HC Deb 26 March 1835 vol 27 cc263-8
Mr. Stratford Dugdale

presented a Report from the Committee appointed to try the merits of the late Canterbury Election, to the effect—"That Frederick Villiers, Esq., and the Electors of Canterbury be at liberty to question the validity of the return for the City of Canterbury, within the next fourteen clays, if they think fit."

Mr. Charles Buller

wished, briefly, to direct the attention of the House to the Report. The circumstances under which it had been agreed to were these:—In the opening of the proceeding before the Committee, Mr. Harrison, as counsel for the petitioner, proposed not to go into his whole case, but begged the Committee first to examine one point, viz.: Whether the returning officer had not partially and improperly exercised his discretion by rejecting certain votes that were upon the register, and ought to have been received, thereby giving Mr. Villiers a colourable majority. The consequence of establishing this point, as the learned Counsel stated, would be, that the petitioner would be placed in the situation of the sitting Member, and the sitting Member should be allowed to petition if he thought fit. The Committee acquiesced in this course, and after entering upon the inquiry specified, decided that Mr. Lushington had a legal majority of votes; that he ought to be returned, and that Mr. Villiers ought, if he thought it expedient, to be permitted to petition against that return. This was an exercise of discretion on the part of the Committee that in his (Mr. C. Buller's) opinion, ought not to be supported but on very substantial grounds. The House would at once perceive the hardship upon Mr. Villiers; he had brought a number of witnesses to London, expecting that the case would be proceeded with in the usual way, and now found that he must maintain them at a heavy expense during the fourteen days allowed him to petition, or relinquish his right altogether.

Mr. Goulburn

interposed: He was not aware whether the hon. Member contemplated any motion, but certainly the Committee sworn to try the merits of the petition, had a perfect right to adopt that decision if they thought it justified by the facts of the case.

Mr. Charles Buller

said, that there was a question before the House, and that he should conclude with an Amendment.

Mr. Stratford Dugdale

remarked, that Counsel on both sides had been perfectly aware of the course contemplated and taken by the Committee.

Mr. Charles Buller

said, that the Counsel for the petitioner were not aware of it until it was adopted, and then objected to it. The effect of the decision was of some interest to the House; serving on an election Committee was no very agreeable task, and by the resolution this Committee had shifted the burden from its own shoulders to that of another Committee to be appointed upon the petition of Mr. Villiers. He was aware that there were precedents apparently justifying the proceeding, and had they been in point he, perhaps, should not have objected to this result.

Mr. Williams Wynn

spoke to older: The House had no power in this mode to re-consider the decision of au Election Committee.—He would not enter into the question whether the Report was right or wrong, because the House had no authority of the kind.

The Speaker

agreed with the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Wynn), that, the House had no power to re-consider the determination of the Committee, but there was a Motion before the House, he could not say whether the hon. Member really meant to bring any question before the House.

Mr. Charles Buller

, was speaking strictly to the question. An instance of the kind did not occur once in twenty years, so that the precedents were few. One of these, upon which the Committee had relied, was the Middlesex case: there Sir Francis Burdett had a majority over Mr. Mainwaring on the fifteen days' poll; but the returning officer thought proper to keep the poll open for a sixteenth day, and at the close of the sixteenth day Mr. Muinwaring had the majority. The Committee had decided, that as it was clearly illegal in the returning officer to keep the poll open for sixteen days, Sir Francis Burdett ought to have been returned; and they, therefore, made Mr. Mainwaring the petitioner. In the Carnarvon case, the returning officer had admitted votes, contrary to the express directions of an Act of Parliament: the Committee struck them off, and, unseating the sitting Member, left him to petition, if he thought, fit. The determination of the present Committee was clearly incomplete, and they had no right to come before the House with such a Resolution, and to pretend they had discharged the duty imposed upon them, without entering upon a scrutiny of the votes of either party. He was aware that the course he was pursuing was not very agreeable to hon. Members on the other side; but, nevertheless, he should call upon the House to consider the manner in which the sitting Member had been treated, by which not only he was put to double expense, but the House to double trouble. He was not prepared to say, that the decision ought to be reversed, because there were not materials yet upon the Table to enable any man to form a correct judgment: but it was clearly unprecedented, and he should move to-morrow that the minutes of the Committee be produced.

Mr. Stratford Dugdale

said, that he was little acquainted with the forms of the House, but he apprehended that no Member had a right to call in question the decision of a Committee appointed to inquire into and determine the merits of an election petition. However amusing might be the speeches of hon. and learned Gentlemen, such a course as that now taken would be extremely inconvenient. He would not enter into any of the particulars of this case, but merely say that the decision of the Committee had been unanimous. There had, in fact, been no difference of opinion on the subject.

Mr. Warburton

contended that although the report had been unanimously adopted, the House had the power of calling for the minutes of the Committee, and if it appeared that the determination was pregnant with injustice to call for the opinion of this House. He trusted, therefore, that his hon. Friend would persevere in his Motion for the production of the minutes, that the House might be in a condition to pronounce an opinion.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

remarked that, after what had been said by the Chair, he would not question the regularity of this discussion, although he might be allowed to say that the course was not usual and that it afforded an opportunity of indirectly casting, not imputation, but disrespect, on the decision of a Committee. Whether that was or was not intended he did not know, but it seemed to him that nothing improper had been done. He had risen for the purpose of doing that which Mr. Villiers, had he now been a Member of that House, would have done as an act of duty, and which he had attended in his place yesterday to do had an opportunity been afforded. The hon. Gentleman in the course of a recent discussion, had said that the brother of the right hon. Baronet, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a clergyman in Canterbury, Lad been actively engaged in tampering with a voter. That reverend Gentleman being entirely innocent, had naturally felt pained that his name had been dragged forward, and at that Gentleman's request he rose to give the statement a direct contradiction. He had also communicated with Mr. Villiers on the subject, and had that gentleman remained long enough a Member, he would himself have admitted that he was mistaken, and that he had been misinformed. He had no hesitation in saying that Mr. Villiers had spoken entirely under a misconception, and that the rev. gentleman was in no way concerned in the transaction. In making this statement he only did justice to the individual.

Mr. Hume

observed that the Committee should have tried, according to the Act of Parliament, which of the two parties was entitled to the seat—the sitting Member or the petitioner; but they had not done so, but had merely unseated the sitting Member.

Mr. Williams Wynn

was anxious to impress on the House the great inconvenience of discussions of this nature. The question, however, was, did the evidence justify the decision of the Committee, and was it competent for the Committee to act on that evidence, leaving to the House to take any ulterior measure it thought proper? He thought the House could not interfere further, as the Question was one on which it was not the province of the House to decide. The only course the hon. Member could properly pursue was to ask for leave to bring in a Bill to restrict the powers of Committees. Such a course had been pursued before. He thought it injurious to interfere wantonly with the powers of Committees.

Mr. Freshfield

observed, that in some cases it was not possible for election Committees to take into consideration all the merits of the subject submitted to them.

Mr. George F. Young

thought that the House had, in all cases, the right either to receive or reject the decision of an election Committee. At present he was unable to form an opinion on this subject and therefore wished to see the evidence before he was called upon to do so. He was of opinion that all discussion as to the merits of the petition was premature, and must be so until the requisite information was laid before the House.

Mr. Scarlett

observed, that the House was precluded, by the Grenville Act, from taking up the subject in the way proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Liskeard. Unless there was a special report, he doubted whether the House could proceed further with the case. The Committee had to determine whether the sitting Member or the petitioner was duly elected, and they determined in favour of the petitioner; and there the matter must end unless the late sitting Member chose to petition the House.

The Resolution was agreed to.

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