure merely went through the same hands a second time.

Mr. Robinson

entertained great doubts as to the propriety of receiving such a petition. No person was less willing than himself to interfere with the right of petitioning, but there were statements in the paper, the truth of which he could nut ad- mit, and which were evidently insulting to the House. It was asserted, that a very large proportion of the House of Commons were not legally elected—and the names of the persons supposed to be illegally returned were mentioned. Now, many of those individuals had been declared duly elected by committees of that House. The petition went on to state, that the legislative acts of a House thus elected; were not binding on the people. This was evidently a denial of the rights and privileges of the House; and whatever speculative opinions gentlemen might have as to the mode in which members should be elected, he did not think they would sanction such an attack.

Mr. W. Dundas

felt it necessary to declare, as his name was mentioned amongst those who were said to be unduly elected, that he was returned to sit in that House in the most fair and uncorrupt manner.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow,

whose name was also mentioned, said, he owed it to the borough for which he was elected to declare that the town of Guildford was not a proprietary borough, in which the election was carried by the influence of any peer or peers. An assertion to the contrary was false and unfounded. He and his colleague were requested to come forward by a large body of the respectable electors. He repeated that the borough of Guildford was not governed by the influence of peers.

Mr. Bright

said, he was totally ignorant and uninformed of the facts contained in the petition. He knew nothing of either of the boroughs alluded to by the members opposite, and, in presenting the petition, he thought the only thing he was bound to show was, that it was of such a nature as ought to be received by the House. The petitioner complained of an illegal practice, that of peers returning members to sit in the House of Commons. It was not necessary for him to state this as a positive and ascertained fact. It was enough for him to assert that there was a primâ facie case of that nature, which he was prepared to prove, and therefore the petition ought to lie on the table. An objection was taken, that the petition contained a list of members illegally returned, when the contrary had, in several instances, been decided by election committees. The petitioner did not complain of this as being contrary to the common law, but as being opposed to the law of parliament. The common law did not say that peers should not return members to that House, but their standing orders provided that peers should not interfere in elections-Considering the law of parliament as part of the law of the land, he must contend, that any individual returned to that House by the influence of a peer, sat there illegally. He knew not whether there were any persons who did so sit in parliament; but he would say, supposing such to be the case, that the phrase "illegally elected?' was properly applied in the petition to individuals introduced by the influence of peers. It was said, that the petition designated the proceedings of parliament as illegal and unjust, and asserted that they, ought not, therefore, to be binding on the people. It did no such thing. The petitioner merely entered his solemn protest against any measure for raising taxes, or for interfering with the property of the people, which might be agreed to in a House constituted as he had described. He denied that members so returned had a right to impose burdens on the state, but he did not call on the people to resist them. He complained to the House, and protested against the proceedings which it adopted; but he did not say that he would himself resist them, or call on any other persons to offer resistance. Nothing then, it appeared, was necessary towards allowing the petition to lie on the table, but that the list of members should not be comprised in it. On what grounds should it not? It was only a list of individual facts (if he might use the expression), in different parts of the country, which the petitioner asked the House to examine. It was, in fact, a mere index, arranging and pointing out the various places where the illegal acts complained of were said to be carried on. He did not know how far it might be an imputation on individuals, but imputation he conceived had nothing to do with the question. This petition contained a grave complaint that practices contrary to the law of parliament were carried on in various parts of the country; and the House ought not to reject it because it contained charges against a number of individuals.

Mr. Luskington

put it to the Speaker, as a point of order, whether, under the existing regulations of the House, the petition could be received? The petition stated that a number of members were not legally returned. Was it not, then, an election petition? And, if so, most it not be rejected, as the standing order provided that all objections to improper returns must be made within fourteen days after the election had taken place? This was not a complaint relative to one individual-—nearly 200 were included in the list.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, he had very recently presented a petition of a similar description, which was laid on the table. It did not indeed contain the names of the individuals who were unduly elected, but it recited the names of the peers who exerted their influence to send members to that House, and the places where that influence was made use of. Therefore it was, in some degree, opposed to the order to which the secretary for the Treasury had referred, but that circumstance did not operate against its being received. With respect to the list contained in this petition, he knew nothing about it. But what had been said ought not, he conceived, to prevent it from being laid on the table. Statements contained in other petitions, on different subjects, were occasionally untrue, but that did not cause their rejection. The interference of peers ought to be guarded against; this, he believed, was provided for by the statute of Westminster. If it were not to be discouraged, what was the meaning of the declaration in the Bill of Bights that "elections should be free?" Was it that they should not be free? that elections were to be influenced by peers, whose power, arising from their great property, was notorious? How would it appear to the country, at the present juncture, if this petition were refused? Even the present parliament might wish to stand well with the country, and the rejecting such a petition was not the best mode of effecting that object. The petitioner did not recommend resistance. He merely said, the necessary inference was, that their acts could not be considered fair and constitutional laws, as the members who passed them were not duly elected. If he had stated an intention to resist, he might be punished for it. The House ought, even in its magnanimity, to suffer the petition to lie on the table. If there were any insult in it, that was another thing; but, for his own part, he could not perceive any.

Mr. Lockhart

doubted very much whether this was not an election petition. It stated that a number of members were unduly elected, and it called on the House to expel them. Now, he knew of no way by which they 'could be expelled except through the medium of an election committee. He recollected a precedent in point. He alluded to a petition presented by certain electors of the city of Oxford, in which they complained of the interference of the duke of Marlborough in the election for that place. This was held to be an election petition. The parties, however, not having entered into recognizances, the matter dropped. A second petition, of the like nature, was presented; but, as 14 days had elapsed since the election, it could not be received. He inferred from this, that when a peer interfered in an election, such interference would render that election void, because otherwise it would not be cognizable by an election committee. If this were the case, the objection must form the ground of an election petition, and must be regulated and governed by the rules which applied generally to that sort of petition.

The Speaker

wished to state the circumstances relative to the petition which had just been referred to by an hon. member (Mr. Hobhouse). He was the more anxious to do this, because he was personally concerned in the transaction. The petition, on being presented, was brought up to the table, read short, and ordered to be printed. He was subsequently applied to, by one of the officers of the House, to know whether a list of peers, who were said to nominate members to that House, and which was affixed to the petition, should also be printed? He answered, that no motion having been made relative to that list, it was in the breast of the House to give or refuse an order for printing it, on application being made to them; and therefore he could give no opinion whether it should be printed or not. The petition was printed but the list was left out, and in that state it at present stood. It would be found that the petition was not all that was contained in the parchment laid on their table. There was also a list of peers who were said to interfere in the return of members of parliament, which, not having been read to the House, and, in fact; not being in possession of the House, he could not exercise any discretion, one way or the other, with respect to its being printed.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, on looking to the petition, as printed, he found that the list was not annexed. He inquired the reason; and having been told that the Speaker did not conceive that it could be printed without a specific order from the House, he bowed to his authority.

The petition was rejected.