HC Deb 02 April 1852 vol 120 cc636-46

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee.

Clause 1. (Upon Address of House of Commons Her Majesty may appoint Commissioners to make inquiry into Corrupt Practices at Elections.)


said, he was anxious to make one or two observations on the Bill now before the Committee, in order to point out some defects in its provisions. The measure, to be serviceable, should increase the facility of conviction, so that the offence should be as certainly as possible, followed by punishment; whereas, by the provisions of this Bill, considerable difficulty might be found in that respect. If the proceeding was to originate on an Address moved in that House, the plan would be open to great abuse, inasmuch as a party would only have to single out a borough liable to exception, and propose an Address to Her Majesty relative to that borough. If a Commission should be sent, another obstacle would arise under the 9th Clause, which stated that all witnesses are to be exempted from punishment, provided they make a disclosure of every circumstance connected with the inquiry. It appeared to him that the indemnity should only apply to cases before the passing of the Act, because in the case of prospective Acts a premium would be held out for the commission of the offence. The 500l. penalty was still to remain in force; but un- less that penalty should be repealed, and a smaller one substituted, the Bill would be inoperative. The first case of corruption and bribery on record was that of Esau, who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, but he never had the opportunity of selling it again; and every elector who sold his privilege ought to be treated in the same manner. If it were known that punishment would be inflicted in every case, the people would soon cease to commit the offence.


thought the clause, as it now stood, gave a power to the majority, which might be abused to a very great extent, and he proposed, that before any inquiry should be instituted, there should be either the Report of a Committee appointed to inquire into the Election return, or a Committee generally appointed by that House to inquire into corrupt practices in the borough in which such practices were alleged to have been committed. If the Committee should entertain that opinion, a fair foundation would be laid for the issuing of a proper Commission. He would therefore move the following Amendment:— To leave out from the beginning of the Clause to 'it shall be lawful,' in line 6, for the purpose of inserting the words 'when by an Address of the House of Commons it shall be represented to Her Majesty, that a Committee appointed to try an Election Petition, or a Committee appointed to inquire into the exercise of corrupt practices in any Election or Elections of a Member or Members to serve in Parliament, have reported to the House that corrupt practices have, or that there is reason to believe that corrupt practices have, or that there is reason to believe that corrupt practices have, extensively prevailed in any City, Borough, or place in the United Kingdom electing or sharing in the Election of a Member or Members to serve in Parliament at any Election or Election of such Members or Member; and the said House shall thereupon pray Her Majesty to cause inquiry to be made under this Act,' instead thereof.


objected to placing the matter in the hands of an Election Committee to report upon, but said he should have no objection to a Report from a Select Committee. He also thought it would be sufficient to insert the words "extensively prevailed," without using the word "generally."


intimated that he acquiesced in the suggestion of the noble Lord.


said, the object of the right ban. Gentleman the Home Secretary appeared to be to check the improper conduct of a majority. But surely, as the House pretended in theory to represent the people, it ought to be guided by the ma- jority, and not by the minority. Such a change was extremely objectionable, and ought not to have been proposed without due notice.


said, as the Bill was drawn, a simple majority might address the Crown, without any allegation or proof whatever. The object of his proposition was to protect the minority in case a majority should be inclined to proceed in an unconstitutional way.


wished to know whether any public prosecutor would be appointed to bring the cases of corruption before Committees, and whether the expense of the proceedings would be defrayed by individuals, or provision would be made by the Bill for their payment?


believed the proposed Amendment would defeat the object of the Bill, for if it should be adopted the Bill would not meet such a case as that of St. Albans. In that case the Committee reported that there was no proof of bribery or treating, but that they had been prevented from inquiring by the corrupt withdrawal of witnesses. If this Bill had been the law at that time, the Queen would have bad no power to issue a Commission. This showed how dangerous it would be to narrow the clause, and he trusted the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) would not consent to the change. He thought such an important Amendment ought not to have been proposed without due notice; and he should, therefore, move that the further consideration of the clause be postponed.


defended the Amendment, considering that the House itself was not the place where a discussion should take Parliament at any Election or Election of such place whether a Commission should issue or not.


supposed the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary meant to guard a rash vote of that House, or the vote of a majority in a small House; and for that he suggested an inquiry before either an Election Committee or a Select Committee. Now, he feared that neither of those Committees would answer the purpose, especially as a Select Committee was without the power of taking evidence on oath, or giving an indemnity to witnesses. He thought, however, that if the right hon. Gentleman had intended to propose this Amendment, he should have given some notice to the House.


said, that when they went into Committee on a former night, pro formâ, in order that the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) might introduce Amendments into a Bill, he (Mr. Walpole) stated that he should in Committee propose the very Amendment or an Amendment almost to the effect he had just moved. It was very far from his intention to take the House by surprise, nor would he thrust anything forward if any serious objection were made to it on that ground. As to the clause, he was perfectly sure they ought not to give the enormous power of these Commissions of Inquiry unless upon something like a previous allegation of proof. He wished to throw a guard round places sending Members to Parliament, so that a small majority of that House, by an inconsiderate or single vote, should not have the power of putting in motion Commissions of this description, the powers of which were so great, that nothing but the necessity of the case could justify them.


feared that this clause would allow an interference with the constituencies of the country by a majority of that House, because it was impossible not to see that it was in the power of the House at any time, upon any representation, without any evidence, to institute an inquiry into any borough for party or particular purposes. The Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary said, there should first be the decision of either an Election Committee or a Committee specially appointed. An Election Committee would, of course, be according to the forms and acts of the House, but a Committee specially appointed might be carried and appointed and selected by any majority actuated by any hostile, personal, or political feelings. That was a very formidable power to place in the hands of a majority, and if they once established that a majority of the House might decide either on the tenure of a seat of a Member, or of the power of a borough, they would expose the rights of constituencies to a most tyrannical interference. The clause went to place in the majority of the House the power of deciding on the return of any Member. ["Hear, hear!"] What a premium to boroughs to send Members connected with the majority! for it was telling them, "You will have no Commission of Inquiry if you return a Member connected with the majority; but if you return one connected with the minority, you will be exposed to most vexatious proceedings, and have your rights taken from you." He would refer to the opinion of one who would be acknowledged by hon. Gentlemen opposite to be a statesman. It was an opinion expressed in reference to the Grenville Act, and was to this effect:— That Bill originated in a belief that this House, in the aggregate, was an unfit tribunal to decide on contested elections. It viewed this House as every popular assembly should be viewed, as a mass of men capable of political dislike and personal aversion, capable of too much attachment and of too much animosity, capable of being biassed by weak and wicked motives, liable to be governed by Ministerial influence, by caprice, and corruption. Mr. Grenville's Bill viewed this House as endowed with those capacities, and judged it therefore incapable of determining upon controverted elections with impartiality, with justice, and with equity. It deprived it of the means of mischief, and formed a judicature as complete and impartial as human skill could conceive. Those were the words of Mr. Fox with regard to the impartiality of that House as to controverted elections. Let him (Mr. T. Baring) ask, whether the House would be entirely free from those improper motives in its decisions when it came to decide upon constituencies?


said, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. T. Baring) had taken unnecessary alarm respecting the measures that might be resorted to under this Bill. According to the Amendment, there must be in the first place the Report of a Select Committee that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, and they would have great difficulty in obtaining evidence, even in the case of boroughs where corruption had notoriously been practised. But, suppose the evidence obtained to induce a Select Committee to believe corruption had extensively prevailed, the House would next be asked to agree to an Address to the Crown to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. Supposing the House agreed to that, and the Commission, consisting of certain barristers, well qualified to take evidence, was appointed, they would go to the borough, or in certain cases would sit in London, and take evidence on oath, and, if they were not provided with legal evidence that corruption had extensively prevailed in the borough, the whole case fell to the ground. For his own part, he had so much reliance on proceeding by Commission, he thought no mischief could haw been done under the Bill as it originally stood, for, while he believed there were many boroughs in which corruption, prevailed that had never been subject to inquiry, and still less to punishment, he was also of opinion that the common belief on this point went further than the fact, and it might be useful to show that general allegations of corruption were unfounded. But, supposing the great majority of the electors of the borough were corrupt, and were in the habit, election after election, of receiving bribes, then there must be a report from the Commissioners laid before the House. Did that disfranchise the borough, or inflict any punishment on it? None whatever. There must next be a Bill brought in founded on the Report, and passed through all its stages; it must go up to the other House, and, having been passed, must receive the Royal assent. He really thought sufficient precautions were thus taken that no unnecessary disfranchisement would take place. So far from that being probable, he, on the contrary, was afraid they had not yet sufficient means to enable them to meet the evils that existed. But the hon. Member was not right in supposing that this would strain the powers of Parliament further than they at present existed. He (Lord J. Russell) remembered many years ago, in the case of Grampound, moving for an inquiry at the bar of the House on the ground of a conviction obtained in a Court of Law. The Motion was carried—witnesses were examined at the bar, the corruption was proved, and a Bill was brought in founded on that inquiry. Grampound was disfranchised on that evidence, combined with the proceedings in the Court of Law. Now, there was nothing whatever to prevent the House, if it chose to inquire if corruption was practised at Harwich or in any other borough, to appoint a Select Committee, and to introduce a Bill to disfranchise it. The Bill did not confer any power on the House that was wanting; but evidence taken in that way at the bar, without further circumstances to corroborate it, would not be sufficient for the House of Lords, who would enter into a fresh inquiry, and take evidence on oath, and this proceeding would take a vast deal of time, and, after all, would not be entirely satisfactory. It appeared to him nothing was so satisfactory as the course adopted in the cases of St. Albans and Sudbury. The Bill only gave a better mode of inquiry, and he did not think it could be denied that it was better to take evidence on oath before impartial Commissioners appointed by the Crown, than to take a course of proceeding where parties accused of corruption had the means of suppressing a great deal of evidence. If the Bill was rejected, the powers of the House would remain the same as before; but there would not be the same means of ascertaining the state of the boroughs. If a borough was proved to be thoroughly corrupt, they could not do better than disfranchise it; if not, they ought to remove the disgrace which attached to it.


had one suggestion to make. Let the evidence before the Select Committee be taken on oath.


wished to know if the noble Lord agreed to the Amendment? [Lord J. Russell was understood to say he agreed to it.] The objection to the Select Committee might be obviated by acting on the suggestion of his hon. Friend (Mr. T. Baring), of giving the Select Committee power to examine on oath. The only precedents which existed for the issue of Commissions were St. Albans and Sudbury, in both which cases the Committees reported that extensive bribery had prevailed, and the Commissions were issued with the sanction of Parliament.


said, he thought it would be an improvement to give the Committees the power of examining on oath, and he would suggest that the Commissioners should have the power of indemnifying the witnesses, as at St. Albans. That power was the reason of the success of the Commissioners, and the want of it accounted for the failure of the Select Committee.


said, that if the Committee adopted the plan proposed in the Bill as it stood, he had no doubt that its proceedings would be marked by the calmness and deliberation which were so highly to be desired.


said, that the observations of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. T. Baring) were founded on a mistrust of that House in a judicial matter. His (Mr. Wakley's) object was to retain the Bill in its present shape, and he, therefore, would entreat the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary to allow this discussion to be postponed, in order that his alterations might be printed.


thought the Bill should be framed with a view to practical results. Select Committees were appointed by political feelings, though an appearance of fairness was attempted. The present law should be strengthened. Election Committees ought to be instructed to report on general bribery, and on that Report a Select Committee of men of experience should then be appointed to investigate the evidence on which the House could proceed.


considered that the hon. and gallant Member had forgotten that as soon as bribery was discovered by an Election Committee, one or other party withdrew the petition. He did not think a majority of the House would depart from fairness and justice to issue a Commission against particular boroughs; and he hoped, looking to the important object of the Bill, it would be received by the Committee in its present shape.


begged to explain that he meant that Election Committees should be strengthened in point of numbers.


would remind the Committee, that the evil this Bill was intended to obviate was the expenses of inquiry previous to appointing an Election Committee, and this clause would not at all tend to diminish those preliminary expenses. He intended to move, that the further consideration of the clause be postponed until there was a fuller attendance on that side of the House.


begged to inform the hon. and learned Member for Youghal, that he could not propose that Motion until the present question before the Committee had been disposed of.


said, he did not entertain the same apprehensions as some of his friends as to the tyrannic exercise of their power by majorities in that House, though he admitted that there had been occasions when an oppressive use of their power had been made by majorities. However, he did not think that, where the object was merely inquiry, majorities would be found in that House to act oppressively. Considering, then, the importance and value of the Bill for the purpose of preventing corruption, he thought hon. Gentlemen would do well not to peril the Bill, by refusing to accept it as presented by the Government. He would suggest that, in the clause referring to an Address to the Crown, an alteration should be made so as to prevent its appearing that the Address to the Crown should be forwarded on the Report of the Committee, as would be the case if the clause remained unaltered, instead of being founded upon the decision of the House itself. Under this Bill the expense would be immense, and the delay prodigious, and at the same time the effect would be futile. He would test the sincerity of the friends of purity of,. election, and divide on the clause.


said, the sole result of this Bill would be to give power to the Crown to issue a Commission, without the form of an Act to inquire into oases of bribery, after two votes of the House had been in favour of inquiry. There were two kinds of Committees at present—the Election Committee and the Select Committee; and no one who had sat on either of those Committees to try a case of bribery would deny the extreme difficulty of getting the Committee to agree to any report which might lead to ulterior proceedings against the borough. An Election Committee was composed of two Members from either side of the House, and one Member alternating between them. That tribunal was, perhaps, as impartial as the House could make it; but still the Member whose case was to be tried always considered it a favourable circumstance, if the Chairman of the Committee was chosen from his side of the House. That was a proof that they were not free from party motives, however they might intend to be so. If the Select Committee was composed of five, seven, or nine Members, the same state of things would arise; and if fifteen or sixteen, it would still be a party fight, without that feeling of responsibility which attached to a smaller Committee. He approved of the suggestion of the hon. and learned Member for the city of Oxford (Sir W. P. Wood), and he was very sorry the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) had consented so speedily to the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department.


said, he really despaired of inducing the Opposition to pass any measures during this Session. This was the fourth time that the Government had been defeated in their efforts to accelerate the progress of public business. They wished the Militia Bill to be read a second time after the Easter recess; and who, above all other persons in the world, should rise up to protest against it but the hon. Member for the West Riding (Mr. Cobden)? He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) then stated that he wished to make some arrangement for fixing a day on which to make the financial statement of the Government; upon which a distinguished Member of the Opposition, in the name of the Irish Members, implored him to give them at least a week to consider it. Almost the whole of the even- ing had been spent on a Bill which was only a proper indemnity to the late Government with respect to the Consolidation of Irish Annuities. At half-past eleven o'clock, having fixed to go into Committee upon that Bill, another Irish Gentleman (also a Member of the Opposition) asked the Government to postpone that stage of the Bill. Then they took up a Bill of very great interest and importance, also prepared by the late Government, and a Bill which certainly, as a dissolution was impending, ought not to be neglected; but they were told that it was of no use whatever, because they had proposed an Amendment, in which the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell), the highest authority on such subjects, acquiesced; and they were asked not to press the Amendment. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) would only say, that the Government being sincere in its desire to accelerate as much as they could the progress of public business, he could not accede to that request. Feeling assured that the Amendment of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department was one that would render the Bill much more a security to the liberties of the people, and much more available for the objects which they all desired to accomplish, he called upon the Committee to adopt it; and if the other Motion—threatened also by another Member of the Opposition—should be proposed, he should ask the Committee to divide against it.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause."

The Committee divided:—Ayes 26; Noes 137: Majority 111.

Clause agreed to; as were also the other clauses up to Clause 5 inclusive.

Clause 6.


said, as the Clause was then drawn, the Commissioners would have power to inquire into corrupt practices at previous elections, dating, it might be, ten or twenty years hack, and by coupling those practices with the practices at the last election lay a foundation for the disfranchisement of a borough—though there might have been an intervening election at which no corruption had taken place. His Amendment would have the effect of allowing the Commissioners, if they found corruption at the last election to go back to the previous one, and so on until they came to an eleection at which those practices had not been proved to exist, when the inquiry should stop. With this view he begged to move, first, the omission of the words in the clause, "for such a period retrospectively as they think proper."


considered it a most mischievous Amendment. As he understood it, if there had been one single election where bribery had not taken place, the Commissioners were restricted from going behind that election. Now, they were all aware that the parties sometimes agreed that neither should bribe, or there might be a compromise. This Amendment, then, would defeat the object of the inquiry; therefore, he would suggest that if the Commissioners found an intermediate election, at which bribery had not taken place, they should report such fact to the House.


said, the object of the Amendment was to fetter the Commission, so that they would not be able to elicit the truth.


considered that there wag great inconvenience in discussing questions of this nature without the Amendment being printed. He would therefore move that progress be reported, and that the Committee ask leave to sit again.


thought it would be better to have the Amendment printed. In his opinion, it would be unwise to fetter the Commission in their inquiry.

House resumed. Committee report progress.

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