HC Deb 12 June 1843 vol 69 cc1341-54
Colonel Rushbrooke

rose for the purpose of moving that a new writ be issued for the election of two Members for the borough of Sudbury. The hon. and gallant Member referred to the recent proceedings in the House of Lords with regard to this unfortunate and persecuted town, and contended that, as the bill for disfranchising Sudbury had been thrown out in the House of Lords, it would be most unfair to subject the acquitted party to a second indictment. He moved that the writ do issue.

Mr. Tufnell

said, that, in proposing the motion of which he had given notice, he was actuated by a wish to maintain the character of that House, and by a desire that the corruption which had notoriously prevailed at elections in the borough of Sudbury might be properly and fully investigated. When he looked at the evidence which had been adduced before a select committee of this House as to the prevalence of that corruption,—when he considered that evidence in connexion with the former history of Sudbury, he thought it was incumbent upon that House, after having already passed an act for the disfranchisement of the borough, to see—before they consented to the issue of a new writ—whether some measures might not be adopted for preventing similar corrupt practices in future. He would not attempt to impugn the course which had been pursued in another place with respect to the bill for the disfranchisement of Sudbury; but he believed that not one of the witnesses examined before the select committee of that House had been examined by the other House. He hoped the House would indulge him if, for a few moments, he referred them to the history of the borough of Sudbury. Before the passing of the Reform Act its constituency consisted of about 900 persons, a very considerable number of whom were non-resident. Sudbury was fifty-six miles from London, but for election purposes the distance was called sixty miles; and every elector resident in the metropolis received Is. a mile for his travelling expenses in going down, and the same sum for returning, besides his personal expenses— eating and drinking—while in the borough. After the passing of the Reform Bill, the non-resident freemen were cut off; but corrupt practices still continued. When an election took place in 1832, immediately after the passing of the Reform Act, and when, if any spirit of patriotism existed in the minds of the people of that borough, it would have been called forth, he believed the greatest possible corruption prevailed—corruption as extensive as ever took place before, or perhaps had been practised since. Hon. Gentlemen were aware, that when an individual intended to offer himself as a candidate for any borough, his usual course was to visit that place a short time before the election; to state his principles, and by personal intercourse to endeavour to ingratiate himself with the constituency. But if a candidate for the borough of Sudbury had done so, he would have been laughed at by the electors. It was the custom for the candidates for Sudbury to go down on the night preceding the day of election; till that time not a promise was given; the constituency were all on the alert; and they looked to the opposition man as the great card with which they were to play. One of the witnesses examined before the House of Lords stated, that he considered canvassing a mere form,—that it had been so of late years; that no promise could be relied upon; and that the electors were actuated in giving their votes by the price they could obtain for them. In 1832 Mr. Wrangham, a learned gentleman of considerable talent, was a candidate for the borough, and had apparently the fullest prospect of success. But what was the case on the day of election? Why, he found that even those persons who had promised their votes to him came up and polled for his opponents, having been bribed during the preceding night. The gentleman on retiring from the contest said—

I have not deserted my post while any hope remained; I have protracted the struggle long enough to see men, who no longer ago than last night solemnly renewed to me their often repeated promises of support, brought up to the hustings this morning in a loathsome state of intoxication, in that state turned into these booths, and then, without even the decency of removing the blue ribbons, which as a badge of their pledge to me still fluttered in their button holes, polled as plumpers for my opponent. Gentlemen, it is not for me to say what potent influence has been at work during the night to purchase this shameless and wholesale apostacy—you will draw your own inference; but this I will say, that I turn from such degrading practices, and from the willing agents in the work of pollution, with loathing the most unmeasured and ineffable. From 1826 to 1841, a period of fifteen years, twelve elections had taken place in the borough of Sudbury; and there had been scarcely an instance of two persons of the same political opinions having been returned at consecutive elections. It was stated in evidence before the handloom weavers committee, that the electors were influenced in giving their votes by the mere consideration of how they could obtain the largest amount of money. In consequence of the proceedings which took place at the last election, a committee of that House recommended the disfranchisement of the borough, and a petition was presented by the Hon. Member for Fins-bury, signed by 150 electors, complaining of the practices pursued at that election; and, he believed, praying that the borough might be disfranchised. But it might be asked what course they ought to adopt? Should they suspend the writ indefinitely? To such a course he would decidedly object; he considered it most unconstitutional. What course, then, ought they to adopt? When the noble Lord the Member for the city of London (Lord J. Russell) introduced, last Session, a bill for the prevention of bribery, the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir R. Peel) expressed his concurrence with the noble Lord as to the difficulties which existed with regard to the disfranchisement of boroughs. The right hon. Baronet said—

The other defect which I wish to allude to, is the difficulty, so far as the boroughs are concerned, of obtaining results satisfactory to Parliament and the public. We appoint a committee of inquiry; the committee reports the existence of systematic bribery; the inquiry goes to the Lords, and is not proceeded with during the Session. In the meantime, the feelings which led to the presentation of the petition have died away. The electors meet; they say, why should we proceed with this? Shall we not be charged by posterity with causing the disfranchisement of the borough? and is it not much better to withdraw the evidence from the House of Lords? He did not blame the House of Lords for the course they had taken with respect to the bill for the disfranchisement of Sudbury; for, if they had no means of forcing evidence before them, they were justified in throwing out the bill. What course, then, was it advisable that that House should adopt? The right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) had proposed the appointment of a joint committee of Members of both Houses to inquire into general allegations of bribery; but, on subsequent discussion, the clauses proposed by the right hon. Gentleman with that object were withdrawn. The noble Lord the Member for Liverpool (Lord Sandon), in the debate to which he had alluded on the introduction of the bill of the noble Lord opposite, threw out a suggestion which he (Mr. Tufnell) had adopted. The noble Lord said—

He should therefore prefer that, in place of the tribunal suggested, a power should be given to the House, on a primâ facie case of bribery being established against a borough, to address the Crown to send down a commission of inquiry to the spot, and that the report of that commission should be taken as the basis of any proceedings on the part of the Legislature. This course was, he conceived, much less liable to objection than the other. The great difficulty with regard to it was, as to the weight which would be given to evidence so taken by the House of Lords, — whether, in the event of such evidence inducing this House to bring forward a disfranchisement bill, the Lords should be content to take the evidence as it then stood, or would demand fresh evidence. He hoped the Lords would be content to receive the evidence which might be taken by such a commission— and that, if it were considered satisfactory by this House, the Lords would adopt it. He proposed, by the bill which he now begged leave to introduce, that two commissioners of inquiry should be appointed by the Crown, and that they should have full power to examine into the corruption which had been practised in the borough of Sudbury, conducting their inquiry either in Sudbury, or within a certain distance from that place. He had modelled his bill upon that introduced last Session for the appointment of commissioners of inquiry into the Exchequer-bill frauds. He proposed that the commissioners should be armed with every necessary power; that they should have power to send for persons and papers, to examine witnesses upon oath, to impose penalties for non-attendance, and for refusal to give evidence, and to grant certificates of indemnity to persons who made full disclosures. He might be allowed to refer, for a moment, to the course which had been pursued in the House of Lords, as to warning the witnesses. It seemed that the noble Lord on the Woolsack informed every witness that he was not bound to answer any question which had a tendency to criminate himself; but that he was at liberty to do so or not, as he thought proper; and that, if he made a full disclosure of what he knew, though it might tend to criminate himself,—yet, if he did so to the satisfaction of their Lordships and of the Lord Chancellor, he should receive a certificate of indemnity from all consequences. Now, the House must remember what was the description of the witnesses to whom this caution was given; —they were corrupt witnesses. They were told,—" You are not bound to answer any question, if it has a tendency to criminate you, but you are at liberty to do so if you please; and if you do so you must tell the whole truth, or you will not be entitled to a certificate of indemnity." He was not surprised that the witnesses had construed this warning into a license to say what they pleased. The warning was certain, but the indemnity was uncertain; and he could not wonder that the witnesses had construed the advice into a recommendation to say what they pleased, so long as they did not criminate themselves. The corruption which had for so long a period existed with regard to elections for the borough of Sudbury had produced the most disastrous effects on the morals of the inhabitants. This fact was stated by the handloom weavers commissioners in their report. The chairman of the board of guardians stated, before the commissioners, that the injurious effects upon the morals of the people produced by contested elections had been far more extensive than the improvement effected by the efforts of;all the ministers of religion. He was sure that, had the noble Lord the Member for Dorsetshire (Lord Ashley) been in his place, he would have supported him in his endeavour to remove the source of so much corruption and debasement. But not merely were the lower classes affected by this system, but even the morals of the higher classes were debased by it. It could hardly be expected that the starving electors should resist temptation; but the guilt of the rich man who went down to the borough in order to corrupt the poor was of a much heavier description. Upon this point he must refer the House to the evidence of Mr. Gooday, taken before the House of Lords, which, among others, contained the following questions and answers: Had you any other reason for not giving him 60l. to buy his vote, except that you had not 60l. to give him?—Yes; I would not bribe the man. Because you thought it a crime to bribe him?—Yes. Do you think it is any crime in a man to be bribed?—Yes. Do you think it would have been a crime in the man to be bribed by Mr. Massey?— Yes. You had a great objection to bribing him yourself, because you thought it was criminal; hut you had no objection to take him to Mr, Massey, that Mr. Massey might commit the crime?—Such was the case. That is the nature of your conscience, is it?—No. You have no conscience, perhaps?—I may have a conscience, and not exactly in the position in which it is placed by the question. Then your conscience is of this kind, that it prevents you from inducing a man to commit a crime by buying his vote yourself, but it does not prevent you from taking a man to another, that that man may commit a crime, and buy his vote?—My conscience succumbed to the circumstances.

Yet Mr. Gooday,

who gave this evidence, belonged to a highly respectable class, and what he said showed the general laxity of morals in Sudbury among high and low. If any other way could be suggested by which a full inquiry would take place, he was not wedded to his own views, nor would he set himself in opposition to those of other hon. Members. One reason which had induced him to take up the subject was, that he had seen in 1834, and during the last Session, how great was the difficulty of introducing a general measure; they might all see circumstances of great corruption in a borough, and yet they might not be able to get a bill applying a remedy through both Houses. Two ways had been proposed to apply a remedy; one was by a joint committee of the two Houses of Parliament, and the other was by a commission to be appointed by the Crown. It was difficult to say which was best; and if the House could ever be allowed to make an experiment in corpore vili, he thought Sudbury was a very fit subject, and the result of that experiment would guide them in future legislation; for, even if it failed, it would show that they must adopt some other measures. In bringing forward this motion he was not acting upon party political views; he had refused to attend to the solicitation of one party or the other. His sole object was to uphold the character of the House, and to amend a gross defect in the representative system. This was all he sought, and he would conclude by moving as an amendment, That leave be given to bring in a bill for an effectual inquiry into bribery and corrupt practices alleged to exist in the borough of Sudbury.

Mr. Williams Wynn

said, that if he had to choose between the two propositions before the House, he should not hesitate to adopt that of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. The case before them was indeed a most extraordinary one. An election committee of that House had unanimously voted that gross bribery had taken place in the borough of Sudbury, and recommended to the House, that a bill should be brought in to disfranchise it. A bill was accordingly brought in; no petition was presented by any party to be heard by counsel against it; no person appeared to oppose it, and it passed that House with apparent unanimity. The bill was sent to the House of Lords, and there he found the case had entirely miscarried. Their first duty then appeared to be to inquire into the reason for this different decision of the two Houses. They had asked the House of Lords for the evidence taken at their Bar He had looked it through, and it was the most extraordinary document that had ever fallen into his hands. He was totally at a loss to account for the manner in which the inquiry was conducted, for the persons who were entrusted with its conduct, and with the evidence which was brought forward in its support. In the first place, he saw the two counsel who, as counsel for the petitioners against the return, had established the case against the borough, acting as counsel against the bill, and defending the borough. If he looked a little further he found, that the two gentlemen who had been retained to defend the sitting Members in the Commons were the counsel who were employed against the borough in the Lords. This did seem the oddest choice that could be made. He had made some inquiry, and he found that the bill was not entrusted to the petitioners against the return, but that an agent was employed for that purpose by the Treasury. After seeing that the counsel employed had completely crossed hands, he looked at the witnesses which bad been examined, and he found that there was but one witness called before the Lords who had been examined before the election committee. Stress had been laid upon the caution given to the witnesses that they need not criminate themselves. In courts of justice it frequently happened, that appeals were made by witnesses against giving evidence which might criminate themselves, it was common for witnesses so to excuse themselves from giving evidence, but it was no ground why, having given evidence, a witness should perjure himself by saying, that he knew nothing of a transaction of which he knew all. He could not see, on reading the evidence, therefore, how, if the Indemnity Act had compelled the witnesses to give evidence, the House of Lords would have got a word more out of the witnesses than they did. He thought, that it would be well to institute an inquiry into these circumstances before they addressed the House for a commission, a step which ought to be well considered before it was taken. He might be thought to have too great a constitutional jealousy of the Crown; but he did not like, in a case where a gross breach of the privileges of that House and of Parliament was involved in the inquiry, that the Crown should select the commissioners. What he would suggest was, that a committee should be appointed to inquire into the reason for the difference between the witnesses produced before the Lords and Commons, and why material witnesses examined before the Commons, were not examined before the Lords. If any one believed that there had been collusion, and that the parties on both sides had agreed not to produce the necessary evidence, that circumstance called for serious inquiry. He did not think that there was the slightest ground for reflecting on the House of Lords; for, if they looked at the evidence, it would he found so defective that it was not surprising they should think it a waste of the public money to continue the inquiry, unless more could be substantiated. If the committee were granted, he would propose to call before them, firstly, the agents, and ask them why they had not summoned the witnesses; and, secondly, he would call the counsel, whom he would ask why they declined to continue the examination. They were gentlemen of the highest character, in favour of whom everything ought to be inferred and presumed; but, at the same time, the case was so extraordinary, that the House would not do its duty if it did not adopt means for examining into the question, and seeing whether the case had been honestly and properly brought forward; and if it had not been, this would be a sufficient reason for sending a fresh bill to the House of Lords. When he found a witness stating that he had received two guineas, that he then went and voted, upon which he received a ticket and that on a person looking at the ticket through a window four guineas more were received—when he found that this was not a single case, but that six or seven other voters gave the same evidence, that 150 tickets had been distributed, and that at the time this took place, none but voters being allowed to go up that such was the crush that the staircase was literally broken by those crowding to go up, he could not conceive how a stronger presumption of general bribery could be made out. As there was an amendment already before the House, he could not move his; but should the hon. Gentleman give him the opportunity, he would move that a select committee be appointed to compare the evidence given before the House of Lords, on the Sudbury Disfranchisement Bill, and the evidence taken before the committee on the Sudbury election petition, and to report the circumstances why material witnesses, examined before such committee, we were not examined at the Bar of the House of Lords.

Mr. Tufnell

said, that as the right hon. Gentleman proposed his amendment as a preliminary inquiry to further proceedings, he would have no objection to withdraw his own amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Mr. Wynn's

amendment was read from the Chair.

Colonel Rushbrooke

felt his inequality, when he was opposed to the right hon. Gentleman; but he must ask whether Sudbury was to be made the scapegoat or other boroughs, which might on inquiry, be found to be equally delinquent, though they had been more prudent and circumspect in their proceedings? A respectable witness (Mr. Warner) a Liberal, gave this evidence:— Do you believe that there are a considerable number of respectable tradesmen in Sudbury who are quite incapable of taking bribes for their votes?—I think there are. " Should you say that they form the majority of the respectable tradesmen of Sudbury? —Yes; I should say the majority of them would not do it. Nor was the inquiry closed without every opportunity being given to the parties to produce evidence. This was the way it ended:—Counsel were called in, and informed, that the House wished to know from the learned counsel for the bill, " whether, exercising their best judgment, and looking to all the sources of information of which they were masters upon this question, they are of opinion that there it a reasonable probability of making out a case of general corruption of the borough;" that, if there was, in their opinion, any reasonable probability of such a case being made out, of course the inquiry must be pursued, but that, if there was no such probability, the House considered that it would be an idle waste of lime and of public money to continue the inquiry. The counsel stated, that, considering the result of the examinations of the witnesses called on the former day, as well as of those who had been called to-day, he did not think it probable that he should succeed in making out a case of general corruption against the borough. The counsel were informed, that if they wished to have time to consider this question, reasonable time should be allowed for that purpose. The counsel stated that in the interval of their withdrawment from the bar, he had conferred upon the subject with his learned colleagues, and that he did not think it necessary to ask for time for that purpose; and that it appeared to him to be his duty to desist from this inquiry, as he did not think it could proceed with advantage to the public. The counsel were further informed that they must decide for themselves whether they would proceed further; that their Lordships left it entirely to them, and proposed that they should take a day to determine. The counsel replied that they had already made up their minds, and should offer no further evidence, and that proceeding further with the bill would, in their opinion, be a waste of time and money. Considering, also, the length of time during which this borough had been unrepresented, he would ask the right hon. Baronet below him (Sir R. Peel) whether he would not give way to the pressure of circumstances, and whether he would still persevere in opposing the writ?

Sir R. Peel

thought this was a question of considerable difficulty and of very great importance. The House had almost unanimously resolved, or at least there was an immense preponderance of opinion that the borough of Sudbury was so corrupt as not to be entitled to have continued to it the privilege of sending Members to Parliament. In coming to that opinion, the House took into its consideration the evidence on which an election committee came unanimously to the resolution of calling the attention of the House to it. He should, therefore, think it painful for any one, if any alternative could be found, to vote at once that this borough of Sudbury was entitled to this privilege. He thought, after the vote which had been almost unanimously come to, that the borough of Sudbury was not so entitled, they should adopt some proceeding before they issued the writ. At the same time the proposal of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Tufnell) was very novel; it was that a commission should be appointed by the Crown to make further inquiry. He proposed to pass a bill for the purpose, but in a bill so passed by the Commons, the House of Lords must concur. If they sent such a bill to the House of Lords without any intervening inquiry, he was not prepared to predict what view their Lordships might take; and if such a bill were rejected, the House of Commons would have no alternative but to issue the writ. In his opinion the pro- ceedings of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords suggested grave matter for consideration. The House of Commons were convinced that the borough of Sudbury ought to be disfranchised, but in the House of Lords there had been a complete failure of evidence. This was a strong proof that the jurisdiction in cases of this kind was defective, and that if the strict rules of jurisprudence were observed in these cases there would always be these failures. It occurred to him that it might be possible to predict cases in which, after the heat of the contest had subsided, the two parties might consider whether or not it was wise to proceed further; whether or not both parties would not be sufferers; whether or not the town of which they were electors would not lose a valuable privilege; whether or not it would not suffer in general estimation by public exposure, and whether or not under such circumstances it would not be to their common advantage to suppress the evidence. He thought they should adopt some course to prevent such a state of things. He reserved to himself the power of considering whether the bill of the hon. Gentleman was a proper one; but he was sure that they would lay better grounds for its passing if, by a preliminary inquiry, the House of Commons should have ascertained the cause of the former failure. The House ought to make this inquiry, for the Treasury had given every facility for the prosecution of the bill. It had allowed the parties to select their own agents, and great expense had been incurred. When he looked at the personal character of the witnesses, he wished to know why the parties who had been examined before the House of Commons had not been summoned before the Lords. If this evidence had not been summoned in consequence of the two parties in Sudbury agreeing, the facts were most important, and if the evidence should show an agreement between the parties to suppress testimony, it would not only warrant the House in passing a particular bill relative to the borough of Sudbury, but also to give a more extended general power. If, again, the answers of the agents should be that the reason they could not procure more evidence was, that through this agreement between the parties they were unable to produce it, that again would be an important fact to be known, not only in this case, but as the foundation for future proceedings. He could not help thinking that by means of a committee of the House of Commons, composed of high authorities in that House, important light would be thrown on this transaction. He was sure, looking to the future, that if the special circumstances of this case should call for proceedings, they would have a better chance of success than if, without any inquiry, they should send up a bill to the other House. He hoped, therefore, that the course recommended by the high authority of his right hon. Friend would be adopted unanimously. After the vote which he had formerly given, and in which as he thought, he was fully justified that the borough of Sudbury had so conducted itself that it ought to be disfranchised, he would be unwilling to vote for issuing the writ till this inquiry had taken place, and, of course, for such purpose, he would assent to the necessary suspension of the writ.

Lord John Russell

came down to the House prepared to support the amendment of his hon. Friend (Mr. Tufnell), thinking that it was reasonable. The basis of the measure of his hon. Friend, and of the amendment proposed by the right hon. Gentleman was, he believed, the same, namely, that after the evidence had induced the House to take the strong step of passing a bill to disfranchise the borough, it was not fit to issue a writ without inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montgomery, an authority which always deserved the respect of that House, and the right hon. Baronet thought that another proposal would be a better mode of ascertaining the truth, and of obtaining the assent of the House of Lords to the passing of a further bill. His hon. Friend would therefore have been acting unwisely if he had persisted in his opposition to the right hon. Gentleman, and had not agreed to his amendment. From former experience, his own impression was, that the House of Commons would often have sufficient evidence to warrant them in passing such bills, but that in the ulterior proceedings in the House of Lords there would be similar failures. It was with a view to remedy this that he made his proposal in the bill of last Session. If they were to deal with the corruption of these boroughs, he was convinced that some other mode of proceeding was necessary; and he was persuaded that the proposition to which all would ultimately come, would be for some kind of commission.

Mr. Thesiger

had seconded the motion of his gallant Friend; but after the discussion which had taken place, suggested the expediency of withdrawing the motion for the writ. When there were proceedings of this extraordinary nature; when the selection of counsel itself suggested a fair suspicion of the conduct of the case, it would be hardly proper that the writ should be sent down without inquiry.

Colonel Rushbrooke

was ready to acquiesce in the suggestion of his hon. and learned Friend, and would withdraw his motion.

The Attorney-General

was desirous only of stating that the caution given by the Lord Chancellor to the witnesses, that they need not answer questions to criminate themselves, was, he believed, in accordance with the invariable custom of all who had occupied that high office.

The original question and amendment were both withdrawn, and a select committee appointed— To compare the evidence adduced before the House of Lords, in the case of the Sudbury Disfranchisement Bill, with the evidence taken before the Sudbury Election Committee of the House of Commons, and to report upon the circumstances under which material witnesses examined before such committee were not produced at the bar of the House of Lords.

Writ for Sudbury not to be issued before July 10th.