HC Deb 18 May 1835 vol 27 cc1174-85

Mr. Irton moved, that a new writ be issued for the borough of Stafford, for the election of a Member in the room of Sir F. L. H. Goodricke, who had accepted the Chiltern Hundreds.

Mr. Divett

rose to move as an amendment, that the issue of the writ be suspended. He must begin by apologising to the House for having taken up the subject, because when the disfranchisement of this borough was brought under the notice of Parliament in the last Session, it was in much abler hands than his. His right hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir T. Fremantle) was the chairman of the Committee appointed in 1833 to inquire into the merits of the Stafford election. That Committee, after hearing the evidence which was produced before it, came to the unanimous resolution that bribery and corruption had prevailed to such an extent at the election for that Borough, that it was incumbent it should be visited with the utmost severity consistent with the practice of the constitution. In conformity with that opinion, the Committee came to two resolutions, of which the first was, that "the evidence taken before them established a case of such open, general, and systematic bribery and corruption, that it was expedient that the Borough of Stafford should cease to return Members to Parliament." That resolution was followed up by another, directing the Chairman "to move for leave to bring in a Bill to disfranchise the Borough of Stafford." The circumstances which produced those two resolutions were so notorious at the time, that if he had been addressing the last Parliament, he should not have deemed it necessary to enter into any further detail of them. But as this was a different Parliament, and as there might be some Members in it who were unacquainted with those circumstances, he would state a few of the facts on which those resolutions were grounded. From the evidence submitted to the Committee, it appeared that a systematic plan of bribery and corruption had long existed in that town. It appeared that it was incumbent upon every candidate for its representation to commence with giving, as a preliminary to other operations, a fee of 5s. or 6s. to all persons who thought fit to attend to receive it. If one candidate did it, it was necessary for every other candidate to do the same. At the election in 1832, when it was known that a fee of 10s. had been given by one of the candidates, the friends of the other two deemed it necessary to distribute among the electors a second fee of 5s., although they had previously given one fee of 5s. to every voter who attended to receive it. At all elections a regular market was opened for votes; the price of a plumper was understood to be fixed at 5l. and of a split vote at 2l. 10s. At the election in 1832 the price gradually rose to 7l. and in some instances as much as 10l. and 11l. was given. Such was the eagerness with which this traffic in votes was pursued, that, according to the statement of one of the witnesses, on the morning of the second day of the election of 1832, finding from the person who had been paying on behalf of one of the candidates, that his finances were exhausted, he proceeded to the bank and drew on his own account 500l., which sum he gave openly in the market-place to the paymaster in a roll of bank-notes. Out of 1,049 electors who polled at that election, there polled on the first day 804 who were paid, and 141 who were not paid for their votes; and on the second day 48 who were paid, and 56 who were not paid; thus making 945 who were polled on the first, and 104 who were polled on the second day. It might, perhaps, be said that this practice existed in the borough before the Reform Bill, and that that Bill had put an end to all such gross venality and corruption. He would, however, remind the House, that the election of 1832 was the first general election after the passing of the Reform Bill. Now, at that election, not only did the old burgesses act corruptly, but also the newly-created electors; the 10l. householders. More than one-half of the householders who then voted as such received money for their votes, the numbers being 85 paid and 82 unpaid. It likewise appeared that 166 of the burgesses of Stafford, who voted under the old franchise, also occupied tenements of the value of 10l. and upwards. Of this number 109 were paid, and 42 not paid, making 151 who polled: the remaining fifteen did not vote. So confirmed was this practice of corruption and bribery in the borough of Stafford, that arrangements were made by the candidates previously to the election that the bribery oath should not be administered to any elector. Indeed, it was admitted that to have insisted on the administering of that oath would have been fatal to the interest of the candidate so insisting. Having thus stated the reasons why, in his opinion, the borough of Stafford was no longer fit to be intrusted with the duty of returning Members to Parliament, he would now proceed to state the reasons why he moved that the writ should not be issued now. He understood that some gentlemen were inclined to argue, that though it might have been proper to have moved the disfranchisement of the borough in the Parliament which had discovered its misconduct, it was not incumbent upon the House to renew that Motion in a Parliament assembled after the dissolution of the former one. But the admission of such a principle would be destructive of all purity of election, for hon. Gentlemen knew by what had occurred in that House and elsewhere, that it was possible to obstruct by legal chicanery any bill of disfranchisement, so as to render it impracticable to get it through any single Parliament; and if so, it was impossible to disfranchise any borough in which it was rendered necessary to prove corruption against every voter. There was a valuable precedent in favour of the course which he recommended in the proceedings taken by the House in the case of the borough of Liverpool. In that case it was proposed to suspend the writ, although the bribery which formed the ground for suspending it had taken place at an election for a burgess to serve in the preceding Parliament. On that occasion, the right hon. Member for Montgomeryshire expressed himself to the following effect in support of the Motion for suspending the writ:—"I shall merely consider," said he, "the right of the House to suspend the issuing of a writ in a case in which since the suspension, there has been a dissolution of Parliament. On the question generally, I say that the House is not limited by any rule but that of its own discretion, and what in its opinion may best tend to promote the purity of election." After several discussions, the writ was issued to Liverpool, because a great measure was then pending for the improvement of the? representation, which would add the 10l. householders of Liverpool to the freemen as electors, and because it was thought, from the vast commercial importance of Liverpool, it was requisite that it should have two Members to represent it. That argument, however, would not apply to Stafford, for there was little business done in that town.—["Hear," from Captain Chetwynd.]—The gallant Officer cheered him, as if he intended to say that much business was done there. In the last Parliament, with the exception of the two hon. Representatives for Stafford, who were in duty bound to do their best for their constituents, and of the hon. Members for Staffordshire, who hovered over the town like its guardian angels, not a single Member rose to say a word against the disfranchisement of the borough of Stafford. Another precedent in favour of the measure which he now recommended was to be found in the case of Grampound, and in the debates on that occasion, he again found the right hon. Member for Montgomeryshire an advocate for the course which he was now calling upon the House to pursue. Referring the House to the opinion then given by Mr. C. Wynn, he must observe, that he had now stated the grounds on which he intended to move the suspension of this writ. He made the Motion in no party spirit; he felt it to be essentially necessary to support the character of that House, and to maintain the purity of election: for when a case was discovered in which four-fifths of the electors were proved to be bribed, it behoved the House to make a serious example of it, as a warning to all the electors in the United Kingdom. He should hold this language in any case; but he felt it still more necessary to hold it in the case of a county town, where the inhabitants were likely to be intelligent and respectable. From what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet opposite, in a recent speech, in which he declared his intention not to defend but to remedy all proved abuses, he trusted that he should have his support to the Amendment with which he was about to conclude, and that was, that the issuing of a new Writ for the borough of Stafford be suspended until Monday, the 22nd of June.

Captain Chetwynd

said, that he had listened with attention and surprise to the arguments which had been advanced in support of his Amendment by the hon. member for Exeter. He had listened with attention, because he wished to know what were the overwhelming facts, proofs, and arguments, by which he intended to justify his Motion for suspending the issuing of this writ. He had listened with surprise, because up to that moment he had always looked upon the hon. Member as a friend of liberal principles, who was anxious to give the people every opportunity to exercise their elective franchise. To him it appeared that the greater part of the arguments which the hon. Member had used to induce the House not to issue this writ, were valid arguments to prove the propriety of issuing it. If the borough of Stafford were now to be put upon its trial—if accusations were again to be brought against it (as no doubt they would be, as the hon. Member had given notice of a Motion for one day this week), it became peculiarly necessary that it should have every advantage, and that every indulgence should be shown to it, that it might be in a situation to defend itself. Its character was assailed, its best interests attacked, and it was entitled, in mere justice, to the services of both its Representatives, and not to be obliged to rely upon the advocacy of the humble individual now addressing the House. Ought it to be said, that the House of Commons, taking advantage of the absence of one of the Members for Stafford, and of the inability of the other, had passed a Bill to deprive the borough of its franchise? What would the hon. Member himself say, if he had a suit at law, and the judge, arbitrarily deprived him of the assistance, of his leading counsel. Would not petitions from all parts of the country be presented to that House on the subject? Would not complaints reach them from every part of the kingdom. He maintained that the peculiar circumstances under which the borough of Stafford was then placed, rendered it more than ordinarily necessary that it should have the advantage of being represented by two Members in that House. He further maintained, that when the subject was under the consideration of the House in the last Session of Parliament, he completely refuted by argument, and expressed his readiness, if necessary, to refute on oath, the whole of the charges of bribery and corruption which were alleged against the borough, and upon which the measure of disfranchisement then under the consideration of Parliament was founded. The hon. Gentleman by whom the present Motion was brought forward stated that his object was to reform the borough of Stafford, and to introduce purity and morality into its elections. If that were really the case, why not give to the electors a fair trial? Why not afford them every assistance they could require in meeting the allegations referred against them in a fair, just and constitutional manner? Why, above all, when such grave and serious charges were hanging over their heads, should the hon. Gentleman seek to deprive them of one of their Representatives? The hon. Gentleman, the Member for Exeter, said he was aware that a general election had taken place since the allegations were preferred upon which the measures of last year were founded. Upon what ground, then, did the hon. Gentleman rest the present Motion? Of the 466 electors and burgesses who did him (Captain Chetwynd) the honour of voting for him at the last election, he would undertake to say, that not one had been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the reception or anticipation of the slightest reward, gift, remuneration, compensation, or advantage of any kind whatever. He was ready to prove that upon oath. He would go further, and state that, calculating upon the chance or probability of there being another election for the borough, many of the highest and most influential persons resident in it had formed themselves into a Committee to support any candidate who should come forward upon liberal, just, and constitutional principles, and to prevent anything like bribery or corruption. So great, already, had been the power acquired by that Committee, in consequence of its reasoning and good sense, that he was quite confident, if the writ were allowed to issue, whoever had the good fortune to be returned for Stafford, would be returned as purely, as honestly, and as constitutionally, as any Member in the House. As reformation had commenced, and as reformation was going on, he asked the House what more it could require? If at previous elections unconstitutional practices had existed, what more could the House require than that they should be abandoned? If the borough had been corrupt, what more could be required than that it should become pure? He repeated that no unconstitutional means were resorted to at the last election, nor would any be resorted to at the next, if the writ which had now been moved were allowed to issue. As to what the hon. Member for Exeter had said about the 5s. and 10s. tickets, he (Captain Chetwynd) thought, as he remembered hearing the noble Lord the Member for Lancashire state upon a somewhat similar subject some time ago, that after an assertion had once been fairly refuted, it ought not to be brought forward again. When this subject was last under the consideration of the House, he had distinctly shown that there was no foundation for the allegation about the tickets. The hon. Member for Exeter, therefore, was not justified in the observations he had made upon that point. With regard to the case of Liverpool, to which the hon. Member had referred, he confessed he could not see any analogy between it and the case of Stafford. There was no petition against the return for Stafford—no application to suspend the writ—no allegation of any unconstitutional proceeding; on the contrary, he was prepared to prove on oath that the greatest reformation had taken place in the borough, and that every illegal and unconstitutional practice had been completely eradicated from it. There was no analogy, therefore, between the cases of Liverpool and Stafford. At the present moment he was not prepared to go at any greater length into the subject; but should the Bill of which the hon. Member had given notice, for the disfranchisement of the borough, go to a second reading, he should then feel it his duty to enter into the whole of the circumstances of the case. On the present occasion he would only add, that he trusted, in fairness and justice, the House would allow the writ to issue, and thus extend to him the advantage of a colleague in the representation of the borough, to advise and assist in a case of so much difficulty.

Mr. Cobbett

said, that if, as the hon. Gentleman had asserted, there really was no bribery at the last election for the borough, he (Mr. Cobbett) should be very ready to overlook the abominations of the past, and to expect better things for the future; but it was universally believed in Stafford and in all that part of the county that, with the exception of the thirty-three men who voted for Sir Charles Wolsely at the last election, all the electors were bribed. He was afraid that the borough was not quite so pure as the hon. Gentleman had been led to suppose; nay, he was afraid that the great body of the electors—of course without the knowledge of the hon. Gentleman—were most shamefully bribed at the last election.

Sir Thomas Fremantle

having in the last Session of Parliament brought in a Bill to disfranchise the borough of Stafford, begged to state why it happened that, not having changed his opinion upon the subject, he was not the person to introduce a similar measure in the present Session. Being at the commencement of the year connected with the Administration, he thought it was not fair or proper towards the borough that a Bill of that nature—a Bill of a judicial nature—a Bill in fact of pains and penalties—should be brought in with any of the influence of Government supposed to be attached to it. Under the influence of that feeling, he declined to bring it forward again, and communicated to the hon. Member for Exeter who took a great interest in the Question, that such would be his course. In consequence, the hon. Member for Newport took the matter up: and as that hon. Gentleman had now transferred it to the hon. Member for Exeter, he presumed that he had done so on precisely the same grounds as those which had influenced him (Sir Thomas Fremantle), the hon. Member for Newport, being now connected with the Government. He hoped the House would believe that his sentiments upon the subject remained wholly unchanged; and unless the defenders of Stafford could bring forward in the present Session some stronger evidence than they had ever produced before, he should certainly give his support to the Bill, which, but for the circumstance he had stated, he should himself have been the party to bring forward. He would next, beg leave to say a word or two upon the Question before the House for the suspension of the writ. If any vacancy had occurred in the last Session of Parliament, he should certainly have felt it to be his duty to move for the suspension of the writ. The only question to his mind therefore was, whether the fact of the intervening dissolution of Parliament had so changed the circumstances of the case, as to make it proper that the writ should issue. He confessed it was a point which weighed very considerably upon his mind; and if there were no precedents in which boroughs had been so dealt with after a dissolution of Parliament, he was ready to admit that he should feel himself placed in a situation of very considerable difficulty. But when he had so obvious a case before him as the borough of Grampound, which was disfranchised while it had two Members sitting in the House, without any petition having been presented against their return, and when the House also undertook proceedings against Liverpool in the last Session of Parliament under similar circumstances, he confessed that all difficulty was removed from his mind, and no doubt left as to the course most proper to be pursued. In what position did they stand with respect to the borough of Stafford? Were they on one and the same day ready to vote for the disfranchising measure of which the hon. Member for Exeter had now the management, and at the same time to vote in favour of the issuing of a new writ? In similar cases he thought the House had uniformly refused to issue the writ; and indeed when it was known to be the in- tention of the House to proceed with a Bill of such a description as that introduced in the last Session of Parliament, he thought it would be very strange and very inconsistent, if the Writ were not suspended. One word in reference to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Stafford—that hon. Gentleman had told the House, that when the subject was last year under the consideration of Parliament, he had completely refuted all the charges alleged against the borough. He did not think that the hon. Gentleman went quite that length. He confessed, however, that he had derived great satisfaction from the statement, that the hon. Gentleman had made that evening, namely, that at the last election, the greatest purity had prevailed. He was glad to hear that; for, although it had falsified his own prediction—that Stafford never would and never could be pure—still he was glad to find he was mistaken, and he was also glad of it, because he knew it must have spared the hon. Gentleman a great deal of money. But when he found that the hon. Gentleman's imagination ran away with him so far as to lead him to tell the House, that he had completely refuted the whole of the charges alleged against the Borough last year, he must be excused for saying that he was afraid it must also have run away with him when he spoke of the purity of the last election. The hon. Baronet concluded by stating that he should support the Motion for the Suspension of the Writ.

Mr. Edward Buller

maintained that the whole of the evidence given in the case of the borough of Stafford ought to be looked at with the greatest caution. In his opinion, the House was not in possession of sufficient information to justify the suspension of the writ. He would undertake to say, that no bribery or corruption had been committed on the part of the two sitting Members.

Mr. Forster

took the same view as the hon. Member who had just spoken, and thought it would be an uncalled-for stretch of power to suspend the writ. He would agree to an address directing the Attorney General to proceed against any person who should be proved to have been guilty of bribery; but he was not prepared to go the length of disfranchising the borough.

Sir Robert Peel

observed, that he had voted on a former occasion in favour of a resolution which declared that notorious corruption existed in Stafford. He had also voted in a majority, he thought, of 88 to 11 in favour of the disfranchisement. He had voted also in favour of a resolution, declaring that notorious and general corruption had been proved. The House of Commons, in the course of the last Session, passed a Bill to disfranchise the borough, and sent it up to the House of Lords. Supposing no dissolution had taken place, he apprehended there would have been no doubt but that the House would in the present Session have originated a measure similar to that negatived in the House of Lords last year. The question was this. Did the recurrence of an election make such a difference as that the House ought not to adopt any further proceedings? He confessed he could see nothing in the circumstance of a general election having since transpired that should prevent the House from interposing in the case of this borough in the manner proposed by the hon. Member (Mr. Divett), who moved the Amendment. He thought it would be perfectly competent to the House to proceed in the manner that had been suggested to it, more especially as the suspension of the writ would not at all conclude the question of disfranchisement. It would be perfectly open to the House, if it thought fit, to appoint a Committee for the purpose of considering, whether or not at the last election the practice had been so pure, or whether there was such evidence of reformation in the borough as to insure purity of election for the future—that course would be open to the House, and would be perfectly consistent with the refusal of the writ. Indeed the refusal of the writ would enable the House to consider the matter much more fully, than if a writ were to issue, and besides it must be remembered that the issuing of a new writ would give a new vested interest; and after all that had taken place upon the subject, he thought it would not be right to give a new vested interest. Neither did he think it would be at all consistent with the opinion the House had expressed with respect to the disfranchisement of the borough, that it should now be intrusted with the power of returning another Member. He had naturally a strong desire that the capital of the county in which he resided should establish its claim to be intrusted with that power; but still, under all the circumstances, reserving to himself the right of voting as he should deem fit upon the question of disfranchisement when it should again come before the House, he should on the present occasion vote with the hon. Member for Exeter, for the Suspension of the writ.

The Amendment agreed to, and the issue of the Writ suspended accordingly.