HC Deb 11 February 1834 vol 21 cc227-33
Mr. Hume

rose, to move to refer to a Select Committee, the Return of Expenses charged by Returning Officers at the Election of Members for Counties and Boroughs in England and Wales, at the last General Election, with the view of fixing an uniform rate of charge at every Election, and of considering by whom the charges should be paid. One of the great objects of the Reform Bill was to limit the expenses of elections, and for that purpose many propositions were made at the discussion on the Bill. The 71st clause of the Reform Act related to the subject; but it was not sufficiently explicit. He was, therefore, desirous to have the matter referred to a Committee; and he was the more desirous to see that course pursued, as the Returns were imperfect, and required amendment. His own opinion with respect to election expenses, had been, and was, that the candidate ought to pay nothing; that the county ought to bear the burthen; for a Member ought to be elected for the good of the constituents electing him, and not for his own interest, and therefore the public ought to bear the expense. And that feeling was in accordance with the old principle of election, which threw the charges of the election, and even the support of the elected on the electors. That some uniform charge ought to be adopted appeared to him to be quite evident. In his own case he knew that the Sheriff construed the law as to what were legal expenses differently from what some other Sheriffs did, and, therefore, it was plain the law required fixing. By the Returns which he wished to be referred to a Committee, it appeared, that the actual constituency had fallen greatly short of the number anticipated at the period of the passing of the Reform Bill. It appeared, that in the 128 counties in England and Wales, there were registered 317,594 electors, and that in the 255 boroughs there were 274,620; making a total of 592,214 registered electors. That, however, was not the actual number of voters. He, himself, knew of several instances in which an elector was registered in two or even three places; so that when the list was reduced, it would probably be found, that in all England and Wales, there were not more than 500,000 voters, whereas, at the period of the Reform Bill, it was confidently anticipated, that the number would be above 1,000,000. The Returns, too, were imperfect. From Marlborough, although the Returning Officer had received four letters, there had been no communication; and it would be the duty of the Committee to investigate the cause, and to remedy that neglect. Again, there had been no Return from Oxford or Cambridge Universities, on the plea that they did not come under the term "place." He had thought they did, but the matter would be easily rectified by a Committee. From the Returns, it appeared, that the aggregate expense of candidates for counties, amounted to 21,937l., and that of candidates for boroughs to 21,624l.; giving a general aggregate expense of 43,561l. These were the legal charges under the 41st section of the Reform Bill. Some of the boroughs had made no Returns, though called on to do so more than once; and it would be necessary to have some of the Returning Officers called to the Bar of the House to answer for their neglect. But it appeared to him that many of the Returns were quite evasive, and, to correct this, he moved for Returns of additional expenses. The whole were so irregular and inconsistent, that it was impossible the House should allow another general election, or even one single election, to come on, before they took some step to define what the expenses ought to be. In some of the counties the Returns were greatly deficient. There was also a great difference in the amount of the legal charges by the Returning Officers. Thus, in the district of Lindsey, in Lincolnshire, where the voters were 9,134, and where there were three candidates, the expenses charged by the Returning Officer, amounted to 1,065l. In the northern division of Lancashire, the voters were 10,000, and the expenses were 546l. In one division of Surrey, the expenses were only 187l. In Berkshire there were three Members, four candidates, the voters exceeded 5,500, and the expenses were 752l. In West Norfolk, there were no expenses charged. In Brecon, only 20l. In Cardigan, with 1,154 voters, the expenses were 292l. In the boroughs, again, the same fact of extravagance, and disparity, was also illustrated. In the borough of Abingdon, with 300 electors, and three candidates, there was no charge at all. In Buckingham, with the same number of electors, and the same number of candidates, the expense was 33l. In Bristol, the electors were 10,000, the candidates four, and the expense 8741l. In Finsbury, where the electors were 10,309, and the candidates five, the expense amounted to 484l. In the City of London, with a constituency of 18,584, and six candidates, the expense amounted to 522l. In Westminster, with its 11,576, and three candidates, the expense was 362l. In Plymouth, where there was no contest, the expense incurred was 130l. In another borough, where there was no contest, the expense was 109l.; while, in Andover, Cardigan, Dartmouth, Ludlow, and another borough, there was no expense at all. He must again express a hope, that the House would compel those places that had not complied with its orders, to make the desired Returns of the expenses incurred in the way referred to at the last election, to do so forthwith. Another point worthy of consideration, was the way in which these expenses were incurred. There were Sheriffs, Under Sheriffs, Clerks, &c, all of whom made charges on the different candidates for their labours on the occasion of" an election. The charges made by Under Sheriffs, were often very great. He (Mr. Hume) questioned very much, whether they should be allowed to make any charge at all. They were appointed for the performance of duties connected with their several counties; and that of attending at elections, and regulating their proceedings, he conceived, was one. Assessors were, in some instances, allowed large sums, and Constables, or Policemen, were paid for keeping the peace. In the county of Cardigan, the Sheriffs actually charged the candidates 20l. forsilver thrown among the people. In Bedford, all the irregularities he had mentioned had occurred; they were all contrary to law. The 71st section of the Reform Act limited the expense of elections in each parish to 23l. The Sheriff was to be allowed 2l. 2s. per day for his labours, and the Clerk 1l. 1s. The enormous expenses which had been charged against candidates in certain cases, were claimed by the Returning Officers on the ground of some previous Act of Parliament, just as if all former Acts of Parliament were not, in the question of electioneering expenses, set aside by the Reform Act. He trusted, that, under the circumstances he had stated, the House would consent to the appointment of a Committee on the subject. It was highly desirable, that every man who became a candidate, should know, in the first instance, the extent of his liabilities; and that he might not, consequently, be imposed upon by other persons after the election was over. The expense attending elections, must, it was clear, be at all events reduced. It was not necessary, for example, to have new booths at every successive election, for they could be made at the present expense to last a lifetime. Let the House only decree, that the different counties ought to be at the expense of fitting up these booths and the other things necessary at elections, and there would be no unnecessary expenditure in such cases in future. In Middlesex alone, the booths had cost the candidates 600l. He hoped the few hints he had thrown out to the House would not be lost on hon. Members, but be committed to memory, against the time for formally deliberating on the subject. The hon. Member concluded by moving, "That the House refer to a Select Committee, the Returns of Expenses charged by Returning Officers at the Election of Members for Counties and Boroughs in England and Wales, and in Scotland and Ireland, at the last General Election, with the view of fixing a uniform rate of charge; and also to inquire into all other Expenses attendant on the Registration of Votes, and at the Elections."

Sir Samuel Whalley

seconded the Motion. A great many individuals, well fitted, both by their talents and integrity, for a seat in that House, would come forward as candidates, if the expenses at elections were fixed and limited. He most cordially agreed with the hon. member for Middlesex, that the expenses of elections should be defrayed by the country at large. The conclusion among the people, or, at least, among a large portion of the people, was, that when Members paid such large sums, in the shape of election expenses, for a seat in that House, they would take care of themselves when the public money was voted away. They thought that hon. Members would not scruple to appropriate part of that money to their own purpose. It was expected that the 71st Section of the Reform Act would have limited the expenses of elections; but the Returns, which the hon. member for Middlesex had read to the House, showed, that the provisions of that Bill were quite inefficient for keeping such expenses within their proper limits. The expenses attending elections was a question of paramount importance to the country at large. His only regret was, that, instead of moving for a Select Committee to examine the expenses charged by Returning Officers at the last General Election, he did not at once move for leave to bring in a Bill on the subject.

Colonel Evans

would mention, as an instance of the imposition to which persons seeking to be returned to that House were subjected, that, at a recent election, where there were three candidates, letters were received from the Returning Officer some time before the day of nomination, calling on each of them to pay a sum of 200l. for expenses, on an understanding that if there was any surplus after they were defrayed, it should be handed over. This demand was at first refused, but subsequently complied with. Some days after the election the Returning Officer sent in a bill of 160l. to each of the candidates, accompanied by a memorandum, in which he stated that he expected a present of 20l for himself, 10l. for one deputy, 5l. for another, and so on until the whole surplus of 40l. was swallowed up. The bill was disputed by the Committee, who succeeded not only in having it reduced by 30l. or 40l., but refused making any presents whatever. Shortly after another election took place, and a similar demand for 200l. was made. At first the Committee, having reason to believe the demand was illegal, altogether refused compliance, but the Returning Officer stating, that if they did not, he would run up his bill for expenses much beyond it, they became alarmed, and lodged the money. He stated that circumstance to show the necessity of some specific enactment to settle the amount of those election expenses, and thus prevent a recurrence of that annoyance of which so many Members had reason to complain. The Motion of the hon. member for Middlesex met his views, and he had great pleasure in supporting it.

Lord John Russell

expressed his satisfaction at the hon. member for Middlesex directing his attention to the present subject, and, on the part of Government, promised no assistance should be withheld which could, in anywise, facilitate the object he had in view. He could not, however, agree with him in thinking that the expenses of candidates ought to be defrayed by the country, because he was convinced such an alteration in the existing system would lead to innumerable vexatious contests. Had such a law, for instance, been in force, there would have been no lack of candidates for the representation of the county of Somerset, although it was improbable a return different from that which had been made would have occurred. Before he sat down, he could not avoid observing, that the demand made by the Returning Officer at the election to which the hon. and gallant member for Westminster referred, was, in every sense, illegal, and the successful Member, whosoever he might be, would only be doing his duty to the public if he brought the party to the bar of the House to answer for his conduct.

Mr. Harvey

hoped his hon. friend would so frame his Motion that it should become part of the business of the Committee to inquire, whether, both in counties and boroughs, but especially in the latter, the poll might not be taken in one day. For his part, he thought it would be very practicable, in all cases, to take the poll within a day; and it was therefore his intention, when the House came to consider the cases of those boroughs about to undergo revision, to move a clause to that effect.

Lord John Russell

would not pledge himself to support such a motion, should it be made; but he did not hesitate to say the alteration to which it referred was most feasible. During the discussion upon the Reform Bill he had more than once stated his intention to be, that the poll should terminate within twenty-four hours, and he had only extended the period to forty-eight hours, in compliance with the suggestions of some hon. Members, who feared that, at the outset, one day would not be sufficient.

Mr. Rigby Wason

was confident one day would be sufficient to take the poll whether in a county or a borough, and therefore urged the hon. Member so to frame his motion as to bring the subject under the consideration of the Committee.

Lord Althorp

thought it was a fair question whether the suggested alteration might not hereafter be carried into effect, but it could not properly come within the scope of the inquiry which it was proposed the present Committee should institute.

Mr. Hume

differed from the Noble Lord, for he thought the subject would fairly come before the Committee as a matter of expense to the candidate. He would not, however, make any alteration in the terms of his Motion with a view of bringing it within the inquiry more immediately than as a matter of expense.

Mr. Harvey

was sure, that if the Committee looked upon the subject in the light of the expense it caused candidates, they would, without hesitation, recommend the alteration he suggested. He could adduce many instances in which large bodies of electors purposely avoided voting on the first day of polling, in the hope that, if in the exercise of that Scotch art, called prudence, they held back until the second, they might be able, not only to boast of having turned the election in favour of a particular candidate, but to turn something substantial into their own pockets.

The Motion was agreed to, and the Committee appointed.