HC Deb 13 February 1837 vol 36 cc445-53
Captain Chetwynd

moved, that Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the borough of Stafford, in the room of Sir Francis Holyoake Goodricke, now one of the Members for the southern division of that county.

Mr. Divett

said, that before he moved the amendment of which he had given notice, namely, that the issuing of the new writ for Stafford, should be suspended until ten days after the meeting of Parliament, he should trouble the House with a short history of the transactions with reference to the borough of Stafford. It would be recollected that some years ago, in consequence of the notoriously corrupt practices in this place, a Committee was appointed to make inquiry into the circumstances. The Chairman of that Committee was the hon. Baronet, the Member for Buckingham (Sir Thomas Fremantle); and after a patient investigation, they came to the resolution that the whole system was one of systematic corruption. The resolution was, that it appeared, from the evidence taken before them, that a system of open and undisguised bribery existed in the borough of Stafford, and that therefore, it should cease to return Members to Parliament; and the chairman was ordered to move for leave to bring in a bill to disfranchise the borough. A bill for that purpose was, therefore, brought in, but in consequence of the late period of the Session the Bill was not proceeded with, but in the following one it passed that House, and was sent up to the House of Lords, who, he supposed, could not find time to consider it. Next year, the Bill was carried a second time, almost without opposition, in that House, but it was again consigned to oblivion in that place, where so many other good measures met with the same fate. Before the next meeting of Parliament, a change in the Government took place, which was followed by a dissolution of Parliament. The hon. Member for Buckingham having accepted office under the new Administration, gave up the Bill, upon which he (Mr. Divett) took charge of it. He introduced it, and a third time it passed that House, and was sent up to the House of Lords, and then a discussion was had on it. In the following year, they called evidence on its merits, but the evidence their Lordships called, referred not to the election at which the corrupt practices were proved to have taken place, but they went into an inquiry respecting several previous elections for the borough. The Bill, however, was again rejected—with what motives he would not stop to inquire; but he would remark, that all the allegations stated in this House had been fully borne out. They admitted the necessity of a remedy, but they refused the means. One bill was rejected, because it disfranchised freemen, burgesses, and householders; and another, because it disfranchised the burgesses only. All remedy for the acknowledged corruption was positively refused. It appeared in evidence, that at one election there were 945 voters of Stafford who accepted bribes, while there were only 104 to whom the slightest degree of purity could be imputed. One argument that might be used was, that, as the Reform Bill had infused a vast number of householders into the electoral body, that probably some more purity might now be expected; but the same return showed that, in the householders' list, eighty-five had accepted bribes, and only eighty-two refused them. While there was such an inclination to protect such corruption in another place, he thought it was the duty of that House to take the strongest measures for punishing it within their power; he thought that, in the event of a dissolution, that House would be justified in addressing the Crown to withhold the issuing of any writ to Stafford—at all events, it was their bounden duty to withhold the writ so long as this Parliament lasted, in order to show to the country that that House was determined to punish corruption as severely as possible. He was aware, that it might be objected to his proposition, that there was no precedent for the course he proposed to follow; but he would only say in reply, that, while there was such a manifest disinclination in another place to punish corrupt voters, that House was bound to show that it was determined, by the exercise of any authority it possessed, to endeavour to effect that object. He concluded with moving, as an amendment, that no writ be issued for the election of a Member for Stafford, until ten days after the commencement of the next Session.

Mr. Hodgson Hinde

did not believe that any great advantage would result from longer withholding the issuing the writ for Stafford. More than half of the present constituency of Stafford had never been guilty of the charges laid to them, and he should, therefore, support the motion of the hon. Member for that borough for the issuing of the writ. It was true, the results of the investigation before the House of Lords was, that a very serious number of cases of bribery and corruption existed in Stafford; but, he believed the House would not go the length of disfranchising the borough on that ground. Look to the case of his Majesty's present Attorney-General in that borough; the sum of 2,000l. in that instance was to be paid, provided his election was secured. Who was the greater criminal in this ease, the learned Gentleman who stood high in the country and at the bar, or the poor electors of Stafford? When the conditions accompanying the advance of this sum were considered, there could be no doubt that it was not to be expended for the legitimate expenses of the election. He did not wish to say anything invidious of the hon. and learned Member for the course he had pursued—that the hon. and learned Gentleman had been promoted to the highest legal office which a commoner could enjoy; and more than that, although no peerage had consoled him, in the words that had once been applied to a countryman of his own, it might be said to him, "Thou shalt beget peers, though thou shalt not be peer thyself." [Cries of "Order."] If he was not speaking facts, he would submit to the decision of the Chair. In conclusion, he would only say, that if the hon. Member for Exeter would include in his Bill those who were the givers of bribes, and exempt the 300 voters who were not bribed on any former election, but had since been created, he should have his support. But if he would visit with vengeance the constituency of the borough who had not been bribed, he would meet out one measure of justice for the briber, and another for the poor persons who had accepted bribes.

Captain Chetwynd

was satisfied that the hon. Gentleman who spoke last, could not have read the evidence given at the bar of the other House. The question before the House was, whether a writ should be issued or not, and not as to the innocence or guilt of the borough. He was surprised at the arguments that had fallen from the hon. Member for Exeter. He had stated the number of Bills that had been introduced in that House, and sent up to the House of Lords. It was true, that that House had passed four Bills, and when the fourth was sent up to the other House, in the Session of 1836, it made a strong impression, and the other House thought there must be some ground for so many bills on the same subject. That House instituted a full inquiry into the subject. The evidence was taken upon oath, which was the most likely means to elicit the truth. The Bill was conducted, and the evidence in support of it was examined by one of the most rising and able advocates at the bar, it was conducted before the highest legal authorities, and after being continued far six weeks, their Lordships came to the conclusion, that the allegations contained in the Bill had not been supported, and that the accusations against the borough could not be substantiated, and were not borne out by the evidence. Under such circumstances, he submitted to the House, and he did this with some degree of confidence, that the borough of Stafford stood fully acquitted of the charges brought against it. It stood in the same position as a person accused of crimes or misdemeanours, who was taken before a magistrate, committed, put upon his trial, had the case fully and fairly inquired into, and was acquitted by a jury of his countrymen. Under such circumstances, such a person would be entitled to have all the privileges and advantages of an innocent man. In such a situation stood the borough of Stafford. There was no accusation against the borough at present—there was no accuser even. There was no Bill of Pains or Penalties brought forward. What was the House called upon to do? The hon. Member for Exeter said, that not being satisfied with the evidence given elsewhere, he would still continue to punish the borough. Nothing could be more unjust, and he was astonished that the hon. Member for Exeter, professing, as he did, liberal principles, should still wish to persecute (for he could not use a milder term) the burgesses of the borough of Stafford. He trusted the House would, by its vote, prove distinctly that it never would be their practice to punish the innocent, but that they would show that that justice which ought to be dealt out with an equal hand to every body should be afforded to the borough of Stafford.

Mr. Hall

stated, that he had listened to the facts brought forward by the hon. Member for Newcastle, and had upon those facts come to a directly contrary conclusion from the one adopted by that hon. Member. He thought that the House would abandon its duty if it issued a writ to such a notoriously corrupt place as that borough was proved to be. The question was not whether the Attorney-General or some Tory Member had been guilty of corruption, but whether the electors of Stafford should be enabled to receive bribes? If a Bill were again brought forward for the disfranchisement of the borough, he was certain it would meet with the support of the House, and he seriously trusted that the borough would be ultimately disfranchised.

Sir Thomas Fremantle

said, that as he had devoted some attention to the particulars of the Stafford case, perhaps he might be allowed to state shortly to the House the reasons which led him to give the vote which it was his intention to give on the present occasion. It was extremely grating to his feelings to be obliged to differ from other hon. Members, but he felt that he could not vote for the amendment. The evidence which had been delivered before the House of Lords did not in the slightest degree alter the opinion which he had formerly entertained with respect to the corruption of the electors of Stafford, and he was prepared to say that he very much regretted that a measure for the disfranchisement of the borough had not passed into a law. It was unfortunate that various circumstances should have interposed in the way of the success of such a measure. A Bill for the disfranchisement of Stafford was taken up to the House of Lords more than two years ago, along with two other Bills—a Bill for the disfranchisement of Warwick, and another for the disfranchisement of Hertford. These Bills were considered by some parties as of more political importance than the Bill for the disfranchisement of Stafford, and therefore they were taken up first; but if he had been permitted to deal with the Stafford Bill at once, he had no doubt that it would have passed into a law. At the same time, he must say that the case was now very much altered. A great change had taken place in the constituency of the borough. He was satisfied that a large proportion of the freemen had ceased to be on the register. New buildings had been erected, and a new constituency had grown up. But the question of time formed an element in the consideration of the subject, which was of very great importance. He particularly insisted on this point, because the other evening, when a letter of the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny was being read, the hon. and learned Member said, "Oh! but that was in 1830." It was admitted, therefore, on the other side of the House that the question of time was one of consequence. The real subject matter for their deliberation was, whether if a Bill were brought forward for the disfranchisement of Stafford there was a reasonable prospect of carrying the Bill. If his hon. Friend, the Member for Exeter, was prepared to say that he was ready to bring in a Bill for that purpose, and that there was a reasonable prospect of carrying it, then he would vote for suspending the writ until the end of this Parliament; but on the grounds on which his hon. Friend had placed the amendment, he could not in justice to his own feelings, and in accordance with his sense of duty, vote for it. His hon. Friend said, that the right course to pursue, would be to address the Crown, praying that it would not issue a writ for the borough of Stafford again. But his hon. Friend did not take that course, and the reason he assigned for not adopting it was, that it would be inconsistent with the principles of the constitution. Now, he would ask his hon. Friend whether the continued suspension of the writ would not, under the circumstances of the case, be equally inconsistent with the principles of the constitution? This matter was of far too much importance to be trifled with. It ought not to be dealt with in a spirit of party jealousy or petty personal feeling. The voters, had, unquestionably, been guilty of corruption, but as a considerable change had taken place among the constituency, and believing, as he did, that the time which had elapsed ought to be taken into consideration, he should vote for the original motion—that the writ do issue.

Mr. Robinson

observed, that as an attempt would probably be made to fasten imputations on those who intended to vote as he did, for the issuing of the writ, it was desirable that he should be allowed to state the grounds on which he had made up his mind. In his opinion, no sufficient reason had been shown for the suspension of the writ. The only Parliamentary grounds for such a course, were, that judicial proceedings were actually pending. So long as the House of Lords had a concurrent jurisdiction with that House upon questions of this nature, their consent must be obtained; and if the House of Commons thought proper to suspend the issuing of a writ after an investigation by both Houses, they would virtually deny the authority of the House of Lords. What was the case with Penryn? The House of Commons declared that the electors of Penryn had been guilty of corruption, and a Bill for their disfranchisement passed through that House, but the Lords differed from them, and a new writ was subsequently issued. It was, therefore, upon grounds purely constitutional, and not from any doubt whatever that he entertained as to the facts of bribery and corruption having taken place at elections for Stafford, that he should vote for the issuing of the writ.

Mr. Buckingham

said, as he intended to vote for the issue of the writ, he hoped the House would allow him to explain the grounds on which he should feel it his duty to do so, as they would perhaps be somewhat different from those taken by hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side. He was as much opposed to bribery and corruption as any man: and would visit it, wherever found, with punishment and shame; at the same time, it was the duty of the House not to be led by its abhorrence of one kind of injustice into the commission of another. If the motion had been for unseating the Member who had obtained his majority by bribery, and disqualifying him for ever from sitting in Parliament, such a motion should have his cordial assent. If it had been for disfranchising those voters only against whom bribery had been proved, and disqualifying them for ever from the exercise of the elective franchise, he would cordially support such a proposition. But the present was no such measure—it was one that confounded the innocent with the guilty, and that even punished the innocent for the guilty, a proceeding to which he would never give his assent. The whole argument for the suspension of the writ, was founded in a gross fallacy. It was said "Stafford has been guilty of bribery, therefore let Stafford be disfranchised." Now if Stafford were a man, who had perverted his electoral privilege to unworthy purposes, this would be a reasonable sentence, since the identity of the criminal being continued, it would be proper that he should be punished. But Stafford is a town, containing many hundreds of men, some innocent, some guilty—and these so changing every year, that the identity of Stafford, as it regards its inhabitants, is not continuous for even half that period. It is now some years since the bribery alleged took place. A large number of the electors of Stafford were exempt from the guilt of this transaction at the time. Very many of those who were guilty, are since dead; and every year there has been a new accession to the numbers of the persons coming of age, and occupying houses, which would qualify them for voting:—so that while at first only a portion of the inhabitants were guilty, that portion has been lessened every year, and the number of the innocent coming to the state fit for exercising the franchise has been increasing. Now, if the House suspends the writ still further, it will in effect be saying, that because some few electors some years ago accepted bribes from candidates, therefore, we will punish, by the deprivation of their franchise, all those who were not guilty of bribery then, all those who have arrived at the possession of a good qualification since, and all those who may in every succeeding year, become possessed of an elector's qualification in the town of Stafford in all time to come—an injustice so palpable that no man of reflection could fail to perceive it. Let the House punish those who gave the bribes and those who received them—but let not the innocent suffer for the guilty. Let the franchise be extended, and the ballot introduced, and bribery will soon cease. But as an unjust vote is as bad as a bribe, he would condemn them both, and never be induced either to give the one or receive the other; nor would he consent to punish the innocent for the guilty, however much his motives might be called in question: because he who had not the courage to act as he thought right, without reference to party, was unworthy the honour of being a representative in a free assembly.

The House divided on the original motion:—Ayes 152; Noes 151: Majority 1.

The writ ordered to be issued.