HC Deb 04 March 1834 vol 21 cc1057-63
Mr. Hardy

rose to make a Motion, the object of which was, to promote the purity of elections, and to reduce the expenses which at present were attendant on all electioneer- ing contests. He could not but express his surprise that the law had been allowed to remain for so long a time in its very imperfect and unsatisfactory state. He had wished to introduce his Motion at the early period of last Session, for he thought it disgraceful to the country that the House should permit the continuance of practices which were known to exist, and which were of a nature which no man pretended to approve of. A Bill had been introduced in the last Session of Parliament by a noble Lord, and it certainly had gone far to diminish the expenses of elections; but he complained that that Bill had not gone far enough. He gave credit to the Government for a wish to root out every corruption; and he would not in such an assembly declaim against the evils of corruption, for every person present well knew what they were; and he believed that they were very well disposed to adopt every possible means to extirpate them wherever they could be traced and encountered. He feared that this could never be entirely effected but by the diffusion of a moral education amongst the people, and he should therefore avoid laying down rules for a Utopian era that might never arrive. All he now aimed at was, to amend and consolidate the existing laws, and in this attempt he should avail himself largely of the assistance of those who had already introduced Bills with a view of checking corruption in all its wanderings, and under all the disguises that human cunning had contrived for its protection. He asked, whether every man ought not to feel his cheek tinged with the blush of shame at the law being allowed to remain in its present state? He would quote a great law authority, who had said that the House ought to make the law against bribery, not more efficacious, but, for the first time, efficacious. What was the law on the subject? Bribery could be punished by the common law, but the process was so difficult that no man ever resorted to it. Next came the Act of 7th William 3rd c. 3, commonly called the Treating Act; then there was the 2nd George 2nd cap. 24, termed the Bribery Act; next came the Act 49th of George 3rd styled Turton's Act; and lastly the Act 7th and 8th George 4th cap. 37, which, for want of any particular cognomen, might be called the Cockade Act. He contended that all the provisions of the last Act of George 4th had been obviated and defeated. For instance, the penalty for bestowing any cockade, decoration, or mark of distinction upon electors was 10l.; but would not the law have been more effectual if the penalty had been levied on all who were these badges? The Act of George 2nd affixed a fine of 1,000l. to any unsuccessful candidate that was convicted of bribery, whilst it affixed no penalty but the loss of his scat against the successful candidate that might be convicted of the same offence. In the recent case in the Stationery Office the House saw how the law operated, for, whilst the innocent person who had received the place was ejected from his appointment, he who had solicited it, and had obtained it for him, still enjoyed his seat in Parliament. The ancestor of the right hon. member for Montgomery, who had introduced the Bribery Act, had flattered himself that he had spread his nets far and wide enough to catch all kinds of bribery; but the Act was only of a prospective nature, and had been defeated in the case of Lord Hunting tower. The cause, however, was lost upon the ground that the bribery was prospective. The case just now mentioned was one of that class to which he proposed by this Bill to apply a remedy. Hitherto they had been entirely too slow in following up the punishment of bribery at elections. The law hitherto had, in general, been successfully evaded by ingenious and new contrivances. When new schemes were thus introduced to defeat the provisions of existing laws new legislative provisions should be introduced to meet and to defeat such schemes. As the law now stood on the subject of bribery, it tended rather to encourage it, during the whole time before the issuing of the Writ, and twenty-eight days after the election, than to discourage it. So much was this the case, and so great was the difficulty in ascertaining when bribery took place, that Sir Arthur Pigot said, he had for twenty years been in the habit of attending Election Committees, and that he found it impossible for him to say positively under what circumstances it would be adviseable to petition the House of Commons against a Return on the ground of bribery. The Statute against Bribery at Elections passed in 1677. It was designated as "An Act to prevent a too large Expense at Elections for Members of Parliament." By this it was provided that no treating should take place except in the dwelling-houses of candidates, and elsewhere not to an amount beyond 10l. He would submit to the House, whether it would not be proper to provide, that if any entertainment were given during an election, or before or after an election, that circumstance should be taken as evidence that the entertainment had been corruptly given, unless the contrary were proved; and he would throw the onus of proof upon the party giving the entertainment; because it was possible that an entertainment might be innocently given; but there was, nevertheless, the strongest reason to suspect it, when it was given at a time when it was most likely to produce its influence. Another point was the payment of the travelling expenses of voters. The intention of the Bribery Act was to prevent all expense whatever; and, although the Reform Act had, with this view, established different places at which votes were to be taken, yet, if the law were left in its present unsatisfactory and unsettled state, on the subject of voting at different places, no great length of time would elapse before voters would be demanding their travelling expenses. He had heard it said, that a voter was justified in claiming the expense of going to give his vote, because that could not sway him in giving his vote. Could anything be more absurd than this? Was it to be supposed that a voter who had been conveyed to a polling place, for the purpose of giving his vote, would feel himself at liberty to vote for whom he liked? Some persons had attempted to compare the voters to witnesses, whose expenses were paid by the party subpœnaing them. But where was the analogy between the situation of a candidate and a plaintiff or defendant? He thought it was rather to be compared to the case of Jurymen, who frequently came many miles to the Assizes, and sometimes remained there eight or ten days, at considerable expense and loss to themselves. But they were fulfilling a public duty; and if they were not paid their travelling expenses, how much less should they be paid who came to exercise a franchise, which had uniformly been considered as one of the most valuable privileges that could be conferred upon man. He hoped the House would insist that each voter, particularly now, when so many facilities were afforded, should give his vote freely, independently, and indifferently, according to the theory of the Constitution. To effect this object, which he thought a very important one, he intended introducing a provision in the Bill which he hoped the House would allow him to bring in. It would be necessary also, in doing this, to have respect not only to individual voters, but also to certain places which had been known to court the exercise of such corrupt influence. It might be said, that the new boroughs were not likely to be affected by any spirit of this kind; but the new boroughs would be composed of the old leaven, and the same tendency to corruption would probably insinuate itself, and prevail in the progress of time as had been found in the three famous synchronous cases of Pittenween, Jedburgh, and Oxford, in 1765, 1767, and 1768. Having thus put a stop to travelling expenses, and in order to get at bribery in the most effectual manner, he would avail himself of the proposition to compel the parties to be witnesses before a Committee, and to give evidence of the transactions in which they were implicated, at the same time granting them a certificate, to exempt them from the consequences of any prosecution in a Court of Justice. He would also extend the right of petition in a case of bribery twenty-eight days beyond the period of which there was proof of any act amounting to bribery. Another subject was a provision, containing an oath to be taken on the part of the candidate, that he had not, knowingly made use of any bribe. He was one of those who thought that there was no advantage in administering an oath to a voter unless it were also administered to a candidate. He was sure that if the law administered an oath at the place of election, or called for a declaration to the effect that the candidate had done nothing corruptly to procure any vote, and had not paid money to procure votes, that the law would strike effectually at all attempts of agents to procure votes by corruption, because an agent would not expend money which he knew the candidate would swear he had never paid. He should feel it his duty to make that part of the Bill. It was his intention to move that the Bill be referred to a Committee, to consist of such Members as had sat on the Committee of the hon. member for Montgomery, Gentlemen who would attend to the business; and the Bill might then be moulded into a shape to make it worthy of the consideration of the House. He was sure that those who had guarded against corruption in Ireland would take care to guard against corruption on the polling-booths of England. The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in "A Bill to Consolidate and Amend the Provisions of the several Acts relating to Bribery, and to Charge and Expense in the Election of Members to serve in Parliament."

Lord John Russell

would not offer any opposition to the introduction of this Bill, and would postpone his observations upon its provisions until he had seen the Bill itself. He would only allude to one observation of the hon. Member, viz., that he had proposed a Resolution as to the practice of paying some time after the election. A Resolution had last year been adopted by the House, and was repeated in the Resolutions of this year, that if a sum of money was paid to a voter for a vote at an election, the Return might be questioned on that account within a period of twenty-eight days after the payment, and at the expiration of fourteen days after a sum of money, which had been regularly stipulated for, had been paid to a voter. Whatever corruptions existed, it was his wish to have totally done away. He fully approved of the Resolutions of the hon. member for Montgomery.

Mr. Williams Wynn

had not the slightest doubt of the general concurrence of the House in adopting the present Bill, which he considered most desirable, not only for the purpose of effectually preventing bribery by new provisions, but by consolidating, to remove all possible doubts regarding those which at present existed. Particularly with regard to the Treating Act, it was most desirable that the law should be made perfectly clear. The law could not render a candidate responsible for the treating practised by his friends, because a person pretending to be his friend, but being actually his enemy, might treat his partizans for no other purpose than to set his election aside. He admitted that this was an extreme case; but he would appeal to such Members of the House as had stood contested elections, and would ask them, whether they thought that any candidate who had zealous partizans—and partizans often took a warmer interest in elections than candidates themselves—could venture to answer that he had not violated the provisions of the Treating Act, supposing he were to be answerable for the acts of his partizans. He admitted the difficulty which existed upon this point; for if the law did not shut the door against this treating of the electors by a candidate's friends, it left an opportunity for the grossest and most profligate corruption. What, however, was the House to do? Men would be found ready on all occasions to swear, and to swear truly, "I acted so and so without any communication whatever with the candidate. He knew nothing of the treating which I authorized. All that I did was done at my expense, and I expect no remuneration from him." Would it not, however, be extremely difficult to prevent a candidate from remunerating after an election the partizan who had shown so ardent a zeal in the promotion of his interest? He fully concurred with the hon. member for Bradford, that there was not the slightest ground for allowing travelling expenses to voters going to the poll. He was himself of opinion, that such expenses were already illegal, but he knew that some Committees had decided otherwise. As there appeared to be some doubt on the point, he should be glad to have these travelling expenses to voters declared illegal by Act of Parliament.

Leave given, and the Bill ordered to be brought in.