HC Deb 30 July 1832 vol 14 cc955-62
Lord John Russell

moved the Order, of the Day for going into Committee on this Bill. Before the House went into Committee, he wished to say a few words. He expected the Reform Bill would do much to abolish the practice of bribery, by doing away with the wholesale bribery of rotten boroughs. The absence of constant and scrutinizing inquiries into cases of bribery well known to have occurred was admitted on all sides to be the chief incitement to the continuance of the system. He had, therefore, particularly directed his attention to that point, and by affording every opportunity for investigation, and imposing a species of punishment on the party whom a Committee should declare guilty of having obtained his return by improper means, he hoped in a short time to find bribery at an election a rare occurrence. It was inconsistent to punish with severity the poor man, who took a bribe of 10l. or 20l., and to let the rich man, who bought or sold an entire borough, escape without any penalty. But he expected more from the strict investigation of these cases, than from the penalties. He proposed, by this Bill, to extend the time for presenting Petitions against a return on this account, from fourteen days to two years. He also wished to establish a better mode of carrying on the investigation. It would be lawful for any person to make a complaint; and, if bribery and corruption were proved to exist, the Committee should be empowered to grant the complainants their costs. It might be said, that this would increase the number of complaints; but he thought no man would incur the risk of 3,000l. or 4,000l. costs, without some foundation. He must repeat, that he looked to the moral feeling which the Reform Bill was calculated to excite, as the best preventive of bribery, and as most likely to elevate the character of the constituency, and shed additional lustre upon that House. The noble Lord concluded by moving, that the Speaker leave the Chair.

Mr. Rigby Wason

intimated his intention of moving a clause in Committee, to apply the fresh powers to be conferred by the Bill to the bribery which had occurred at Liverpool, and to which he had repeatedly called the attention of the House; but which calls were treated with so much indifference, as would almost daunt any Member from taking up such a subject. He thought that the provision in Lord Wynford's bill, by which the party found guilty of bribery and corruption was condemned to pay the expenses, was better than the provision in the Bill now before the House. He should move the insertion of a clause of that kind in this Bill.

Sir Richard Vyvyan

objected to the proposed measure. As to the idea of rendering Members liable for two years to an investigation as to their return, particularly when a premium was held out to the individual who should succeed in turning him out, that would be both absurd and cruel. The power of selling seats, it was said, was abolished, and yet Ministers found it necessary to propose a bill for the punishment of that which they declared at an end. He thought the alterations which the noble Lord contemplated very unlikely to add to the independence of Members.

Lord Althorp

said, that, in his opinion, the extension of the time of petitioning would have a tendency to check the existence of corruption; because a candidate would be afraid to bribe, if he knew that for two years afterwards his seat was liable to be contested on that account.

Mr. Wilks

said, that he should propose a clause by which every Member, on taking his seat, should swear that he had not, either directly or indirectly, been guilty of bribery or corruption.

Sir Charles Wetherell

thought this late period of the Session was a very unfit time to bring forward propositions for new Bribery Laws. He objected to the monstrous extension of time during which a petition might be presented. The effect of this Bill would he, that if a Member voted as his constituents thought fit for one year, but towards the end of the second year offended them, he might be harassed with a petition against his return. The independence of every Member would thus be sacrificed, and he would be reduced to an absolute state of vassalage. The words of the Bill were so vague, that they would embrace every possible or fanciful act of bribery. No man could ever know whether he was offending the laws or not. In the Usury Laws, a man was relieved from their operation after the lapse of one year, and so it was with respect to many most important Fiscal Laws. Why should not this Bribery Law have the same limitation of time? The Bill might be made an instrument of vindictive oppression, and he should, therefore, refuse his consent to the adoption of it.

Lord John Russell

was not prejudiced in favour of the exact period of two years. What he wanted was, that after the actual payment of the money, given as a bribe, sufficient time should be afforded to persons to make their complaints of bribery. With respect to the proposition to make Members take oaths that they had not had recourse to bribery, he was not favourable to it. He thought they derived little advantage from oaths, whether taken by the elector or the Member. The qualification oath, for instance, afforded but little security in the matter to which it applied.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that, in his opinion, the extension of time might be made use of for the worst political purposes, and he much doubted whether the Bill would not have a greater effect in encouraging conspiracies than in discouraging bribery.

Sir Henry Hardinge

considered that the Bill was objectionable, as holding out a lure to suborners of evidence. He should prefer coming to the Table and taking an oath that he had not been guilty of bribery, to being subjected to the evils which this Bill would hang over the head of every Member. The matter was worse on this account, for the accusing party need not be a voter—he might be an enemy of the sitting Member. Again, if the sitting Member successfully defended his seat, he was not to have the costs of his defence unless the complaint was pronounced frivolous and vexatious, while the petitioner, if he unseated the Member, was to have his costs. This was not putting them on equal terms. He should oppose the Bill.

Colonel Sibthorp

complained that the Bill was so loose and indefinite, that acts of hospitality and charity might be interpreted into acts of bribery.

Mr. Harvey

observed, that the present Bill imposed an oath on the electors, and why should not the Representative be subjected to the same restraint? Why should not the Member of Parliament, before he took his seat, be called upon to swear, that he has not been, and that he will not, either directly or indirectly, by himself or his agents, be guilty of bribery? As the House well knew, there must be two parties to the crime of bribery, and surely the restraint and the purification from the crime should not be confined to one of the parties. In fact, the necessity of taking such an oath at the Table of that House must be a great relief to the Members themselves. For example, when a candidate went down to a borough for which he had been returned before, and to the electors of which he had been accustomed to make many donations, and when, in consequence of that practice, he came to be assailed by them with the usual importunities, how great would the relief be to him to be able to say, that, however willing to renew his former liberality, the oath which he should have to take at the Table of the House completely precluded a continuance of that ancient practice? He should conclude by moving. That it be an instruction to the Committee to insert the following Clause:—"And be it further enacted, that from and after the passing of this Act, every Member who shall be returned to serve in Parliament, shall, on coming to the Table of this House, take an oath according to the following form:—I, A. B., do solemnly swear, that I have neither given, nor promised to give, nor intend to give, or promise hereafter, by myself, agents, or friends, any money, security, order, or other thing of value, or any pecuniary fee or reward of any kind, in consideration of any vote or votes, or by which my return to this House shall have been promoted or secured."

The Speaker

suggested, that the proposition of the hon. Member need not be in the form of an instruction, it might be moved in the Committee.

Mr. Harvey

observed, that if the House were prepared to adopt the oath, it would supersede several of the clauses in the Bill.

The Speaker

replied, that the uses of the Committee would be at an end, if such matters as came within their jurisdiction were always to be moved as instructions.

Mr. William Brougham

objected to the Bill before the House upon different substantial and weighty grounds—the first of which was, that its provisions were so framed that a Member would be liable to a prosecution for bribery in that House for the whole space of two entire years, when the facts, perhaps, were forgotten by the Member, though treasured up by the accuser. The accusation by this Bill need not be made upon any one defined and specific act of alleged bribery. Why should they attempt what they had found already so difficult, or why should they not content themselves with providing against, and suppressing, acts of direct and gross bribery? The worst feature in the Bill was, that it was 'possible for an hon. Member to give a ruined or unfortunate man 5s. as an act of charity, and because this man had voted some time within two years for him, as a candidate at the election for the borough or county, he would, to all intents and purposes, under this Bill, be deprived of his seat, on proof of this fact. Again, it was part of the provisions of this Bill, that the complaint and investigation might be instituted on the motion of any agent during two years. For his part he would rather be compelled by the Act to take the oath at the Table himself, or vote at once for Annual Parliaments, than have a prosecution thus hanging over his head in suspense for two long years. But as the Bill required a Member not only to vouch for himself, but also to vouch that no agent of his, or for him, had given any valuable thing, pecuniary or otherwise, he would ask what conscientious man would dare so to vouch? He would go so far as any other man to check the practice of bribery at elections, but he had always seen that an attempt to secure this restraint over men's actions and consciences by Act of Parliament was a matter surrounded by very considerable, if not insurmountable difficulties. As to the infliction of the payment of the costs on this party or the other, the accuser or accused, he should recommend that the Bill should not be permitted to outstep the rule of the common law as to costs: the party succeeding would, in that case, be free from the costs, which would fall on his opponent.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

feared this Bill would not have the effect proposed. If the situation of a Member of Parliament were to continue to be regarded, as it ever had been, as one of high station, he believed that under any Bill the common feelings of the great mass of mankind would be brought into play. Having had much experience at elections, he was disposed to think it would be difficult to prevent bribery. He did not approve of calling upon Members to take oaths. He had witnessed on one occasion a most painful scene. Four hundred voters came up to poll, and he believed that at least one-half of that number were perjured,

Mr. Cresset Pelham

said, he never had heard or expected to have heard so much said as he had heard that night in favour of bribery.

Mr. Warburton

would have been extremely glad to support the Bill, if it would effect the object proposed; but he feared that could never be done, except by the introduction of the ballot at elections. The Bill was particularly defective in this, that it only went to purify elections from bribery, but it had no provision directed against obtaining votes through intimidation or persecution of those who were in any way dependent on the will or power of the Member. Now, in his mind, the latter was the more crying enormity, and the worst description of tyrannical influence. He apprehended that it was impossible to render the check to bribery efficient by this Bill.

Mr. Ruthven

was also of opinion the Bill would be both unpalatable to Members, and inconvenient in its operation.

The House in Committee on the Bill.

The first and second clauses agreed to.

On the third clause being read.

Colonel Sibthorp

objected to going further with the discussion in the present state of the House. He moved that the Chairman should report progress, and ask leave to sit again.

Lord John Russell

said, that if the hon. and gallant Member was opposed to passing a bill against bribery, and determined to use the means which the forms of the House allowed him, to impede its progress, the measure certainly could not pass in the present Session. If the hon. and gallant Member was not opposed to the principle of the Bill, it was better to proceed with a consideration of the clauses in Committee.

Sir Henry Hardinge

thought that the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) had stated the question very unfairly. He wished to throw the rejection of the Bill on his (Sir Henry Hardinge's) side of the House, well knowing in his own mind that a measure so important could not be fairly or fully discussed at so advanced a period of the Session. He was as anxious as any man in the world to prevent bribery and corruption, but, he was convinced, the present Bill would not have the effect. Every lawyer who had spoken on the subject, had declared himself against the Bill, which was formed in too loose and careless a manner, to make it possible it could effect its proposed object. Even the Attorney-General had not ventured to defend the Bill.

Mr. Robert Palmer

was anxious to see a measure introduced which would effectually prevent bribery and corruption; but unless this Bill was fully discussed, he should very much doubt whether it would effect that object.

Lord John Russell

contended there was nothing in the Bill which would prevent it from being fully discussed and passed during the present Session.

Lord Althorp

said, it was quite obvious that if the hon. member for Lincoln (Colonel Sibthorp) persisted in his Motion, the Bill could not be proceeded with.

Sir Richard Vyvyan

thought it inexpedient to press so important a Bill at a period when so many Members of both Houses had left town.

Colonel Sibthorp

was as anxious as any man in the House to prevent bribery, and to preserve the purity of election; but he thought this measure could have no such effect. However, if his Majesty's Ministers were desirous to cut their own throats, he would not prevent them; and, with the permission of the Committee, he would withdraw his Motion.

Mr. Wason

moved, that the clauses from three to ten should be postponed, in order to come at once to the material parts of the Bill.

Lord John Russell

said, his great objects were the extension of the time for petitioning against the candidate accused, and the affording facilities for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the facts respecting the alleged bribery in the place of election. He believed, however, that he might attain his objects by means of Resolutions; and if there were a decided opposition he should of course feel himself compelled to give up the measure. He should prefer nevertheless, if possible, to effect his purpose by means of a bill.

A desultory conversation ensued as to the propriety of proceeding with the Bill now; at length

Lord John Russell

said, that from the opposition made to the various clauses of the Bill, he say that it would be impossible to carry it through this Session, and he should, therefore, move that the Chairman report progress, and ask leave to sit again. He thought he could effect one of the main objects of the Bill—namely, the extension of the time for petitioning against a return, by a Resolution of the House. With regard to the other important parts of the Bill, he would consider the point, and take an early opportunity of stating whether he should press the remainder of the Bill or not.

House resumed.