HC Deb 03 April 1828 vol 18 cc1433-8
Mr. Wynn

said, that, in rising to move for leave to bring in a bill to consolidate and amend the laws on the subject of Controverted Elections, he felt it necessary to offer a few observations. The House knew, that it was now fifty-eight years since a Select Committee had been appointed to inquire into those laws, and that since that period ten acts of parliament had been passed on the subject. It was his wish to consolidate all these acts into one. He had prepared the bill, and would state shortly to the House the material alterations which it was the object of that bill to make in the present laws. In the first place, great difficulty and inconvenience had arisen from that part of the law which rendered it necessary that, on the presentment of petitions, the parties should enter into two recognizances; the one, to prosecute the petition, and the other to defray the expenses of its prosecution. It was clear that only one of; these could be necessary; and it was his wish therefore to remove the other. It repeatedly happened under the present laws, that the very clay before the trial of a controverted election was to come on, when the petitioning party had made all the necessary preparations, summoned his witnesses, and brought them to town at a considerable expense, the sitting member declined I to defend his seat. Hence arose a new delay of thirty days, and the witnesses were sent back to the country. It was his intention to give the sitting member fourteen days to decide whether he would defend his seat; and in the event of his; not declaring his intention within fourteen; days after the presentment of the petition, to make him liable for the costs that might have been incurred. He did not think that this, which was merely an act of justice to the petitioner, could be considered as any hardship upon the sitting member. Another reason why this alteration ought to be made was, that supposing the contents of the petition to be substantiated, the sitting member was completely out of court, and a person re- turned who might have no legal claim. He therefore proposed, in order to remedy this defect, that in all cases any persons claiming the right of voting should be admitted as collateral parties. He had heard of bargains being made on this subject, and compromises entered into. A committee, too, of last session—of which he had no wish to speak but in terms of respect—had thought themselves justified, without hearing a syllable of evidence, to seat the petitioner, because the sitting member said he would not defend his seat. It was necessary that compromises between the sitting member and the petitioner, and this consequence of the sitting member refusing to defend, should be both prevented.—He now came to the mode in which these committees were appointed. The House was aware that at present the number of names directed to be struck was forty-nine. He thought it quite unnecessary that so large a number should be struck, in the first instance. His intention was to assimilate these committees as much as possible to the nature of juries. Looking at the original bill, he found that it gave the power of striking off the names of members on cause being assigned; but, the House had found the exercise of this power to be most invidious. It seemed to him that it would be sufficient to draw only three times as many names, in the first instance, as would be required, and from them to strike off only a complete jury. He thought that the number of which these committees were at present composed might be reduced from fifteen to eleven, to be selected from the thirty-three names which he assumed to be sufficient to be struck in the first instance.—As to the I matter of nominees, he had reason to think that the House did not originally intend that they should be as they now were. It was well known that hon. members upon being appointed nominees had; enlisted themselves among the contending parties. He regretted to say that this had happened in many instances. The argument urged in favour of the appointment of nominees was, that the responsible situation in which they were placed would make them most scrupulous of being biassed, especially when they acted under oath. He regretted, however, to say that this was not the case. He had consulted several professional gentlemen who had been concerned on these occasions, and from them he had learned, that it was the practice, not only for the nominees to go up stairs and advise respecting striking out the names, but even to attend consultations; and that these judges, therefore, had actually made themselves parties in the dispute. He did not mean to cast any imputations on individuals, but he was sure there was no hon. gentleman who would not see how inconvenient it was to persist in the present course. In his opinion, it would be better to do away with nominees altogether. Gentlemen were now better informed on these subjects than they were sixty years ago, and the different reports which had been presented to the House had turned men's minds more seriously to the law on this subject. The only course which could be substituted for the present would be to give the committee the power of electing the nominees. But even this course was subject to objection, and he thought the better way would be to do away with them altogether. These were the principal alterations which it was his wish to make. His bill included all the acts upon the subjects, with the exception of that of 1803, which regulated the examination of witnesses. He thought that had better remain as an object of separate attention. He saw many inconveniences in the present practice, but he confessed that he could suggest no remedy for them. He had, therefore, left that act to be altered as the House should think fit.

Mr. Croker

agreed in all that had fallen from the right hon. gentleman. He wished to say a word or two on the question of nominees. When the Irish parliament adopted the acts of the English parliament on this subject, they left out the part respecting nominees, and never found that the omission of it caused any difficulty, either from want of information or want of justice.

Sir J. Macintosh

said, he never was in a more unpleasant situation in his life, than when he had been appointed a nominee. He would throw out, as a suggestion to the right hon. gentleman, whether a convenient substitute for nominees might not be found by resolving, that the committee should choose a chairman, not from among themselves, but from the body of the House.

Mr. Bankes

entirely concurred in what had fallen from the right hon. mover. In the course of his parliamentary life, he had often thought of the propriety of abolishing nominees; and what they had just heard with respect to Ireland confirmed his notions on this subject. He was glad to find the conduct of this business in such able hands.

Mr. Secretary Peel

agreed, that the time was come when these laws ought to be consolidated, and thought the House was under great obligations to his right hon. friend. He was sure that great advantage would result from the measure. The constitution of committees ought to be altered with respect to nominees; and he thought eleven members quite enough for a committee. Besides, it might be necessary that many committees should be appointed, and therefore the more the number of persons in each committee was reduced, the greater provision there would be for committees. At the same time, the loss of the nominees ought to be compensated for by some other means, in order that ability and experience might be ensured to each committee. He thought great inconvenience would result, if the committee was allowed to select a chairman from the body of the House. He wished to suggest to his right hon. friend, whether some person might not be appointed by way of assessor. All he was afraid of was, that if there were only to be thirty-three names, with the power of striking off twenty-two, committees would be appointed which, from their inexperience, would not obtain the confidence of the House.

Sir J. Macintosh

said, his suggestion was, that it should be made imperative on the committee to select a chairman from the body of the House. This would do away with the reflection which the right hon. gentleman had alluded to.

Sir G. Warrender

thought there ought to be an assessor appointed. A committee of which he was a member had actually overturned a decision of the Court of Session; which decision was afterwards confirmed by the House of Lords.

Mr. Calcraft

agreed that nominees ought to be abolished. He had often been a nominee, but he would not plead guilty to all that had been said against them. He did not like the proposition of an assessor. He thought the suggestion of making it imperative on committees to select a chairman from the body of the House was a very proper one. The House and the country would, he was sure, be obliged to the right bon. gentleman for bringing this matter forward.

Dr. Phillimore

said, he had served as a nominee on the committee to which his hon. friend (sir G. Warrender) had alluded; and so far from that committee having' violated the law, he was sure that its decision was founded on the soundest principles of law. He agreed that nominees ought to be abolished; and thought that if a committee had the benefit of two expert counsel, they would seldom decide wrong.

Mr. S. Rice

thought the constitution of election committees bad. It was bad that their proceedings should be conducted with closed doors. Whatever the strict rule of the House might be, no gentleman would say, that the two Houses of parliament could perform their functions with effect, unless the public were made acquainted with their conduct, and the reasons and principles on which they decided upon public questions. But in a committee up stairs every thing was decided irrevocably, and in the dark; and though it was known what decision they had come to, the reasons of that decision were concealed. He would state one curious fact. A petition had been presented against the return of his hon. friend (Mr. Hume); but there was not the shadow of a case made out on the part of the petitioner, and it was therefore voted unanimously, that the hon. member should not be called upon for a defence: but, when the question that the hon. member should retain his seat came to be decided, four of the committee who had so voted unanimously, voted also, that he should not retain his seat. What possible reason could have actuated these four, it was not for him to divine; but he was sure that no such thing could have occurred if the doors had been open.

Mr. R. Colborne

thought if the hon. member's plan were adopted, that a little debate would be got up upon every question, however unimportant.

Mr. Warburton

said, that though long speeches might be an inconvenience, the benefit which would result from the doors being open ought not to be left, out of the consideration. Publicity was the true corrective for the evil.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought that every committee should have a person of knowledge and experience to counsel and advise them. A committee, of which he had been a member, had decided on a point of evidence, twice one way, and once a contrary way.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.