HC Deb 31 March 1828 vol 18 cc1411-7

Colonel Davies moved the further consideration of the Report of this bill.

Mr. Baring

said, that, the bill made a complete alteration in the mode of taking the poll, and was an unnecessary piece of legislation. Instead of facilitating the taking of polls, it would complicate the matter, and throw a degree of power and influence into the hands of the: returning officer, who was generally a party man, which it was highly injudicious that he should possess. The erection of separate and additional places for polling would be of no benefit; for the delay at present was occasioned, not by the undisputed, but by the disputed votes. The proposed exanimations upon oath, especially of the voters as to their qualification, was a useless novelty. The hon. colonel bad framed a measure very applicable, perhaps, for Worcester, but totally unfit for most other boroughs in the kingdoms The bill would increase the intricacy and uncertainty of elections, while it offered no adequate advantage for the many disadvantages it introduced into the system. As an amendment he would move, that the report be taken, into further consideration on that day six. months.

Mr. Robinson

put it to his hon. colleague, if the bill were to pass the House as it now stood, what security, since the voters were obliged to go to a particular place to poll, was there given that the returning officers would not exercise their influence to induce the electors to give their votes to the candidate favoured by the returning officer? In. his opinion, great evils must flow from the measure, if carried into effect. Besides, he saw no reason for the candidates being put to the additional expense which this measure must entail on them, in the erecting of hustings. He did not see what use there possibly could be in the adjournment of the poll for forty-eight hours after the opening of the election. This would; be giving a convenient time for the exercise of bribery on the part of those who would be inclined to exert it. With respect, however, to the present system, he did not mean to say that it was free from objections; but he thought it better than the measure proposed, than which nothing could, be more obnoxious, to his constituents.

Mr. W. Smith

thought, that a postponement until after the holidays might be advisable, but could not consent to any amendment, the effect of which would be to defeat the bill. The subject was one of great importance, and he wondered how any hon. member, who had witnessed the nuisance of a borough election, I could urge that it was a matter not important enough for legislation. He had stood eight contested elections in his time; three where the voters amounted to eight hundred; and five at Norwich, where the electors were between three and four thousand. In the latter city the polling never occupied more than one day and a quarter; and any candidate who should propose to keep the poll open for four days, would stand no chance of success. Two large booths were erected, each with eight polling places, and the returning officer, with his assessor at his elbow, decided upon disputed votes without interrupting the poll. He did not mean to say that the bill upon the table was as complete as it could be rendered; but he would venture to say, that in six days the strongest contest might be disposed of. To effect this object, hon. members must dare to run a little counter to the wishes of corrupt voters, for to them only was the protraction of an election of advantage. Such a limit would contribute to the benefit of the city or borough, to the profit of the candidates, and to the purity of the electors. In his opinion, fifteen days for polling were no more needed than fifteen years, if the matter were properly regulated.

Lord Lowther

said, he did not oppose the bill because it increased the number of polling booths, but because it introduced fresh confusion into a subject already sufficiently involved. Whenever this question had been discussed the example of Norwich had been adduced; but he saw nothing in the bill which would liken elections in other places to elections in that city. The reason why elections at Norwich lasted so short a time was, that no objection was ever taken to the votes of paupers, who were allowed to come up to the poll by hundreds. In borough elections, disputes regarding such voters were the chief cause of delay. They were admitted at Norwich and rejected at Worcester, and hence the reason why, at one place the election lasted a day and a quarter, and at the other it occupied fifteen days. The principal objection he felt to the measure was, the wide discretion it gave to returning officers. The duty of the officer was, now, to hold the poll where it had been usually held for the last forty years, but by the alteration he would be enabled to hold the poll where he pleased. He also objected to limiting the number of days for taking the poll.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

approved of the principle of the measure; but as, in its present shape, he could not agree to it, he hoped it would be revised. He thought that every place ought to bear the expenses of the elections that were had in it; and recommended that the system which had been found for fifty years, to work well in the city of London, should be taken as the model for elections generally.

Mr. Fyshe Palmer

bore testimony td the corrupt conduct of returning officers; who often canvassed, and resorted to still more iniquitous practices, to ensure the return of their favourite candidate. If he thought that the object of the measure was to increase the influence of those officers, he would oppose it; but, as he believed it would have the effect of checking their unfair practices, he should give it his support, provided it received in the committee some of those alterations which, he thought necessary. He was particularly desirous to see some measure carried into effect which would prevent the mischievous protraction of elections. To instance one borough in which that practice was carried to a most injurious extent. In Reading, at the last election, 86 electors were potted on the first day; on the second, 354; oh the third, 374; on the fourth, 752; on the fifth, 37; of the sixth, 15; on the seventh, 16; and on the eighth, 12. Now, it was quite clear, that if so large a proportion could be polled in the three first days, the same period would be enough to poll all the electors; and if there were three polling places, then one day, or at the most two, Would be enough. There could be no doubt that the election to which he alluded might have been finished much earlier than it was; but the returning officer on being urged to do so, said he would not do any thing to hazard the return of Mr. Monck, before the day fixed for closing the poll. He did not approve of that part of the bill which gave the returning officers the power of keeping the poll open for forty-eight hours, because that gave them an opportunity of canvassing for their friends; but so much as tended to shorten the duration of polls he held to be not only expedient, but absolutely necessary to ensure the purity of election.

The Attorney-general

said, that the; bill, however shaped, could not meet with his support. The measure might be calculated for Worcester, but he was certain it would not do in other boroughs differently situated. He thought six days were not enough for large boroughs, where the number of voters might exceed six or eight thousand. There would be great difficulty in fixing a period of time to suit all cases and all boroughs, however differently they might be situated as to extent and population. Another important objection to the bill was, the encouragement it held out for collusion between the two candidates. His objections were not to any one or more clauses in the bill, but arose from a full persuasion of the injury likely to arise from it generally, in addition to Its being a serious infringement on the privileges of the whole constituent body.

Mr. Wynn

was of opinion that the subject was peculiarly entitled to the consideration of the House. The period now occupied in taking the polls was unquestionably too long. Before the year 1784, when the period for elections was unlimited, they occupied only two or three days, with the exception of Westminster. It had been found, both in London and Norwich, that a short time was sufficient to poll all the electors; and thus it was proved that the difficulty of polling a great number of voters, on which so much stress had been laid, might be easily got over. He was not disposed to look so much to the convenience of out-voters, as some members did. If they chose to exercise their elective franchise, they had the opportunity of doing so. He considered the proposed regulation of the magistrates at Quarter Sessions having the power, under certain restrictions, of fixing upon a suitable place where the election should be held, would remove many inconveniences which now existed, particularly in small town-halls, where it had been contrived that one body of electors should resist the other in ascending the staircase to give their votes. He alluded to Weymouth on a recent occasion, as affording an instance arising from this evil. As regarded collusion between the candidates, he contended that such collusion was as easy to be discovered on the second or third day, as on the sixth. He considered the latter part of the bill most useful, and could not conceive how it could be considered as holding out an encouragement to, cor- ruption. As to out-voters, there was no doubt that, according to the present system, fourteen days would not be sufficient; but it was the duty of electors to attend, if they thought their franchise was of value. It was also known that, however long an election might last, there was a class of voters who would hold back as long as they could, in order to see how things were going; and who would say, "if we vote at once nobody will be obliged to us." The out-voters, too, had no objection to the jollity of an election, and living at other people's expense for a considerable time: to prevent all which, he thought the bill an excellent remedy.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that if he was called upon to give his vote, it would be for the amendment of the hon. gentleman. It was desirable, indeed, that the poll should be shortened, so that electors in general were not aggrieved. The period should be fixed, with reference to the number of voters at each place. In Westminster, for instance, where the number of voters was twenty thousand, six days, which would suffice for other places, would be utterly insufficient. When he saw the bill giving additional power to that already possessed by the returning officers, he must withhold his vote from it. He objected also to that part of the bill which related to separate polling booths. This might be convenient in some respects; but it was a custom consonant with the principles of the constitution for the candidate to be present at the place of election, that he might, if necessary, be questioned by the voters; and he thought this was an advantage which ought not to be given up for other, perhaps fallacious, advantages. With respect to the duration of polls, there were modes and devices, under the present bill, by which the voting might be retarded. He was, however, not disposed to object to lessening the duration of polls in general.

Mr. Baring

observed, that so many gentlemen were of opinion that the bill might be improved by further consideration, that he should recommend the hon. member to withdraw it.

Mr. Sugden

objected to the bill. If it had passed before the last election for Weymouth, he should not have been there to offer his opposition to it. It was perfectly certain that force was used on that occasion; and, according to this bill, it would have been necessary to have put an end to the contest, long before he was at the head of the poll. He objected strongly to that part of the bill which gave additional powers to the returning officer. In some places, this officer was a common constable; and he had the power after three days, of going into a separate place, in company with lawyers, and making his return at once. This bill, in fact, put the whole power of electing the member into the hands of the returning officer. He objected also to putting the elector to his oath, as unconstitutional and leading to perjury. It gave a vexatious power to an agent, perhaps a lawyer, to expose the private pecuniary concerns of an elector, and ran sack all his affairs; because the elector, after taking the oath, would be obliged to answer all questions. Such a practice would have the effect of deterring electors from coming to the poll. He was not averse to the reduction of the time of polling, but each particular place must be regulated by the circumstances peculiarly affecting it. No universal rule could be laid down to apply to every city and borough in the kingdom; Though he was no friend to general reform, yet he could not agree to lessen the franchise by creating new and additional restrictions on its exercise. If a period too limited were fixed, the effect would be, that the non-resident voters would be deprived of their suffrage. He would be happy to assist the hon. gentleman in curtailing the time of the poll, but not to six days, as had been proposed, and compelling the returning officer to provide a sufficiency of polling places; and also, where necessary, to remove the place of election to a more convenient place, but not beyond two miles. He advised, however, that the bill should be withdrawn; as, in its pre sent shape, it would certainly be defeated, if pressed forward.

Colonel Davies,

in reply, defended the enactments of his bill, and persisted in moving, that it be re-committed.

The amendment was withdrawn, and the bill was ordered to be re-committed on; Wednesday.