HC Deb 29 March 1833 vol 16 cc1283-90
Mr. Ellice

moved the Order of the Day for the third reading of this Bill; and, on the Order being read, moved that the Bill be then read a third time.

The Question being put,

Mr. Wynn

said, that he objected to this Bill. He objected to it in the first place, because no parliamentary ground had been laid for it, that it rested simply upon the allegation of one right hon. Member, and was totally contrary to all precedent. If a general measure were proposed, indemnifying all witnesses who might give evidence of corruption in which they had been engaged, that would be perfectly regular, and recognised by the Statute of George 2nd. But this Bill was not of that nature, nor like that Bill which leave was given to bring in. That was, "To indemnify persons who may give evidence before Parliament, touching bribery in the election of burgesses to serve in Parliament for the borough of Stafford." This Bill indemnified all persons who had been guilty of bribery and corruption at Stafford, whether they gave evidence or not; an Amendment for confining the protection to those who might give evidence, having been negatived in Committee. Further, although one of the Resolutions passed at the beginning of the Session said, "that this House will proceed with the utmost severity against all persons who may have been returned to this House, or have endeavoured to be returned, by bribery," yet in the very first case which came before it, that Resolution was rescinded. It was said, that this was a Bill to punish bribery, but on what grounds could that be said? It was well to be prepared with an answer to that question, for, probably, the House of Lords, as in former cases, would send down a message to know the grounds upon which the Bill was passed. The only answer the House would be able to give would be "the allegation of the hon. member for Coventry." There was no other ground. The House had yet to discover whether bribery existed; which ought to be ascertained before passing an Act to punish it. Was that course likely to check bribery? He doubted it. He was convinced that the severe punishment of the offending individual was more likely to check this offence than the disfranchisement of the borough. What he should desire would be, that a certain number of persons, such as might be necessary to prove bribery, should be indemnified by this Act; and that all others should remain liable to the penalties of that offence. Instead of this, the Act included every person who might have thus offended. He threw no suspicions upon his right hon. friend, (Mr. Ellice) as an individual; but he was lately in office—closely connected with Government—and likely to be in office again. Was it fit that the House should agree at once, without any explanation whatever, but simply upon the allegation of one individual—and that individual connected with the Government—to a measure of this kind? On constitutional grounds, he considered this a measure of too great importance to be passed upon the allegation of a single hon. Member. It had, indeed, been stated that the borough of Stafford was notoriously corrupt, and Mr. Sheridan, in his lifetime, had told many amusing stories about it. He remembered hearing some of those entertaining tales. Mr. Sheridan told them by way of amusement, and fiction was called in to the aid of fact, in order to give embellishment to the story. But surely the table-talk of Mr. Sheridan was not an authority for passing an Act of Parliament! If the House of Lords were to require any statement besides the allegations of his right hon. friend, to sustain this Bill, it would not be wholly satisfactory to inform their Lordships that Mr. Sheridan had also told many amusing stories about the corruption of Stafford. He did not contend that that constituency was not corrupt, but that the Bill ought not to pass without some evidence of that corruption, and which might go down to posterity as a justification of their proceedings. Supposing the Bill to pass that House—whether it passed the other or not—it would constitute a precedent for future proceedings. Future Ministers might not be scrupulous in adopting it, and might say—" Why this House did, on such an occasion, legislate simply upon the representations of an individual, without any proof being required." If there were ground to pass this Bill as a special measure, there was infinitely greater ground to pass it as a general measure. There could be no reason why it should be applied to the borough of Stafford, and not to all other boroughs. If they indemnified the electors of the borough of Stafford, where it was said corruption universally prevailed, how could they, in any instance, when a case of bribery was reported to the House, pass the ordinary resolution, directing the Attorney General to prosecute? In the Report of the Election Committee for the borough of Newry, now before the House, one individual appeared, on evidence, to have been guilty of bribery several times. If he were prosecuted, might be not say—" is it not extremely hard that I should be put in a worse situation than the electors of Stafford? Why is all the vengeance of the law to be raised against me, because I practised corruption in the borough of Newry, and not in the borough of Stafford?" In Stafford, it was stated, that one person had bribed 524 electors out of 526; and a person who had carried on corruption by wholesale ought not to be indemnified against the consequences, except in case of an absolute and over-ruling necessity. Was this such a case? It had not been proved. The indemnification was—" all and every person or persons who may be, or have been, or may have been, implicated or engaged in such alleged bribery and corruption at or connected with any election;" so that the indemnity was not confined to the present election. Two years had not elapsed since the election of 1831. And why were they to throw a shield over persons who might have been guilty of bribery in 1831? They could not give evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons as to that election. The Committee appointed for the 16th of April, was to try the merits of the last election, and not that of any former year. Why, then, he asked, this extensive indemnity? Heretofore, the indemnity had always been limited to the election which was to come under consideration. But the words of the Act were more extensive still. Not only were all persons implicated in any such bribery, who might be examined before the Committee, to be indemnified, but all who might be required to give evidence, were also included. The words were, "all persons, &c. who may have been implicated, &c., 'or' who may be required to give evidence, &c.;" and that "or" must be maintained, it seemed, although such persons might not, in fact, be required to give evidence. By passing this law, they would grant, for all past bribery in the borough of Stafford, a free pardon, without knowing that they should be enabled to pass any other measure to correct it. He should wish to move an Amendment, though he was not sure that he should obtain a seconder for it. It was, however, that the word "or" he omitted, and the word "and" inserted in its stead. If the House should not agree to that, he should move, that the Bill be intituled, not "A Bill to indemnify persons, "but" A bill to indemnify 'all and every' person and persons who may have been guilty of bribery at any election in the borough of Stafford."

Mr. Ellice

said, that this Bill, which had been described to be so very extraordinary a one, differed only from all others of a like kind which had been sent down from the House of Lords, to this extent; that whereas this Bill indemnified all persons connected with the transactions to which it referred in other Bills there had been an exception made in respect of those who had been candidates at the elections referred to, and of those who had not been called upon to give evidence before the Committee. The House, however, agreed to introduce a proviso that this Bill should not exempt any candidate at the last election from any disqualification from sitting in this Parliament, to which he would, or might otherwise have been liable. He had, on a former occasion, stated to the House the reason why this Bill was introduced without a Committee being appointed. It was declared by two persons, who actually paid the money, that 524 electors out of 526, were guilty of bribery; and that if an indemnity were given to those persons, they would prove the facts before a Committee. That being so stated, it was his duty to repeat the statement to the House; and, if possible, to procure redress to the public, for such an enormous grievance as bribery to that extent existing in this borough. At the same time, he could not allow the right hon. Gentleman to declare, that the Bill was solely founded upon his allegation of corruption. It was mainly founded upon the petition, complaining of corruption in that borough. That petition had been sent to a Committee, which could not do justice to the parties, unless an indemnity were given to the witnesses. The right hon. Gentleman proposed, that the Committee should proceed with the examination of witnesses; and when it had gone to an extent to justify the inference of general corruption prevailing in the borough, then the House should grant an indemnity to such witnesses as it might be necessary to examine. He was afraid, if this Bill were not granted in the first instance, the Committee would never proceed with the inquiry sufficiently far, to lay a foundation for such a Bill. The House might rely upon it, that if the Bill, with or without the Amendment which the right hon. Gentleman proposed, were not passed, there would be an end to the inquiry. Without this Bill not even the preliminary steps could be taken; and the case, notwithstanding the notorious existence of gross bribery, must terminate. With regard to the Amendment, he begged to say, that by introducing the word "or" instead of "and," he was of opinion it would have the effect of conciliating the parties who opposed this Bill. He was of opinion that the word 'and" might have been substituted; but the objection to it was this—that if they put that word into the Bill, those would be indemnified, who were, by far, the greatest criminals—who must be examined—and the people, whose evidence might not be required, might be prosecuted by qui tam actions. He knew, as well as his right hon. friend, that no evidence given before the Committee could be used as a ground of action in the courts of law; but he knew, also, that certain information might grow out of it, and other persons might be there prosecuted. The first question to be ascertained was, whether they could punish those persons who had committed bribery; and if they could not, then to consider whether advantage could be taken of their evidence. The power of the House was quite sufficient to compel their evidence, should they be inclined to refuse to give it. But he did not apprehend a case of refusal. If the Bill were not agreed to, the borough of Stafford might go on selling its votes, and it, and other boroughs, by similar practices, might send Members to that House, as if no Reform of Parliament had ever taken place. The right hon. Gentleman complained that the Bill went beyond the last election. The reason of that was, that the very persons who paid the money at former elections, were those who did the same at the last election. It was useless to say, that the whole foundation of this Bill was the allegation of the member for Coventry. It was useless to disguise the fact that corruption existed in the borough; it was as notorious as the sun at noon-day. In 1826—and for this assertion he had the authority of one of the agents engaged on that occasion—one candidate expended 6,000l. or 7,000l., and the other 14,000l. or 15,000l. The one who paid the larger sum was, of course, returned. The same course was taken in that case, as in this. Some of the parties seceded; an inquiry was instituted; and a sum equal to one half of the expense of the election was paid into the hands of the agent to suppress the evidence. Without, therefore, some extraordinary measures being adopted, this flagrant instance of gross corruption never could be inquired into or corrected. If his right hon. friend thought it was not worth while to obtain such an object, then he did well to oppose the Bill; but if he thought it desirable to remedy these gross abuses, and to prevent their recurrence in future, and he still refused to send up this measure to the House of Lords, by which those ends might be accomplished, at least his right hon. friend ought to point out by what other means such abuses might be remedied.

Mr. Shaw

contended that the Bill would defeat its own object, for a Member who had got in by bribery, might indemnify himself by giving evidence against those whom he had corrupted. It seemed to him that the Bill was well calculated to protect the most guilty parties. It was holding out a premium for bribery, and it was enabling the Member, whose seat was challenged, to say, if you unseat me, I will disfranchise your borough?

Mr. Foster

said, that the allegation of 524 voters having been bribed out of 526, had made a great sensation in the county. He could, however, assure the House, that the case was grossly exaggerated. The evidence on which it rested was altogether ex parte; the assertions could not be proved, but they had done the usual work of calumny in injuring the unfortunate. He called Stafford unfortunate, inasmuch as a part of its constituency was corrupt, and their conduct affected a great number of respectable and wealthy people. The parties to be indemnified did not deserve it; and if the Bill were not hurried through the House, petitions from the borough would be sent to the House against it.

Mr. Chetwynd

said, he was quite ready to agree on his own part, and on the part of his constituents to any inquiry, and he desired to have an investigation into the allegations made against the borough of Stafford.

Bill read a third time.

On the Question that the Bill do pass,

Mr. C. W. Wynn

moved, that it be inserted in the preamble that the Bill was founded upon the allegations of the right hon. Edward Ellice, that bribery existed in the borough of Stafford.

Mr. Ellice

was sorry that such a course should be followed by his right hon. friend, which would compel him to follow a similar course on all Bills brought in by his right hon. friend. The proposition was plainly intended to cast ridicule on the Bill.

Mr. Wynn

withdrew his Amendment, though he affirmed that the House was passing the Bill in a most inconvenient manner, which would cover the House with disgrace.

A verbal Amendment in the preamble having been agreed to, the Bill was passed.