HC Deb 29 July 1842 vol 65 cc861-9
Mr. S. Crawford

said, that in moving that a new writ should issue for the borough of Nottingham, he wished to call the attention of the House to the reasons which induced him to take an interest in this question. A petition had been committed to his charge, signed by 1,700 electors and inhabitants of the borough of Nottingham, which petition he presented to the House last week. This petition complained of the grievance which the borough of Nottingham suffered in not being permitted to have its due proportion of Members during the discussion of most important measures relative to the interests of the country. The petitioners prayed the House immediately to issue a writ to supply the deficiency in the case of Nottingham. Those who did him the honour to intrust this petition to his hands, requested that he would make a motion founded on that petition, that a new writ be issued for the borough of Nottingham. In making this motion, he should not trespass on the time of the House by offering many observations, but he thought it right to submit a very few points to the consideration of the House. He admitted, that this question should be viewed as a general one with reference to the writs of other boroughs in a similar situation, and he conceived, that the House was in a position which did not justify it in any longer withholding the writs from those boroughs, and from the particular borough in whose behalf lie now spoke. He was the last person to give any countenance to those practices which the report of the Election Proceedings Committee had disclosed, and he conceived, that he was authorised to say, for those on whose part he was now endeavouring to persuade the House to issue the writ for Nottingham, that they disapproved of such practices as much as any Member of that House could. He conceived, that the object of the petitioners was not to promote any corrupt practices or improper compromises, but that they wished by the fair exercise of the elective franchise, to defeat any corrupt return or practice. He felt he was justified in saying, that the persons who signed the petition he presented would not, whatever candidate they might support, permit any unlawful practices, but would rather suffer the election to be lost, than join in such practices, trusting to an appeal to that House to set them right. Such he believed to be the sentiments of the petitioners whose petition he had presented; and he thought there could be no reason for withholding the writ, except it were to punish the borough, to disfranchise it, or to suspend the writ until a remedy were adopted. Now, the report of the Election Proceedings Committee itself conveyed the impression, that it was not the object of the House to enact a punishment as the result of that report; but, nevertheless, if they continued to suspend these writs, they would be practically punishing the electors without their being tried. Another motive for suspending the writs might be suggested—namely, that some remedial measure should be adopted, previous to their issue. There was a bill in progress through the House, the object of which was to provide a remedy against corrupt practices, but he wished the House to observe, that that bill would, by the 19th clause, operate on the elections. The 19th clause provided that all the provisions of the act should apply to any election which might have taken place, or might take place, after the 1st of June. Therefore this bill, if it should pass the Legislature, would apply to any election for the borough of Nottingham. Under these circumstances it would not appear just any longer to with hold the issue of the writ for the borough of Nottingham. If it was the intention of the House to disfranchise the borough, then let an open course be taken for the purpose of disfranchisement; but let not the House practically disfranchise the borough without taking the regular means for doing so. He should not contend whether the borough ought to be disfranchised or not; but he was undoubtedly of opinion that the House ought not practically to disfranchise the borough in the manner he had described. He would not further trespass on the time of the House. His object had been to state his motive for moving for the issue of the writ, and he should reserve to himself the right to reply, should a reply be rendered necessary by any observations in opposition to his motion. He now moved That the Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the election of a burgess to serve in the present Parliament for the borough of Nottingham, in the room of Sir George Gerard de Hochepied Larpent.

Mr. Hume

said, he was one of those who voted against the writ being issued on a former occasion, but after the proceedings of last night, when the House stultified itself, he thought there was no use in refusing the issue of the writ any longer. He had expected that the right hon. Baronet opposite, consistently with the opinion he expressed when the hon. Member for Bath moved for a committee of inquiry, would not have stopped short of declaring that the practices for which the Nottingham writ had been temporarily suspended were an offenee against the privileges of the House. But the right hon. Baronet had concurred with the majority in thinking that they ought not to express any opinion as to whether those practices were a violation of the liberties of the people, and a breach of the privileges of the House. The majority of the House having so acted, he now thought it better that the whole of the writs should be issued without further delay. This was acting fairer than holding out to the public the pretence that they were desirous of punishing and correcting those abuses. They had fallen far short of that, and he for one was unwilling to be a party to hold out the appearance of doing something and yet to do nothing.

Mr. Bernal

said, that if he had been present last night he should not have voted in favour of the resolutions of the hon. Member for Bath. He thought it was perfectly idle (and so far he agreed with the hon. Member for Montrose) to suspend this writ for Nottingham, or the other writs for other places, which had been hung up lately in that House; but there was another more important consideration. He was not one of those who looked with so much horror at these compromises which were spoken of; he would not throw stones at the unfortunate people who had been the victims of these disclosures; but there was another matter which affected him-more deeply, and which filled his mind with disgust, fear, and apprehension for the consequences. He feared that that House might accumulate about itself more disrespect than it was at present subject to, in consequence of the result of that committee, which had been moved for by the hon. Member for Bath, and in consequence of the facts there detailed in evidence. He knew well enough that the existence of those circumstances were suspected before; but now that they were dressed up with the authority of the House, they assumed a different aspect in the eyes of the people. Taking the case of Nottingham, he found that 16,0001. or 17,0001. had been spent in that election, though it was concluded in the short space of an hour, or less than an hour, and 2,000 out of 5,000 persons had accepted bribes. Every species of disgraceful enormity was committed, so much so, that a noble Lord, whom he now saw in his place, and who felt so strong a desire to purify the representation, took extraordinary measures with the view of lessening the evil. Now, when these elections were to commence de novo, it was a painful reflection for a man, after quitting that House, where he had been attempting to discharge his duty, to think that no remedy was applied (for at that period of the Session there was no prospect of applying a remedy) to the abuses which had been disclosed. There were more serious considerations than these, arising from what were designated corrupt and disgraceful compromises. He spoke not only in reference to Nottingham, but other boroughs; and in the case of Harwich, out of 182 electors 80 or 90 received bribes of no small a nature. He was aware that the report of the Briber. Bill was standing on the Order Paper, and they had been told that there were to be some clauses to have the magical effect of putting an end to treating and other corrupt practices by the end of the Session. God knew what the fate of that bill would be ! But at this period of the Session, when so near its close, nothing had yet been done to suppress those enormities. He called the attention of the hon. Member for Montrose, who was so sore at what appeared to him (Mr. Bernal) a more light part of the case, to this fact. He wished the hon. Member to direct his indignation against what was more serious. It was therefore with sorrow and disgust he quitted this subject, because he saw no one positive step taken to provide a remedy for repressing enormities which it was the duty of the Legislature to put a stop to.

Mr. R. Yorke

said, he thought there was in the House a strong tendency to stultification. He must, however, make an exception for himself. He had the highest regard for the 1,700 petitioners, but knew that they were not the majority; and, therefore, with all his admiration for them, he must, until there had been adopted more effectual means for purifying the borough from the impurities that had been exposed— he must oppose the issuing of the writ. As touching the law on the subject, he might observe, that though the new bill had been discussed, perhaps decided, in that House, it had yet to pass through another ordeal, and that, therefore, the House was in the same situation substantially as when they had started. When they had commenced these proceedings they had opposed the writ, and now he knew not on what grounds the writ should be issued.

Sir R. Peel:

Sir, when the House resolved to inquire into the alleged corrupt compromises affecting the borough of Nottingham, and the committee had power to inquire into the extent of bribery which had been practised, I willingly consented to the postponement of the writ; for I thought that it would have been inconsistent to support a committee with very extraordinary powers, and immediately to issue the writ for a new election. But now the committee have made their report, and there is nothing in that report which induces me to suppose that it is their opinion that measures ought to be taken for the purpose of disfranchising the borough. You have no recommendation in the report of ulterior proceedings. So far as Nottingham is concerned, that being the case, I think it would be unconstitutional to consent to the indefinite postponement of the writ. But then it is said, there will be more corrupt practices. Now, let us take the case of treating. I apprehend by the law, as it at present stands, any treating now, even before the test of the writ, would be illegal. In the case of a general election, treating before the test of the writ might not, under certain circumstances, conic within the act; although, on general principles, it is illegal, yet it might not come within the statute 7th and 8th William. But in the present case, there being now a vacancy, I apprehend any man who treats at Nottingham before even the test of the writ is liable to forfeit his seat, and would be disqualified. The hon. Member seems to contradict me? [Mr. Bernal: was only listening.] At all events, I am certainly right in my view of the law, that if at this moment, even before the writ is issued, any candidate is treating at Nottingham he is liable to forfeit his seat. But so far as treating. is concerned I think the distinction in point of time is an unwise one. It tends to raise an impression, that treating is not objectionable until after the test of a writ. Suppose, now, you remove this distinction of time, and make all treating an offence against law, I confess you will then have carried the law as far as it is possible. It is said there should be a new law on treating. Why, the law existing on the subject is as strong as it is possible to have it, Let us see now what the law here really is. There is an excellent preamble (exceedingly applicable to the present period), couched in language as strong as possible:— whereas, great and grievous complaints are made, and do manifestly appear to be true, that elections are carried with excesses and outrages contrary to the free and pure representation of the Commons of England, &c. It is then enacted, That any person who shall by any means before his election give, directly or indirectly, any meat, drink, provision, &c., or make any gift or reward, or any promise of such meat, drink, &c., or of any gift or reward, &c., any such person shall loose his seat, and be declared incapable of serving in Parliament. Could there be stronger words? If there were any error, it was in superfluity of language: unless it were the error, of appearing to draw the distinction as to time and I cannot help thinking, that it would be best to abolish that distinction altogether, and to enact that whosoever shall treat, either before or after an election, shall be liable to loose his seat, leaving it to the committee to determine the animus of any particular entertainment; in some cases perhaps a breakfast, &c., may not be of a corrupt character; but leaving it to the committee to determine that, it would be well to abolish altogether any distinction of time. The punishment is certainly severe enough, including, as it does disqualification as well as loss of seat. I hope, within the present Session, the bill under our consideration will pass, with useful clauses respecting head-money, and providing that in cases of compromise the committee may conduct the investigation at the public charge. That measure will have a retrospective effect, and will apply to the ensuing election. I cannot help expressing my conviction, that on a bill so intimately connected with our own proceedings and constitution, the House of Lords will pay sufficient deference to our judgment to pass the main provisions of the measure: of course I cannot answer for the decisions of the other House, but, at all events, it may be relied upon that I will be no party to the defeat of the bill. Therefore, if the election took place within the next few days, any description of treating now going on would be subject to investigation. If the House were to sit for six months longer we could do no more, so far as enactments go. Nor do I see any sort of inconsistency in having, when the committee was about to be appointed, voted for the suspension of the writ; and now, finding no recommendation in the report of disfranchisement, refusing to be a party to the indefinite suspension of the elective rights of some 50,000 people; I shall therefore cordially join in issuing the writ. Now, really I cannot help just adverting to the observations of the hon. Member for Montrose—of course it were impossible and useless to be angry with anything he says; but certainly if any Gentlemen differ from him in opinion, he reproaches them with "stultifying the House," and being influenced by the worst motives, and so on; giving no credit to them for honourable feeling, but rising immediately after a division adverse to his own opinions and denouncing all others in most unmeasured terms. If his disposition at all corresponded (which I believe it does not) with the harsh language he employs, and if he were vested with despotic power, he certainly would be one of the most tyrannical of men. No man who ever was the judge of an inquisition—no arbitrary tyrant could ever display more intolerance of bigotry than does the hon. Gentleman towards his political opponents. I submit to the hon. Gentleman that when others differ from him it would be more charitable and tolerant to give to all equal credit for good and honourable motives, and to avoid acting on the principle, which is the essence of all bigotry, that you must necessarily be quite right and everybody else quite wrong. [Mr. Hume had merely remarked on what seemed to him the inconsistency of the right hon. Baronet.] Now, that convinces me, Sir, how little the hon. Member minds what he says, for assuredly he last night accused me of countenancing all sorts of abominations, and said that I had acted quite inconsistently, and had stultified the House.

Mr. Ward

said, that if the right hon. Baronet had not shown reasonable grounds to lead to the conclusion that the bill now in progress would be passed during the present Session,—if it were not shown that that measure would receive the sanction of both Houses of Parliament, as well as the honest support of her Majesty's Government, he thought there would be sufficient reason for still suspending the writ for Nottingham; but having proceeded so far with the Bribery Bill, he did not see that any ground longer existed which would prevent an acquiescence in the motion of the hon. Member for Rochdale. He, therefore, would consent to the motion, receiving the speech of the right hon. Baronet as an understanding that the Bribery Bill would receive the support of the Government in the other House. If the arguments used by the hon. and learned Solicitor-general against the resolutions of the hon. and learned Member for Bath were to stand good—if those resolutions were to be got rid of on the plea then put forward, and if the Bribery Bill were to to be thrown overboard by a manoeuvre, then he should come to the conclusion of the hon. Member for Montrose, that the House would only stultify itself by such a course of proceeding. Thinking thus, he would assent to the proposition of the hon. Member for Rochdale, on the understanding that the Bribery Bill should pass during the present Session, and that all which occurred within the Session should come within the operation of the nineteenth clause of the bill. This, coupled with the doing away with the limitation as to the time of treating, would, in his opinion, strike at the root of the evil.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that as the general opinion appeared to be in favour of the motion he should not object to it. His own inclination, however, would be for a postponement of the writ for a short time until the bill now in progress had passed into a law. He did not say this from any doubt of the bill passing; on that point he thought the House mighty, make itself quite at ease; but every person could perceive the influence which the present state of things would have upon any election which might immediately take place, and the different effects which would be produced by a bill which had become law, and a bill which was still pending. He thought it would better answer the purpose which they all had in view to postpone the issuing of the writ for a week until the bill became a law, or nearly approached to being so; but, as the will of the House seemed otherwise, he should offer no objection.

Writ to bed issued.

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