HC Deb 14 March 1828 vol 18 cc1138-46

Lord J. Russell moved the second reading of this bill.

Mr. Manning

opposed the further progress of the bill; and, after referring to the evidence taken by the House upon the subject, contended that it was not sufficient to warrant the severe course now recommended. James, the petitioner upon whose recognizance the inquiry took place, had admitted, that the whole was a base conspiracy. He also complained, that the bill contained only ten lines referring to Penryn, and seventeen pages relating to Manchester; to which place, without the previous sanction of the House, it was proposed at once to transfer the right of election.

Mr. Stewart

contended, that the bill was contrary to the first principles of justice, and confounded the innocent with the guilty. The present generation was to be visited for the sins of the last, and offences of twenty years' standing were raked up to afford a pretext for disfranchisement. If the noble lord would bring in a bill to inflict an equal punishment upon the giver and the taker of a bribe, it should have his I hearty support: at present the visitation was quite unequal, or rather the most guilty part was allowed to escape. At all events, before the second reading of the bill, it was extremely improper to introduce the name of Manchester.

Mr. D. Barclay

expressed his desire to say a few words in defence of the borough he represented. He argued, that it would be preposterous to act upon the evidence already taken, especially after the proof since afforded that the petition against his hon. colleague originated in a conspiracy. New facts had come out since the last session, which not only justified, but imperatively required, every member, as an act of justice, to change the opinion he had previously formed against the borough of Penryn. A most unfair prejudice had been excited against the character of the borough; and in a petition recently presented from the burgesses, they were willing to place the disfranchisement of Penryn upon the issue of the proof that a conspiracy had existed, founded upon falsehood, and that out of it arose the petition against his hon. colleague. The hon. member (Mr. Manning) had read a letter from one of six conspirators, acknowledging the fact, and that the object was to extort money from the two members. He was persuaded, therefore, that hon. members would reconsider the subject, before they decided against the elective franchise of Penryn. The fact was, that Penryn formerly was a close borough—as close as Knaresborough, Old Sarum, Appleby, and a hundred others; the two members were returned by two baronets, each elector regularly receiving twelve guineas for his vote. In 1807, an attempt was made to open the borough, and it then ran considerable risk of disfranchisement. In 1818, the same danger was incurred; but at the present moment it was a reformed place, and the House would hardly disfranchise it because a few only out of four hundred and fifty voters were corrupt. A member who had canvassed the borough had sworn, that out of the whole number not ten would have accepted a bribe. It was repugnant to every principle of justice to adopt the course of proceeding now recommended. It would be scouted in the lower courts, and he hoped that in that House it would receive no countenance. If this borough were to be disfranchised on the ground of the notoriety of its corruption, why were not other boroughs to be similarly punished which were known to be guilty of the grossest corruption? Why was not this argument of notoriety to be applied to the close boroughs; such as Gatton for example? If notoriety was to be an argument good only against open boroughs, would not the public conclude that the House had some reason of its own for its partiality to close boroughs? Would it not recal the memory of that famous petition, in which it was offered to be proved, that one hundred and forty-four peers returned three hundred members to that House; that one hundred and eighty-seven other members were returned by commoners, and the remaining one hundred and seventy-one were all that were returned by the independent boroughs and cities. What had been the effect of the disfranchisement of Grampound? It had only given two seats more to the aristocracy? He had been told that the expense of the mere preparations for the contest at the last election for the county of York, amounted to 150,000l. Such an expense roust prevent any private gentleman from offering himself as a candidate. He would conclude with protesting against the disfranchisement of Penryn, as an act most harsh, oppressive, and unjust.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said:—I rise at this period of the debate, partly because I believe I am already in possession of the various views entertained on this subject, and partly because it is not impossible the line I am about to suggest may meet with the acquiescence of the noble lord, and thus preclude the necessity of a protracted discussion. The bill introduced by the noble lord proposes to declare the absolute disfranchisement of Penryn, and the transfer of that franchise to Manchester. My hon. friend behind me (Mr. Manning), and the hon. gentleman who spoke last, contend, not only against that course, but against the whole of the bill. They deny that there is any ground for the disfranchisement of this borough, and consequently they oppose the transfer of the elective franchise to any other place. On the present occasion I shall speak with reference to that part of the question only. I am for taking an intermediate course. I am prepared to vote in concurrence with so much of the noble lord's proposal as goes to disfranchise the borough of Penryn; but I am not prepared to affirm the proposition of the transfer of that franchise to the town of Manchester. The bill the noble lord has introduced in the present year differs from that affirmed by the House of Commons last year, and sent up to the House of Lords. This bill embraces two distinct objects—one in which the execution of justice is concerned, and which inflicts a penalty on a borough assumed to be delinquent; the other, I which involves a consideration of mere policy, namely, the place to which the franchise shall be transferred. In making these observations, I propose to keep the consideration of these two objects as distinct from each other as they really are in themselves. I shall consider first, what justice requires to be done with regard to the borough of Penryn; and next, what policy suggests we should do with the forfeited franchise, if we should decide that it is to be transferred. 1 am not prepared to concur with the two hon. gentlemen who have preceded me, in denying the necessity of the disfranchisement of this borough. The question has been already decided by this House; and if we mean to put an end to litigation, we must adhere to the decisions of the House. This subject was under consideration last year; the bill did not pass tacitly through the House, nor without attention being called to it in its various stages. We must now conclude, that the sense of the House was then declared. There was a question, I remember, in the committee, as to whether the franchise should be transferred to the adjoining hundreds. It is impossible to deny, that, owing to accidental circumstances, the sense of the House was not taken on that point so fully as it was desirable it should have been. Still it was taken; and, on the third reading of the bill, which went to the disfranchisement of the borough, on the ground of the long-continued prevalence of notorious corruption, the sense of the House was deliberately taken. There was a division, and the numbers were one hundred and forty-five in favour of the bill, and thirty-one against it, giving a majority of one hundred and fourteen, or more than four to one against the borough. If, then, the decisions of this House are to be deemed final, unless new facts can be presented to us, let us not consent to waste our time, but proceed with the duty we have to perform, lest we induce the country to distrust our judgment by shewing that we distrust it ourselves. The House has decided on this question, after hearing evidence at the bar; and am I now to be called on, when the material facts have passed out of my memory, to reconsider that decision? Is it not quite evident, that I must be less able to come to a fair and just decision than I was last session, when the evidence was fresh in my mind? I consider the judgment of the House with respect to the disfranchisement final, so far as the House is able to pronounce a final judgment. I acquiesce in it on the ground that there must be some termination to matters of this kind. Those who are opposed to that decision have a perfect right, if they think lit, to divide the House on the third reading of the bill. But as they were originally only thirty-one in number, I think they have but a slight chance of success. I, for one, feel perfectly justified in considering that as a final and deliberate judgment. Having listened attentively to the evidence given at the bar on this subject, and read the Reports of the Committee with reference to it, I feel myself bound to adhere to the decision of the House, that there was such an improper exercise of the elective franchise as warranted the House in taking that franchise away from the borough. I think the judgment of the House was strictly consonant to the prin- ciples of equity. I agree that these privileges are not to be treated as the property of the electors. They do involve considerations of public trust; and if they are abused by the majority of the electors, the innocent parties must take the consequence of their association with the guilty.—It was said in the debate last year, that we must confine our deliberations to the proofs of delinquency at the last election. But I never could acquiesce in the justice of that observation. I do think that the long continuance of these practices of bribery and corruption in the traffic of votes, is a material point in the case of any borough, which the legislature never can exclude from its consideration. There is one fact which I cannot conceal—that on three successive occasions this borough has been brought under the consideration of the House. On the first occasion, I was not in parliament, but I must have confidence in the decisions of former parliaments. I cannot disregard them when I am called to sit in judgment on similar delinquencies. I do not say this fact is of itself conclusive; but it is a material element, by which the judgment should be influenced. The election of 1826 was not the only occasion on which this borough was accused of corruption. In 1807, a committee of this House, which sat on the contested election of that year, resolved, that sir C. Hawkins, one of the sitting members, had been guilty of bribery and other corrupt practices. The same committee reported, that three persons, whom they named, and other electors, had been engaged in these corrupt practices. In 1819, the return for this borough was again contested, and the Report of the Election Committee stated, that Mr. Henry Swann, one of the sitting members, had been guilty of bribery, and that three other persons had been concerned in corrupt practices, in order to influence the previous election. It appeared, also, that eight electors had received bribes to induce them to vote. In 1827, we again find this borough of Penryn under the notice of the House. Former warnings did not succeed in extirpating their corrupt practices, and another committee had occasion to report, that gross bribery and treating had prevailed during the last election, though the committee entirely acquitted my hon. friend and his colleague of any participation in the corruption.—When I am called upon to consider whether we shall now deprive this borough of its elective franchise, is it possible to exclude the important fact of its former delinquency? If it had been only found delinquent in 1827, the propriety of disfranchisement would be less apparent than when it is pronounced after a long series of similar practices. My hon. friend is of opinion, that the evidence against this borough is founded in conspiracy. I hold the parties in the greatest disgust and reprobation, who are capable of entering into a conspiracy to extort money from the sitting members; but it does not follow that the evidence should be disbelieved on account of the conspiracy, if there was one. I place in a different point of view the conduct of the parties who produced the evidence for the purpose of extorting money, and the credit due to the evidence, from whatever motives it may have been produced. I view these motives with the greatest reprobation, but it is another question whether the House should refuse credit to the evidence, even if it be derived from so impure a source. On these grounds, I cannot deny my consent to so much of this bill as goes to take away the privilege of the borough of Penryn to return representatives to this House. I should also be prepared to give my opinion on the other part of the bill, which involves considerations of policy, if this was the single question of this nature presented to the House in the course of the present session; I mean that part which determines to what place the elective privileges should be transferred. I will not, on this occasion, pronounce any opinion on that part of the bill. I will not say whether I think the transfer should be made to the Hundreds, or to any populous town. The House will understand me, when I say, it is possible we may have this session to deal with two places in this manner. Before, then, we determine to appropriate the franchise of one of them, let us know whether we shall have one or two to deal with. That is an important consideration in deciding on the policy of this question. This very night, the hon. gentleman (Mr. Tennyson) had a motion for concluding a case of a similar nature. It seems to me that it would be quite unfitting to decide this point, while there is another case in which we shall have to act judicially; as we shall have to do with regard to the borough of East Retford. The hon. gentleman deprecated any discussion this evening; but I was prepared, if he had persevered, to have gone into the consideration of the question. As, however, he postponed it, on reasons with which I do not quarrel, to Friday night, I abstained from interfering. Now, I propose, before we determine whether or not we should transfer the franchise hitherto exercised by the electors of Penryn, to the Hundreds, to Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, or any other place, we should be enabled to determine whether we have one or two boroughs to disfranchise. No disadvantage can result from postponing this part of the question, until that very important fact is known. This bill provides not only that Penryn shall be disfranchised, but that the franchise shall be transferred to Manchester. I know the noble lord is warranted by precedent in following this course; but I must consider it unjust. I will not say what opinion I entertain as to the place to which the transfer is proposed; but I do think it more consonant with the practice that prevails in courts of justice, that before we appropriate the spoil, we should decide whether the party is delinquent. I do not advise the House to send the bill to the Lords, merely forfeiting the franchise of Penryn, because that would make them the arbiters of our privileges; but I do say, that we ought to postpone all consideration of the place to which we should transfer the franchise, until we have determined whether there is ground to forfeit the franchise. The naming of the place enlists new feelings, new hopes, and new expectations, which may possibly influence the judgment, as it would not have been influenced if it had remained a mere question of abstract justice. It would have been better in the case of East Retford, also, if the bill had named no place to which the franchise is to be transferred. When the bill had passed through the committee, after the guilt of the delinquent borough had been proved, so as to leave us at liberty to transfer the franchise elsewhere, we might have named the place to which it was to be transferred without telling a powerful party out of doors, and perhaps in this House, that they have an interest in pronouncing the penalty on the accused borough. If the noble lord should consent to the course I propose, lie will postpone the second reading until the case of East Retford is disposed of, or, at least, until it is decided whether that borough shall be disfran- chised. I concur in the disfranchisement of Penryn, but I give no opinion as to the transfer of the franchise to Manchester. If the noble lord would rather not take the sense of the House on the second reading, but on the committal of the bill, I am willing to agree to that course, if he will postpone the committal until we know the determination of the House as to East Retford. On that understanding, I am prepared to give my formal acquiescence to the whole bill.

Lord John Russell

said, he was ready to consent to the course suggested by the right hon. gentleman. Certainly he did not wish to pledge the right hon. gentleman, to the proposition that the franchise should be transferred from Penryn to Manchester. Perhaps the right hon. gentleman would have no objection to the bill being committed pro forma, reserving the discussion of the clauses until after the decision of the House on the case of East Retford. As he wished to stand well with the House, he would shortly explain why he had followed the course to which the right hon. gentleman objected. In the case of Grampound, the bill, in the first place, disfranchised that borough, and transferred the representation to Leeds. When it was committed, various propositions were made as to the place to which the transfer should be made. It was considered perfectly an open question as to what should be done with the forfeited franchise. It was suggested to him in this case, that it would be better to keep the two questions separate; that by one bill the offending borough should be disfranchised, and the representation disposed of by another. Acting on these suggestions last session, he had brought in a bill merely to disfranchise the borough of Penryn, without mentioning any transfer whatever. But, as it often happened, he found the inconvenience of this course only after he had entered upon it. It reduced him to this difficulty: the bill might have gone through that House and the House of Lords, by which means the number of the members of that House would have been diminished, and it would have been out of the power of that House, without the consent of the House of Lords, to fill up the vacancy. That struck him as a serious objection, and he thought it more advisable to join the two bills together. If a bill of pure disfranchisement only was passed, the vacancy in the representation would re- main to be filled up, in point of form, by the Crown, acting by the advice of ministers, instead of the advice of that House, which was the course their privileges seemed to require them to follow. He was not prepared to say that the different course suggested by the right hon. gentleman was not wiser or safer than either of the former, but he confessed it had not occurred to him. He could not agree that the naming of the place created a sort of interest by which members might be induced to condemn the borough. He was ready to fix the committal at any time the right hon. gentleman might please.

Mr. A. O'Neill

asked, with what consistency the members of that House could vote for the disfranchisement of this borough on the ground of its corruption? Who of them could lay his hand on his heart, and say, he had never directly or indirectly, induced those who had not the benefit of his education, to commit these crimes for the sake of political power? Such members alone could vote for this bill without impugning their consistency. Of the one hundred and forty-five members who had voted for it last session, two-thirds at least had obtained their seats by the same means. This was not his sentiment, individually, but that of all England, which looked with indignation on the very sub-orners of this perjury sitting in judgment on the perjurers. No member could honestly vote for that bill, unless he could lay his hand on his heart, and declare that he had not expended a single shilling to purchase his return. He would himself vote for the bill, provided he was assured that every member would come forward and state as he divided: ' I, for one, have not been guilty of bribery or corruption; I have never induced a single individual to commit crimes similar to those of which the electors of Penryn have been guilty. But as long as such men sat as the judges, he would vote for the acquittal of the borough. What must be thought of the consistency of the members of the British House of Commons, who made their way into it with agents, bribing right and left? He was not the advocate of bribery, nor against the punishment of corrupt voters; but he would not countenance the inconsistency and injustice of suborning men to commit perjury and afterwards punishing them for it.

The bill was read a second time.