HC Deb 01 March 1826 vol 14 cc1003-7
Lord John Russell

said, that in rising to move for leave to bring in the bill, of which he had given notice, he did not intend to trespass long on the attention of the House. In former days it had been found, that when complaints had been made to the House respecting the manner in which elections had been made, the decision of the House on those complaints had been so much influenced, that it had been found necessary to adopt a different system respecting them. The House had been obliged (and he did not think it much to their credit that they had been so obliged) to impose upon a select, number of their own body the task of deciding, upon their oaths, as to the justice of the complaints made to them. The remedy which had thus been applied, it was generally admitted, had been successful; and so it was as far as regarded the question between party and party, but it was not as successful as far as regarded the interests, of the public; for it was evident that, there might be corrupt elections, and yet that the committee chosen under the law, commonly called the Grenville act, could not apply the remedy which the case demanded. It might happen that there had been corrupt practices in which the petitioner had engaged, and which he was therefore afraid to bring forward, because he durst not stand the test Which in, the committee, would be applied to him. It might also be the desire of the petitioner, who sought to set aside an election on specific grounds, to try another election, when he intended to practise those corrupt practices; which, if they were disclosed to the House, would defeat the return of his opponent. In all these cases, it was manifest, that the pubic had no protection, and that there were no powers vested in the committee to pursue the matter further than the mere decision upon the merits of the case before them. The public, too, had, by the operation of this act, and the appointment of a committee for such purposes, lost a certain degree of security which they had formerly, when those questions were fully and amply discussed by the whole House of Commons; and when it was in the power of all its members to judge of the extent to which certain practices might have been carried in any particular places. The remedy he would propose was, that, where a complaint had been made upon petition, from any person or place, within the period of six years after the commission of the offence, then the House, if it thought the complaint, upon examination, fit to be entertained, should appoint a committee, in the same manner as under the Grenville act, but composed of only fourteen members, and the member interested in the petition. He did not intend that there should be any power of rejecting those appointed, or striking them off, in consequence of any objections raised by any of the parties. This committee, so appointed, should examine the evidence in support of the allegations, and report to the House their opinion upon the case submitted to them. The reason, he begged to observe, why he proposed that the proceedings should be carried on by petition, as under the Grenville act, rather than by a resolution, of the House, was this, that it would be for the House to judge on the terms of the petition, whether it contained matter worthy of being submitted to the consideration of a committee—a course in which there was nothing new, as, on every case of the kind, the House had the power to reject petitions, on the ground that there was nothing in them to warrant their interference; and, after the evidence had been examined in detail before the committee, it would be for the House to declare, whether there was, in the disclosures made by that evidence, a sufficient case to induce the legislature to take further proceedings. He thought it would hardly be said, that the practices to which he had alluded did not require some new remedy. They were known to prevail to a very great extent already; and, in all probability, this year would, in many of the boroughs, give occasion to practices which were disgraceful to those boroughs, and detrimental to the liberties of the people. On this occasion he argued more favourably of the success of his proposition, because he calculated on having in support of it the authority of an hon. gentleman whom he could never yet induce to vote with him in favour of reform, although he had done all in his power to accommodate his notions to those of the hon. gentleman. He alluded particularly to the hon. member for Penryn (Mr. Grenfell), who, he found, had lately been addressing his con- stituents in language which favoured entirely his own view of this important subject, and which he would read to the House. The hon. member, whose talents would do credit to any place which might send him as a representative to parliament, and who had, upon all occasions served his constituents with the greatest ability and earnestness, now found it necessary to address them in language to this effect:—"Gentlemen, I am under the necessity of informing you, that I mean to withdraw my name as a candidate for the representation of your ancient borough, in the ensuing parliament; and I do so in consequence of having received some very sufficient, though rather unexpected hints, which have satisfied me that it will not be possible to succeed in any attempt to represent you in parliament, unless by having recourse to practices to which I never can submit—practices which have twice, within two years, endangered your existence as a borough, and which, not six years ago, subjected one of your representatives to a heavy fine and a tedious imprisonment, as a punishment for the offences which are now about to be revived." Now, he would ask, not of those who had always voted with him upon the question of reform, but of those who acknowledged that abuses might exist, but refused, as they said, to pull their house about their ears, unless we could point out some specific ground of complaint, and show how we were to apply an efficient remedy—he would ask, whether this was not a case exactly such as they required, and one which would warrant some measure to put down the practice which it announced still to be in existence? He asked them whether it was not the best and most satisfactory mode of proceeding, first to prove the specific grievance, and then to apply the remedy? What he proposed to do was, If the committee should report that general corruption prevailed in a borough, that the House should proceed as in the instances of New Shoreham and Grampound,—that a bill should be brought in for disfranchising them; and then, as the nature of the case might direct, that the right of electing members should be transferred elsewhere. If the neighbouring hundred were a populous one, the franchise might be transferred thither; but if the borough were a small one, and the neighbourhood scanty, then it should be transferred to some populous place in an- other part of the county,—to follow, in short, the example which had been proposed with respect to Grampound, the franchise of which was to be given to Leeds. The change which that measure had undergone in the House of Lords, in giving it to the county of York instead, he thought was no improvement, but the contrary. In this manner, slowly, but effectually, as far as it went, would the representation of the country be reformed; and, to use an expression of a noble friend of his in the other House of parliament, the wool, the cotton, and the iron of the country would be represented in parliament. He would now conclude without saying at that moment any thing respecting the general question of reform, to which he should be prepared after Easter to call the attention of the House. On that occasion he should avail himself of the authority of a distinguished statesman, as on this he had had the benefit of the address of the hon. member for Penryn to his constituents; and he would call upon the House, in the words of the right hon. Secretary for Foreign Affairs, on a recent occasion, not to reject the improvement which he should submit to them, "because it was an innovation, lest they might hereafter be compelled to submit to an innovation which was no improvement." The noble lord concluded with a motion for leave to bring in a bill "for the better discovery and suppression of Bribery and corrupt practices in the Election of members to serve in parliament."

Mr. Grenfell

said, he could hot deny that such an address had been issued by him to the place alluded to; but be did not see that there was anything contained in it which would prevent him from opposing, as he had always done, any innovations, founded upon an undefined speculative plan of parliamentary reform.

Mr. Wynn

admitted, that it was the duty of the House to oppose, as far as possible, any practices which might tend to defeat the fairness and purity with which elections ought to be conducted. He objected, however, to the proposition of the noble lord to empower a committee in the manner suggested by the noble lord. The manner of forming such a committee might tend to defeat the very end proposed, because it would only secure, that one member (he who presented the petition) in favour of the petitioner should be on the committee. The expense of the investigation would also form another and a very serious difficulty. He threw this out, not in hostility to the measure, but as it occurred to him in the shape of an objection on the face of it. On the one hand, if the expenses were to fall on the parties preferring the petition, they would be seldom brought; for few persons would be found willing to bear those expenses for the sake of an investigation, the result of which could in no way benefit themselves. On the other hand, if the expenses should be paid by the public, that circumstance would give occasion to many of what were called fishing petitions, in which the parties depended upon the chance of any evidence they might get, and without any previous authority, or sufficient ground for the proceeding. He also understood the noble lord to state, that the power of appointing the committee was not to be imperative on the House, but optional. He thought this was likely to give rise to very unpleasant discussions, in which the result would often not be so satisfactory as when the whole decision on the election was left to the committee. He hoped that when the noble lord brought in his bill, he would find some means of obviating these difficulties.

Lord John Russell

said, he intended to propose that the expenses should be paid as in other committees, and that notice of the application should be given to the borough, who would be allowed to oppose by their counsel and agents.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.