HC Deb 06 December 1837 vol 39 cc707-17
Lord J. Russell

rose, in pursuance of the notice he had given, to name the days after Christmas when it would be convenient to consider the various election petitions before the House. He should detain the House for a very few moments on this subject, but he felt that he owed some explanation in respect to the answer which he had given to a noble Lord on a previous evening, who begged that an early day might be fixed for these petitions. He would now say at once that, as it was expected that the House would adjourn from the day immediately preceding the Christmas holydays until the 1st of February, he should propose that the first petition on the list should be taken into consideration on the Tuesday following, the 6th of February. On the occasion to which he had referred, he stated to the noble Lord that he had some hesitation as to what course he should pursue in respect to these petitions. He did not wish to provoke a debate on a subject which might be better considered to-morrow night; but he must say, that circumstances had occurred before, during, and after, the late elections, which had caused him to doubt whether or not it might not become necessary to adopt an extraordinary course in reference to these petitions. Threats had been held out in some instances that persons whose return was certain, would be opposed, and that, in case this opposition failed, the returns would be petitioned against. In other cases contests were provoked where there was no chance, of a new candidate succeeding. Immediately after the elections particular reference was made to those of Ireland, and it was openly declared that it was necessary to raise a subscription to set aside the returns from that country; and it was stated this was required, not on the grounds that the Members returned did not represent the people of Ireland, but specially, because they did not agree with the majority of the Representatives of England. These circumstances, combined with others of a similar kind, had induced him to doubt the just operation of that law upon the subject known under the name of the Grenville Act. He was ready to state now, however, that his suspicions as to these circumstances were removed, and he would also acknowledge that no circumstances but those of a very extraordinary nature should induce the House to adopt an unusual course in respect to petitions relating to the seats of Members, or to defer their consideration beyond the time which a due regard for the dignity of the House and the character and claims of the petitioners required. Now, with regard to the number of the election petitions already before the House, they did not seem to exceed in so great a number the amount of former occasions as to warrant the belief that any sinister or peculiar motives had called them forth. In 1831, there were fifty-seven election petitions; after the dissolution of 1832, there were forty-nine; in 1835, there were forty-two; and in the present year, up to the time he was speaking, there were sixty-seven petitions, which was only ten more than the number of petitions in 1831. As far, therefore, as any deductions from numbers could guide him, considering the great number of contests which had taken place in the late election, considering also the narrow majorities which sometimes occurred in the last Parliament, and the very natural desire which existed on the part of the minority to crop that majority, he did not think that the number of election petitions in the present year was such as to warrant any extraordinary measures in regard to them. With respect to the nature of the petitions themselves, he could only say that, up to the present period, he did not perceive that there was any great cluster of petitions of any one particular kind which would make it clear that there had been any combination in order to present them, when no reasonable grounds existed for their complaints, and that they had been presented merely for the purpose of influencing the results of divisions of that House, or for changing the tribunals or altering the names of those who should be called on to decide upon petitions of this kind. Under these circumstances, he should merely move, "That the petition on the election for the county of Roxburgh be taken into consideration on Tuesday, the 6th of February."

Sir R. Peel

rejoiced at the course which the noble Lord had taken, and which entirely precluded the necessity for his making the motion of which he had given notice, in the event that the noble Lord's motion had not been made. He rejoiced, because he thought that the noble Lord had strictly adhered to the uniform course pursued in respect to election petitions, and had thus asserted the undoubted principle that it was the first duty of Parliament to determine who were the representatives of the people. By the course now adopted by the noble Lord, it was declared to the country that the House would proceed, immediately after the recess, to try the election petitions, before the known constitutional authority of Parliament, and therefore all parties concerned in them would hold themselves in readiness to give their attendance, and do all that might be required of them in respect of them at that time. The 6th of February was the day named for the first petition, and the rest on the list must shortly follow in their order, at which time the parties to them must be aware that they would be required to have their witnesses in attendance to submit their cases before the known tribunal appointed to decide upon them. He knew enough of the noble Lord to feel assured that he would not depart, on the present occasion, from the accustomed course of Parliament in these matters. The number of election petitions in 1831 was fifty-seven, and in the present year they were sixty-seven in number, and the noble Lord had justly stated that in the relative numerical proportion of these petitions there was no ground to impeach the bonâ fide origin and intention of the latter. With respect to the parties from whom these petitions emanated, he believed that of the sixty-seven hitherto presented, twenty-seven or twenty-eight came from parties on his side of the House, and thirty-six from parties interested in the opposite side of the question, which, with the fortunate intervention of three from neutral parties, completed the number. The noble Lord had stated that there was no appearance upon the face of the petitions themselves of their having been con- certed by any combination of parties for sinister purposes. He had looked into the petitions emanating from parties on his side of the House, and as far as they were concerned, he could fully bear testimony to the truth of the noble Lord's observations; but if the noble Lord were to look into those proceeding from his own side, he thought the noble Lord might possibly find some grounds to shake his confidence in this matter. The number of petitions naturally bore some relation to the number of contests, and where these contests were nearly balanced, more petitions might be expected than when the elections were carried by more numerous majorities; and he believed that in the late election there had been more contests, and the returns obtained by smaller majorities, than usually was the case. He heartily rejoiced, therefore, that the contingency which had been impending over their heads, and which was the more awful because it had been kept in complete obscurity, had not fallen upon them. He certainly did regret that the noble Lord, as leader of the House of Commons, could ever have supposed that there would have been sufficient grounds to suspend the ordinary course of Parliament in respect of these petitions. Now, whether there were sixty-seven petitions or 150 petitions, provided they had not proceeded from improper motives, the House should not, he thought, be pre vented from pursuing the proper and ordinary course in respect to them, and nothing should be said or done to deter parties from coming before that House with a sincere desire of seeking redress of supposed grievances. For his part, he had never seen the declaration which so much alarmed the noble Lord, that it was the intention of certain parties to question the elections of Ireland on the mere ground that the parties returned differed from the majority of the English Representatives. He could only add that this would have been a most preposterous and unjust ground of opposition, and he could hardly believe it had ever been seriously entertained by any rational man. With respect to the other ground for alarm stated by the noble Lord, he certainly had seen statements calculated to excite an alarm that some of these petitions were presented with a view to prevent certain Members from taking part in the decision upon election petitions. Of course the noble Lord referred to the cor- respondence which had recently taken place between two persons, calling themselves "An Elector," and a "Non-elector," in The Morning Chronicle. It was, doubtless, this correspondence which excited the noble Lord's apprehensions of the fatal result of "a cluster of petitions," to use the noble Lord's expression, and the declaration upon which the noble Lord had built his well-founded alarm, was viewed with the more apprehension, and accepted the more implicitly, because it proceeded from an organ which advocated the noble Lord's own politics. As to the other declaration, he had never seen it; and he heartily rejoiced in the hope that the apprehension of it was ill-founded. He regretted, however, that the noble Lord had suffered himself to be disturbed by vain apprehensions of this kind, and to be induced even to hold out a threat that he would suffer himself to depart from the ordinary course of Parliament in respect to its privileges, and to delay to bring on the consideration of its disputed seats beyond the usual period named for so doing. He hoped the result would operate as a caution to the noble Lord not to give faith to vague communications in newspapers; and that he would not again throw impediments or objections in the way of bonâ fide petitioners to the House of Commons. There was one subject in connexion with this topic to which he wished to advert before he sat down. He referred to the Bill brought in by the hon. Member for Liskeard relating to the trial of controverted elections, and which had now passed its second reading. He hoped that the course this evening pursued by the noble Lord in reference to these election petitions might be understood as a promise that they would not proceed hastily with that Bill. Why, if the present mode of trying election petitions was considered so far satisfactory that the election petitions now before the House were to be tried by it, he could see no occasion for bringing on that Bill. He believed that it was understood that no business of importance would be done after the present week until they re-assembled after the recess. So general, he thought, was this understanding, that the hon. Member for Bridport positively refused to defer his motion respecting the Danish claims to any day after Friday, so impressed was he with the notion that immediately after that day there would be a general flood of Members out of town. If this were the case the hon. Member for Likeard could not hope to obtain that attention to his Bill which the subject of it demanded, and, therefore, he hoped that the hon. Gentleman would consent to defer the future stages of it till after the recess. If, however, the hon. and learned Gentleman did not think proper to accede to this suggestion, he would give notice that he would on Friday next, without at all entering upon the merits of the Bill, but merely because the House would not after that day be in a state to do it justice, move that it be postponed till an early day after the recess, and divide the House on his motion.

Mr. C. Buller

was exceedingly obliged to the right hon. Baronet for having apprised him of the course which he intended to pursue in reference to his Bill. It could not be expected of him to discuss the propriety of that course; but he must say, that he had heard no reason from the right hon. Baronet, except the threat of his opposition, which should prevent him from pursuing the course he had originally intended in reference to a matter to which much public interest was attached, and on which he might say public justice to some extent depended. He should be very sorry to prevent the right hon. Baronet and his Friends from going out of town, but at the same time he must say that he really did not so particularly want their attendance in this matter. As far, however, as the Bill might be benefited by their counsel, he hoped that their engagements were not so very pressing as to prevent their affording their assistance.

Sir R. Peel

said, that the hon. and learned Gentleman had partly mistaken what he had said. The notion of leaving town had not originated with him or with any Gentleman on his side of the House, but with Gentlemen on the other side. He had stated, that so general was this impression amongst Gentlemen on the opposite side that the hon. Member for Bridport had declined to postpone his motion on the Danish claims beyond the present week. Under these circumstances he felt assured that Government would not lend itself to obtain an unfair advantage upon a question of so much importance.

Lord John Russell

said, that however desirous Members might be to get out of town as soon as possible, he thought that, as a matter of public business, it would be of move importance to go on with this Bill before the recess. The object of this Bill was, to see whether they could not devise a better mode of trial for election petitions. He thought they could, and he gave notice that he should move the insertion of a clause, making it imperative on election Committees to appoint a commission to take evidence. If it should turn out that they could find a better mode of proceeding in election cases than the present mode, he could see no reason why it should not be applied as soon as possible. There could be no more reason to postpone this Bill, because there happened to be certain petitions actually awaiting their trial, than there was to postpone the Jury Bill of the right hon. Member, until all the causes then entered for trial before the courts had been disposed of.

Mr. H. Grattan

rejoiced at what had fallen from the noble Lord, and he would ask those who recollected the proceedings at the Carlow and Longford election Committee, whether they would suffer any cause of friend or foe to go before such a tribunal? He called upon the hon. Baronet opposite, to recollect what took place at the Carlow Election Committee in his own presence, where a piece of paper was handed round to the members of the Committee, eight in number, who merely gave a stroke of their pen above or below the name, and the vote was rejected accordingly.

Sir Robert Peel

recollected only once entering the room of the Carlow Election Committee, and then only for half an hour, during the whole of which time the Committee was occupied in listening to the speech of Mr. Thesiger.

Motion agreed to.