HC Deb 06 February 1833 vol 15 cc233-8
Lord John Russell

said, that he now rose to move a Resolution which he had proposed in the last House of Commons, which that House of Commons had adopted, and which therefore was one of which he might fairly say notice had been given to the electors of the United Kingdom. The resolution which he should have to propose referred to bribery and corruption of a particular kind that was employed for the purpose of carrying elections. According to the resolutions which the House had hitherto adopted as its Standing Orders on this subject, the return of a Member could only be questioned fourteen days after the assembling of Parliament, or after his return, if the House were then sitting; and it was consequently the practice of persons who made use of bribery to secure their elections, not to make any payments till that period was passed, thereby avoiding the penalties that were attached to such conduct. With a view, therefore, of counteracting such an evil, he had three or four years ago brought forward certain resolutions, upon which the right hon. member for Montgomeryshire proposed and carried as an amendment a resolution similar to that which he now meant to propose for the adoption of the House. He did not mean to say that that resolution would afford in itself a sufficient check to that practice of bribery which it was intended to meet; he trusted, however, that that practice would experience a considerable check from the honest manner in which the Committees appointed under the Grenville Act would do their duty. The noble Lord concluded by moving the following Resolutions:—"That all persons who question any future return of Members to serve in Parliament upon any allegation of bribery or corruption, and who shall in their petition specifically allege any payment of money or other reward to have been made by any Member or on his account, or with his privity since the time of such return, in pursuance of, or in furtherance of, such bribery and corruption, may question the same at any time within twenty-eight days from the time of such payment; or if this House be not sitting at the expiration of the said twenty-eight days, then within fourteen days after the day when the House shall next meet."

The noble Lord's Resolution having been put,

Mr. Rigby Wason

expressed his opinion that it did not go sufficiently far to be effectual; and moved the following amendment:—"That when a Petition against the return of any Member shall contain an allegation that such return has been effected by bribery and corruption, it is the duty of the Select Committee appointed to try the merits of such petition, to receive the evidence which may be offered in support of such allegation, without requiring the petitioners to prove that such bribery or corruption was practised by the sitting Member or his agents."

Mr. Warburton

observed that he feared Members of Parliament who were perfectly innocent might be subjected to annoyance, and perhaps expense, if the Amendment were agreed to. Bribes might be given without the knowledge of the Member; and, if a case of bribery were made out, the Member might be unseated, and the object of the honest voters might be defeated.

Mr. Rigby Wason

contended that the Member who had been guilty of no bribery could not, by the operation of the Amendment, be subjected to any penalty, nor could the object of honest voters be defeated, A petition, which failed to implicate the Member or any of his agents, would naturally be treated by a Committee of that House as frivolous and vexatious. The great object was to facilitate the proof of agency. It was as notorious as the sun at noon day that the practice was, for a man who wished to bribe in any particular place, to send down some stranger, who was unknown, and who could not be sworn to, or identified as the accredited agent of the candidate.

Mr. O'Connell

suggested that it would be well to suffer the present Resolution to pass without opposition. The hon. member for Ipswich would have another and a better opportunity for submitting his Amendment to the consideration of the House, by adding something hereafter to the Resolution, which might meet his view. He agreed with that hon. Member in his observations respecting agency, and remarked that the difficulty was increased by the operation of that maxim of law which prevented a man from being obliged to answer any question which might have the effect of criminating himself—a maxim which, in his mind, ought to be brought into use very charily in all civil cases, and in election cases, ought to be abolished altogether. A Committee of that House ought to have the power of searching into every fact, and no witness should be allowed to shelter himself under a protection of this kind. He had himself several amendments to propose—one was about the interference of Peers, a second about bribery by unsuccessful candidates; for here arose many cases, that ought to be rigorously inquired into. He intended to propose a resolution for a Standing Committee, to take questions of bribery into consideration. Meantime he wished to have this Resolution passed and printed, that he might have an opportunity of framing his amendments.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

was of opinion, that the Amendment proposed by the hon. member for Ipswich, would open the door to abuse and injustice. He could easily imagine a case of bribery committed, not by an enemy, but by an indiscreet friend, without the knowledge of the Member. The hon. Member said, it was not likely that an act of bribery would be committed by an opponent for the purpose of unseating a Member; because the Committee would report the petition to be frivolous and vexatious. But a Committee could not make a report of that nature, if the payment of money had actually been made since the return of the writ. He agreed with the noble member for Devonshire, that the greatest difficulty which an Election Committee experienced was, in getting a proof of the bribery. If any measure should be proposed for facilitating the obtaining this evidence, consistently with justice, he would readily support it; but, at the same time, he must say, that it would be extremely unjust, to make an individual responsible for acts of which he had no knowledge. It was well known that the well wishers of a candidate would frequently form themselves into Committees, for the purpose of procuring his election, without having any communication with him; and would it be contended that he should be made responsible for acts which any one of these individuals might commit without his knowledge? He thought that the House would act wisely in refusing to admit evidence of this description, except in cases where very general and notorious corruption had prevailed. In such a case the bribery would have been committed within the fourteen days; or if afterwards, it would not be difficult to prove the agency, any more than it was in the case of the borough of Wallingford, where the miller went round and paid the voters. It would be his anxious desire to support any propositions which would tend to render the law against bribery and corruption effectual. In reference to one of the points alluded to by the hon. and learned member for Dublin, he might observe that he once introduced a bill, by which it was proposed that any person examined before an Election Committee should ipso facto be indemnified against any penal consequences which might otherwise result from his evidence. Under all the circumstances, the hon. member for Ipswich had better follow the advice of the hon. and learned Member, and postpone his Amendment.

An Hon. Member

complained, that when he petitioned, after an unsuccessful contest for Pontefract, he was not allowed to prove agency and bribery together, but compelled to endeavour to establish each separately. The law which the Committee then laid down in part held forth exactly this doctrine: take care when you bribe to have two agents—one to do all your legal business, to pay the Town Clerk, to pay for the hustings, &c.; another who does no legal act, but bribes only; then you are quite safe, because the acts of that man, cannot be brought before the House. The difficulty with respect to the Amendment that seemed to strike the mind of some hon. Members was, that an enemy might chance to go down and bribe voters; but, in the first place, it was not likely that any man would venture upon such a course of proceeding, as he would render himself liable to fine and imprisonment; and, secondly, a sensible Committee, would be at once enabled to detect a case of this nature, and distinguish it from one in which the Member was really culpable. On these grounds he would support the Amendment.

Sir Francis Burdett

said, that he was perfectly in accord with the hon. member for Ipswich, and the hon. Member who had spoken last, as to the insufficiency of the Resolution for the important object it had in view; but as the attention of the House was more immediately drawn to another subject of great moment, he trusted the hon. member for Ipswich would withdraw his Amendment for the present. It might be, at a more fitting time, taken into consideration, together with the hints thrown out by the hon. and learned member for Dublin. He had also himself to suggest that it might be expedient on the same occasion to consider the question of intimidation at elections. The great object of the English law on the subject was, that elections should be free; and he begged to throw out that it would become that House, to take the matter into their most serious consideration at this period. He would also suggest that, in addition to the hon. Member's Amendment, there might be a resolution passed to the effect that each Member of the House, on taking the oaths at the Table, should make a declaration that he had neither, by himself nor agents, been guilty of any bribery, nor was he aware that any money had been paid in bribes on his account; nor would he at any future time bribe by himself or others.

Mr. Robinson

believed that, while there was such anxious competition for seats in Parliament, no resolution like the noble Lord's or the hon. Gentleman's would have the effect of preventing bribery. There appeared to him only one mode by which the evil could be either prevented, or in any considerable degree mitigated. As they might compel the voter to take an oath that he had received no bribe, why not call upon the Member to make, not a declaration, but to take an oath that no act of bribery or corruption had been committed by himself or agents, or with his privity. He did not believe the noble Lord's resolution would furnish any remedy for the evil, but, however, he had no objection to vote for it. He only wished to know, if it were intended that the measure should be extended in its operation for the whole time of the existence of Parliament, or only for a definite period?

Lord Althorp

observed, in reply, that if it could be proved that any Member had, in pursuance of a promise given before his election, paid money to a voter, no matter if it were five years after, in his opinion, that Member should forfeit his seat.

Mr. Baldwin

thought, the only effectual mode of preventing bribery would be by establishing the ballot, and greatly extending the right of suffrage.

Lord John Russell

wished the hon. Member to withdraw the Amendment. He considered that both it and the learned Gentleman's (Mr. O'Connell's) suggestions might be better discussed at a future time.

Amendment withdrawn, and the Resolution agreed to.