§ Order for Committee read. House in Committee.
§ Clause 1.
§ MR. BANKES
said, he objected to the clause, as it involved the main principle of his objection to the Bill. He regarded the Report of the Committee as utterly inconsistent. The Committee declared that the candidate against whom the petition had been presented had been duly elected, and at the same time declared that they had not been enabled to institute a full and fair inquiry, in consequence of certain material witnesses having been improperly removed and kept out of the way. He was far from objecting to further inquiry; on the contrary, he thought further inquiry was necessary in reference to the character of that House; but he was also of opinion that further inquiry should be conducted in such a manner as not additionally to compromise the character of that House. The Committee ought to have adjourned until the missing witnesses were obtained; or, if a Commission was to be appointed, that Commission should consist of Members of the House of Commons, and not of paid Commissioners, as now proposed. He objected to proceeding against the parties who had been corrupted, and granting to the party corrupting all the benefit at which he could have aimed when he resorted to improper means for the purpose of procuring his election. Who had corrupted the electors? There was but one Member, but one seat vacant, and yet the Member was seated, and the Committee proposed by this Bill to proceed, not against that Member, but against the parties who were corrupted. Was it creditable to the House, or an expedient course to pursue, to authorise the Member to be seated (when, if there had been corruption—assuming that such was the fact—he was the cause of it), and to direct all their proceedings against those who had been corrupted, with the view of punishing them by disfranchisement? The Committee having proposed this Bill, he would accept it; but he would endeavour to amend the Bill: and while he would do all which the Chairman of the Committee desired to have done, he would propose to do still more. He believed it was possible so far to amend this Bill as to ensure justice to the petitioner, and to preserve the character of that House. He hoped, above all things, that the House of Commons would not 888 part with this inquiry and transfer its functions to other hands. He wished that the Commissioners should be possessed of the most stringent powers, and he could only entrust those powers safely to a Commission exclusively composed of Members of that House. He thought that the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) had been greatly to blame in this matter. The Bill for the prevention of bribery, brought in in 1842, had never been put in force. The defects of that Bill had been acknowledged from the first; and, had it been effectual, it would have been properly applicable in this case. There had been a greater number of allegations of bribery and corruption since the Reform Bill had passed than ever had occurred previously; and during the last general election fourteen boroughs had been charged with bribery and corruption. The noble Lord, who was then, as now, at the head of the Government, undertook to bring in a Bill which should effectually remedy these flagrant offences; and the noble Lord did introduce such a measure, bearing the title of a Bill to provide for inquiry into corrupt practices in the election of Members of Parliament. That Bill applied particularly to the fourteen boroughs to which he had just alluded, Aylesbury being the first, and Sligo the last, and it received much praise. He (Mr. Bankes) supported the principle. But when the measure went into Committee, clauses were introduced which, from their nature, were likely to give rise to difference of opinion, and the Bill did not receive that support which it ought to have had to have rendered it effective. The Bill went to the House of Lords at a late period of the Session, and Lord Redesdale, with other Peers, took objections, not to the principle, which met with entire concurrence, but to certain details which had been pointed out in the House of Commons to the noble Lord at the head of the Government; but the noble Lord resisted any alteration of the measure, preferring to pass the Bill in the shape in which it went up to the House of Lords. The measure might probably have been forced through had it not been for Lord Denman, who stated that he felt it to be his duty to come down for the sole purpose of opposing that Bill, for that it was liable to objections of every description in the details; while, at the same time, he entirely approved of the principle. It was the fact that Lord Denman, and every Peer in the House of Lords, concurred in the principle, while one and all objected to the 889 details. Since then three years had passed, and although that Bill had been lost in the Lords, solely on account of the details, and not of the principle it contained, neither the noble Lord nor his legal advisers had introduced any similar measure in principle to remedy these evils. Thus they were still without sufficient legal remedy, and were called upon, when occasion required, to legislate for that particular occasion, the present being one which actually forced them to some legislation. But any measure that passed should be consistent with the dignity of that House. It should be one likely to meet the approval of the other branch of the Legislature—one not obnoxious to the objections made by Lord Denman and the other Peers—but one that should satisfy the House of Lords that the Members of the House of Commons had exercised all their powers, made all the necessary inquiries, and used all their endeavours to accomplish their object. It should be a measure which should show that they did not call upon the other branch of the Legislature to assist them in a measure for the preservation of their privileges until they had done enough to satisfy the House of Lords that there was groundwork for their interference. With regard to the general allegations before the St. Albans Committee as to former transactions in the borough, he found that the evidence came principally from ladies, if he might so call them, and from persons certainly not entitled to praise for the manner in which they had given their testimony. Could anything be more meagre or unsatisfactory than the Minutes of Evidence laid upon the table of that House? Loose and unsatisfactory as they were, and applying very slightly indeed to former corruptions, there was a strong presumption or corruption in the present case: "bell metal" was never heard of until Mr. Bell went to St. Albans, and the street in which his committee rooms were situate, was not previously known as "Sovereign-alley;" and yet the Committee had reported against the borough, and in favour of the Member. But that evidence was wholly insufficient as regarded former transactions; and, so far as it affected the present case, it did not establish that species of corruption upon which they could easily legislate. That was the reason the sitting Members were not reported against: and, further, because the evidence, such as it was, had been collected in a manner that was utterly unjust and unworthy. There were fur- 890 ther reasons for the Amendments it was his intention to propose. The Government had put in a clause the names of three gentlemen who were to be appointed Commissioners. This was not in accordance with the Bill of Lord John Russell in 1848.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
The Commissioners have been sanctioned by the Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
But I tell you that it is so, for I have communicated with the Lord Chief Justice.
§ MR. BANKES
At all events it would have been more decorous to have left the appointment with the senior Judge of Assize. As a precedent the course now proposed was a bad one, and the whole Bill was a bad precedent. He (Mr. Bankes) proposed what would be a better precedent, that they should appoint three Members of that House as Commissioners. Let it not be said that it was now too late to do justice, for it was never too late to do justice, and they had now the time and the means of remedying an oversight by offering to the House of Lords a Bill which they could pass. But if they sent to the Upper House such another Bill as that sent by the noble Lord in 1848, it would meet with the same fate. He should propose, in the first place, that the clause be omitted, and that would raise the question whether the Commissioners should be paid Commissioners, nominated by the Government, and carrying on their proceedings away from the influence of that House and from the public eye; or whether they should be, as they ought to be, under the immediate supervision of that House, and under the public eye? Let them wait, if it were necessary, till those witnesses who were concealed could be produced. He cared not how long they waited rather than that the House should be set at defiance; and he was willing to wait until the pecuniary resources of these witnesses ceased to enable them to baffle the power of the House. He should, therefore, move that this clause be omitted, and if he succeeded he should then substitute another clause, which should name other Commissioners, Members of that House, and selecting those who had been Members of the late Committee, if they would accept the service. If they refused, he would engage to find five Members of that House who would accept the functions, 891 and prove that they could form a tribunal fully competent to try questions of this nature.
MR. EDWARD ELLICE
said, the hon. Member (Mr. Bankes) had admitted the necessity of the Bill, and the necessity of the inquiry. He (Mr. Ellice) could not expect the House to listen to a statement of the case, which had been given some two or three times already; and it could have no attraction to the House whatever, for that was not what was before them. The case of the sitting Member for St. Albans was decided; he was, by Act of Parliament, the sitting Member; and hon. and learned Gentlemen opposite should just road the Act which seated the Member as soon as a decision of a Committee was given in his favour, one particular clause of that Act of Parliament saying that no after proceeding of any sort should affect the seat of the Member. So far as the sitting Member was concerned, the case was concluded, and the necessity of the Bill had been decided by a majority of that House. The only question then was, whether the Commissioners should be Members of that House or not? He (Mr. Ellice) stated on the last occasion that the Committee had come to the conclusion that the only satisfactory means of instituting an inquiry was by professional gentlemen independent of that House, as they would act not only as Commissioners of that House, but as Commissioners of the superior branch of the Legislature. If the Commissioners were Members of that House, he doubted if the House of Lords would take their report as a guide for legislation, but would rather insist either on appointing another Commission, or of examining witnesses at the bar of the House. Looking to former precedents, the examination of witnesses in that manner had been wholly inefficacious; but in the case of the Sudbury Commission, the Commissioners being independent professional men, as was now proposed, the House of Lords accepted the report of that Commission. Believing that both Houses would be prepared to legislate on the report of this Commission, being constituted of Gentlemen nominated equally by the House of Lords as by the House of Commons, he saw no earthly reason to change his views, and he should certainly persist in dividing upon the clause.
§ MR. FRESHFIELD
said, that this was a case in which as a general principle there had been no substantial decision by the Committee. In the case of Sudbury, taken 892 as a precedent, the inquiry was only whether any grounds existed for further inquiry. It had been alleged that the Houses of Lords and Commons combined in appointing this Commission; but was it so? There was nothing which could put the Commissioners in the light of being appointed by the Lords and Commons, except as a mere matter of form. Was it possible that the names of three Members of Parliament being in the Commission would be objected to by the House of Lords? If there was anything objected to by them it Would be that these three Members had not the confidence of the House of Lords. As to jealousy in the House of Lords it did not exist there, but on their own parts—a jealousy against sending up to the other House to decide upon their rights and privileges. He should vote against the clause.
§ Motion made, and Question put, "That Clause 1 as amended stand part of the Bill."
§ The Committee divided:—Ayes 66; Noes 17: Majority 49.
§ MR. W. MILES
said, if it could be shown that these three Commissioners were appointed by the Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench, it would be more satisfactory.
MR. EDWARD ELLICE
said, he had consulted former precedents in which the Commissioners had been appointed by the Government, but he had referred the whole matter to the hon. and learned Attorney General.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, that in the case of the first Bill for inquiry, the nomination of the Commissioners was left to the then Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench; but that not proving satisfactory, the Attorney General of the time took upon himself to name three Gentlemen. So, in this case, he had been applied to as Attorney General, and he did name three Gentlemen; but after he had been told of the Sudbury case, in which the nomination had been left to the Lord Chief Justice, he communicated with the three Gentlemen he had named informing them of the facts, and also with the Lord Chief Justice, to whom he stated that he had no wish to influence his judgment, if he could find three Gentlemen of the Bar who would accept the Commission. The Lord Chief Justice answered that he had named three, but without stating who they were; but they proved to be the same that he (the Attorney General) had nominated. Two 893 out of the three were certainly of the same political sentiments as himself; but they were as competent men as any at the Bar, and the Lord Chief Justice had concurred with and confirmed his nomination.
§ MR. BANKES
said, that the Sudbury case had not guided the noble Lord (Lord John Russell), for his Bill set out that no names should be inserted, but that it should be certified to the Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench that Commissioners were required, and leaving it to him to name them. The same provision might be made in the present Bill.
§ Clause agreed to.
§ Clause 2.
§ MR. BANKES
wished for an explanation of the power of the Commissioners, which appeared to him to be those of both judge and prosecutor at the same time.
§ MR. JOHN STUART
said, that if the Government thought they were dealing properly with the rights and liberties of those of Her Majesty's subjects who were electors of the borough of St. Albans, they differed in opinion from Lord Denman, who had opposed the Bill of the noble Lord in 1848, and from the late Sir Robert Peel, who had said in the debate on the noble Lord's Bill that in all inquiries of this kind the rights of the electors should be attended to. He acquitted the Committee of all intention to do anything contrary to the rights of the subject; but now that the attention of the Attorney and Solicitor General was directed to them, he felt bound to ask by what safeguard or in what way did the Government intend by this measure to protect the rights of electors? By the Bill no elector against whose character aspersions had been launched had the light to appear before the Commissioners and defend himself. Even the petitioners had no right to appear before these Commissioners, whose functions were purely inquisitorial, to defend themselves against any accusation, or to prefer accusation against anybody else. All he asked for was fair play. He thought it was the duty of that House to inquire into the state of corruption in this borough, and to punish it; but let whatever was done be done in a fair and honourable manner. Let the Committee act upon the principle that none but guilty parties should be punished, and it would be easy to frame the Bill so as to produce that effect, for the present proceeding was neither a correct or a constitutional one, and was not 894 framed in a spirit of justice, but in that of an arbitrary spirit of punishment.
§ Clause agreed to; as were Clauses 3 and 4.
§ Clause 5.
§ MR. BANKES
said, he wished to limit the retrospective powers of the Commissioners. St. Albans was a very ancient borough, and the Commissioners might go back to its institution, or to the period when Duke Humphrey represented it, although he was not likely to have been guilty of treating.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, that probably practices at the last election might connect themselves with practices at previous elections. It was not desirable to limit the period of inquiry; but they might safely leave it in the hands of the Commissioners.
§ Clauses agreed to; as were Clauses 6 and 7.
Clause 8. Amendment proposed—
To add, 'and no person shall be excused from answering any question put to him by the said Commissioner on the ground of any privilege, or on the ground that the answer to such question will tend to criminate such person; provided always that no statement made by any person in answer to questions put by any Commissioner shall, except upon an indictment for perjury committed in such answer, be admissible in evidence in any proceedings, civil or criminal.'
§ MR. FRESHFIELD
thought it would open this dangerous and most mischievous door to evading punishment—that every person, however deeply implicated, obtained entire protection by causing himself to be examined as a witness.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, he considered the clause necessary, on the ground that considerable public advantage would accrue from obtaining information from those who had been guilty of corrupt practices, and they could not obtain it without holding out protection as an inducement.
§ Clause agreed to; as were the remainder of the clauses and the preamble.
§ House resumed. Bill reported as amended.