HC Deb 14 March 1826 vol 14 cc1365-70
Lord John Russell

having moved the second reading of this bill,

Mr. Wynn

said, that as he understood it, the principle of the bill was, that upon complaint made to the House, a select committee should be appointed to try the issue, and that their decision should be absolute and final. To this there was this obvious objection—that the decision of no committee could be binding upon the House. The inquisitorial powers of the House might be delegated; but not the judicial. A body might be appointed to bring in a true verdict as to fact; but the question of corruption was a question of inference. All that a committee could do, was to report to the House; and the House could then do what they pleased upon it—either proceed further, or let it sleep. The bill also gave power to present petitions of complaint within six years from the period. This he thought too long. He also objected that there was no penalty or punishment assigned to an unfounded charge. Experience ought to show them the necessity of some such thing. In 1788, it was found necessary to enact, that any person presenting a frivolous petition should pay the whole costs. Now, this bill enacted, that the public should pay the costs of the whole inquiry. This would give rise to a thousand evils, of which they had at present no idea. It would, beyond question, lead not only to Vexatious but to malicious charges; and moreover, for the bringing of such charges, no penalty was declared. To the system proposed for choosing the committee of inquiry, too, he objected. The provision as to the appointment of the nominee was perfectly unfair. The nomineeship was perhaps the worst part of the existing system. Each party, in a petition of the kind in question, now named tome one person upon the committee in whose discretion he thought he could confide: and that nominee invariably became a counsel in the case rather than a judge. But the noble lord's bill gave the accuser the power of appointing such a nominee, and withheld it from the defendant—an alteration which made that course partial and unjust, which was objectionable enough already. The House had already possessed powers amply sufficient to correct bribery whenever a case of the kind was fairly made out. He never knew an instance in which the House had failed to deal severely with those against whom corrupt practices at elections had been substantiated.

Mr. Warre

was of opinion, that, in point of principle, no fair objection could be raised against the present measure, because they all knew perfectly well, that election committees were in the habit, under particular circumstances, of making special reports, the matter contained in which gave rise to ulterior proceedings. He could by no means go along with the right hon. gentleman in his statement, that the law, in its present state, was sufficient to put an end to those corrupt and disgraceful practices which were known to be carried on in elections. The House ought to be allowed a more extended period than was now granted, for hearing complaints on the subject of bribery and corruption. The call for reform should not be confined to those only who were within parliament; it ought to reach those who were without the walls of that House. Reform was as much required amongst the electors as amongst the elected; and if the noble lord could devise a plan, by which notorious and scandalous practices of the sort to which his bill referred could be put an end to, a most beneficial object would be gained. In some of the boroughs those practices were notorious. If the provisions of the present measure were hung over them in terrorem, it would produce a very good effect. He trusted, therefore, that the bill would be suffered to go into a committee, and that gentlemen would lend their cordial endeavours to render its provisions effectual.

Mr. Lockhart

denied that the House had, under the existing law, sufficient power to correct the evil. The right hon. gentleman had not denied that corrupt practices existed; and it was well known, that in some boroughs those practices were carried to an enormous extent. Surely such a system should be done away with.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

thought the provisions of this bill so extremely objectionable that if any member would divide the House, he would vote against the second reading. Its principle went to keep alive, in all the boroughs, a state of never-ceasing dissention, and to involve the House in litigations without end.

Mr. N. Calvert

observed, that every means ought to be taken to put down bribery at elections. The right of voting ought to be considered as a trust, and not treated as if it were a properly; and the moment the electors of any place were found guilty of corrupt practices, they ought to be disfranchised. The hon. gentleman adverted to a case in which it was clearly proved that the election of an individual was secured by a plentiful supply of new Bank of England notes, that individual being connected with the Bank.

Mr. Pearse

defended the Bank of England from having any knowledge of the transaction to which the hon. member had alluded.

Mr. N. Calvert

said, he happened to be on a committee, where it was proved that new Bank notes came down to the election in consecutive numbers, and some of them were traced to the voters.

Mr. Wynn

said, he had ever supported the principle of disfranchising whenever abuse could be proved; but he was in doubt whether the present bill was calculated to remove or to promote the evils which it proposed to remedy.

Colonel Davies

reminded the House, that the proof of a single act of corruption, in an individual elector, vitiated the return of the candidate whom he had supported. Would hon. members say, that the corruption of an individual should be held as the act of all his fellow electors, and sufficient to disfranchise the entire borough?

Mr. W. Smith

thought that the evil which this bill was intended to repress required correction. Some years ago he had had a negotiation for one of those open boroughs, as they were called; but when he came to inquire into the business, he found that the former member had promised 10l. to each of the electors, which debt had been left unpaid. Now, what was the new candidate called on to do I He was told, that he must put into the Post-office a certain number of 10l. notes, directed, under cover, to such and such persons, before he could proceed further. How they were to be afterwards disposed of, the candidate, of course, could not exactly say, though he could easily guess. Any person paying the least attention to election proceedings in many places, must see that corrupt practices were carried on, although, in most cases, it would be difficult to bring the charge home to any individual.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, that an intelligence had gone abroad on this, as well as on other subjects, which rendered it impossible that the law should be continued in its present state. He saw no great force in the observations of an hon. gentleman, that the electors ought to reform themselves; because it was evident, that if there were none to offer bribes, none could be bribed. The House ought, therefore, to begin with those who were desirous of procuring seats in parliament. The law ought to be so framed as to make it impossible for any person to introduce himself into parliament by base and dishonest means. The state of the law was extremely imperfect; and, in many instances, the House had not neglected its duty, but was unable, in consequence of that state of the law, to perform it. There was a striking instance in that House, at the present moment, of the inefficacy of the law. A petition was presented against the return of a certain borough, and one of the individuals connected with that election was sent to prison, while the other took his seat in that House, where he still remained, although there was little difference in the two cases. He knew not whether the noble lord's bill would have the effect which was contemplated; but he would support it, because he was glad to see the House taking any step on this subject, considering, as he did, that bribery at elections was the root of every evil which afflicted the country. It was notorious that corruption prevailed to a very great extent. There was a standing order of that House forbidding the interference of peers in the election of members of parliament; but it was well known that it was not regarded. His hon. friend needed not to have introduced the statement relative to the borough, the electors of which were to be paid up their 10l. arrears. It was not necessary to point out isolated cases, when it was well known that many gentlemen who sat in that House were only representatives of their own money. One individual, who had distinguished himself as much as any individual of the age, had paid 1,000l. a-year to serve as member for a place which he never saw. When he heard gentlemen congratulating one another on the purity of parliament, and gravely declaring that there was no necessity for reform, he could not help thinking of the words of Cicero: "I wonder how one augur can ever meet another without laughing." In like manner, he wondered how, on such occasions, one member of parliament could look in the face of another without laughing. When the whole system was one great blot, he knew not where to commence the cleansing process; but he would always support the efforts made by others for that purpose, although they might fall short of his own views and wishes.

Mr. F. Palmer

was perfectly convinced that some sort of reform in parliament, for which the people had been calling for the last twenty years, ought to be introduced. The people looked to that House for such a reform; and, if the House did not reform itself from within, it would ultimately be reformed from without. In saying this, he was making use of an old expression; but such was, in his opinion, the feeling which pervaded the people.

Lord J. Russell

said, that the statements which had been made that night, proved that some measure of the kind was absolutely called for. The general election was fast approaching, and no doubt could be entertained that bribery and corruption were now going on. This rendered it the more necessary to make a speedy alteration in the law. It was notorious, that the returns to that House were, in many instances, made in virtue of money, and nothing else. He did not mean to make any remark on what had fallen from the hon. member for Hertford, or the lion, member for Devizes, relative to the Bank; but it was a remarkable circumstance, that when the hon. member for Penrhyn (Mr. Grenfell) had apprised his constituents, that he would decline making any advances to that borough, if likely to be attended with pecuniary expense, a person connected with the Bank immediately went down to form a connexion with that place, where he was not at all known; and it certainly was doubtful, whether some of the newly-issued Bank of England notes would not find their way to Penrhyn in the course of the next election. While such notorious practices were carrying on, was it not the duty of the House to take steps to check them? He had himself known instances in which the electors, when the member had been in the House for fourteen days without any petition being presented against his return, had come forward and said, "the fourteen days are now over, and we call upon you to pay us for returning you." Such disgraceful conduct ought to be put an end to. He did not know that his bill would have the complete effect, but he hoped that it might be so modeled as to answer the purposes for which he intended it. The high tone of feeling in the country on this subject, and the improved state of society, warranted him in saying, that this bill, or one of a similar nature, must finally be carried.

The Bill was then read a second time.