§ Mr. Ward
rose to present two petitions respecting the manner in which Members were elected in the borough of Bridgewater. The first was signed by nearly 150 of the most respectable and influential inhabitants of Bridgewater. Amongst the signatures were the names of two noblemen, thirteen gentlemen or esquires, and 129 shopkeepers; these petitions complained of the open, notorious, and profligate corruption that prevailed in that place on elections of Members of Parliament. For some time past the most corrupt practices had prevailed in that borough, and bribes had been offered and accepted for votes, and the petition went on to state that there was a body of electors in that borough who invariably sold their votes to the highest bidder, and although there were many persons in the borough who did not sell their votes, yet that those that did being the larger body preponderated in the elections, and thus by corruption secured the return of the Members. The petition went on to state that at an election that took place in the spring of the year, when Messrs. Sheridan and Broadwood were the candidates, a room was opened by the friends of the latter for the purpose of receiving the voters; that it was partially darkened, and on entering it those who were disposed to vote for Broadwood received a ticket, and when the election was over, on returning it, they were presented with a parcel which contained ten sovereigns. It appeared that 150 votes were bribed in this manner. The petitioners prayed that the House would cause inquiry to be made into the state of the borough of Bridgewater, with the view of affording them an opportunity of verifying the statements contained in the petition before a Committee of that House, and that the House should adopt such further steps as it might deem necessary for the purpose of securing the freedom and purity of election in that place.
§ Mr. W. Miles
wished to learn from the hon. Member for Sheffield whether he had 468 given notice to the Members for Bridge-water of his intention to present this petition, involving as it did such serious accusations?
§ Mr. Ward
replied, that he had not given notice, as he at present had confined himself merely to the facts staled in the petition; but he intended after the recess to bring forward a specific motion for inquiry into the allegations of the petitions. The next petition which he had to present was from Sir Thomas Lethbridge, who was a candidate at the late election, complaining of the acts of corruption committed there.
§ Mr. Gladstone
rose to order. He would put it to the hon. Gentleman whether he was justified in making a statement involving the character of Members of that House, when the parties were not there to answer him.
§ Mr. Ward
had not made any statement calculated to raise a prejudice against any parties; but he had merely read extracts from the petition with a view of showing what was the nature of the petition. He could assure the hon. Member that he had altogether mistaken his conduct in supposing that he would lend himself to attack the character of any hon. Members in their absence. He had not made a single observation or remark on the petition; he had confined himself entirely to the allegations made by the petitioners, in doing which he believed that he did not transgress any of the rules of the House. The next petition which he had to present was from Sir Thomas Lethbridge, and it contained statements nearly the same as alleged in the former petition, and prayed that an inquiry might be instituted into the state of the borough of Bridgewater.—For the purpose of affording this opportunity he should at a subsequent period move for the appointment of s Select Committee upon the subject. The third petition which he held in his hand was from Sir Thomas Lethbridge and three other electors of the borough of Bridgewater, against the return for that place at the last election. This last petition, therefore, was an election petition.
§ The Speaker
interrupted the hon. Gentleman and said that, with submission to the House, he doubted very much the propriety of presenting a petition to the House involving certain charges against certain persons, including the sitting Members for a borough, and afterwards receiving a petition from the same person questioning the 469 return of the said sitting Members. He would appeal to the hon. Member whether it was fair or reasonable of the petitioners to endeavour to resort to two distinct remedies for the same alleged grievance. He must put it to the House whether the adoption of such a course was not against the spirit of the proceedings the House always adopted with reference to election petitions.
§ Mr. Ward
remarked, that the first petition was not signed by any person who had signed the election petition, The second petition undoubtedly had been so signed, as the name of Sir Thomas Lethbridge was affixed to it. If, therefore, it appeared to be against the feeling of the House to present this petition, he would withdraw it until after the proceedings on the election petition were terminated.
§ The Speaker
stated, that he did not wish to take upon himself the decision of such a question; but it was one, in his opinion, which admitted of great doubt. The hon. Gentleman stated that the petitioners complained that this was a case of notorious bribery, and that the House should deal with it independently of any election petition. He could not, however, help feeling that to pursue this course would be dealing with the subject in a mariner that was contrary to the spirit of their general proceedings on election petitions. It was a very different case when there was no election petition, or when the time for petitioning against the return of the silting Member had expired.
§ Mr. Hume
was of opinion that the first petition alluded to elections that had occurred in former Parliaments, and when Mr. Sheridan was candidate. He did not think that the receiving these petitions could in any way prejudice the case of the sitting Member. The petition should be considered as containing matter of information for the House, and that it, as well as all other petitions, should be received, that were not directly at variance with the rules of the House.
§ The Speaker
said, that his objection to the reception of the petition was precisely that stated by the hon. Gentleman, namely, it was at variance with the rules of the House. It was considered unfair to receive a petition containing general allegations of certain facts, and making certain complaints from the same persons who had signed the petition against the return of the sitting Members. There could be no 470 objection to the reception of the first petition, which as far as he understood, contained only general allegations of bribery, and did not come from the same persons who petitioned against the return.
§ Mr. Ward
willingly bowed to the decision of the chair, and would withdraw the Petition of Sir Thomas Lethbridge, but he should move that the first petition be printed. The other petition was an election, petition against the return, which he should move be taken into consideration on the 12th of December.
§ Mr. Hume moved that the petition be read at length.
§ Mr. Courtenay
stated, that he was but a young Member of the House, and but little acquainted with its rules; but he could not help feeling that it was not consistent with fair dealing to make charges of bribery and corruption against the sitting Members for a place in the way done by the petitioners. He considered the first petition to be in the nature of an election petition. Now, there was already an ordinary petition against the return of his hon. Colleague and himself. He did not know, however, whether this petition made allegations of bribery and corruption against them. For the sake of argument it might be assumed that it did, and if such were the case, he had no hesitation in affirming that it was one of the most scandalous and dishonest petitions that had ever been presented. On such a case as a controverted election petition, ought any man to bring forward charges bearing on the conduct of former elections? If the state of the representation of Bridge-water were such as had been described, and if the electors of that place had been guilty of such conduct as had been imputed to them, and if such abuses as had been described had existed for a long series of years'—at least beyond living memory, "there might be ground for the House to interfere for the protection of purity of election. But it was most improper and unjust that such a petition as had been read should be brought forward at such a time as the present, for no other purpose than to prejudice the minds of the Committee of that House and the country against the parties petitioned against in this election petition. He had no hesitation in saying that such a petition was a dishonest, scandalous petition. Those who complained of the state of the constituency of Bridgewater should have 471 had the decency and common honesty to wait for the result of the election petition, and to have seen what had been the conduct of the electors at the last election. If it should turn out that in this calumniated borough, though abuses might have existed in former elections, that no proof could be adduced of any bribery or corruption having been practised at the last election, was it justice to punish the existing constituency for acts committed long since, and of which they had repented, and which had not been continued at the last election? Therefore, he said, that it was a dishonest and disgraceful petition, and went, against all the rules of justice, to punish for offences which had been forgotten long since. The petition had for its object to produce the influence which notoriety and report had, it was well known, on the minds of juries, for an election committee in such a case was nothing but a jury. He could not help feeling that the allegations of bribery and corruption brought against himself and colleague were intended to supply the deficiency of proof as to the illegality of the return at the last election, by going back to certain proceedings to which he was no party, as he had never, until the last election, put himself forward for the borough. He should not be doing his duty to his hon. Colleague if he did not attempt to vindicate him from the charges brought against him. These charges had not in any way been proved. It was said, indeed, that the petition was not prosecuted on account of certain causes, to which it was not necessary for him to allude. It was most dishonest towards his hon. Colleague, for the purpose of prejudicing the question to be tried by the election committee, to present this auxiliary petition, apparently on public grounds, but in fact in order to prevent justice being done on the present occasion. With these remarks he would sit down, trusting to the justice of the House. He had thought it due to his hon. Colleague and himself to meet the statements that had been made by the petitioners, and to urge upon the House the impropriety and injustice of receiving this petition. He would throw himself on the sense of the House and the hon. Member for Sheffield; he would appeal to the hon. Member as a man of conscience and a man of honour, which he presumed the hon. Gentleman to be, whether he would be justified in per- 472 sisting in the motion to print this petition until the merits of the election petition had been determined upon.
§ Sir William Follett
regretted that he was not present when the discussion arose; but he would appeal to the Speaker and the House whether this petition could be received. Since he had been in the House he had collected from the speeches of the hon. Member for Sheffield that he had had three petitions to present; the first was a common election petition against his hon. and learned Friend and his hon. Colleague, upon the ground of bribery and corruption. He also understood that the hon. Gentleman had another petition of a different nature; it was a petition from a gentleman who was a candidate at the late election, not only complaining of the general state of the borough at former elections, but also referring to the late election. In consequence of a suggestion from the Speaker, the hon. Member for Sheffield thought it right to withdraw that petition, as it was not fair to offer a petition containing such allegations to the House at the time an election petition on the same subject was before it. The first petition, now before the House, was from certain electors of the borough of Bridgewater not the same as had signed the election petition, but others, and they went not only into allegations connected with former elections, but the very last election. They stated that bribery and corruption prevailed at former elections, and they prayed the House that inquiry might be instituted into the state of the borough, not only at former elections, but at the late election, which allegation materially affected the seats of the sitting Members. He would submit to the House that when an election petition was presented against the sitting Members, it was not fair nor right that that House should receive another petition from the same borough making charges of the same sort, and demanding a committee of inquiry of a different nature. It was prejudicing the case of the sitting Members to have such statements made and printed and circulated amongst the Members who were to form the Election Committee before which the case would ultimately come. At least in decency and propriety, in fairness and candour, the petitioners ought to wait until the election petition had been investigated and disposed of. After that had been done it 473 might be quite right and proper of them to present this petition, and to call upon the House to take further steps. Such was the course that he believed had been followed upon all previous occasions. The election petition was first heard, and after its allegations had been investigated, and it had been disposed of according to its merits, another petition could be entertained, provided a case were made out to call for the interference of the House. He trusted that they would allow hon. Members to go into the Election Committee with their minds unprejudiced on the merits of the case. He would, therefore, suggest to the hon. Member in fairness to withdraw his petition; or if the hon. Gentlemen would not do so, that the House would reject it.
§ Mr. Hume
was of opinion that the hon. and learned Gentleman had confounded two cases which were quite distinct. The present petition was nothing more than a mere allegation of facts that formerly occurred, and referred only to elections long passed, while the election petition was confined to a mere statement of what had occurred at the last election, and referred to a particular case and particular facts. The hon. and learned Gentleman must, therefore see, that the chief fact alleged in the petition, namely, of general corruption, could not come judicially before the tribunal before which the election petition should be decided. He contended that the petition did not in any way interfere with the rights of any hon. Gentleman. He, therefore, trusted that his hon. Friend would persist in his motion for having it printed.
§ Mr. Ward
had, without hesitation, consented to withdraw the petition which had been signed by the same parties that had signed the election petition. He did not wish to press hard upon any one; but he did not think that the House would act with justice in refusing to receive a petition from a large number of the most respectable Members of a constituency containing general allegations of bribery against the rest of their body. He thought that the House was bound to receive the petition, and allow it to be laid on the table for the information of Members. He should, therefore, move that it do he on the table as the petition of 150 of the most respectable inhabitants of Bridgewater.
§ Lord John Russell
felt bound to say 474 that, generally speaking, it would be very unjust and improper, when there was an election petition before the House, to allow a petition to be printed containing allegations as to the substance matter of the election petition, or to allow any further proceeding to take place until the election petition was disposed of. At the same time he was not prepared to say that the House should go so far as to refuse to receive any petition or any information as to the previous state of the borough of Bridgewater, or any other place. He thought that it was only fair to the persons who signed it to receive it, and let it he on the table.
§ Mr. Courtenay
agreed, that if there were only vague and general complaints in the petition, it would be immaterial whether it was received or not; but instead of that, the petition made specific charges, which went up to the last election. He agreed with the noble Lord that they ought not to refuse a petition from the borough of Bridgewater containing charges of general corruption; but this petition want to the extent of impeaching the last return.
§ Mr. Leader
assured the House that he had no intention at present of entering upon any defence of the electors of the borough of Bridgewater. The hon. Members for the borough could do that. The presentation of that petition showed that there was some honesty existing in the borough, and that they did not approve of the mal-practices which it appeared systematically existed in the elections there. He had risen, however, to state that in this respect Bridgewater did not stand alone in its infamy; it was notorious that there were twenty or thirty other boroughs where the same practices were carried on openly as those complained of in the present petition. If a motion were made for a Committee to inquire into the borough of Bridgewater, he should move that the inquiry be extended to other boroughs. He did not think it fair that Bridgewater should be held up to infamy, when such places as Harwich, St. Alban's, Sudbury, Norwich, Liverpool, and other places were equally bad.
§ Lord John Russell
stated, that in consequence of what had fallen from the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite, he had read over the petition, and he felt bound to say that it referred to circumstances that took place at the last election, and therefore, under the opinion of the chair, 475 he thought that it had very much the character of an election petition.
§ The Speaker
said, that if the hon. Member asked him whether or not this was an election petition, he should reply, certainly not: it appeared to him to refer to the general practice, and did not confine itself to what occurred at the last election. This was a matter for the House to decide. He would, however, call the attention of the hon. Gentleman who presented the petition to certain indications in it which resembled the allegations in a petition complaining of an undue return.
§ The Attorney-General
said, that the House could not be too careful in guarding against the adoption of any course which would excite the slightest suspicion of the tribunal before which election petitions were tried. In his opinion the petition ought not to be received.
§ Mr. Wakley
protested against the opinion put forth by the hon. and learned Member. If the course proposed by him were acted upon, it would lead to the greatest corruption. Petitioners might come forward with pretended petitions with a view of stifling inquiry into corrupt practices, and by this collusion the House would be most grossly imposed upon. He repeated, pretended election petitions would be presented for the purpose of concealing the corruption and excluding the proofs of bribery, while those who took no part in the illegal practices would be shut out from the attention of the House, and thus justice would be denied to them. He thought the course which ought to be pursued was obvious. The hon. and learned Member for Bridgewater assured the House that the allegations of the petition, as far as they concerned himself, were altogether false. Why, then, should they not appoint a Select Committee forthwith to inquire into the allegations of the petitioners, and then the hon. Member and his Colleague would have an opportunity of proving that they were innocent as regarded this charge. He trusted that the petition would be received. Looking at what had been done respecting the getting up election petitions against 476 returns from the sister kingdom, he was surprised at the extreme delicacy of hon. Gentlemen opposite on an occasion like the present.
§ Mr. Goring
thought, that the delicacy adverted to by the hon. Member for Finsbury was not out of place. He could not help feeling that those Gentlemen who supported the proposition of the hon. Member for Liskeard the other evening were not acting consistently when they pressed upon the House such a petition as this, affecting Gentlemen whose returns were petitioned against at the same time.
§ Mr. Ward
, finding the feeling of the House against the reception of these petitions at present, would withdraw them but he begged to add, for the satisfaction of those who had intrusted him with the petition, that he should take another opportunity of presenting the petition from Bridgewater when the election petitions had been disposed of, when the same objection which had that night been urged against it would not apply, and he would then found on it a motion for a Committee of inquiry.