HC Deb 10 June 1841 vol 58 cc1433-42
Lord John Russell

took the opportunity of stating how he meant to proceed with the Bribery at Elections Bill. If he could expect under existing circumstances, to obtain attention to the different clauses in committee, and due deliberation upon the whole subject, he should be very desirous of carrying the measure through its remaining stages. He could hardly hope that such would be the case but he was quite ready to take any course the House might think expedient.

Sir R. Peel

remarked, that he had voted for the second reading, and he was most anxious, that the offences of bribery and treating should be defined, that it might be known what bribery and treating were in the eye of the law. It was material also to consider the propriety of requiring a declaration from parties appointed to offices, in order to make it more secure that they were not given away for services rendered at elections, and thereby converted into a species of bribery. Whatever attempt might be made to define bribery, he hoped it would be a successful one, and that the House would not now adopt a course in that respect which it might at some future time regret. It would be inconvenient to pass a law which it was necessary afterwards to amend. So few days would now elapse before the House was dismissed, that he thought the noble Lord would exercise a sound discretion if he did not press the bill,

Mr. Wynn

thought some portions of the measure valuable, and was unwilling to abandon them, although it would perhaps be better to consider the whole subject together.

Lord John Russell

proposed that the House should resolve itself into committee.

Mr. Wynn

repeated his opinion as to the great value of some of the clauses, particularly those compelling witnesses to give evidence of bribery before election committees. If those clauses were persevered in now, it would, of course, be necessary to give the witnesses indemnity. At present, witnesses before courts of law were protected from the consequences of their evidence, but such was not the case before election committees, where it was even more important. He thought, that these clauses might be separated from the rest of the bill.

Mr. S. O'Brien

urged, that no time could be more proper for passing such a bill than the present, when the country was on the eve of a general election.

Lord John Russell

thought, that the House might now go into committee on those clauses which were admitted to be unobjectionable.

Sir R. H, Inglis

said, his right hon. Friend (Sir R. Peel) had left the House under the impression that the bill would not be proceeded with that evening.

Lord John Russell

said, the right hon. Baronet's objection was to the introduction of a definition of bribery to which the House might not afterwards adhere.

Mr. Wakley

said, he had understood the noble Lord (J. Russell) to say, that he was prepared to go on with the bill if the House were so disposed, and he did not know of any question which could at present occupy the time of the House so advantageously for the country.

Mr. W. Wynn

was of opinion, that the present laws against bribery were sufficiently severe, but the difficulty was to put them in execution, as it was almost impossible to bring the proof home to anybody so as to secure a conviction. To this inconvenience it would be of course exceedingly desirable to apply a remedy.

House in Committee.

The first five clauses were abandoned, other clauses were agreed to.

Mr. W. S. O'Brien

submitted the following clause;— And be it enacted, that every Member returned to serve in Parliament, shall, after taking the oath" prescribed to be taken at the Table of the House of Commons, before he becomes entitled to sit and vote, also make and subscribe the following declaration— ' I do hereby solemnly affirm and declare, that I have not directly or indirectly made use of any bribery for the purpose of being elected at the late election as a Member of this House for the county of (or county of a city, town, or borough, as the case may be).' And be it enacted, that if any person shall make and subscribe such declaration falsely, every such person, being duly convicted thereof, shall incur and suffer such pains, penalties, and disabilities, as persons convicted of wilful and corrupt perjury are by law liable to, and may be prosecuted for the same at any period within five years after he shall have made such declaration.

Clause brought up.

On the question that it be read a second time,

Mr. Warburton

said, his only doubt as to the proposition was, would it be effectual for the purpose and prevent bribery? Would it not have the effect of inducing persons to believe that elections were purer than they really were, and of shrouding corrupt transactions from the public? It would be said, "Can you believe that bribery is practised when a solemn declaration is made that it was not t" He would refer to the sale of commissions in the army. In the general orders and regulations of the army, some years ago, was the form of a declaration respecting the sale of commissions to be made by an officer selling a commission, which was made and certified "on the word and honour of an officer and a gentleman, that the party had not demanded or accepted, would demand or accept, at any time or in any manner whatever, more than the sum limited and fixed by His Majesty's regulations as the full value of a commission." The purchaser made a similar declaration, and the colonel or commanding officer certified to his belief that the regulations had been strictly complied with, and that there had been no private bargain. That had been the regulation in the army; he did not know whether it was so at present. Every one knew, however, that the regulation had not been conformed to in the slightest degree— that it had been considered absolutely a dead letter. Yet officers of the army claimed to be considered as the very pink of honour, and never suffered any aspersion to be cast upon their honour. The case to which he had been calling the attention of the House was not the only one of the kind; there was the oath administered to the Irish clergy of the established church, under the provisions of the 28th of Henry 8th, cap. 15, which was as little attended to as the declaration made on the sale of commissions in the army. In defiance of any declaration of the nature now proposed, agents employed at elections would go to Members after they had been returned and would say that some necessary expenses had been incurred, the precise details of which they could not then set forth; they would state the gross amount, and add, that if the hon. Member intended ever again to become a candidate for the borough, be had better pay the amount, and in that manner would these things be managed. He thought, therefore, that declarations would produce no practical effect. There was no one capable of being influenced by a declaration who would not feel as much bound by the obligation under which every good citizen lay—to observe the laws of the land.

Colonel Sibthorp

had quitted the House some time ago under the impression that the noble Lord did not intend to proceed with the bill. His right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth was under the same impression, and was now absent, because he believed that the bill was not to be proceeded with; he therefore felt bound to protest against going on with the measure. He objected to the bill on this amongst other grounds, that its effect would be to restrain the higher and wealthier classes from aiding their humbler neighbours. If the bill passed into a law, a man could not give 5s. to a charitable assembly without exposing himself to the charge of bribery. He had several objections to make to the earlier clauses of the bill. [The Chairman: They are postponed.] In that case he should reserve any further observations which he might have to make until the report was brought up. He wished now, however, to be distinctly informed by the noble Lord whether he intended to go on with the bill.

Lord J. Russell

said, he was glad that the hon. Member for Lincoln had put that question to him. What he had stated on a former occasion was this, that he would not proceed with the bill if the House, after considering its provisions, desired that it should not reach another stage, and he understood that the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth had agreed to that; but, as the House was then engaged with another bill, the 8peaker had very properly interposed. He had expected to collect the sense of the House as to whether they had better proceed with the measure or not. It had since occurred to him that the latter part of the present bill would form of itself a good measure, and, being separated from the first part, might be introduced as a substantive bill. He thought that tonight they might go on with the bill, as there would at the next stage be an opportunity afforded to the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth to take whatever course he might think the most expedient.

Sir D. Norreys

thought the proposition of his hon. Friend the Member for Limerick a good one, and hoped that he would persist in it.

Mr. E. Turner

thought, that the best form would be an oath taken before the returning officer. The candidate would be pledged before his constituents, and would run a greater risk of detection should he declare falsely.

Colonel Percival

opposed the clause then before the House.

Mr. Hobhouse

concurred in some of the objections which had been taken against the clause, for he thought there was no form of declaration which could be laid on the Table of that House which might not be evaded. However, he thought, besides, there was something unjust in the clause, for it proposed to enact that any person found guilty of an improper declaration should be subjected to a certain penalty. Now that part of it, he conceived, would be unjust in its operation, if the word wilfully was not introduced. When Gentlemen of that House were disposed to put an end to bribery in reality, they had the remedy in their own hands; and if they had so sincerely, nothing would tend more to raise the character of that House, when it was known, that it was no longer to be contaminated by having its seats purchaseable.

Mr. H. Hardinge

wished to know before what tribunal it was proposed that Members of that House should be tried. Was it before a parliamentary committee, which he conceived was a most objectionable course, or in a court of law?

Mr. S. O'Brien

said he thought, that under the clause before the House, any person accused could be tried in the ordinary way.

Mr. Brotherton

said, he would ask the House, whether they really wished to put an end to bribery? He did not think that men could be made honest by act of Parliament. The present bill, however, even if it did not answer all the objects for which it was intended, would have a moral effect on the country. It might be a discouragement to bribery, and make it fashionable for Members of Parliament to be elected without purchasing the votes of their constituents. As to the clause requiring a declaration to be made, that the Member did not nse bribery, he thought there could be no objection to it. The clause could do no harm. There were many who had no fear of doing wrong, who would, however, have a fear of being detected in it, and as the man who was bribed might inform against the briber, such a declaration might be salutary. He was, he confessed, strongly in favour of any plan which would have the effect of effectually putting an end to bribery.

Mr. Wakley

thought the question which the hon. Gentleman who last spoke had put to the House was much more easily asked than answered. For his part, he firmly believed that House was not sincere in its desire of getting rid of those corrupt and infamous practices which went on at elections. There was, in his opinion, but one good cure for bribery, but that was a radical one; that cure was to be found in extending the constituencies, until they became too long for any pocket to reach them. He hoped the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Colonies, would get rid of his sentiments with regard to finality, and more especially from what his recent experience had taught him; and he (Mr. Wakley) trusted that noble Lord would, before long, come forward to propose that radical cure to which he had alluded. The declaration which had been introduced, might give the unscrupulous candidate an advantage over his more conscientious opponent. Besides, there were methods of taking advantage of it. Suppose, for instance, a man before an election put 4,000l. into his banker's hands, and told his agent that this was to be used only for the strict legal expenses of the election; and desired him, moreover, to take care that such directions should be strictly adhered to on account of the declaration which he was to make. Did they think that the agent, whose interest it was to carry the election, would scruple to spend every farthing of that money in bribery because of such an injunction? In conclusion, he would beg the hon. Member for Limerick, not to divide the House upon the clause, and expressed a hope, that the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Colonies, would soon come forward with that radical cure which would be the most effectual means of putting an end to the evil complained of.

Lord J. Russell

could not undertake to give a declaration of any such intention as that which the hon. Member for Finsbury hinted at, because he thought it would be inoperative. With regard to the declaration, the propriety of which they were then discussing, if it had not a good effect, it would do harm; and he confessed that, having given that matter some very serious consideration, he could not persuade himself, that any very useful effect could be produced by this declaration, There were many persons who might not be guilty of any very corrupt practices, who might be unwilling, from conscientious scruples, to take such, a declaration. And with regard to the generality of persons, he feared they might not be at all deterred by such a declaration, but would, after a short time, and when its first terrors bad passed away, consider it, as many other things were considered, as merely a matter of course. He did not think it was expedient to have any new solemn declarations introduced which were not binding. He was by no means prepared to say, that this was a subject which would not be deserving of future consideration, but at present he was not disposed to adopt the clause then before them, and he hoped the House would not now press it.

Mr. S. O'Brien

would divide the committee upon the clause.

Mr. Courtenay

apprehended legislation of that description was totally useless; and moreover, if such a clause as that was introduced, it would be unprecedented in the legislation of this country. He contended, that whenever they legislated uselessly, they legislated mischievously. He opposed the clause.

The committee divided: Ayes 22; Noes 51: Majority 29.

List of the AYES.
Armstrong, A. Pryme, G.
Berkeley, hon. C. Roche, W.
Brocklehurst, J. Rundle, J.
Brotherton, J. Stanley, hon. W. O.
Busfeild, W. Turner, E.
D'Eyncourt, right hon. C. T. Wilde, Sir T.
Williams, W.
Hawes, B. Wood, Sir M.
Heathcoat, J. Wood, B.
Hector, C. J. Yates, J. A.
Humphery, J. TELLERS.
Morris, D. O'Brien, W. S.
Paget, Lord A. Norreys, Sir D.
List of the NOES.
Ainsworth, P. Lowther, J. H.
Attwood, W. Mackenzie, W. F.
Baines, E. Mackinnon, W. A.
Baldwin, C. B. Maunsell, T. P.
Baring, right hn. F. T. Milnes, R. M.
Barnard, E. G. Morrison, J.
Barrington, Viscount Ossulston, Lord
Buller, C. Pakington, J. S.
Clay, W. Palmer, G.
Clements, H. J. Parker, J.
Cochrane, Sir T. J. Perceval, Colonel
Courtenay, P. Pusey, P.
Drummond, H. H. Rae, right hon. Sir W.
Egerton, Sir P. Rutherfurd, rt. hn. A.
Eliot, Lord Sanderson, R.
Evans, W. Sibthorp, Colonel
Gladstone, W. E. Smith, B.
Grey, right hon. Sir G. Thompson, Mr. Ald.
Grimsditch, T. Trench, Sir F.
Hardinge, rt. hn. Sir H. Troubridge, Sir E. T.
Hinde, J. H. Walsh, Sir J.
Hodgson, R. Wilbraham, G.
Inglis, Sir R. H. Winnington, H. J.
Jones, Captain Wood, G. W.
Kemble, H. TELLERS.
Lefroy, right hon. T. Warburton, H.
Listowel. Earl of Hobhouse, T.

Clause rejected.

Mr. S. O'Brien

moved the following clause, of which he had also given notice:— And whereas doubts have arisen whether the payment by candidates of the travelling expenses of electors, and of other expenses necessarily incurred by electors in order to enable them to give their votes at elections, ought to be considered as bribery: Be it enacted, that in case any elector shall reside at a distance of more than five miles from the place of polling at which his vote is received, the payment of the expenses of such elector, by any candidate, shall not be deemed to be bribery, provided that the payment made to each such elector, in consideration of such expenses, shall not exceed an allowance of 5s. for his expenses at the place of poll, with an additional allowance of 6d. per mile for each mile of distance between the place of polling at which the vote of such elector is received, and the place at which such elector usually resides; but any payment to electors for their expenses other than the allowances aforesaid shall be deemed to be bribery under this act.

Sir R. Bateson

suggested, that it would remedy the inconvenience if the English system of having different polling places at convenient distances was introduced into Ireland.

Sir George Grey

reminded his hon. Friend, the Member for Limerick, that the clause which he had proposed would be an infringement of the understanding on which the Bill had gone into committee, that nothing should be introduced defining what constituted bribery.

Mr. S. O'Brien

said, that in consequence of what had fallen from his right hon. Friend (Sir George Grey), he should not persevere in his motion.

Motion withdrawn.

The bill passed through committee.

House resumed.

The report to be further considered.