HC Deb 02 April 1852 vol 120 cc591-601

said, when he gave notice of his Motion for issuing the writ for Harwich on the previous evening, it appeared to him that it was one which was generally acceptable to hon. Members on his own side of the House; but he had since been given to understand that oppo- sition would be offered to him, not from the Ministerial, but from his own side of the House. On the previous evening he had had the honour of supporting the Motion of his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster (Sir De L. Evans) for an inquiry into the misdeeds of the borough of Harwich. The Government had thought proper to oppose that inquiry; and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department stated reasons why that inquiry should be resisted, adding that it was not his intention to allow a writ to issue for the borough of Harwich, as this Parliament was on the eve of a dissolution. He (Mr. T. Duncombe) had objected to this course; he had said that there never was anything more unconstitutional, or unprecedented, and he had maintained that the House was bound either to institute an inquiry into the alleged corruption of this borough, or else not to suspend the issue of a writ for a new election. There was a difficulty in suspending the writ at all, for this reason, that the Committee had not made any report of corruption against Harwich, but had declared the election void in consequence of the returning officer having closed the poll before the time allowed by law. He was fully convinced that this borough was a nest and hotbed of corruption, but that was no reason why they should establish the most dangerous doctrine that a Minister of the Crown could, upon any occasion he thought proper, say, "such or such a place shall have no representative," at a time when no inquiry was pending. If this were done in one case, it might be done in another. Upon this ground he (Mr. T. Duncombe) said that if they refused the inquiry moved by the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster, a writ should at once be issued. How was the approaching dissolution to take place? It was not to take place in consequence of this Parliament running its natural course, but in consequence of the advice that was to be given by the Prime Minister of the Crown. And were they to suspend the issue of a new writ because certain advice, which nobody knew whether it was to be given in May, or June, or July, was to be offered at some time or another to the Crown by the Prime Minister? It was true that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary afterwards, in the course of the debate, had said that he had another reason for refusing to allow a writ to issue. It was this—that if he proposed the issuing of the writ, it would be said that the Government had influence in the borough, and that a supporter of the Government was about to be returned for it. Now it must be admitted that there was a delicacy, and punctiliousness, and scrupulosity about this reason of the right hon. Gentleman, such as he (Mr. T. Duncombe) had never before witnessed; and he only hoped that the wear and tear of official life would not remove such honourable feelings from the mind of the right hon. Gentleman. He (Mr. T. Duncombe) could not understand upon what grounds they had the right to suspend the issuing of this writ, and he hoped that the House would not deprive even the borough of Harwich, with all its delinquencies, of its constitutional rights.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Harwich, in the room of Robert Wigram Crawford, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void.


said, he begged to move as an Amendment that no writ should issue during this Session of Parliament for the borough of Harwich. He agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe), that Harwich was a rotten nest of corruption, and it was upon that ground that he called upon the House not to encourage corruption by issuing another writ for this borough. It had been said that there were only two courses which could be pursued on the present occasion: either to institute an inquiry, or to issue a writ. But he (Mr. Bouverie) would affirm that in this, as in other cases, one of three courses might be adopted, and that they might either determine to issue the writ, or to suspend the issue, or to institute an inquiry. They all knew what had been disclosed on the Committee, with respect to Harwich in 1841, and that a compromise had been effected with reference to the return for that borough, with the view of screening the Members who were returned at that election. Had there been any reason to suppose that since 1841 the state of things had in the least degree improved? Far from it. In 1847 there was another election, and in reference to the candidates returned at that time a Committee of that House had declared that Mr. John Attwood had been guilty of bribery by means of his agents. It was alleged in extenuation of the sins of this borough, that two elections had occurred there since 1847, and that there was no proof of bribery having been resorted to at either of them; but it seemed to him that they needed no fresh evidence to show that the borough was a sink of corruption. He (Mr. Bouverie) had voted with the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster (Sir De L. Evans) for an inquiry into the practices that were alleged to exist in Harwich; but the House had refused to grant that inquiry. And now his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury, with the zeal for logic which always distinguished him, said that they must issue a writ for a new election. Upon this point he (Mr. Bouverie) joined issue with his hon. Friend, and he would say that it was an old constitutional practice that the writ should be suspended in cases where bribery was suspected, and that not in one Session only, but in some cases from Session to Session. In the year 1700 it was ordered that no writ should issue for Winchilsea. In the same year a similar order was made with respect to Great Grimsby, and the same course was at different succeeding times taken with respect to New Shoreham, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and other places. He thought that the corruption which existed at Harwich would justify them in resorting to the old constitutional rule of withholding the writ. Before two or three months elapsed there must be a new election, and what would be the consequence of that with reference to this borough? Why, that there would be no appropriate remedy in case of corruption at an immediate election. If a writ were now issued, the most gross and beastly corruption might be practised, but there would be no mode of ascertaining the fact, because it was morally certain that Parliament would be dissolved before any inquiry could take place. But if the House now suspended the writ, the electors would have an opportunity at the next general election of showing that they had abandoned the malpractices of which they had been guilty.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'no warrant do issue this Session of Parliament for any now Writ for the Borough of Harwich,' instead thereof.

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


said, he coincided with the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe) in thinking that the writ for the borough of Harwich ought at once to issue. As to the Amendment of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), he must express his entire disapprobation of it. If constituencies were thus to be disfranchised—if any constituency was to be so treated upon a charge of corruption, where was such a system to end? Since the revelations made by Mr. Coppock, hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed to have the most morbid sensibility regarding corruption. Seeing and knowing what took place throughout the kingdom, it was most unfair that they should single out a small borough like Harwich, and visit it with the penalty of disfranchisement—that was a proceeding most inconsistent and unjust. If they looked back a little, they would find that it was not in small boroughs alone that corruption prevailed—he would refer them to former elections in the City of London itself. Look at Greenwich. Why, it was proved before a County Court that Alderman Salomons had given direct orders for a large expenditure on the part of certain agents and publicans; this was proved before the County Court, but Alderman Salomons escaped payment of those charges, on the ground that they were illegal, and in contravention of the Act to Repress Bribery, Corruption, and Treating. If they were to make the case of Harwich a precedent to be rigorously adhered to, then they ought to inquire into half the constituencies in the kingdom. They constantly heard it stated that the Members on his Bide of the House obtained their seats by more corrupt means than those on the other. Now, that he emphatically denied. He could state, from his own knowledge, that if an inquiry were made into all the constituencies in the kingdom, his side of the House would be found to contrast most favourably with the other. Bribery was unusual in counties—it was, indeed, very seldom practicable. It was further alleged that tenant-farmers were frequently obliged to vote against their inclination. The fact was otherwise, and he would not advise any set of men to go to the country upon such a supposition. The tenant-farmers felt what they expressed, and would vote as they spoke and felt—any party of landowners who went to the country upon any other belief would go upon a most perilous adventure, and might be certain of their fate. The imputations cast upon farmers, that they were the mere tools and agents of landlords, was a calumny and a libel on them. He trusted the House would not accede to the Amend- ment of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock—that they would not adopt so unconstitutional a course as to decide by a mere majority of that House upon a great constitutional question, setting law and privilege at defiance.


said, the hon. Gentleman had complained of a sort of morbid sensibility which had been shown by that House with regard to corruption; but, considering that a Bill had been brought forward by the Government of which he was a supporter for the express purpose of enacting provisions to put down corruption, such a complaint on his part was rather strange. He (Sir De L. Evans) had stated in his remarks, on a former evening, that there were particular circumstances connected with this borough that made it conspicuous above all other corrupt boroughs in this country, and that there was stronger proof against it than there was against St. Albans and Sudbury, for that two Committees had found it guilty of corruption. He had offered the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, that if he would point out any other borough equally corrupt, he (Sir De L. Evans) would withdraw his Motion; but not one syllable had the right hon. Gentleman said in answer. Under these circumstances he must oppose the issuing of this writ.


said, he had been Chairman of the Harwich Election Committee, and must say that, after a long scrutiny, the Committee were of opinion that general corruption had not prevailed at that election. The House must well know that allegations in an election petition ought not to be considered as evidence, and he would further remark, that if the principle of condonation were ever to be admitted, Harwich had amply condoned whatever offences it had been guilty of.


said, that in 1842 he had moved for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into certain matters connected with Harwich, when it was proved that money had been spent in the borough in a wholesale manner. When the inquiries of that Committee were closed, he had come before the House, and had moved that no writ should issue for Harwich, but that Motion was negatived by the House. Ten years had now elapsed since that time; much bribery might have taken place during that period, but none had been proved, and the House was now asked to do that which, when he had asked it, at a time that the inquiry was fresh, and the whole thing was proved to the satisfaction of everybody, the House had refused to do. How could they now attempt to refuse the issuing of a new writ after ten years had elapsed, during which no fresh evidence had been adduced against the borough?


begged to remind his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Roebuck) of the Resolution of the Committee of 1847, referred to by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), which declared that at that election Mr. Attwood had been, by his agents, guilty of bribery. It appeared that there was something like logical sequence in the argument of the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe), that the House, having refused an inquiry into the state of the borough, was bound to issue the writ. But there were two kinds of punishment which Parliament had power to inflict upon offending boroughs. The one was, an inquiry with a view to disfranchisement, which might be termed Capital punishment. The other was the minor punishment of the suspension of the writ. They were now approaching the termination of the present Parliament; and if any malpractices should take place at an election for Harwich, consequent upon a writ now issued, it would be impossible for this Parliament to punish it in any way. He therefore proposed that the House should not make itself responsible for issuing any writ now, but that it should allow Harwich to exercise its privilege at the general election of returning Members to that House.


said, that the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright) had stated that Parliament had two punishments to inflict upon offending boroughs. Who denied it? The question really was, not whether Parliament might inflict either punishment, but whether that House would think fit to inflict either in the present case. There was no doctrine more clear than this, that whenever a vacancy occurred, it was the duty of the remaining Members of that House to supply it. Exceptions might occur, and if a Committee made a Special Report, upon that Special Report the House might act. But was there a Special Report in this case? There had been two elections at Harwich since 1848, and had it been alleged in cither case that there had been such bribery as to justify that House, without the encouragement of a Special Report of any Committee, in recommending a measure so severe as the disfranchisement of Harwich—for disfranchisement it was, in fact, if they continued to suspend the writ? If once the principle was got rid of, that Members of Parliament were elected by their constituencies ex debito justitiœ, it would be absolutely in the power of a tyrant majority in that House to rid themselves altogether of their opponents.


said, that he had been a voter at the last three elections for Harwich, and he would undertake to say that there was no ground whatever for the sweeping allegations that had been made respecting bribery at those elections.


said, he did not concur with his hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford in thinking that the Amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) would be an unparliamentary proceeding, or that it would be a precedent that would give an undue power to a tyrannical majority. The power of suspending a writ had been used by that House from time to time since the year 1696, when he believed the earliest precedent of this kind was established. With respect, however, to this particular instance, he owned that there was much more doubt as to the discretion of exercising this power. He considered that the House having chosen, on the last occasion when the seat for Harwich was declared void, to suspend the issuing of the writ from the month of July last to the present April, there could be no reason for it to alter its course. His hon. Friend (Sir R. Inglis), appeared to think that the House had been in error all that time, and ought now to make haste to get out of it. Now he (Lord J. Russell), when be was at the head of the Government, certainly could not agree in that view, and having consulted with his right hon. Friend the Member for Northumberland (Sir G. Grey), they determined that, if a new writ for Harwich was proposed to be issued, they should oppose that Motion. He (Lord J. Russell) had seen no reason for changing the opinion he had formed, or the course be had decided upon taking. Nevertheless, it would seem that the last two elections for Harwich made this a peculiar case; and he thought the opinion of the House appeared now to be in favour of issuing the writ. If, however, his hon. Friend (Mr. Bouverie) chose to divide the House, he (Lord J. Russell) must certainly divide with him; but he would rather suggest to his hon. Friend that it would be better not to divide, but to allow the writ to issue.


thought there had been as much bribery at the last two elections for Harwich as at any former election; and charges of bribery had been brought against the sitting Members, which charges, however, were not gone into, because the return was declared null upon some other preliminary allegation—such, for instance, as when Mr. Prinsep's seat was declared void on the ground that he did not possess the requisite property qualification. He should support the Amendment, because he thought the suspension of the writ a mode of punishing the borough for its corruption.


said, the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell), who was a high Parliamentary authority, stated that there were a variety of precedents on the journals for suspending a writ; but he would ask the noble Lord whether the precedents to which he referred did not all of them occur prior to the Grenville Act, when the House itself decided as to the validity of the elections; and whether the noble Lord was prepared to favour the House with any precedent applicable to the particular circumstances that they had now to consider? Now, it was true that in the year 1842 there was a very strong Report submitted to that House, in which it was declared that extensive bribery had prevailed at Harwich; and it was recommended to the House at the time that, if necessary, a further and more searching inquiry should be made into the alleged corrupt practices, to see whether they were of so extensive a character as to justify the disfranchisement of the borough. The House, however, on that occasion chose to pass over the Committee's Report, and agreed to the issuing of a new writ; and if any act could amount to what was called condonation, unquestionably the House, with a full knowledge of all that had occurred in 1842 at Harwich had acted upon that principle. In 1847 an election took place, and there was a Report by an Election Committee to the effect that Mr. Attwood had been guilty of bribery by his agents, and that gentleman was in consequence unseated. But it was stated by hon. Members, in 1847 or 1848 (he forgot exactly which year), that the proofs of bribery were of so flagrant a character as to warrant the interference of that House, and to demand a further investigation. At that time an Act had been passed under the auspices of the noble Lord opposite (Lord J. Russell), by which, if in the course of any inquiry before an Election Committee that Committee had reason to believe that any charges of bribery had been withdrawn, or abandoned, or not bonâ fide prosecuted, it would be competent for the Committee to report that fact to the House, and the House might then direct the Committee to reassemble and investigate those charges. He was, therefore, entitled to say, with regard to 1848, when the Committee reported that Mr. Attwood had been guilty of bribery, and unseated him, that there was no evidence before the Committee to induce them to think that extensive bribery had prevailed, or there would have been a Special Report on the subject, nor to induce the House to believe that any charges of bribery had not been fairly investigated. Then he had a right to take his stand on the year 1842, and to consider whether, since that time, any circumstances had occurred to warrant the House—contrary to precedents, he maintained—in taking the extraordinary course of refusing to issue this writ. Now, at the two elections subsequent to 1842 it was not pretended by any one that the slightest bribery had been practised at Harwich. Well, what had occurred with regard to that suspension of the writ to which the noble Lord referred? Subsequent to the last election, his right hon. Friend the Judge Advocate (Mr. Bankes) presented a petition to that House, conveying charges that intimidation on the part of the late Government had considerably influenced the election; and under these circumstances it was not thought right to issue the writ. His right hon. Friend had since explained why it was that at the commencement of the present Session he had not renewed that proposition. Afterwards a notice was given by the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster (Sir De L. Evans) that he was prepared to bring charges of gross bribery against the borough of Harwich, and he asked the House to defer the issue of the writ until his allegations were considered. The House, however, after hearing the hon. and gallant Member's statement, did not consider that he had made out his case, and refused to issue the Commission of Inquiry for which he asked. Under all these circumstances, what was it the duty of that House to do? Was Harwich entitled to a representation in that House, or was it not? If there was no charge, and no intention to prefer any charge, he said they would do an injustice if for a single day they withheld the issuing of the writ, and prevented Harwich from being represented in that House. The argument of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bouverie), that the writ could be issued for the approaching general election, was perfectly inexplicable. Why would it be more fit to issue it after a dissolution than before it? The noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) had risen to vindicate his own consistency; but it appeared that he was anxious not to be driven to the necessity of being consistent, because he suggested that the hon. Member should withdraw the Amendment, and allow the writ to issue.


said, the House had virtually decided that no further inquiry into this matter was necessary, and under those circumstances he could not see how it could be made consistent either with former precedents or with reason or justice that they should refuse any longer that which was the natural right of a constituency. He should consequently vote for issuing the writ.


said, that, having acted as a Chairman of the Committee which sat upon the last election for Harwich, he could state that it was distinctly and openly declared by the counsel for the petitioner that he had never any intention whatever to charge the sitting Member, or any of his immediate friends concerned in the election, with any acts of bribery or corruption.


said, he wished to ask a question of the Government, which affected the character of that House for justice, good faith, and consistency. He wished to ask what distinction could be drawn between St. Albans and the borough of Harwich? The two cases were admitted to be parallel up to the year 1848; but the bribery practised at the last two elections could not be gone into because the elections were annulled upon preliminary objections.


said, that after the discussion that had taken place, he would not press his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered— That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Harwich, in the room of Robert Wigram Crawford, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void.