§ Mr. Charles Buller
said, he had two Petitions to present from the city of Canterbury, one in reference to the interference of the clergy in the late Election there, and another complaining of the decision of the Select Committee in the case of the late Member for that city—Mr. Villiers. The first petition was similar to that which had a short time since been presented by the late Member, Mr. Villiers, to the House. The statements contained in that former petition had been contradicted by the right hon. Baronet (Sir E. Knatchbull), and the right hon. Baronet had asserted on a former occasion, that if the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Villiers) were himself then a Member of the House, he would admit that they were unfounded. It appeared, however, from the present petition, that the electors and inhabitants of Canterbury were still of opinion that those statements were perfectly correct. The petition was signed by 1,044 inhabitants of that city, who prayed that the House would appoint a Committee to inquire into the truth of those statements. He did not suppose that the House would appoint a Committee to inquire into an individual case of the kind, there being nothing so common or notorious all over the kingdom as the interference of clergy at Elections. If they inquired into one case of the kind, they would have to inquire into similar cases of improper interference on the part of the clergy at every Election throughout the kingdom where there was a liberal candidate to oppose. The interference of the clergy at Canterbury, the petitioners stated, was not merely confined to canvassing before the Election, but they had since the Election had recourse to a species of intimidation disgraceful to any set of men that adopted it, but more especially disgraceful to the ministers of religion. It was stated in the petition that the day after the Election a rev. Archdeacon discharged his butcher, because he voted according to his conscience; that another 976 dignitary of the Church had paid off his grocer on the same ground; and that a rev. Canon had gone round through his tradesmen, and had carried the system of exclusive dealing to a frightful extent. The petitioners specified the names of the reverend Mr. Peel, reverend Mr. Crowther, Archdeacon Croft, and the reverend Mr Morgan as the clergymen who had been active in thus interfering. They prayed the House to adopt the only remedy in their opinion for such practices—namely, the Vote by Ballot. The people of Canterbury, he thought, had a just right to complain as they did that the clergy of that city had abused the wealth left to them for pious purposes, and, instead of devoting it to the purposes of religion, had in this manner devoted it to the purposes of a political faction. The fact was, that the city of Canterbury rang with complaints in regard to the conduct of the clergy there at the last Election. But Canterbury was not singular in that respect, for in almost every city and borough throughout the country clergymen had been not only the most active canvassers, but the most unscrupulous agents for the Tory candidates. He believed that on all sides of the House such conduct on the part of clergymen was considered indecent and improper. There was scarcely a part of the country in which the parsons had not opposed themselves to everything in the shape of civil and religious liberty. In his own borough he was bound to say that he had the good fortune not to have been opposed by the clergymen. He trusted that petitions like that which he now presented would make an impression on the clergy, and induce them to pursue a different course. They had, no doubt, a right to exercise the franchise granted to them, but they should exercise it in a manner becoming Christian ministers. He would call the attention of the House to a handbill which had been just put into his hands, and which he understood had been circulated in Canterbury. It was a printed handbill calling upon the citizens to meet to "resist the attempts made by Papists and Infidels in that House to destroy the Established Church of the country." He hoped that the clergy would see that the Church was in danger, not from Papists and Infidels, but from the folly and violence of its own members. He was sure that these proceedings in Canterbury would excite the disgust of every right-thinking man in the community.
§ Mr. Winthrop Praed
complained that the 977 hon. Member on presenting a petition had taken the opportunity to make a most unmerited attack on a most deserving body of men. The hon. Member had said, that there was not a single borough in the country in which clergymen of the Church of England had not been distinguished for their interference in Elections. Now, he would beg to tell him that the instances of interference in any respect blameable on the part of the clergy, had not been more numerous, in proportion to the number of that body, than those of any other class of the community. As the clergy were not allowed to sit in that House, they had a right to express their political opinions in a proper manner, as he contended they had done in a majority of cases. The hon. Gentleman had made an exception of his own borough in his general charge against the clergy of interference. He could furnish the hon. Gentleman with another exception, that of the borough which he represented. The first person that he canvassed for that borough was the minister, a relation of his own, and a member of a high Tory family. In writing to that Gentleman on the subject, he had staled that he did not ask for interference in the Election, and the clergyman, taking that to be an intimation that it was not necessary to vote for him, had, at the request of the opposite candidate, actually remained neuter.
§ Mr. Charles Buller
said, he had now to present a petition from the city of Canterbury, complaining of the decision of the Election Committee lately appointed to inquire into the Election for that city. The petitioners prayed that so mischievous a decision might not be drawn into a precedent, which would be alike destructive to the rights of the petitioners and of the elective body in general; they also prayed that a new, more competent, and more satisfactory tribunal might be constituted for the decision of controverted Election cases. They complained that the Election Committees of that House were frequently influenced by political bias, and were oftentimes most incompetent to decide the points of Election Law laid before them. The hon. Member called the attention of the House to the extreme hardship to which the petitioners had been subjected by the incomplete decision come to by the Committee. One bad effect of it was, that the country was led to entertain the opinion (he did not mean to say a correct one) that political bias influenced Members in deciding in such cases. He would just mention 978 to the House a remarkable statement that had been forwarded to him from Canterbury. It set forth, that as soon as the names of the Committee were known there, Mr. Lushington's deputy-chairman put them up in his window, marked with the letters "C." and "R." Conservatives and Reformers—and that so sure an indication was this considered of what the decision of the Committee would be, that preparations were actually made beforehand by that party to celebrate their triumph.
An hon. Member
, who had been one of the Members of the Canterbury Election Committee, stated that their decision had been an unanimous one; he had seen nothing of political bias amongst them, and for himself, he could answer that he had been influenced by none. He knew what an oath was, and he had acted in accordance with principle and common sense.
§ Mr. Charles Buller
had not impugned the decision of the Committee. He had only stated the opinion of the petitioners.
Mr. Stephen R. Lushington
said, the hon. Member had called the decision of the Committee an unlawful one. Now, he would maintain that never was there one more in accordance with the evidence adduced. The validity of the return was the first thing for the Committee to decide. And what were the circumstances of the case? Eight votes tendered for him (Mr. Lushington) were rejected by the Sheriff, because the names of the parties were mis-spelt in the register, though they were perfectly good votes, and there was no doubt as to the identity of the persons. Mr. Villiers had thus a majority of two over him. The Committee, acting upon all former precedents, first proceeded to decide whether the return was true or false. They decided that it was false, and by adding those votes to the poll he had a majority. So far from the petitioners having any ground of complaint, he (Mr. Lushington) was the party that ought to complain, having been deprived by the returning officer of his right for two months and a half. The right hon. Member was understood to say that the allegations in the petition with reference to the conduct of the clergy were totally unfounded.
§ Mr. Spring Rice
deprecated such a discussion as this. If indeed they were prepared to abandon the Grenville Act, they might then discuss matters of this kind, but as long as Election Committees were authorized by law to decide on those cases, their decision should not be called in ques- 979 tion in that House. It was true that in many cases Committees might make mistakes, but it was better that the law should stand as it was at present, than that that House should undertake to revise their decisions. At the same time it was open to petitioners to call the attention of the House to any wrong construction that a Committee might put upon the existing law, and to do so, not by attacking the Committee, but by asking the House for a declaratory law on the point. He recollected, in an Election case of his own, his right hon. Friend now in the Chair of that House presenting a petition from him, not throwing any discredit on the Committee, but asking the House for an amendment of the law.
§ Sir Edward Knatchbull
had been anticipated by his right hon. Friend in what he had intended to say. The inconvenience of presenting petitions of this nature to the House, when the period allowed for petitioning against the return for Canterbury had not as yet expired. On the presentation of the former petition, he had assured the House that the allegation that the reverend Mr. Peel, the brother of the right hon. Baronet the Chancellor of the Exchequer had interfered in the Election was unfounded. He now held in his hand a county paper, in which was advertised a letter from the individual who it had been alleged had been applied to by the right reverend Gentleman, in which the writer stated distinctly that the reverend Mr. Peel did not apply to him for his vote, and that neither intimidation nor anything else had been employed to induce him to vote for Mr. Lushington. The hon. Member should have inquired into the matter before he made the statement he did.
An hon. Member
said, that if the Canterbury Committee had gone into the whole case, the grossest bribery would have been proved against the supporters of the hon. Member Mr. Lushington.
§ Lord Sandon
must call the hon. Member to order. The case had been decided before the Committee, and the House was not now to discuss what would be proved before it. Was that House to become an arena where all elections were finally to be tried? The Grenville Act was thought to be the greatest step ever made towards rescuing the House from scenes so disgraceful to its character and dignity, but hon. Gentlemen opposite would now seek to draw the House through, the mire of con- 980 troverted Election politics. If the decision of an Election Committee under the Grenville Act had any thing in it that could be complained of, there was a court of appeal for the purpose.
§ Mr. Aglionby
said, that the question was not yet decided. His hon. friend (Mr. Buller) had moved for the minutes of the Committee, and the question as to their decision would be on a future day brought before the House.
§ Mr. Charles Buller
said, he had not at all impugned the motives of the Committee in coming to the decision that they did, he had merely stated the opinion on that point of the people of Canterbury. He would maintain, however, that the decision of the Committee, constituted a mischievous precedent. They should not have decided the return alone—they should have decided both the return and the election. He had, he confessed, no respect for the Grenville Act. It appeared to him one of the most stupid Acts that had ever been passed, and he should like to see it greatly altered. He would follow up the presentation of this petition by moving on a future day that no Election Committee should have the power in future of deciding on one part of the case without going into the whole of it.
§ Petition laid on the Table.