HC Deb 26 May 1826 vol 15 cc1401-10
Lord John Russell

rose, in pursuance of the notice he had given, to bring forward certain resolutions framed for the purpose of repressing Bribery and Corruption at Elections. He had, he said, already brought the substance of these resolutions before the House; and as, on that occasion, the bill he introduced underwent a great deal of discussion, he should not think it necessary to enter at present into the same details which he had formerly stated. It might be remembered, that several objections were at first taken to that bill; and those he had endeavoured to obviate as much as possible in preparing his resolutions. Into the resolutions, in short, he had incorporated the matter of the ori- ginal bill, and his object was, to enter them, in their present shape, upon the Journals of this House, so that they might stand for a rule and precedent for the future. In the year 1775, on the subject of a return which had been made for the Borough of Hindon, a resolution was agreed to, and recorded, importing that if any member should obtain a seat in that House by means of bribery and corruption, he should be subject to the several penalties. Now, that order was repeated to the present moment, at the beginning of every session; and in the same way the resolutions which he was about to propose might be acted upon. The practice of bribery at elections was a very notorious one; and one of the immediate grounds of the resolutions in question was, that he had been told by a gentleman of forty years' experience in parliamentary business, that it was a common practice in contested elections for some of the partisans of a candidate to hold processions, or public meetings, and to say that the candidate was "a gentleman," or to call him by some such distinctive appellation; and that, after the expiration of the fourteen days, during which, an election petition against him could be presented by the other party, he would come forward and pay all his supporters. He was informed, on the same authority, that money was accordingly paid, on such occasions, and receipts regularly taken by the agents of the candidates. While such practices notoriously subsisted, it was absurd and ridiculous to keep upon their books a resolution so utterly inefficient as that had proved to be which he had just alluded to. He would now conclude by moving, 1. That whenever a petition shall be presented to this House, after the expiration of the time allowed for presenting petitions against the validity of the return of any member of this House, by any person or persons, affirming that, at any time within eighteen calendar months previous to presenting the said petition, general bribery or corruption has been practised, for the purpose of procuring the election or return of any member or members to serve in parliament for any borough, cinque port, or place, and it shall appear to the said House, that such petition contains allegations sufficiently specific to require further investigation, this House will appoint a day and hour for taking the said petition into consideration, so that the space of twenty days shall intervene between the day on which the said petition shall have been presented, and the day appointed by this House for taking the same into consideration; and notice of such day and hour shall be inserted, by order of the Speaker, in one of the two next London Gazettes, and shall also be sent by him to the returning officer of the borough, cinque port, or place, to which such petition shall relate; and a true copy of such notice shall by such returning officer be affixed to the door of the town hall or parish church nearest to the place where the election of members to serve in parliament for such borough, cinque port, or place, has been usually held. 2. That at the hour appointed by this House for taking such petition into consideration, this House will proceed to appoint a select committee to inquire into the truth of the matters contained in the said petition, and report the result of their inquiry to this House; and such select committee shall consist of thirteen members, to be chosen by lot, according to the directions, provisions, rules, and regulations, and subject to the exemptions for choosing forty-nine members by lot, contained in the various acts to regulate the trials of controverted elections, or returns of members to serve in parliament, so far as they are applicable thereto, and of two other members to be appointed by this House, out of the members then present in this House; and the thirteen members so chosen by lot, together with the two members to be so appointed by this House, shall be a select committee, and shall inquire into and try the matter of such petition, and shall report their opinion thereof, together with the evidence given before them, to this House. 3. That this House will not appoint such select committee so long as any trial is pending before a select committee of this House to try the validity of the return, or so long as a day is named in the orders of this House for appointing a select committee to try the validity of the return, for the borough, cinque port, or place, to which the petition refers.

The first resolution being put,

Mr. Wynn

said, he did not, in the slightest degree, take any objection to the principles of the resolution, so far as it went to pledge the House to punish any gross case of bribery or corruption. He had always felt that it was the first duty of the House to proceed to remedy any abuses when they were fairly brought before parliament, and proved to exist. He thought it not at the present moment desirable to enter into any general inquiry into the subject, for the constitution had already provided a sufficient remedy against corruption and bribery, by giving parliament the power to punish whenever any specific case of abuse was brought before them. He doubted very much whether the tribunal proposed by the noble lord was better adapted to his object of suppressing bribery than that which already existed. Alluding to the recent case of Grampound, which had been met by the severe displeasure of the House, he thought that when the voters had been convicted by a jury, the House ought to receive a petition, at any time, upon any member's alleging the circumstance, and stating that he could lay such evidence before the House as would constitute sufficient grounds of inquiry. There could be no doubt that any such case of abuse as that alluded to was a serious breach of the privileges of the House; and it might be a question, whether the case should be examined at the bar, or be referred to a Committee of privileges. He could conceive a great many different cases, in which any one of these remedies would be more proper than that now proposed by the noble lord. The judgment passed by the first mode would be final, but the committee proposed by the noble lord's resolution would be simply a committee of inquiry, without any power but that of procuring evidence for the House, which the House might determine to be sufficient or not. He trusted the noble lord would not press the question, but allow it to be carried to the next parliament. Where the decision of a committee was not final, he did not approve of appointing a committee. A select committee would be as satisfactory a mode as that proposed, and the noble lord's plan would prove detrimental, and would operate as a discouragement to bring cases before his tribunal. He was quite aware of the abuses which the noble lord pointed out, and particularly that of distributing money after the expiration of the fourteen days. The best way of checking such a practice would be, to bring a specific case before parliament, which might be visited either by a prosecution by the attorney-general, or, if the corruption were very general, it might be punished by a disfranchisement. He thought it would be better if the noble lord, instead of pressing his resolutions at this late period of the session, were to give notice, that if any gross case of corruption should in future arise, he would bring it before the notice of the House. He would therefore move the previous question.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that the noble lord's object was chiefly to extend the term of inquiry into cases of bribery beyond its present insufficient limit, and he should therefore support the motion.

Lord J. Russell

said, that there were certainly other modes than the one he proposed for correcting the practice of bribery; but, in spite of such modes, it was notorious that bribery was practised with impunity: it was therefore evident, that other remedies ought to be adopted. The resolutions did not pledge the House to any thing dangerous, for it would be in the option of any member hereafter to object to them. As to his bringing forward the motion in the next session of parliament, he was by no means certain of having the honour of sitting in the new parliament.

Mr. Secretary Peel

advocated the delay of the consideration of the resolutions until next session. The motion was one which was well worthy the consideration of the House; but it had not attracted a sufficient share of attention to enable members to vote with a due regard to all the bearings of the question. The Grenville act, though its operation was to be but temporary, had excited great discussion; and he did hope that less consideration would not be given to such an important measure as the present. Besides which, the resolutions were of so important a character, that full effect could not be given to them but by a legislative enactment, which could not take place till the next parliament. He did not consider the last day for business a fit moment to bring forward resolutions which were to bind future parliaments. He, therefore, trusted that the noble lord would not press his motion to a division.

Mr. Warre

said, that when his noble friend had come down to the House with a bill he was told that his object would be better answered by proposing a resolution, and now he proposed a resolution, he was told that his best course to pursue would be to bring in a bill. The existence of the most gross and criminal corruption was notorious and undenied; and it was known to be the practice of members to settle their bribery accounts at the end of fourteen days after the meeting of parliament, when the forms of the House prevented any investigation into the transaction, or punishment of the delinquency. It was very difficult to establish a case like that of Grampound, and which was substantiated only by the bribed parties squabbling amongst themselves. Grampound had been disfranchised after a severe struggle; but how many notorious cases were there, where the parties could not be brought before a court of justice? But why should the House pretend to punish a crime which they refused to check by any efficient preventive laws? Until these worst of practices were checked, the parliament was distinctly sanctioning the guilt which they pretended to punish. He wished to ask the following question of the President of the Board of Control. Suppose this resolution should not be acceded to, and no bill should be passed on the subject, could any petition be presented to the House complaining of the mal-practices he had mentioned after the expiration of the fourteen days?

Mr. Wynn

observed, in explanation, that after a lapse of fourteen days from the return of a member, no petition could regularly be entertained, impeaching the validity of such a return; but still the House had the power of investigating any charge specifically alleging a corrupt distribution of money to the voters; and it was a charge which it would be incumbent on the House to enter into, as it involved a gross breach of privilege; and if it were to be made out to the satisfaction of the House, the House would consult its dignity by ordering the attorney-general to prosecute the offenders.

Lord Milton

said, there had been an impression throughout the House, that not only was the time for presenting an election petition limited, but that the limitation included all petitions which referred to the practices of bribery in boroughs. The bill brought in by his noble friend related, not to the removal of the sitting members, so much as to the general practice of bribery and corruption. He could not help thinking, that the conclusion of the session, and just before a general election, was precisely the period at which to pass such resolutions. If the motion was put off till next year, parties likely to be affected by these resolutions might say, that they had not received due notice of the intentions of parliament. He did not say that such an argument ought to have the effect of stopping proceedings in that House; but it might have the effect of leading many to view the conduct of delinquents with a more lenient eye than, under other circumstances, they would be inclined to do.

Mr. Lockhart

was of opinion, that the words of the resolution were not sufficiently comprehensive, so as to reach every species of bribery. He referred to the practice of giving money to electors after the election was over.

Mr. Brougham

said, his hon. and learned friend did not pretend to deny, that giving money after elections, without any previous promise to that effect, was not within the bribery laws. Such a proceeding would certainly be an act of bribery, and it would, upon evidence, appear whether it was so far connected with the election as to affect the vote. He could not help thinking with the noble member for Yorkshire, that if the sanction of the House was given to these resolutions great good would be produced by them at the approaching general election. We were at this moment at a most delicate crisis. The machinery of corruption was already at work. Its sources were gathering; and the means were forging for carrying it into effect. At such a period the resolutions must be productive of much good. He called upon every hon. member, as he valued his own interest, to give his vote in favour of these resolutions, as the surest and most effectual means of preventing the engines of corruption from being turned against himself.

Mr. Hume

said, he had that day received a letter, in which it was stated, that a seat for a borough might be obtained, if the candidate was willing to spend 3,000l.; that the usage, for the last twenty years was, to give each man 5l. for his vote, which amounted to 2,500l. The other 500l. went in expenses [a laugh].

Mr. Hudson Gurney

said, he should certainly vote for the previous question, he could not conceive any thing more impracticable and inconvenient, than the machinery recommended in the noble lord's resolutions; nor any thing less likely to effect the object he had in view. In the place of these resolutions, he would recommend the noble lord to take in hand the revision of the Bribery and Treating acts, which, as they at present stood, were perfectly absurd—either inoperative, or just in the extreme. The noble lord himself did not know, in his own election for Huntingdonshire, what charges were and what were not lawful for him to pay. There was not a member in that House who did not pay for his seat, either in meal or in malt; or somebody for him.—[No! no! and loud laughter]. The hon. member proceeded. As the bribery laws were framed, no man knew whether he was violating them or not, or rather it was impossible not to violate them, or to steer clear of the risk of having them violated under his name, however anxious he might be to avoid either the one or the other.

Mr. Alderman Wood

was surprised at the most extraordinary assertion made by the hon. member for Newton. That bribery and payment for votes took place in many districts was very probable; but it was too bad to say that it existed in all. For himself, he could assure the hon. member, that he had been three times returned for the city of London, and that he never paid either in meal or in malt; nay, that he never expended a single shilling in coach-hire or otherwise towards his election. He had been frequently applied to by out-voters as to whether he would pay their expenses to town, but his uniform answer was, that he never paid one shilling of the expenses of his election, not even so much as a bowl of punch, the price of which, perhaps, the hon. member would understand. The only expense incurred at his election arose from advertisements, and the hire of a committee-room for a few days. He did not think such an assertion could have come from any but the representative of a corrupt borough.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

said, he had heard with surprise the declaration of the hon. member for Newton.

Sir R. Wilson

most solemnly declared, that he had never paid for his seat in meal, and he was quite sure that his hon. colleague never paid for his in malt. He had now been twice elected, and it was much to the honour of the six thousand electors of Southwark, that he had never paid a single shilling, directly or indirectly, towards his election. And he was sure that, if the hon. members for Westminster were in their places, they would say as much for their constituents. It was the duty of the House to carry these resolutions by a large majority, to shew that they were in earnest in their endea- vours to put down a system which had so long disgraced this country.

Sir M. W. Ridley

rose, to suggest the best mode of shortening this debate. He would advise every member, who felt the unmerited imputation cast by the hon. member's statement, to vote in favour of the noble lord's resolution. He repelled the accusation as far as he was personally concerned, and he called upon those who felt with him to vote with him also.

General Gascoyne

said, he had had the honour of being returned six times to parliament for the town of Liverpool, and he solemnly declared, that upon no occasion had he been called upon to pay, directly or indirectly, a single shilling for his seat. He thought that declaration due to the people of Liverpool. At the same time he felt bound to give his support to the resolutions of the noble lord.

Mr. F. Palmer

denied that he had ever paid for his seat in any way. His committee sat every Tuesday for the last three months, and if the hon. member for Newton would only pay them a visit next Tuesday, they would give him such a lesson about purity of election as would induce him to change his opinions.

Mr. T. Wilson

agreed with the hon. member for Newton, in thinking that it was difficult for any man to say, when he did or did not infringe the bribery laws. He also agreed with his hon. colleague, that there was no such thing in the city of London as bribery or corruption. He believed, nevertheless, that a person might offend against the law without knowing that he did so. With respect to the offer of a seat, mentioned by the hon. member for Aberdeen, he thought that it must have been a hoax played off upon him; for, considering that the hon. member was such a strenuous advocate for purity of election, he was likely to be the last man to whom such an application would be made.

Lord J. Russell,

in reply, thanked the hon. member for Newton, for having made a speech so well calculated to support his resolutions. If corruption at elections was so general, as to be supposed by the hon. member universal, there needed no stronger argument in favour of the course which he called upon the House to pursue. He wished the hon. member had attended the last meeting of the electors of Westminster, and they would have shown him that the people only sought able and honest representa- tives, and having these, the expense of their election was nothing. In answer to what had fallen from the right hon. gentleman, as to the lateness of the period when these resolutions were proposed, he had only to observe, that they had been in substance, before the House, in the shape of a bill, since the commencement of the session. He pressed them forward now, not because he thought them perfect, or incapable of amendment, but because he thought them necessary to check the progress of corruption at the approaching elections.

Mr. H. Gurney

said, he wished to be permitted to offer a word in explanation of what had been so much animadverted upon. In stating that there was no election free from the charges of corruption and bribery, he did not mean to pledge himself so much to their actual existence, as to their constructive existence under the interpretation of the bribery laws. In fact, as the laws stood now, no one knew what was, or was not bribery.

Mr. Grenfell

said, he could put his hand to his heart, and declare that he had never resorted to any means of getting into that House of which he could possibly be ashamed. However, as he was told that practices did exist at elections, which ought to be reprobated, he thought it his duty to express his disapprobation of them by supporting this resolution.

The House divided: For the resolution 62. Against it 62. The numbers being equal, the Speaker stated, "that it now being his duty to give his vote, and considering the proposed Resolution as merely declaratory of what are the powers and what is the duty of the House, and that any inaccuracy in the wording of the resolution might be amended when in the new parliament, it must be re-voted, he should give his vote in the affirmative."

The other resolutions were then put, and agreed to.

List of the Sixty-two Members who voted for the Resolution.
Abercromby, hon. J. Carter, J.
Allen, J. A. Cripps, J.
Barnard, lord Denman, T.
Bentinck, lord W. Ebrington, lord
Benyon, B. Ellice, E.
Bernal, R. Fitzgerald, M.
Bright, H. Folkestone, lord
Brougham, H. Gascoyne, gen.
Buxton, T. F. Gaitskill, W.
Calcraft, J. Gordon, T.
Calvert, N. Grant, J. P.
Grattan, J. Parnell, sir H.
Grenfell, P. Philips, G. jun.
Handley, H. Powlett, hon. W. J.
Honeywood, T. P. Robarts, A. W.
Hulse, sir E. Scarlett, Jas.
Hume, J. Sebright, sir J.
Knight, R. Smith, W.
Lamb, hon. G. Stanley, lord
Lethbridge, sir T. Tavistock, marquis
Lloyd, sir E. Tierney, rt. hon. G.
Lockhart, J. J. Tremayne, J. H.
Lushington, Dr. Tulk, C. A.
Maberly, J. Wood, Alderman
Maberly, J. L. Williams, sir R.
Martin, J. Wrottesley, sir J.
Maule, hon. W. Warre, J. A.
Maxwell, J. Wilson, sir R.
Milton, lord Wharton, J.
Normanby, lord
Onslow, serj. TELLERS.
Ord, W. Ridley, sir M. W.
Palmer, C. F. Russell, lord John
List of the Sixty-two members who voted against the Resolution.
Alexander, Jas. Lewis, F.
Attwood, M. Long, sir C.
Bankes, H. Lowther, T.
Bankes, G. Lushington, Dr.
Baillie, col. J. Lushington, col.
Balfour, John Montgomery, gen.
Blair, J. Ommanney, sir F.
Bonham, H. Palmerston, lord
Cawthorne, col. Peel, rt. hon. R.
Chichester, sir A. Penruddock, J. H.
Clerk, sir G. Phillimore, Dr
Cockerell, sir C. Plummer, John
Cocks, J. Robertson, R. C.
Croker, J. W. Robinson, rt. hon. F.
Divett, T. Ross, C.
Douglas, W. K. Sandon, lord
Downie, R. Scott (of Roxborough)
Dundas, rt. hon. R. Somerset, lord G.
Egerton, W. Townsend, colonel
Estcourt, T. G. B. Trant, W. H.
Fitzgerald, V. Twiss, H. T.
Forbes, sir C. Warrender, sir G.
Gilbert, D. Wetherell, sir C.
Grosset, J. R. Wilson, T.
Gurney, H. Wodehouse, E.
Hill, sir G. F. Wortley, Stewart
Holmes, W. Wynn, rt. hon. C.
Horton, R. W. Yorke, sir J.
Huskisson, rt. hon. W. TELLERS.
Irving, John Goulburn, rt. hon. H.
Knox, hon. T. Herries, J. C.