HC Deb 28 May 1840 vol 54 cc674-81
Lord J. Russell

said, there was one question on which, when he last addressed the House, he had not fully made up his mind, but on which he had since fully satisfied himself. It would, therefore, form one of the provisions of the bill which he should now ask leave to introduce. He intended to provide, that if bribery and treating, or if bribery, or if treating, were going on before an election, any one might give notice that such and such a candidate, by himself or his agents, was carrying on bribery and treating, one or both, and if that were proved before an Election Committee, such candidate should be disqualified, as a contractor or any one who had no qualification would be disqualified by an Election Committee. It very frequently occurred, that the one party having begun the practice of bribery in order by gaining a sufficient number of voles to turn the election, the other party immediately resorted to the same means, they bad against each other, every sort of corrupt artifice was used to carry the election, and, whoever might gain the day, both parties felt themselves so committed, that it was impossible for the defeated candidate to proceed against the other. But it sometimes happened, that a person standing on perfectly fair and just grounds, was defeated by means of bribery. He thought, that in such cases the most effectual measure that could be taken would be to say, that the person who so acted, and who was proved guilty either by himself or his agents before an Election Committee, should be disqualified, and that an interest should be given to some party in the borough not implicated in the corrupt practices to proceed before an Election Committee. Too often such practices as he had spoken of were quite notorious; it was known to everybody that an election had been carried by the unsparing use of large bribes, and yet there was no person to complain; nobody said a word against the election, and whichever party gained the day, the representation of the people through that House was sullied and corrupted. He therefore should propose a clause in the bill to the effect he had stated. On a former occasion he had gone with some minuteness into the details of the measure. He would therefore say no more with respect to them at present, as he thought they would be better understood by studying the bill itself. He knew, that this subject had long occupied the attention of the right hon. Gentleman, whom he was glad to see opposite. He believed the right hon. Gentleman, so early as 1810, had introduced a bill on the subject, and had since that time frequently brought it before the House. He trusted, that when the bill was brought in, the right hon. Gentleman would give it his attention, and he should be happy to receive from him any suggestions for its improvement. He begged to move for leave to bring in a bill for the better prevention of bribery and treating at elections of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Williams Wynn

said, that as to the main provisions of the bill, as announced by the noble Lord, he hoped it was not necessary for him to say, that he should cheerfully support them; but he had great doubts as to the propriety of seating a person, having a minority of voles, who should give notice that the agents of the opposite candidate had been guilty of bribery: such a proceeding would interfere with the rights of the electors, and he thought it might lead to dangerous consequences. The electors could not have the slightest means of ascertaining whether or not the accusation was well founded. In every case where an election was going on, a candidate could try the experiment and give notice against his opponent for the chance of gaining the seat. That would at least alarm the electors, as it would be an intimation that their votes for his opponent would be thrown away. The effect might thus be to deter a great number of the electors from recording their votes. He should be most ready to concur in any provisions which would discourage corrupt practices, but he very much feared, that to adopt the provisions of which he had spoken would be more dangerous than to leave the law as it now stood.

Mr. Warburton

remarked, that unless the bill of the noble lord made provision for setting on foot an investigation into the complaints of electors, independently of the candidates, it would not reach the majority of cases which occurred. [Lord J. Russell: That is included.] He was very glad to hear it, but he feared that so long as open voting was continued, no means for putting down corrupt practices would be effective.

Colonel Sibthorpe

hoped that the noble Lord's bill would contain a strict definition of bribery, for during the many years he had had the honour of a seat in that. House, he had never known what bribery was. He wished to ask—nay, he had been requested to ask—whether the right, he might say the imperative duty, of exercising hospitality was to come under the denomination of bribery. Suppose, foe instance, a respectable tradesman might wait on him for the purpose of tendering his vote at a distance of seven miles. Was he to be guilty of bribery if he asked that individual under his roof, and invited him to sit down at his humble dinner?

Sir R. Peel

observed, that this subject was one of extreme difficulty to legislate upon. All were desirous of preventing bribery, but while they wished, if possible, to detect and punish the guilty, they ought to see that advantage was not taken of acts which were innocent in themselves. Suppose that an election committee, having adjudicated on the individual claim before it, were to present a special report to the House, that circumstances had appeared which demanded further investigation, as affecting the general character of the body, and perhaps laying the foundation for a measure of disfranchisement, the House might in such a case give power to the committee to continue the investigation on public grounds, and at the public expense. It would be desirable that the committee should retain the same power which it now had for the purpose of conducting the private investigation of examining on oath. He could not help thinking that the disclosure of disgraceful conduct would have a very powerful effect in repressing such practices. As to bribery, he apprehended there could be no doubt that any effectual law framed for the purpose of preventing it should receive the support of the House. It appeared to him that this was a subject of much less difficulty than the law of treating, and if it were possible clearly to define bribery, so that persons might with a perfectly safe conscience take an oath, he should be very much disposed to require the parties to disclaim upon oath any participation in it. He thought this might be adviseable if no other remedy should be found effectual, although he had strong objections to the unnecessary multiplication of oaths. The offence, however, must be clearly specified and defined, otherwise persons who had been guilty of no improper act, but had dispensed their charity liberally in their neighbourhoods, might be deterred from taking; the oath. It was quite possible that a man might be open to no imputation of corruption, who might have recommended himself to a borough by virtuous actions, and by the good offices which his station enabled him to dispense. Such a person might have great difficulty in taking an oath to the effect supposed if it were not carefully framed. He agreed with his right hon. Friend near him in thinking that the noble lord's provision of making it competent to a party, by giving notice to the electors, to disqualify the candidate who should have the majority of votes, and get himself returned by a majority, would require great consideration. Supposing that the bribery was going on boldly, perhaps there might be no objection, but it would lead to evasions and frauds of all kinds. He was afraid that the accusation of bribery by one candidate against another would be almost universal, and this would inevitably lead to retaliation from his opponent. It would not be wise to encourage such vague allegations. If it were possible to attach a penalty to a perfectly frivolous accusation, they might check the practice, but it would be difficult to make such a regulation. It was quite obvious that it was the interest of all the Members of that House to have some definite law. As the law now stood no man was safe. Treating often took place without a dishonest intention, and it was by no means uncommon for two candidates to come to an agreement mutually to permit it. Any third person, however, might give notice against this agreement, and render it of no avail. If the noble lord aimed at too much, the law could not be executed. But it was a matter which seemed to him to be worthy of consideration, whether the noble lord could not say that within a certain period before and after the election, there should be no treating, except in cases where the voter came from some distance, say six or seven miles, when a certain allowance, just sufficient for his sustenance, might be made to him, and if that were exceeded, then the voter should be disqualified. For his own part, within that specified period, provided the bill did not lay traps and snares for honourable men, who were not to be prevented from exercising innocent hospitality, he thought the effect of the measure would be beneficial. He therefore should give his most cordial approbation to the object at which the noble lord aimed. He thought it impossible not to feel that bribery or corruption was most disgraceful, bringing discredit not only on those who sanctioned, but also on the whole British House of Commons, and lowering its character, not only in this country, but in every other. He did not wish to give occasion to any discussion on the ballot, but he must say, that he did not see how bribery could be prevented by the ballot: however, he would not provoke discussion on that point. He approved of the object of the noble lord, although he thought that the subject was full of difficulty, and in conclusion he would express his earnest hope that all parties in the House, feeling that their own character was concerned, would exert their utmost endeavours to remove from the electoral system the stigma of bribery and corruption.

Colonel Wood

said, that if the provisions of the bill were applied to counties, one halt of the electors would be disfranchised. A different measure, therefore, should be introduced for counties. Some electors, working men, came ten or fifteen miles to poll, and it was absurd to say that they should not have refreshment. If that were prohibited, the electors would decline to register, he had no doubt. He trusted, therefore, that some mode of legalizing reasonable refreshment would be adopted for counties. If no other was propounded, he would take the liberty of suggesting to the noble Lord, that the sheriffs should have the power of ordering refreshments for the voters and charging it to the candidate. If something of that kind were not done, the consequences in counties would be deeply injurious.

Mr. E. Turner

said, that the elector ought not to have the franchise if he did not choose to exercise it without the hope of favour or reward. It was otherwise derogatory to him, and disgraceful as well as injurious. Members of Parliament incurred great expense in attending to their duties, and he did not see why the electors should be rewarded for exercising their rights. He could not, therefore, agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman who had just sat down, that there should be any distinction drawn as regarded treating between borough and county electors.

Sir C. Knightley

said, the case of a poor man going to an election was well worth taking into consideration. He might have to walk fourteen or fifteen miles, and lose his day's work. It was material, that the poor electors should receive some kind of refreshment, because they could not afford to make sacrifices, as county Members could, for the service of their country.

Mr. Baines

thought that the best way of preventing bribery and treating was to limit the time of election to one day. The great mischief occurred during the fatal night between the two days. He feared that no modification of treating could consistently be permitted or enjoined in favour of the poor, as proposed by the right hon. Baronet. His noble Friend, the Member for the West Riding of Yorkshire, had 28,000 constituents, many of whom came a distance to vote for him, and it would be a heavy drain on his purse if he gave a dinner to one-half of them.

Leave given.