HC Deb 25 February 1828 vol 18 cc669-76

The order of the day for the second reading of this bill being read,

Mr. Tennyson

said, that at that late hour, and having in the last session occupied so much time on the subject of this bill, he should not, in moving the second reading, say more than was necessary to remind the House of the grounds on which it rested, and to explain the course he intended to pursue. Members would recollect that the committee appointed last year to try the merits of the East Retford Election petition, had presented a special report, in addition to that, by which they announced to the House that the election was void for treating. That special report stated, that it had been a "notorious, long-continued, and general, practice, for the electors, who voted for the successful candidates, to receive twenty guineas from each of them, so that the burgesses who voted for both the members returned, had customarily received forty guineas for such exercise of their franchise." In directing the attention of members to this report in the last session, he had touched upon the unparalleled extent of treating and the outrageous rioting at the last election—rioting which could only be subdued by a military force. However repugnant to the constitution and to the law such interference might be, the paramount necessity for it in this case had been such, that the committee had determined a petition complaining of it to be frivolous and vexatious. He had thus exemplified the depraved, disordered, and demoralized, condition of the borough, the electors of which consisted of about two hundred persons—one half-resident and the other non-resident—all of them in the most abject condition of life. As to the main charge in the special report, he had so far satisfied the House by a statement of the evidence, of the existence of the practice complained of, and of its tendency to vitiate and corrupt the choice of the members, that the House had not only allowed him to bring in the bill now again before it, but it seemed to be its general impression, that any evidence beyond that taken on oath before the committee was unnecessary, and he believed that if the session had not closed upon him, he should have been allowed to pass the bill through that House upon the grounds which the minutes of that evidence afforded. Those details were however probably forgotten—the impression produced was worn away—and he now found several gentlemen so desirous of evidence at the bar, that if the House would read the bill a second time, he should propose to examine evidence in a committee of the whole House upon the bill, in order to justify that part of it by which it was proposed to disfranchise East Retford. He abstained from saying a single word as to any other of the provisions of the bill; because as they were all necessarily dependant upon the course which the House should take as to the first, it would be premature to enter into any discussion with regard to the expediency of giving the franchise to Birming- ham or elsewhere until that first proposition was disposed of. The place to which two representatives should be given if Retford were disfranchised—the nature of the elective franchise to be established in such new borough—and all other subsidiary provisions, would be proper subjects for discussion in the committee, when he should be prepared to state the grounds upon which he thought Birmingham ought to be preferred, and, if he could not prevail on the House to agree with him, to submit to any alternative it might please to adopt.—In confining himself, then, to that part of the bill which related to Retford, he understood an objection was to be started in limine, namely, that the corruptions he complained of were not such as occurred at the last election, but at former elections, and that there was no precedent for any bill, either of disfranchisement or regulation, so grounded. He thought every case must be judged of on its own merits. He was not bound to produce a case similar to a precedent case. But if he had wanted proof of the ground stated in the special report, he thought the extensive treating, outrageous rioting, the demoralized, abject, and depraved, condition of the voters, and the various corrupt indications at the last election, would have been amply sufficient to justify the interference of the House. But he should stand upon the charge stated in the special report—on that notorious, long-continued, and general, practice there complained of. It was notorious, for every one of the witnesses before the committee, of whom inquiry was made concerning it, stated its notoriety, and if he wanted further evidence, he had in his hand a petition signed by the most respectable inhabitants of Retford (presented last Friday) in which this practice was set forth as one which had existed for a long period, and as one by which, in the opinion of more than two hundred of the most considerable inhabitants of Retford, the electors had forfeited their franchise. Evidence at the bar could not be better than this, for that would not be an oath, and this was signed by the parties giving the testimony. In addition, every witness before the committee, who was an elector, and had voted at former elections, admitted that he had received the election-money. It was clear then that the practice had long existed—he believed for about seventy years. Was it then, to be imagined, that it would not equally have taken place at the last election if the opportunity had occurred? Was it not absurd to say, that because these payments were not made at the last election (which was simply because they could not) the proceedings should be stopped? This objection was started in a petition presented, on the 8th of February, from the bailiffs, aldermen, and burgesses. But why did not these gentlemen seize upon that convenient opportunity for denying the charge against them? Not one word of denial did the petition contain; on the contrary, the omission of such denial must, under the circumstances, be taken as an admission of their guilt. They said, they should consider the suspension of the writ "a warning." Against what? Why, against the future commission of the offence charged upon them. But the House could not limit itself to a warning in so gross a case as he would prove this to be. As to the practice not obtaining at the last election—was it not the same thing if the expectation of it generally prevailed, and had an effect upon that election. If it had no connection with the last election, he should not want precedents: he believed the case of Shoreham was one, but he considered that unimportant. He could shew very conclusively, that the most extensive use was made of the practice in influencing the burgesses at the last election.—The hon. gentleman then made several references to the minutes, and cited the evidence of George Palfrey-man, Samuel Hindley, William Jackson, William Brown, and a letter written by direction of an agent of one of the candidates to one Joseph Marshall, which went to prove that the electors were seduced to vote for the candidates ultimately successful, on the ground of their being the strongest, and sure to pay the election-money. Thus, the practice had at the last election, as it always would, if not checked, the most injurious effect upon the public interest, by unduly and corruptly biasing the voices of the freemen. It must always operate upon the whole body of the electors prospectively, by inducing them to vote for the strongest party, without regard to qualifications. That the money was not actually paid at the last election arose from the claim being lost in consequence of the successful candidates being unseated. It was the inquiry now on foot, and the origin of that inquiry, which alone intercepted the pay- ment, and was it now to be said, that because the payment was not made, the inquiry which stopped it ought not to proceed? If such an objection prevailed, the practice would be immediately recurred to, and would go on to all eternity, which was precisely what the petitioners desired. He would not detain the House longer; but he wished it to be understood, that the real question before it at present was, whether it would go into a committee to examine witnesses; and although that vote was given in the form of a vote for the second reading of the bill, he should not consider any gentleman pledged by it to support the bill hereafter in its details, which, if the evidence were deemed sufficient to justify parliamentary interference with the borough of Retford, would remain open for subsequent consideration. The hon. gentleman then moved, that the bill be read a second time.

Mr. F. Clinton

said, that having been intrusted by the corporation of East Retford with the care of their interests, he must object to the present bill, both on principle and because, in common justice to East Retford, the House could not entertain the present measure. In every former case—in the cases of Shoreham, Grampound, and Cricklade—the places had not been disfranchised on loose surmises of general corruption, but instances had been adduced, in almost all the cases, of individuals having been convicted of bribery. In the present case, the committee had thought proper to bring a general charge of corruption against East Retford at a former period, not properly under their consideration. In the Penryn case, what had passed at former elections had been stated to the House; but, in that case, repeated charges of similar acts at several successive elections had been recorded on the Journals of the House; whereas this was the first time that any charge had been made against East Retford. There was great hardship towards the accused in this course. The alleged acts of bribery had taken place in the election before the last. The accused, therefore, had not the same facilities of defence as they would have had if the charge had been made at that time. The evidence before the committee showed, that out of forty witnesses, eight or ten admitted that, at the former election, they had taken bribes. This was good evidence against those individuals, but not against others: yet this was the kind of evidence on which the committee had founded their charge. The evidence came before the committee casually and incidentally, whilst in pursuit of another object. If the present bill was suffered to pass, it would offer an easy and convenient precedent for the disfranchisement of a borough. Let it be brought before a committee on any charge, and if any instance of corruption could be shown, at any former period, then let it be disfranchised. There was another point of view in which the present measure was unjust: one fourth of the electors had been admitted to their freedom since 1820. So that if this bill passed, persons would be disfranchised to whom no guilt was imputed: it confounded the innocent with the guilty, if guilty they were. A total disfranchisement was justifiable solely on the ground that the whole body of electors were so corrupt that there was no pure stock to ingraft upon; whereas here a large body of voters were perfectly innocent.

Mr. Stewart

opposed the bill. He said, he saw no reason why Birmingham should enjoy the privilege proposed to be taken from East Retford. There were four counties without representatives at all in that House. He would move, "that the bill be read a second time this day she months."

The amendment was put, but not seconded.

Mr. N. Calvert

observed, that the trust with which electors were invested was similar to that of jurymen; yet it was the practice now a days, to consider the elective franchise as a great privilege. In an early period of our history there had been instances of electors petitioning the House to be exempted from the office of voting, on account of their poverty. It was now, however, found out that the office was extremely profitable, and that it was quite cruel to take it away.

Mr. G. Bankes

said, that even if he agreed with the hon. member that the trust of an elector was like that of a juryman, he must still assert, that to deprive a man of such a privilege inflicted a disgrace which would be felt painfully. He could not agree, therefore, that in these cases the complaints of the parties ought not to be listened to. The members of that House did not sit in it for their own purposes alone. A seat in that House was a burthen from which no member could discharge himself. The objection of the hon. member was therefore no answer to the hon. member on the other side. If it were proved that the parties were guilty, then he admitted that their feelings ought no longer to be considered; but he could not allow that to be the case. He was not contending against the motion of his hon. friend, because the object of his hon. friend was merely to call other witnesses. He was a party to the report, and thought the case called for further inquiry; but he did not think that it was one which justified disfranchisement. It was a grave subject of inquiry, and he felt disposed to aid that inquiry; thinking it a most fit occasion for the House to exercise its inquisitorial functions.

Mr. Secretary Peel

thought it was material that it should be distinctly understood what was the principal object of the present measure. If he thought the real question involved in the proposition of the hon. gentleman was that which had been contemplated by two hon. gentlemen on his side of the House—that it was to decide whether East Retford was to be disfranchised or not—he might be disposed to vote against the proposition of the hon. gentleman. But he understood from his speech, that he only called on the House that evening to agree to his motion, in order that further evidence might be obtained, to enable members to make up their minds. If this were the case—if the House was to agree to the second reading of the bill, in order that evidence might be adduced at its bar, and that it might by personal examination of the witnesses determine the extent of corruption in East Retford—he should not refuse to the hon. member the opportunity of establishing his facts. He did not feel himself called upon to enter into the question of whether there was or was not a prima facie case of corruption; but he could not refuse the hon. member the opportunity he asked. Some regard should also be paid to the past proceedings of the House. The House had come last session to the second reading of a bill on this subject; he therefore thought it would be too much to set aside a former decision. On these grounds—the special report of the committee, and the past proceeding of the House—he gave his consent to the second reading of the bill. One part of the bill he thought objectionable, namely, that which stated the way in which the elective franchise was to be disposed of; which was assuming the guilt of East Retford. The part of the bill to which he most objected, was that which transferred the elective franchise to Birmingham. They ought to receive evidence without any previous prepossession in favour of the bill; and if after the evidence had been gone through, they should be satisfied that the borough of East Retford had been guilty of the imputed corruption, and therefore deserved to be disfranchised, their next measure would be to decide on the place to which the forfeited franchise should be transferred. Such, he conceived to be the course which justice and propriety dictated. To all those who might have an inclination in favour of the proposed change of franchise, he would suggest the inexpediency of making a transfer from a limited jurisdiction to a place so populous and extensive as that in contemplation.

Mr. Littleton

observed, that in the case of the bill for disfranchising Grampound, the name of Leeds was introduced, as the place to which the elective franchise was to be transferred; and that in the bill now in progress for disfranchising Penryn, the name of Manchester was introduced in a similar way. He had no hesitation in saying, that he was prepared, on the report of the Select Committee, to proceed to disfranchise East Retford; and he trusted that the legitimate object in view would not be met by Jesuitical evasions; but that the House would determine to do its duty.

Mr. Secretary Peel

, in explanation, observed, that all he wished was, to wait until the evidence before the committee had proved the expediency of disfranchising East Retford: after which he should support the proposition for introducing into the bill the name of the place to which, in the opinion of the House, the elective franchise ought to be transferred.

The bill was then read a second time.