HC Deb 25 March 1844 vol 73 cc1533-8
Sir R. Peel

rose, according to notice, to move for a Select Committee "to consider the Acts in force with respect to the Trial of Controverted Elections, and to report their opinion, whether any and what Amendments can be made calculated to improve the provision of the said Acts." The right hon. Baronet stated, that when he introduced the Bill which provided for the jurisdiction of Controverted Elections, he stated that he would, before making a Motion this Session for the continuance of the Act, move for the appointment of a Committee to consider whether any Amendment could be introduced into it, and he now accordingly moved that a Select Committee be appointed for that purpose. He proposed the Select Committee more for the purpose of considering whether any Amendment could be made in the existing law, for be thought that the important question, whether or no any other tribunal should be appointed, ought to be reserved for the House of Commons. It affected the privileges of the House of Commons, and was therefore a question which a Select Committee should not decide. His object, therefore, was to consider whether any amendment could be made in the existing system, assuming that the existing system be continued; but an opinion that the existing tribunal should he abandoned and another appointed, should be discussed in the House. He trusted that no party feeling would influence the House in the consideration of this question; he hoped that hon. Members, whatever their opinions might be, would be prepared to concur with him in thinking that while the present system continued, it should be made as perfect as possible.

Mr. Gisborne

said, it was impossible to object to a measure for amending the law as it now stood. He should, however, have been gratified if the right hon. Baronet had explained what he thought the points were in which the present law required amendment. It was a law which the right hon. Baronet had introduced himself, and it seemed to be limited to one object, namely, to remedy the partiality which had been exhibited by Committees. There might be some doubts how far the alteration had made any improvement in that respect; he thought, however, that it had made some improvement. He had that morning examined the Journals of the House to see how far the decisions of the Committees since the passing of the Act would bear a party aspect (and he had excluded the Committees which were proved to have ended in compromises, viz., Lewes, Penryn, Nottingham, Bridport, and Reading), and he found that twenty-five Committees had decided in conformity with the politics of the majority of the Members who formed those Committees, and eight had decided the other way. The latter Committees seemed to have acted much less in conformity with the politics of the majority than those did in the first instance. But it appeared to him that the amendment of the law should go far beyond that to which the right hon. Baronet applied himself; when he brought forward that measure. The great object was to give a fair scope for all proper Petitions, but not to give undue encouragement to those who petitioned without sufficient cause. The law left it in the breast of the Committee to declare Petitions frivolous and vexatious, and thereby to saddle the parties with costs; the result had been, that no one Committee, since the new law had been adopted, had declared any Petition to be frivolous and vexatious. The Committee was still a party tribunal. They selected three hon. Gentlemen from one side of the House and three from the other; and by turns they gave a Chairman from one side of the House to one Committee, and from the other side to the next. Each Gentleman, therefore, saw that he was watched over and suspected of party feeling, and their natural desire was not to step beyond the line which their duty imposed on them, and they said, we won't go any further, and give costs. Last year, when an hon. Gentleman, who sat behind him, had made preparation for his defence, which could not be done for less than 300l. or 400l., his opponents came forward and said, they were not prepared to go on with their Petition. He, however, thought it right, as in the courts of law, to let the costs follow the decision, only giving the Committee the right to decide in such cases as they pleased, that the unsuccessful party should not pay the costs. There was a point of practice upon which he thought the action of these Committees would be extremely improved, and it was, perhaps, more necessary before them than any other tribunal. When any person had an action at law, he might give notice to the opponent that if he did not admit certain points, they would be proved at his expense. Now, nothing ever was admitted before an Election Committee; they put the cleverest counsel to argue before men who were not lawyers; they took evidence of everything, and admitted nothing. He hoped that would be a point of consideration also. He did not know who the right hon. Baronet meant to put on his Committee, but he hoped amongst the number there would be some hon. Gentlemen who had suffered by the present system, who felt where the shoe pinched, and who would be able to give the Committee some assistance in coming to a decision upon the merits and demerits of the present system. He had no doubt the right hon. Baronet had made an extremely fair and judicious selection, and he hoped the attention of the Committee might be directed to the two points he had referred to.

Mr. Collett

said, the hon. Member for the county of Anglesey having, I understood, under the best advice, consented to postpone for the present his Motion for a Select Committee to inquire into the circumstances attending the getting-up and prosecutions of two Petitions against my return for the Borough of Athlone, I feel satisfied that the object will be equally obtained if his Motion be allowed to merge into the Committee of the Government, and that the right hon. Baronet will give instructions to the Committee to inquire, not only into the getting-up of those Petitions, but also how far it is consistent with the dignity of this House, with the rights and privileges of its Members, and with the intention of the noble Lord, the Member for the City of London, under whose Act these repeated Petitions have been presented—how far it is just and proper for any Member to have to appear before more than one Committee to defend the same, and at the same Election. If you refer to the Journals of this House you will find it entered on them on 31st May, 1843, that by a decision and verdict of a Committee, I was then declared duly elected for Athlone during the present Parliament. I should have thought that here the matter ended—that the decision was final—that I was, as I was stated to be, elected for this Parliament, meaning the whole of it, and that the plea of "autrefois acquis" was in this, as in all other other cases in this country, a bar to any other proceedings or investigation; instead of this, I have, in the present month, been subjected to a second edition of precisely the same annoyance, attended with precisely the same result; my opponents have no case, and I am on 7th March 1844, again declared duly elected for the present Parliament, which is again entered on your Journals—and I may, perhaps, again have to defend this seat. I can assure the House that a series of these Petitions, got up for the purpose of annoyance, intimidation, extortion, and peculation, are by no means either agreeable or profitable. In these two particular instances, (in which, as to the charge of bribery, I am as innocent and ignorant as any one in this House) the answering and having to defend these Petitions has been at- tended with no small anxiety of mind—and has cost me more than 1000l. out of my pocket—indeed, from what I understand, I have not vet purchased peace and the quiet enjoyment of my privileges; the apparent getter-up of these Petitions, a Mr. Moss (but who being, I understand, as indifferently off in his circumstances as in his character, can hardly really be at the bottom of them; indeed, he has stated that there are other parties behind the scene desirous of my seat in this House, and if report speaks true, some parties desirous also of a seat in another place, this Mr. Moss having stated publicly, and to one of the servants employed in the offices of this House, that "if Mr. Collett got over this (meaning the last) Petition, he would not be much the forwarder in retaining his seat—that he would have another Petition shortly—and that it would be an annual affair till he was ousted—in short, Sir, that there is to be no end to the persecution and annoyance to which I am to be subjected for the sake of depriving me of my seat. I have, I am sure, only to mention these circumstances, and to throw myself upon the House and the right hon. Baronet, to ensure some means for preventing for the future a repetition of these annoyances to myself and others.

Sir George Grey

thought the course which the right hon. Baronet had taken very proper, and he hoped the House would not go into a further discussion of the subject then. He would, however, say, that he thought the right hon. Baronet was quite right in not leaving it to the decision of the Select Committee whether the tribunal should be confined to that House or not.

Sir E. Colebrooke

wished to ask the right hon. Baronet whether it was his intention to appoint assessors competent to advise the Committee on points of law, to form part of the jurisdiction, and give their assistance to the Committee.

Sir R. Peel

said, that he purposely abstained from making any statement of his opinions on this subject. Consistent with the principle that the Committee should not entertain the great question of the removal of the jurisdiction, he thought it would be better not to prejudge any point to come under their consideration, by making any statement of his own. With respect to the question put by the hon. Baronet, he thought it would be bet- ter to leave it to the consideration of the Committee. With reference to the points alluded to by the hon. Gentleman opposite, he thought it would not be well to make judges of hon. Gentlemen who had cause to complain. He thought it well that they should have an opportunity of stating their complaints, but he considered they had better do so in the character of witnesses than judges. As to the other point, he was not of opinion that the costs should follow the decision. If they wished to have cases of bribery and corruption at elections brought forward, they must give some latitude to complaining parties; but that was a question open to decision hereafter.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at a quarter before eleven o'clock.