HC Deb 03 March 1835 vol 26 cc516-23
Mr. Gisborne,

in rising to make the Motion of which he had given notice, begged, in the first instance, to set himself right with the House, by stating that he had since been informed that the object he had in view could be effected by a simple resolution. He therefore simply proposed to move:— "That in all cases in which an election shall be declared void, and the sitting Member unseated on the ground of bribery or treating, and in which it shall not be reported to the House by the Committee, that the petitioners had been guilty of similar practices, it is expedient that the expenses of the petitioners should be borne by the public." He believed not only that it was perfectly competent to the House to carry this object into effect by a specific resolution, but that it was in strict accordance with the practice which had been constantly pursued in similar inquiries, even without any Act of Parliament whatever on the subject. his Motion, in its original shape, proceeded thus: "but that in every case in which a sitting Mem- ber shall be declared, on the ground of bribery or treating, incapable of sitting again in the same Parliament, the expenses of the petitioners shall be borne by the unseated Member." It had, however, occurred to him that the object of the Motion might be effected by the House adopting a resolution that it be an instruction to the Committee in all cases in which bribery and treating were proved against the candidates, to report that the petition, on their parts, was frivolous and vexatious. The ground on which he brought forward the Motion was to afford additional facilities for the prevention of bribery; the fact being that the expense of proving bribery and corruption before the House afforded a positive protection in every case in which a rich man was opposed by a poor man. Bribery could be committed with perfect impunity and security in every case in which a rich and powerful party in a borough were opposed only by less wealthy people. He held that in no case could the public money be better expended than in purifying the Constitution of that House, and that it was its duty to use every possible engine in its power for the detection and punishment of eases of bribery. He did not know what objection could be urged against the Motion; he believed that the amount of expense it would entail upon the public, would be extremely small, that bribery would be greatly diminished, and that it would act as a prevention rather than as a cure. He would put a case in which such a resolution as the present would be very beneficial. They all knew that in many cases in which bribery was committed to a great extent, no man had an interest in bringing it forward, because, where both parties had resorted to the same means of corrupting the voters, the unsuccessful candidate knew he would not benefit himself by unseating the other Member. But why should not the honest, uncorrupted, and independent electors have a ready and un-expensive mode accruing before the House, and showing that the corruption was so general and extensive, that their rights were in fact swamped, and rendered of no avail? He had been informed that the objection to the present Motion which would be urged on the part of the hon. and learned Attorney-General was, that it was not competent to the House to impose these expenses on the public by a simple resolution, and that it ought to be done by a Bill; now he objected to bringing in a Bill, because it would not meet the case of the present Parliament; he wished the alteration to apply to the election petitions already in progress, of which he knew nothing, and with the merits of which he was wholly unacquainted. The present Motion had reference to no particular party or case. He wished it to come into operation at once, though it certainly would not be an ex post facto law, because it was merely an equivalent to a reward on the detection of bribery, imposing no additional punishment on the party involved than that which arose from providing greater facilities for its detection. He merely wished to carry the Motion as a matter of principle, leaving the details to be settled hereafter. It might be objected that the resolution would give rise to frivolous and vexatious proceedings. But it should not be forgotten that in the very first place, the parties must run all the risk of a great outlay of money, and considerable expense—an inconvenience to which they were not likely to expose themselves unnecessarily and without cause. The hon. Gentleman concluded by submitting the Motion.

The Attorney General

said, that his attention had only been recently called to the. subject, and that he had consequently been unable to give it that consideration which he was anxious to bestow on every question, whatever its individual importance might be. As he understood the hon. Gentleman, he had appealed to him whether there was any difficulty in the resolution he proposed. It certainly appeared to him that, with respect to the second part of it, there was very great difficulty. The hon. Gentleman disapproved of the existing law in this respect. He really thought the resolution he proposed would make the matter worse. To fetter the judgment of an election Committee, sworn to decide upon their Oaths according to the evidence, to declare that in certain cases the petition should be considered frivolous and vexatious, whether the Committee thought so or not, did appear to him a very inconvenient and somewhat awkward mode of proceeding to put down bribery and corruption. He had no intention whatever of opposing the spirit of the resolution—he could have none. He was ready to concur with any hon. Member on either side of the House in any measure likely to put a stop to bribery and corruption, or of violence and intimidation at elections. He could assure his hon. Friend that if he would adopt the more legitimate course of introducing some Bill for that purpose, he would give him his best assistance in private, and also by his vote in public, by supporting the measure so far as he conceived it calculated to produce beneficial results. He thought this a very inconvenient mode of introducing the subject. In the first place, he did not know, supposing the House to concur with the hon. Mover attic Resolution, how it could be carried into effect. Undoubtedly, the House had the power of voting a sum of money for this or any other legitimate purpose, and of including it in the Appropriation Bill at the end of the Session, and by that means obtaining the consent of the Lords and of the Crown; but he did not apprehend that a mere resolution of that house would have the effect of a general law, declaring that one whole class of expenses should be paid out of the public purse, without the slightest reference to the individual circumstances or urgency of each particular case. He conceived, that though it was in the power of the House to vote a sum of money for a particular discovery, and to include it in the Appropriation Bill afterwards, it would scarcely be competent to them by some general resolution to award a sum of money to every inventor without reference to the merits of each case, and thus give the resolution the effect of a general law. It would be necessary in every case to adopt a different resolution, and the House would thereby bind itself to determine upon the merits of each. He would conclude by again recommending the hon. Gentleman to adopt the more regular course of introducing a Bill to adapt the regulations he thought necessary to cases of bribery and corruption; and he had no objection to add—adverting to a notice of Amendment he had seen—to cases of violence and intimidation.

Mr. Wynn

expressed his concurrence in the opinion expressed by the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down. He considered it decidedly against every rule of practice, and the whole spirit of the law, to withdraw the consideration of every individual case from the authority of the House, and to decide every case that might arise by Act of Parliament. The Grenville Act fixed the payment of costs in certain cases on the sitting Member: a Resolution of the House had power to impose it on others. He thought the Motion, if it were carried, would give rise to an incalculable quantity of frivolous and vexatious objections; and that in almost every case of a contested election, they would have petitions presented complaining of the Return.

Sir John Campbell

thought, that some objection might have been urged to the Resolution as originally worded, but he wished the House to observe that, as amended, the Resolution would not come into operation, unless in cases in which it was not reported, that petitioners had been guilty of similar practices. With respect to the course which ought to be pursued for carrying into effect what seemed to be the general feeling of the House, it appeared to him better to lay down a general rule, to apply to all cases without exception, than to pass a specific Resolution, as the hon. and learned Member opposite (the Attorney-General) had suggested, toties quoties, as a case calling for such resolution, should arise. The latter course of proceeding would be liable to the objection, from which the first was free, of opening a door for partiality.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

was satisfied, that the House would not, without the fullest and most mature deliberation, affirm a Resolution, pledging the public to pay all the expenses of successful petitioners, who might not themselves be found guilty of bribery, and that without there being any limit or restriction as to those expenses. In the present instance, however, the hon. Member for Derbyshire had given notice of a Motion which the House had met to discuss, but that Motion the hon. Member had chosen to alter, and they were now called on, without having received any notice, to agree to another Motion, which called upon the House to pledge the public to pay the expenses of petitions in all cases where the elections shall be declared void on the ground of bribery, and that without limitation or specification. He hoped that the House would not agree to a Motion of this nature without having received notice of it. He stood there as the guardian of the public funds, and he should be sorry to see that House pledging the public to pay the expenses of election petitioners, without duly considering how much such a proceeding interested hon. Members themselves. The Resolution as it now stood, stated—" That in all cases in which the election shall be declared void, or the sitting Members shall be unseated on the ground of bribery and corruption, and which it shall not be reported to the House by the Committee appointed to try the petition, that the petitioners have been guilty of similar practices, it is expedient that the expenses of the petitioners shall be borne by the public at large." This assumed, that there was no other petitioner but the candidate. But a petition might come from voters. Another view of the case was, that according to the present practice of election Committees, it was not usual to go into the case of the petitioner at all. But the hon. Member by his Motion said, that in case the Member was unseated, and no bribery was reported by the Committee to have taken place on the other side, then the expenses of the petitioner were to fall upon the public. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) said, that it was not sufficient, that the Committee should make no Report. He would say, that the Committee ought specifically to report, that the petitioner was not guilty of bribery or corruption. Ought not the Committee to examine into the question whether the petitioner were guilty of bribery or not. But the hon. Member said, that if no report was made by the Committee of an act of bribery on the part of the petitioner—if the question as to his guilt were not gone into at all, however guilty he might in reality be, still he would be entitled to all his expenses. He felt that he would not be doing his duty if he did not oppose this Motion in its present shape, especially as it pledged the House to a resolution different to the present practice of Committees. It might be right that a petitioner in such a case should be borne out harmless, and without being put to any expense—of that he would at present give no opinion, but he would warn the House against giving a precipitate vote upon this or any other subject, without being exactly aware how far the resolution might carry them. An hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Hardy) had given notice of a Bill to regulate and amend the laws relating to bribery at elections. Would it not be advisable to incorporate the present resolution in that measure, and thus afford the House a fair and ample opportunity of considering its expediency?

Mr. Hume

said, that if his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire were to wait till the matter was settled in the other House, he might wait a long time; at the same time, he acknowledged that he could not exactly see his way through his hon. Friend's Motion. The principle was sufficiently clear, that as the public suffered by bribery, the public ought to pay the expenses; but while this principle was admitted, it ought, for the safety of the public, to be subjected to the strictest rules. Under all the circumstances he recommended his hon. Friend to withdraw his Motion for the present; in so doing, however, he begged to enter his protest against the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman for embodying the resolution in a Bill. He should like to know what security the Commons of England had that any Bill on the subject which might be adopted by them, would pass the other House of Parliament? The adoption of such a course of proceeding would be a mere waste of time.

Mr. Jervis

objected to the principle of making the public pay in the first instance for prosecutions for bribery. He thought the proper course to follow would be to introduce a Bill to subject the party unsuccessful on an election petition to the payment of expenses, unless a report should be made in his favour.

Mr. Baring

was of opinion, that if Election Committees, as at present constituted, did their duty the object which the hon. Mover of the Resolution had in view, would be fully attained. He would put a case which he thought the Resolution would utterly fail in meeting. Suppose a person who had been guilty of bribery and corruption in his own person, and who, therefore, did not wish to petition, were to put forward a man of straw as the petitioner; in that case no bribery could be proved against the petitioner; but if the petition were successful, all the advantage would be in favour of a person who had in reality been guilty of bribery and corruption, and still that person, according to the terms of the Motion, would be entitled to his expenses. With regard to the House of Lords, he did not think it was fairly open to the charge which had been brought against it by the hon. Member for Middlesex. He did not think that it was unwilling to join in any measure to secure the purity of elections, and he need not tell the House that the only law ex- isting on the subject was an Act of Parliament which had received the assent of the three branches of the Legislature.

Mr. Gisborne feeling the force of the objection urged by the right hon. Baronet opposite, arising out of the sudden alteration of the Resolution, would withdraw it for the present.

The Motion was withdrawn.