HC Deb 22 February 1838 vol 41 cc40-6
Mr. Slaney

moved for leave to bring in a bill to prevent threat or attempts at intimidation to voters to influence their votes for Members of Parliament. As to the necessity of some measure on this subject all seemed to agree. The intimidation Committee had shown, that there was not a single part of England which did not afford evidence of the necessity of devising some mode for the protection of the voter in the honest exercise of the franchise. Many of his friends thought that the protection of the ballot would ensure that object; but he had lately by his vote proved that he could not in his conscience sanction that opinion. He was persuaded, however, of the necessity of checking that intimidation which was known to prevail so widely. An extensive alteration as to the possessors of the franchise was effected by the Reform Bill. In this system abuses had grown up which it was essential to check. With this view he had introduced the present measure. It was impolitic, he conceived, that any bill which it was wished to make effectual should be so severe as to have the general opinion of mankind run counter to it. He had, therefore, endeavoured to frame such a measure as, while it visited the offence, affixed to it only such a punishment as should ensure the attainment of the object he had in view by the general concurrence. He intended that any landlord, customer, master, or any other person who should in any form or way interfere with the independent exercise of the franchise, should be considered guilty of a misdemeanour. He meant, next, that any person so offending should be liable to be convicted before two magistrates, or indicted at the Sessions before a jury. If taken before two magistrates he should have the power of appealing to the Sessions, not to the bench of magistrates, but to a trial by jury. Should he be convicted, he would be liable to a fine of 100l. with a power of mitigation, a under special circumstances, to 50l. The person intimidated he intended should be a competent witness; and if he were a voter he might have half the fine paid over to him. The proceeding on this measure was limited to six months after the period when the offence was committed. He did not pretend to say, that such a measure would altogether prevent, but he thought it well calculated to diminish, the number of offences committed on the ground of intimidation.

Mr. Warburton

said, that when the ballot was under discussion the other evening, the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) had used intelligible arguments against it, to which he was willing to accede the commendation of sincerity. But when the hon. Gentleman proposed a bill to prevent, by penalties the practice of intimidation, he looked upon it to be just as impossible a problem in politics or morals as the squaring a circle in geometry, or perpetual motion in mechanics. When a person now voted contrary to the wish of his customer was he told the reason why that custom was withdrawn? When no reason was alleged, now that no penalty existed, was it likely that there would be, when it was made a penal offence. Such a measure was a mockery of legislation.

Mr. P. Howard

thought, that no measure on this subject which did not emanate from the Government, or which was not founded on the report of the Intimidation Committee, would be well received by the House. He should therefore be inclined, if he were supported by the House, to resist the introduction of this Bill.

Mr. Hume

begged to ask his hon. Friend one question. Suppose a steward were to attend an election (which they had too good reason to suspect was the case at the late elections), for the purpose of influencing by his presence the vote of the elector, was he to be considered liable to the penalties of the Act?

Mr. Slaney

begged that his hon. Friend would allow him to introduce his Bill, and see how far the phraseology met the object which he contemplated.

Mr. Hawes

was of opinion, that instead of attempting to put down intimidation by penalties, they should give the voter the privilege by allowing him to conceal his vote, of acting as he thought fit. He was not averse to a remedy for intimidation; but instead of this being a bill to put down intimidation, it was a bill to promote vexatious informations.

Lord John Russell

felt, that what had passed that evening proved what he had stated the other night, that if any other remedy than that then submitted were proposed, the greatest discontent would be expressed with regard to it, and every proof would be given that there was only one efficient remedy for the evils complained of. He would not deny, that there was a great deal of truth in what his hon. Friend, the Member for Bridport, had said. He readily believed, that it could not be shown that intimidation was used beforehand, and yet that the voter suffered a penalty consequent on the discovery that he exercised his franchise contrary to the wish of those who possessed control over his acts. At the same time he owned he was disposed to attach some value to the declarations of Parliament on this subject. Much the same objection might be urged with respect to bribery. Supposing that a person was ready to offer a bribe, and a voter to give his vote to the highest bidder for it; if this transaction were conducted secretly, it would be extremely difficult by any law or penalty to prevent this act of bribery. Yet, if no laws existed against bribery, it would prevail to a far greater extent than it now existed. He had suggested to his hon. Friend, when he saw on the paper this notice to bring in a bill, that it would be a more proper way to preface it by resolutions of that House. They had resolutions with respect to bribery; and they had a Committee with regard to bribery and intimidation, which found no difficulty in the investigation or proof of these evils; and he, therefore, was persuaded that resolutions in accordance with the law and the well-known institutions of the country must themselves make some impression as a declaration of the sense of that House, and must form a more proper foundation for any measure than the authority of an individual Member. Being, however, convinced that great evil existed from the manner in which intimidation was practised, and it being the opinion of the hon. Gentleman that some good might be accomplished by his Bill, he could not give a vote against its introduction. He hoped that the House would not so far discountenance an attempt of this kind as to refuse to examine the provisions of this measure.

Mr. Scarlett

admitted, that intimidation was odious. He was disposed to think, however, that hon. Gentlemen drew on their imagination too largely with respect to the intimidation of voters. He had some experience in elections, and he found that the more attempts were made to intimidate the voter the less they succeeded. In order to make the voter perfectly independent, a higher qualification ought to be exacted.

Sir George Strickland

thought, that the House ought to be allowed an opportunity of discussing some less objectionable mode than the ballot of preventing the evil of intimidation. He should, therefore, support the motion for leave to bring in the Bill.

Mr. Jervis

was altogether hostile to the proposition. To correct the evil complained of, the tribunal proposed to be erected by this Bill was the worst that could possibly be devised. Two magistrates, with a jury of farmers! These were the parties to determine whether any intimidation had been practised by landlords. The noble Lord had endeavoured to draw an analogy between intimidation and bribery. There was no analogy between the two. Bribery was a positive act, and consequently open to detection; whereas intimidation might be practised in a thousand ways without the possibility of detection. The only efficient protection to the voter was the right of secret voting. With these views upon the subject, although he admitted the course to be an unusual one, he should certainly vote against the motion for leave to introduce the Bill.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that resistance to the introduction of a bill was not only unusual, but in this instance, he thought, unjustifiable. He thought the proposition a very reasonable one for the House to entertain. The evil of intimidation was admitted on all hands: therefore it became the duty of the House to inquire whether some practical remedy could not be devised. If the provisions of the Bill now proposed should appear not to afford a practical remedy, it might be rejected upon the second reading. If the House refused to entertain the Bill at all, it must rest its resistance to it upon one of two grounds—either that it did not believe the existence of the evil, or else that there was no remedy for the evil except the ballot. He was not prepared to declare in the affirmative of either of these propositions. If the House rejected the motion for the introduction of the Bill, the natural inference would be, that it did not wish to prevent intimidation.

Mr. Brotherton

hoped, that the hon. Gentleman would be allowed to bring in the bill. He thought that the mere circumstance of such a measure being introduced and discussed by the House might possibly have so great a moral influence in the country as to prevent the necessity of resorting to the ballot.

Mr. Gillon

considered, that the suggestions of the noble Lord with respect to a resolution of that House would be of no avail. The resolutions that were passed every Session were quite farcical. In spite of the resolutions of that House it was now scarcely attempted to be disguised that Peers interfered in the elections of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Forbes

suggested, that the bill should have a clause introduced to protect voters from intimidation by blows. In his opinion, that kind of intimidation was a very effective one, and the bill would be useless without it. He should not oppose the motion if it came to a division.

Colonel Sibthorp

was satisfied that no efficient remedy could be applied to prevent the evil, unless a curb were put upon the influence and control of the Government. An instance had occurred within the last few days. It was currently reported, as well out of the House, as within its walls, that in consequence of what took place upon the debate on the ballot a scene occurred in the Cabinet, which for a time placed all the members of it completely at sixes and sevens. It was currently reported that something like an altercation took place, and that one noble Lord, exercising a vast portion of the influence of the ministry, said to another noble Lord, "Either you or I must go out." This produced the necessary obedience. But if such an exertion of influence had its effect in the very cabinet itself, composed, of course, of men of strong and high minds, how much more powerful must it be when applied to persons in less eminent situations? It was often difficult to know what was meant by bribery and intimidation. He had been charged with both, because he had performed common acts of charity, and discharged what he considered to be his duty to his fellow creatures. Benevovolence extended to the widows of deceased voters, from whom he asked no favour in return, had been magnified into the grossest bribery and corruption. He should not object to the introduction of the present bill, but unless a clause were introduced to prevent the exercise of the influence of the Government at elections, he thought that it would be productive of little good.

Sir George Sinclair

should certainly oppose the introduction of the bill, because he thought nothing so likely to countenance and increase the evil as the adoption of an insufficient and futile remedy.

The Attorney-General

thought, that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury would be very hardly dealt by if he were not allowed to bring in the bill. When the hon. Member rose to propose it there was a general cry of "move, move!" from all sides of the House, from which the natural inference to be drawn was, that the House was disposed to receive the proposition by general acclamation. It was not until the hon. Gentleman, at the request of the hon. Member for Bridport, had given a very brief outline of his plan, that any opposition was manifested. He did not think this a right course of proceeding. He by no means pledged himself to sup- port the bill in its future stages, but he should certainly vote in favour of the motion for leave to bring it in.

Lord George Bentinck

thought, the nostrum proposed in this bill so nauseous and inefficient that the time of the House ought not to be wasted in going into a second discussion. He should therefore vote against its introduction.

The House divided:—Ayes 50; Noes 23: Majority 27.

List of the AYES.
Acland, Sir T. D. Lennox, Lord G.
Acland, T. D. Lennox, Lord A.
Aglionby, H. A. Lowther, J. H.
Baines, E. Marsland, T.
Baring, F. T. Morpeth, Viscount
Blewitt, R. J. Morris, D.
Boldero, H. G. Murray, rt. hon. J. A.
Borthwick, P. Palmerston, Viscount
Brotherton, J. Pease, J.
Busfeild, W. Pechell, Captain
Campbell, Sir J. Plumptre, J. P.
Darlington, Earl of Pringle, A.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Rice, rt. hon. T. S.
Duncombe, T. Russell, Lord J.
Evans, W. Seymour, Lord
Farnham, E. B. Sibthorp, Colonel
Finch, F. Smith, R. V.
Forbes, W. Steuart, R.
Gaskell, Jas. Milnes Stuart, H.
Gladstone, W. E. Talfourd, Sergeant
Grey, Sir G. Williams, W.
Grimsditch, T. Wood, G. W.
Hastie, A. Yates, J. A.
Hobhouse, T. B.
Hodgson, R. TELLERS.
Hughes, W. B. Slaney, R. A.
Lascelles, hon. W. S. Strickland, Sir G.
List of the NOES
Aglionby, Major James, W.
Bagge, W. Jervis, J.
Beamish, F. B. Langdale, hon. C.
Blake, M. J. Litton, E.
Chalmers, P. Molesworth, Sir W.
Davies, Colonel Stewart, J.
Gibson, T. Thornley, T.
Gillon, W. D. Vigors, N. A.
Goring, H. D. Wallace, R.
Hawes, B. Warburton, H.
Howard, P. H. TELLERS.
Hume, J. Bentinck, Lord G.
Inglis, Sir R. H. Sinclair, Sir G.

Leave given.