HC Deb 25 July 1844 vol 76 cc1430-3

House in Committee on the Controverted Elections Bill.

On Clause 55,

Sir R. Peel

rose to propose the Amendment of which he had given notice. Before he submitted his Amendment, he wished to congratulate the House upon the great improvement which had taken place in the practice of Election Committees. He thought that if the proceedings of Election Committees constituted according to the present law were contrasted with those of former Committees, a very great improvement would be seen, and he believed that greater confidence was now felt in the decisions of such Committees. The four eminent Counsel who had been examined befor the Committee which had investigated this subject, had borne very satisfactory testimony to the improvement in the proceedings of these Committees. Those learned gentlemen had stated their belief that the imputations which had been thrown out against the Members of Election Committees were unfounded. He believed that the great security for the due administration of justice was the conviction, which existed on both sides of the House, that judicial functions were com- mitted to Members of these Committees, and that a most solemn obligation was violated if their decisions were not in accordance with the evidence adduced before them. He believed that nothing could more tend to raise that House in the estimation of the public than the evidence that this was the feeling which guided the decisions of Election Committees. The question he had now to bring under the consideration of the House was, whether there should be a reduction in the number of Members constituting Election Committees, and if so, what that reduction should be. The decision of the Committee which had investigated this subject, and which consisted of some of the most eminent Members of that House, had decided in favour of the reduction. The question then came before the Committee to what extent the reduction should be carried. On that point—as to whether future Committees should consist of five or three Members—the Committee were equally divided in opinion. Certainly, a majority of that Committee, five to four, were in favour of constituting Election Committees of three Members; but the noble Chairman of that Committee did not conceal his opinion that he wished the Committee to consist of five Members. He confessed that though he willingly bowed to the decision of the Committee in favour of a reduction, he would prefer that the number of Members on such Committees should be reduced to five rather than to three. He admitted there was great force in the argument as to the concentration of responsibility; and he would greatly prefer a Committee consisting of five Members to one of thirteen, on account of the additional responsibility which, in his opinion, was imposed by such a limitation of numbers. But, on the other hand, he thought it would be advisable that such Committees should consist of more than three Gentlemen; for Gentlemen might view the same facts in a very different point of view, and he thought it better to have the collective judgment of five Gentlemen brought to bear upon such a subject, than the judgment of three Members of that House. If the Committee consisted of three Members, and by any circumstance, one Member was prevented from attending, the other two Members might be divided in opinion; and unless provision were made to meet such a case, no decision could be come to. He was disposed to regard the opinions of the Committee which had investigated this subject with great deference, five Members of that Committee having voted against four in favour of Election Committees being composed of three Members, and he hoped it would not be supposed, that he was evincing any intentional disrespect towards that Committee, which had suggested some most important and valuable alterations in the law, in proposing that Election Committees should in future be composed of five Members. The right hon. Baronet concluded by moving that in page 16, line 1, the blank be filled up with the word "four," in order that the Election Committee may be composed of five Members, including the Chairman.

Mr. C. Buller

thought that House would desire, as far as they could, to amend a law which had done so much to redeem their character, and which had given substantial justice to them all. His opinion was, that the reduction in the number of Members of Election Committees to three would be most advisable, because in that case the general Committee of selection would be more deeply impressed with the importance of placing the most competent Members of that House upon such Committees. His own conviction was, that the best plan would be to follow the exact analogy of our Courts of Justice, and to constitute these tribunals of an equal number of Judges; at the same time, as he saw there was a strong feeling in favour of the suggestion of the right hon. Baronet, he would not offer any objection to that proposal.

The Solicitor General

said, that some years ago he had considerable experience in proceedings before Election Committees, and he must say that there had undoubtedly been a great improvement in the constitution of such tribunals, which had now to a very great extent secured the confidence of the public. He was decidedly in favour of a reduction in the number of Members placed on these Committees, because he believed that such a course would entail increased responsibility on each individual Member. He thought, however, that it would be advisable first to try the experiment of a reduction from seven to five, instead of jumping at once from seven to three.

Mr. B. Escott

said, he thought the experiment of proposing that Election Com- mittees should consist of five Members was somewhat dangerous. The hon. Member for Liskeard had suggested that such Committees should be constituted of four Members; and he certainly thought that the decision of the majority of such a tribunal would be more satisfactory, than the decision of those Committees as at present constituted.

Sir R. Peel

said, it was most inconvenient that tribunals of this nature should be broken up without arriving at a decision, especially as the proceedings involved great expense; and he would, therefore, propose at a future stage of this measure, that even if Election Committees should be reduced to one or two Members, they should still proceed with their investigation. He would propose that even if a Committee was by any circumstances reduced to one Member, he should still be enabled to prosecute the inquiry, with the consent of the parties interested.

Clause agreed to.

The other Clauses of the Bill were agreed to.

House resumed.

Bill reported.

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