HC Deb 13 February 1833 vol 15 cc625-32

On the Motion of Lord Althorp, the Order of the Day for the Adjourned Debate upon the Grand Committee upon religion was then read.

Lord Althorp

said, that he had postponed the Standing Orders with regard to the Committees upon religion, privileges, &c., for the purpose of taking the sense of the House, as to appointing them. That appointment bad been hitherto a matter of course; but if the sense of the House should be now against it, he should not press it. Indeed, those Committees, of whatever use they might have been of at a former period, had long since become altogether unnecessary. For instance, in a case of privilege, every one was aware that the usual and the better course was, to refer it to a Select Committee, rather than to the Standing Committee of Privileges, which consisted of almost all the Members of that House; he should therefore withdraw his Motion for the appointment of those Committees.

The Speaker then proceeded to read the Standing Orders against the interference of peers at elections, against bribery, &c.

Mr. Harvey

thought it would be well to retain such a Standing Committee as that upon public justice. To such a Committee the case of the Baron de Bode, which had been so often ineffectually brought before the House, might be very properly referred, as it was impossible for the Members of that House, without due inquiry and without official knowledge on the subject, to do justice in cases of that description.

Lord Althorp

said, that the Committee upon justice was like the others, a mere nominal one, and equally unnecessary. He agreed with the hon. Member, that it would be better to refer cases of the description he spoke of to a Committee, than to the whole House, but the best way to do that was always to move the appointment of a Select Committee for the purpose. Who, for instance, would move that a ease of privilege should be referred to the Standing Committee of Privileges, which was, in reality, the whole House, with this difference, that instead of meeting in that place, it met in the long gallery, so as to increase the confusion and difficulty attendant upon their coining to a conclusion? No case could be referred to one of those Standing Committees without such motion; and it therefore appeared to him that the end in view would be equally well obtained by referring a subject of this sort to a Select Committee, as by retaining the Standing Committee.

Mr. Baring

had witnessed most improper proceedings on former occasions, when persons interested in any subject brought it forward, and then, as a matter of course, named the members of their own Committee, in which case either the partial proceeding had to be permitted, or the nominated Committee to be swamped by the addition of a dozen other names. As Reform was so much the fashion, he hoped that the House, looking with proper jealousy to any attempt to render it a tribunal for personal purposes, would take some means of rectifying the abuse of which he complained.

Mr. Littleton

perfectly agreed with the hon. member for Essex, that nothing could be more detrimental to the public interests, than the bringing forward cases of alleged grievance, which had no foundation in fact. With respect, however, to the particular case to which the hon. Member referred, towards the conclusion of his observations, he (Mr. Littleton) should be prepared, when the proper time arrived, to prove that it was a fit one for the consideration of the House. If the House were to adopt the hon. Member's proposition, of referring all cases of personal grievance to a general Committee of Justice, the practice would be attended with most pernicious results. This Committee was originally the creation of violent times, when the House of Commons aimed at usurping all the powers of the State. This Committee obtained petitions from all parts of the country, setting forth grievances of all descriptions; and by this means succeeded in exciting a hostile feeling against the Government, which led to the Revolution. The time was past in which such dangerous machinery was necessary. If it should go forth to the world that this House had instituted a Committee of Justice to which all complaints could be referred, not a petty sessions through-out the country would pass without some attorney recommending a petition to be sent to the House. If the hon. Member would look Over the Journals, he would find that, during a long course of time, there had been only a solitary instance of a reference to the Committee of Justice, and that appeared to have been made with respect to a case which would more properly have been referred to a Special Committee.

Mr. Goulburn,

although he denied, that the Revolution had been at all brought about by the Standing Committees, agreed with his hon. friend that they might be advantageously abolished. In allusion to what had fallen from the hon. member for Essex, he observed that the Orders of the House interposed a sufficient bar against the abuse of which the hon. Gentleman complained. By those Orders no claim of a pecuniary nature could be received without the recommendation of an Officer of the Crown. When he (Mr. Goulburn) was in office, he had always acted on that principle; and he thought that any Officer of the Crown who neglected to do so was guilty of a breach of duty, in not withholding his recommendation, unless he was satisfied that the claim was a just one.

The Order for the Appointment of the Standing Committees was then negatived.

Lord Althorp

moved the following Order: "That if it shall appear that any person hath procured himself to be elected or returned a Member of this House, or endeavoured so to be, by bribery, or any other corrupt practices, this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such person."

Mr. O'Connell

proposed two alterations in this Order. As it now stood the vengeance of the House was threatened only against the Member who might have attempted to procure his return by bribery. This denunciation was too limited. Not only the Member, but all other persons who had acted in this manner, and to such an end, should be punished. His object was two-fold—namely, to punish persons who had bribed for unsuccessful candidates, as well as those who had bribed for Members that had been returned. The alterations he meant to propose would meet both these cases. He, therefore, moved first, that the words "procured himself to be" be omitted, and the word "been" inserted in their place; and secondly, that the concluding words "such person" be omitted, and the words "all such persons as have been wilfully concerned in such bribery, or other corrupt practices," substituted in their place.

Lord John Russell

said, the expressions, which the hon. and learned Member would introduce into the Resolution, were not so decisive as those already contained in it; and they would give rise to a question before the Committee, as to whether the candidate himself, or other persons, had been guilty of bribery? If the indiscreet friends of a candidate should without his knowledge, and against his wish, resort to bribery in order to secure his return, it would be carrying the principle of constitutional severity too far to punish him for their misconduct.

Mr. O'Connell

said, if his first amendment stood alone, the alteration would be liable to the objection which the noble Lord had advanced; but if he would look at the effect of the two Amendments together, he would find that the Member could not be punished, unless he was himself cognizant of the bribery before and at the time when it took place. The words in the second Amendment, "all persons wilfully concerned in such bribery," would preclude the possibility of the injustice to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord John Russell

said, his objection fell to the ground, in consequence of the hon. and learned Member's explanation

Amendment agreed to.

On the general question for agreeing to the Order,

The Solicitor General

observed, that the existing law on the subject required alteration. By the law as it now stood, there was no bribery unless there was a previous contract; so that money was not distributed until after the election, and then, although the electors who received 5l. or 10l. a-piece recovered it as a reward for their implied consent to vote in favour of the candidate, that was not considered bribery. He hoped his noble friend would not drop his intention of bringing this subject under the consideration of the House in the shape of a Bill. The question of treating also required revision. At present, candidates might treat before the test-day of the writ, but not after. He trusted that his noble friend would not relinquish his attention to these subjects, or the Reform of the House would be unavailing.

Mr. Sheil

said, it struck him that there were but two effectual preventives against bribery. Respecting one of them there might be some doubt raised—namely, the imposition of an oath upon the candidates. The next was, that if an Act of Parliament was introduced to give the power of exhibiting interrogatories by the House to the candidate without releasing him from the necessity of answering questions that might implicate himself, that would be the most effectual mode of putting a stop to the corrupt system.

Mr. O'Connell

proposed, as one of the modes of punishment, to make the guilty candidate liable to the payment of all the expenses upon the bribery being proved. He could not but regard the practice of giving sumptuous breakfasts, dinners, and two or three pounds to individuals, as, in substance, bribery. His great object was to bring before the House cases of unsuccessful bribery, and which were not likely other wise to be brought forward. Successful cases of bribery were likely to be brought forward by the defeated candidate, and they would be more frequently brought before the House, if it were not for the outrageous expense attending them. No person could bring a case of bribery before the House from a remote part of the kingdom, or from a borough in Ireland, without putting himself to the expense of from 1,000l to 5,000l. There ought to be some cheaper mode of getting at justice. He proposed that there should be a Standing Committee of probably twelve hon. Members, entitled to take into consideration all undue interference of Peers and others in the election of Members to serve in Parliament. In his own county he had known no less than five, six, or seven Peers advertising in the public newspapers for a gentleman to come forward and stand for a county, they pledging themselves to support him. He could mention several cases in Ireland in which enormous sums had been refused by persons for their vote. In one instance, which he could name, an individual who was not worth twenty pounds in the world, had refused not less than 200l. for his vote.

The Speaker put the question, and

Mr. Ruthven

rose—not for the purpose of opposing the proposition, but, of entreating the House to preserve its character. He had read a report of a noble Marquess's speech sometime ago, (how far it was true he could not say) in which that noble Marquess had been pleased, in speaking of the House, to use language which he considered highly improper; he had said that hitherto it had been an honour to be a Representative of the people in that House, but it was now no longer so—it had been converted into a receptacle for gamblers, and men who wished to avoid the payment of their debts, and not of persons who came there for the interest of the nation. It was also full of persons who sought to advocate the tricks of Political Unions. Now he (Mr. Ruthven) was not an advocate of the "tricks of Political Unions," but he did not think they were bodies to whom such terms should be applied. He was sure he for one was not a gambler or a man of broken fortune. He did not allude to this subject from any wish that proceedings should be taken; but when the public Press had been prosecuted for remarks of a similar nature—when even the printers, persons who gained their livelihood by manual labour, and who suffered most considerably by such proceedings, had not been spared, he thought he could point out to the House higher game for prosecution or persecution. The observation to which he had alluded was one which the author ought to have been ashamed of, or to have retracted.

Mr. Hume

as there were some difficulties on the subject, recommended his hon. and learned friend to postpone his Motion until Monday.

Lord John Russell

concurred in the suggestion of the hon. member for Middlesex; because they ought not to adopt so great a change as that now proposed, in so thin a House. The subject was one to which he formerly turned his attention; and drew up a resolution with respect to it very nearly resembling that now proposed by the hon. and learned Member. The objections which were stated to his resolution possessed, he thought, great weight. If a Committee were appointed to sit one day in every week to hear all matters which might be brought before it, he was afraid that it would open the door to numberless accusations from parties who had not sufficient evidence wherewith to proceed to an Election Committee; but who would avail themselves of the opportunity thus afforded of making general charges for the purpose of producing an effect against their opponents. The result of his deliberation was, that after all, the best course was, to appoint a Committee only when a primâ facie case of bribery had been established. He entirely agreed with the hon. and learned Member, that great encouragement was held out to the practice of corruption by the extraordinary degree of expense which attended the prosecution of an election petition. As long as this continued to be the case, it was not likely that any person would incur the expense of 3,000l. or 4,000l. by petitioning against a return, unless he expected to be able to seat himself. He was doubtful whether the interference of Peers, in the election of Members for Parliament, ought at all to come under the cognizance of the Committee, if it should be appointed. It was true that the House passed a resolution, as a Sessional Order, against such interference; but he never thought that that intervention could be altogether prevented. The degree of censure which might be cast upon Peers very much depended upon the side with respect to which their interference took place. He remembered that about a year and a-half ago, when great anxiety prevailed relative to the passing of the Reform Bill, two or three noble Peers of his acquaintance subscribed to the fund, for endeavouring to secure the return of a Whig candidate for the University of Cambridge, and their names actually appeared in the list of subscriptions advertised in the newspapers; but he heard no complaint whatever on the subject from any Member in the popular interest. He thought that any act of bribery or intimidation which interfered with the freedom of election was culpable, whether it proceeded from a Peer or a Commoner; but although he never objected to the resolution being passed against the interference of Peers, he did not wish to see its spirit carried further. No doubt the extract which the hon. member for Dublin had read from the speech of a noble Marquess, was very foolish; but if the House of Lords were to occupy their time in noticing every idle speech which might be directed against them, they would have sufficient to do. He hoped that House would not set them the example of entering into an inquiry respecting a foolish and absurd oration.

Mr. O'Connell

was glad to find that the noble Lord was strongly impressed with the justice of the view which he (Mr. O'Connell) took of the subject; and that the Solicitor General concurred in the same opinion. He trusted, therefore, that his Majesty's Ministers would avail themselves of the abundant means in their possession to put down the enormous evil of bribery—an evil which had even been increased by the Reform Bill, in consequence of the new classes of voters introduced by that measure. He begged leave for the present to withdraw his Motion.

Motion withdrawn—Order agreed to.