HC Deb 06 August 1833 vol 20 cc361-9
Sir Thomas Freemantle

, as Chairman of the Committee on the Stafford Bribery Election, reported the Resolutions which they had agreed to—as follows, "That it appears to the Committee, that the evidence taken before them establishes a case of such open, general, and systematic bribery and corruption, that it is expedient that the borough of Stafford should cease to return Members to Parliament."—" That the Chairman be requested to move for leave to bring in a bill to disfranchise the borough of Stafford." He had ever considered it his duty, and the duty of that House, to make an example of any place in which gross and notorious bribery had been committed. If the present flagrant instance of depravity were passed over without punishment, a baneful precedent would be set to other boroughs to continue the same corrupt practices. He admitted that there was a difficulty attending such cases, but that ought not to deter them from doing their duty, and from proving to candidates, and to the more respectable portion of the Burgesses, that they were bound to prevent the distribution of bribes. The hon. Member proceeded to analyse the evidence, and showed that the sum of 2l. 10s. was paid for a split vole, and the sum of 5l. for a plumper. There was also evidence to show that the electors objected to these sums, as being below the regular town prices. They wanted an advance in the price, and attempts were made to procure it. These were not, however, successful, for one of the sitting Members would not pay more than these sums, and the price of votes was therefore only raised as between the two remaining candidates, for the contest lay between them, and the gentleman who refused to make the advance was known to be the favourite candidate. The management of business of this kind was pretty well understood at Stafford, so that the candidates were not directly implicated by the mode in which the money was advanced. Whenever money was wanting, some friend of the candidate said, "Oh! don't go troubling the candidate about money; I have plenty of money, and I'll let you have some." One of these friends, on one occasion, went into a banker's, and drew out in his own name 500l., and went into the open market-place and there publicly gave it away for distribution: and who" the transactions afterwards became matter of inquiry, and it was asked why the thing had been done thus publicly; the answer was, that it was done so on purpose, for if it was known that their money was exhausted, they might as well retire from the contest at once. It had been proved, that at least 852 persons had received bribes for their votes, and there was such evidence as to others, that no one could doubt that many more than that number had received them. He night state generally, that of the old burgage voters of freemen, six-sevenths, of the new 10l. householders, of the superior class, two thirds, and of the inferior class, one half—had received bribes. In every class, the participation in this corruption was pretty extensive. There was another circumstance which he ought to mention, to show the character of these elections at Stafford. It was this: at the close of the election, one of the poll-books was lost by one of the clerks, as he was coming out of a voting booth. It was supposed, that this book had been picked up by some person, and kept back under the idea that till it could be found no return could be made, and all the system of bribery would have to go over again. For all these evils there was but one remedy. The evidence gave proof of the existence of universal iniquity in the borough, and the only remedy was to make a striking example of the borough. Was there a man prepared to say, that this borough should be screened, notwithstanding the case of gross bribery and corruption had been made out against it. The electors had grossly betrayed the important trust reposed in them, and they ought to suffer for it. He thought, the only just punishment for corruption so widely spread as this had been proved to be, was the total disfranchisement of the borough. They might probably be told that this was an ancient borough—it was so; and he might add, that the more they had heard of it the worse they were inclined to think of it. In his opinion, when the crime was great and signal, the punishment should be great and signal also. He had a great objection to the partial disfranchisement of a borough, and to taking voters from a neighbouring agricultural district to make up a larger constituency. The effect of such a course was, to diminish the number of county voters, which, in Staffordshire, was not too large at present, in consequence of the division of the county. Besides this, the attempt to purify a borough by partial disfranchisement had not succeeded in the places where it had already been tried; nor did he think it would, in this case, if the voters from Stone and Eggleston were called in to add to the constituency of the borough of Stafford; for there was something epidemic in the very air of Stafford, that would but spread the disease wider in proportion to the number ready to receive it. An instance of the want of success of this scheme of partial disfranchisement was to be found in the too notorious borough of Penryn, which had been united to Falmouth to give it a larger constituency; but the voters of Penryn could not, by this Union, he induced to abjure their evil practices, and at the last election, bribery was committed in that ancient borough. Besides this, there was an additional reason why there should not be a partial disfranchisement, or a mere extension of the suffrage; and that was, that in all such cases there should be an uncorrupted nucleus around which the larger constituency should form itself. There was no such thing in Stafford. He did not mean to say, that there were not two, or ten, or twenty, honourable men in the town; but their number was so small that it would not justify the House in making them the nucleus of an extended constituency. There were only 200 persons who had not been proved to have taken bribes in money; but the greater part of these had mixed themselves up with the election, and with the corrupt practices that had disgraced it. Some of those who were in a respectable station in life had received money bribes, though in some instances there was an affectation of delicacy about taking them. There was the case of a man who went in his pony-chaise to the house where the money was paid to receive his money; but when he got there, he did not like to go in himself, so he sent his wife to take it. Another curious case, showing, that those who could not be proved to have received money for their own benefit, had yet been personally mixed up with the corrupt practices of the election, was that of a parish clerk, who carried on some trade in which he employed several men, who at first refused to go and vote, when he held up a 10l. note to show them; they were not satisfied with merely being shown the note, and he then made himself liable to pay them, and kept the note for his own indemnity. The evidence throughout went to show, that the bribery at the last election was not less than on preceding occasions. Now, the bribery at the borough of Stafford had long been notorious. One Gentleman, now a Member of the House, though not at present sitting for Stafford, had taken the town by storm—by force of his money—for, on his entrance into the place, he was preceded by a band having bank-notes stuck in the front of their hats. Though there was not before this Committee any direct proof of bribery at former elections, yet he believed there was no man in that House who doubted that such was the case. Having stated those facts, he must take the liberty of observing, that he did not know by what chicanery the burgesses who had presented a petition against the election and return had been induced to withdraw their petition; but from whatever cause that course had been adopted, it would not answer the end for which it was intended. He regretted, however, that the usual course had not been followed in this case. The Committee proposed that a bill should be passed to disfranchise the borough; and he was of opinion, that that franchise should not be conferred on any other place. An election at Stafford was a nuisance, and he should recommend that that nuisance be for ever abated. He did not entertain any hopes of being able to get a bill for that purpose passed into a law at so late a period of the Session, but he thought the House were bound to take some decisive step to mark tie course they intended to pursue. He, therefore, moved for leave to bring in a bill to disfranchise the borough of Stafford.

Mr. Macleod

as a Member of the Committee, seconded the Motion, and expressed his complete conviction, that a case had been made out in evidence fully justifying this measure.

Mr. Chetwynd

hoped, that the House would agree with him, that before leave was given to bring in this Bill, it was necessary that a case should be made out, not only of the strongest nature, but founded on facts and evidence of a most distinct kind, and which were incapable of contradiction. Now he must assert, that the hon. member for Buckingham (Sir T. Freemantle), had established no such case as that in the present instance. The House ought to look narrowly into the statements made before the Committee. Some of them had been made willingly, some upon compulsion, some under strong feelings of jealousy, and some from equally strong feelings of disappointment. His friends had been compelled to adopt measures which they knew to be improper and unconstitutional by the proceedings of the opposite party. As to the list of which the hon. Baronet had spoken, he should be able to prove, if an opportunity were afforded, that the names of many persons were inserted who had never received a farthing during the last election. It had been said, that no man could stand for Stafford who was not prepared to bribe. Now Major Hawkes had stood, and he had over and over again declared that he never would give sixpence. [Sir T. Freemantle: He lost his election. Yes, but he was at the head of the first day's poll, and would have been at the head of the second, had he not retired in consequence of family circumstances. No friend of his (Mr. Chetwynd's), however zealous in the cause, had entered into any contract with an elector until after the elector had polled. He denied that the majority of the ten-pound householders in Stafford, had been bribed—at least 300 voters were unimpeached and unimpeachable; and the House ought to pause before it proceeded to disfranchise, in the absence of all proof of guilt. The loss of the poll-book was in a main degree attributable to the Mayor. Former elections had been mentioned, and it had been asserted, that at one of them, the voters carried bank notes in their hats as proofs that they had been bribed; but he had been informed that the voters had only, at night, put slips of paper into their hats, pretending that they were bank notes. The borough of Stafford was very ancient; its charter was dated prior to the reign of King John, and that Charter constituting it a free borough, had been confirmed by Edward 3rd. Under it the town had risen to great importance, carrying on extensive manufactures, especially of shoes. It contained 531 houses of the annual value of 10l. and upwards, and it had enjoyed the privilege of sending Members to Parliament for the last six centuries. With regard to the proposed Bill, he thought that the existing and admitted evil might be completely remedied by a much more lenient measure than disfranchisement, which confounded the innocent with the guilty. So fully were the voters aware of the offence some of them had committed, that were a new election to take place to-morrow, it would be conducted with a degree of purity which would afford an example to many other parts of the kingdom. Instead of a Bill to disfranchise Stafford, he moved as an Amendment, that a Bill be brought in for preventing bribery and corruption in the election of Members to serve in parliament for the borough of Stafford.

Mr. Edward Buller

seconded the Amendment. He admitted, that the borough was not immaculate, but the remedy proposed by the hon. Baronet went beyond the disease. The object was, to prevent the recurrence of such offences, and he should be glad if every man who had taken a bribe, could not only be disfranchised as respected Stafford, but every other part of the kingdom, and marked for life as unlit to enjoy the privilege of a vote. It was not just, however, to punish the innocent with the guilty, and for that reason he objected to the total disfranchisement.

Sir Oswald Mosley

was averse from hasty legislation in a case like the present. No doubt great corruption bad prevailed in the borough of Stafford; but the House ought to beware bow it set a precedent as to the mode in which such places were to be treated. If hon. Members were prepared to pledge themselves that they would deal out the same measure of justice to all boroughs—to Warwick as well as to Stafford—the course would not be liable to this objection. Let it be recollected that Stafford bad been honoured by the representation of men of the purest principles and most commanding eloquence; and as long as history remained, the name of Sheridan would be registered in the annals of Stafford. Certainly, if Stafford were totally disfranchised, the disgraceful scenes proved in the Committee could not again occur; but why were the innocent to suffer, especially without any evidence of corruption at former elections? Sufficient had been shown before the Committee, to warrant the visitation of Stafford with severe punishment, but not with total disfranchisment.

Mr. Ord

remarked, that a good deal of discussion had been saved by the general admission of considerable corruption in the borough of Stafford. He was for disfranchising the borough, and objected to throwing the writ into the adjoining hundred, by which the Member elected would be half Knight and half Burgess, while the nucleus of corruption would remain. He denied the correctness of the representations hitherto made, of the degree of corruption prevailing in Stafford. The cases of Hertford and of Warwick were, he contended, different from that then before the House; and he trusted that, whatever course might be adopted in reference to Stafford, it would not be made to form a part of any other constituency, for it would be most unwise, as well as most unjust, to make any attempt to mix purity and impurity together. Stafford had proved itself to be so corrupt, that no other body in the community could, with any show of fairness, be placed in connexion with the inhabitants of such a town. The great majority of the voters had been proved guilty of the offence of accepting bribes, and on that account, as well as for other reasons, he should decidedly object to any union of Stafford with Stone and Eccleshall.

Mr. Hardy

said, he would cordially give his vote for the total disfranchisement of the borough, because it was clearly proved, that there was not one-fourth of the electors who had not been bribed; and even that one-fourth, though the charge of bribery could not be brought home to them, had this at least against them, that they tamely looked on at the scenes of bribery and corruption which were going on around them, without taking any steps either to prevent them or to bring them before the public. Under a new and reformed Parliament it was peculiarly the duty of the House to visit cases of this kind with the severest punishment known to the law, and if it did not so proceed with the present case, it would be holding out an encouragement to other boroughs to commit a similar offence. As to the confounding the innocent with the guilty, by the total disfranchisement of the borough, that objection did not apply in the present case. There were not a fourth of the inhabitants who had not taken bribes, and the fourth to whom the guilt of bribery and corruption could not be brought home, had looked on quietly, without taking any step to prevent or detect those who were proved to be guilty. An hon. Member had urged, as rather a singular objection to the Motion, that the borough of Stafford had had the honour of sending such a distinguished man as Sheridan as its representative to Parliament; and that, if disfranchised, it could not send such men again. No doubt that was a high honour, if he had been sent honourably by the electors of Stafford, but probably the fact of the right hon. Gentleman having so frequently sat for that borough would account for the pecuniary difficulties in which he was so much involved, for it was not probable that the electors of Stafford of that day would have returned a Member gratuitously, however distinguished, any more than their successors of the present. The House ought to look with a most scrutinizing eye at every expenditure of candidates, both before and after the election, in order to detect bribery.

Lord Althorp

thought, that there could be no difference of opinion as to the principle involved in the Motion before the House. It certainly was the duty of the House, as the first meeting of a Reformed Parliament, to set their faces against any instance of bribery and corruption; and if ever there was a case of bribery and corruption clearly proved, it was in that now before the House. He, therefore, gave his cordial concurrence to the Motion.

Sir Henry Willoughby

concurred in every word that had fallen from the noble Lord. Corrupt practices must be put an end to wherever they existed. The question before the House was, however, whether it was necessary totally to disfranchise the borough of Stafford, or by providing a numerous and sound constituency to prevent future mischief. There was a population of 20,000 near and about the town, in a rich and industrious country, comprising two populous and thriving towns within a reasonable distance. This was the more effectual and constitutional method of meeting the difficulty. The cases of Aylesbury, Shoreham, and Crick-lade, and others, proved that such treatment was effectual. No instance could be quoted of corrupt practices where a new and extensive constituency was formed. It was of importance then to pursue a similar course in all such instances. Why pursue one course with the boroughs of Hertford and Warwick, and another with Stafford and Carrickfergus? He was sure that one uniform method would be the most likely way of preventing party intrigues, and would afford the most perfect guarantee against practices which all must wish to be at an end. He would vote for extending the constituency, and against total disfranchisement.

Amendment withdrawn, and leave given to bring in a Bill to disfranchise the Borough.

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