HC Deb 20 March 1833 vol 16 cc894-8
Mr. Spring Rice

moved the Order of the Day for the Second Reading of this Bill.

Captain Chetwynd

put it to the good feeling of the hon. Member to postpone the Second Reading.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that his right hon. friend who brought forward the Bill was not present, and he could not answer for his consent. He might observe, however, that as the objection which was taken to a previous Bill, with regard to particular names having been introduced, had, in this been obviated; the Bill had been made general. The Bill had been extended to all cases, in order to lead more certainly to the detection of bribery and corruption. As the previous Bill was entertained by the House, and reached the step of a second reading; but was then withdrawn on account of the objection which had been obviated, he trusted that the hon. Gentleman would see no reason for not reading the Bill a second time.

Captain Chetwynd

could not accede to the wish of the light hon. Gentleman, the right hon. Gentleman must be aware that the Bill in question accused the greater portion of the constituency which he had the honour to represent, of being guilty of bribery and corruption. The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that he had a great responsibility attaching to him on this occasion. The borough of Stafford contained nearly 7,000 inhabitants, and upwards of 1,100 voters; many of whom were men of high character and respectability. It was for the purpose of watching over their rights and privileges, and defending them, as far as he was able, that those individuals had sent him to that House; and he should ill deserve their confidence, did he not oppose a Bill which not only cast imputations on that constituency, but which might hereafter vitally affect their rights and privileges. That was an unprecedented Bill, at this stage of the business arising out of a disputed election. No Committee had been appointed, no case made out, no ground whatever laid for bringing forward a measure of such great moment as that. Some case ought to be made out, before such a Bill should be entertained. The preamble contained an allegation which it was most consistent with the practice of Parliament should be proved before the measure were proceeded with. He was sure that no person could be more anxious than he was, that justice should be done; but in such a case, the utmost caution should be observed before the House appeared to give the slightest sanction to the sweeping allegation contained in that Bill; not the smallest portion of which had yet been proved. The effect of the Bill would be, to give an indemnity to the greater offenders, while those who had been guilty of minor offences would be, exempted from its operation. He hoped that the principle of English law, that every one is innocent till he is proved to be guilty, would be observed. He entreated the House to pause and consider well before proceeding any further with this measure, until not merely a common, but a strong case in support of it be made out.

Mr. Gisborne

thought delay was unnecessary. The great majority of the respectable inhabitants of the borough of Stafford were desirous that the Bill should pass. It would not in the slightest degree affect the seat of the hon. Member who had just spoken. His return was, not petitioned against; there was not the slightest pretence for the House suspecting that his election was irregular, or effected by any-thing like improper means.

Mr. Forster

in answer to the observations of the hon. member for Derbyshire, said, that he had received information which enabled him to state that the respectable part of the constituency of the borough of Stafford, who were free from any imputation of bribery, were decidedly averse to this measure.

Mr. Hume

could not consider that the hon. Member who opposed the Bill, or any other hon. Member was anxious that bribery should be exercised with impunity. If report were true, there had been wholesale bribery at Stafford, and it was difficult to get at the information necessary to establish the truth of that rumour without an indemnification of witnesses. The object of the Bill was to afford that indemnity; and what objection there could be to it on the part of any hon. Member desirous of punishing bribery and corruption wherever it existed, he could not conceive. What injury would it be to the hon. Member's constituency if they were innocent? It would not make them guilty; and none of the respectable inhabitants of that town could object to it. They must wish that the character of the place should be cleared up, and the imputations, upon investigation, be removed, which had been cast upon it. They must be anxious to have the stain which had so long been upon their town wiped away. In no way could that be done but by passing this Bill. Justice would then be done to Stafford and to the House. He hoped then, that the right hon. Gentleman would press the Motion for the second reading now.

Mr. Shaw

said, the question to be considered was, not whether the constituency of the borough of Stafford, or any other parties, consented to this Bill; but whether there should be an indemnity granted to all persons who might come forward as witnesses before the Committee which was to conduct the inquiry. If it were granted, would not all persons who were hereafter called on to give evidence before an Election Committee, look for an indemnity also? Were they to expect that in every case of a petition against one or both of the sitting Members for any place, an Indemnity Bill was to be brought in to shield the witnesses on the inquiry which must ensue. It was usual to confine an indemnification to cases in which the disfranchisement of a constituency was involved.

Mr. Rigby Wason

said that the House had already decided the main principle concerned in this question, by the postponement of the Election Committee appointed to inquire into the petition presented against the return of one of the Members for the borough of Stafford, until a certain period, that was for the purpose of allowing this Bill to pass. It was incumbent on them to read the Bill a second time now, and proceed with it in order that the Committee might go on with its labours.

Sir Oswald Mosley

observed, that by the preamble of this Bill, the whole of the borough of Stafford was declared to lie under the disgrace of having been notorious for corrupt practices. It did appear to him that as a petition was presented against the return of one of the sitting Members for that place, some report should have emanated from that Committee before a Bill of this kind had been even brought in. Some-thins; like evidence ought to have been produced before assuming the fact that the borough had been "notorious for long-continued and general corruption" in the words of the preamble. It was too much for the whole of the burgesses of Stafford in the mass to be involved in this indiscriminate charge. He could state, that among them there were many individuals as respectable and of as high a character as were to be found among the constituency of any hon. Member, It had been properly observed by the hon. and learned member for the University of Dublin, that if this principle were once admitted, of indemnifying witnesses in the manner of that Bill, there was no possibility of saying where it would end. Any hon. Member who had been guilty of corrupt practices at any election, might come forward, and, on a petition being presented, obtain a Bill of Indemnity for all witnesses on the inquiry to be instituted; and turning round, might himself be screened from all consequences, give evidence against the place for which he was returned, on account of the very corrupt practices which he had himself been a party to. It would be better to put off the further consideration of the Bill.

Mr. Warburton

thought the objection to the Billon account of the allegations contained in the preamble not having been proved, might be a very good reason for altering that preamble in the Committee, but could be none for postponing the second reading. The hon. Member said, that they ought to proceed no further, because no case had been made out. Why, if there were strictly legal proof of bribery, that Bill would not be necessary It was introduced because, otherwise, legal evidence could not be obtained. But a primâ facie case had been made out: for the hon. Member who introduced the Bill, stated, on the authority of communications made to him by many of the electors, that there were facts which would be disclosed before the Committee which might fully justify the assertions contained in this preamble. The House, therefore, would be fully justified in passing this measure.

Mr. Pryme

said, that the argument in the present case amounted to this; you ought not to have an opportunity of doing a thing because you had not done it. The object of the Bill was, to give an opportunity of proving certain circumstances. A witness might refuse to answer a question, because he might, by so doing, criminate himself. This Bill would completely indemnify him, and he could then do so. Of all the extraordinary arguments he had heard, the one then used was the most extraordinary:—"You shall not be allowed to produce proof because you have not already produced it." If ever there was an argument in a circle that was one.

Bill read a Second Time.