HC Deb 05 April 1852 vol 120 cc768-74

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee. Clause 6 (Inquiry by the Commissioners).


said, he had to propose an Amendment limiting the retrospective operation of the Clause. His object was, not to leave the Commissioners an unlimited discretion to go back to as many antecedent elections as they might think proper, but to restrict their powers of inquiry to the last ten years, or to the last three elections.

Amendment proposed, in p. 3, lines 19 and 20, to leave out the words "and for such period retrospectively as they think proper."


said, he did not think it would be wise to limit the powers of the Commissioners in the manner proposed by the right hon. Gentleman. There might have been corrupt practices extensively prevalent at every general election for twelve, or twenty, or twenty-five years past, and he thought that they would afford most material matter for inquiry.


opposed the Amendment, and said he must blame the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) for making so many concessions to hon. Gentlemen opposite. If there was to be any utility in the Bill, the Clause must be allowed to stand in its original shape; and if the proposed alterations were permitted, the country would consider the Bill a delusion and a sham, and would not believe there was any disposition to put a stop to corrupt practices at elections.


thought, if the words stood as they were, they would give too large a discretion to the Commissioners, and that it was desirable to put some limit to the inquiry. It might be difficult to define what that limit should be, but he was rather disposed to take a certain term of years, and to prevent the Commissioners from going beyond it. He should suggest that the term of ten years, or three elections—either one or the other—should be taken, which would give sufficient space for full inquiry into the state of the borough, more particularly when it was recollected that this Commission was to be preceded by an inquiry before a Committee.


said, the St. Albans Bribery Bill had the words now proposed to be expunged in it when it left that House, and when it came down there again they had disappeared from the Clause, but the House had them reinserted. That was pretty conclusive as to what had been the feeling of that House against the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment.


said, he should support the Amendment, as being calculated to render the Bill a good working measure. The St. Albans Commissioners had had very large and unlimited powers confided to them, and they had gone into evidence regarding a great number of anterior elections. He admitted that they had performed their duty with great fairness and ability; but he thought this Bill would be more efficient if some limit were laid down with respect to the powers of the Commissioners to be appointed under it.


thought that until the leaders of both sides of the House declared publicly that henceforward they would dispense the patronage of the Government without favour or affection, and irrespective of political opinions, it was all nonsense, and purely absurd, to pursue the poor voter for taking a bribe. When he sat on the other side of the House he never had any applications for places; but now that his party had come into office the applications to him were very numerous, it being supposed that he had the disposal of all the patronage of the Government as far as his own borough was concerned. He believed the corruption at head-quarters was worse than that amongst the humbler orders.


hoped the Committee would not consent to this Amendment, nor agree to anything that would abridge the powers of the Commissioners. If the Commissioners were to be invested with such large powers, they must, of course, select men for the office on whose discretion they could rely; and if they could rely upon them, it would be unwise to fetter them in their investigation. They were now on the eve of a general election, and each party was going to the country with confidence in the result of the appeal. If he might judge from the last election which had taken place—he alluded, of course, to the borough of Monmouth—scenes of corruption, debauchery, and violence would take place which would be a disgrace to us as a civilised community. He trusted, therefore, that this Bill would be made effective, so that boroughs which were guilty of corrupt practices might be punished, and on this ground he called on the Committee to resist the Amendment.

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

The Committee divided:—Ayes 116; Noes 99; Majority 17.


proposed to add in line 42, after the word "election," the following words:— And whether or not all or any of such corrupt practices were committed or done by the fraud or contrivance, or at the instance, of any and what person or persons in particular, and for what object, or under what circumstances.


thought that the proposed Amendment was superfluous, as the object of the Bill was to punish corruption in the electors, and not in any other person; and at all events there was this conclusive objection against it, that the Commissioners would have nothing to do with disfranchising a borough, which must he reserved for the action of Parliament.


said, he concurred with his hon. and learned Friend in thinking that if they appointed Commissioners, they must trust that they would report fairly what had taken place; and if fraud had taken place, and evidence of it was given before them and reported to the House, they would not then disfranchise the borough.


said, that he could not help expressing his astonishment at the doctrine which had been propounded by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southampton (Sir A. Cockburn). It seemed that this Bill was only intended to punish the recipients of bribes, while those more guilty persons who paid the money and tempted the poor voters were to go unpunished. He protested against this wretched hypocrisy, especially coming from the quarter whence it did. Did any one doubt that the dockyard boroughs were the most corrupt and the worst seats of bribery? And, therefore, when a Member for Southampton, of all persons in the world, was considering how he could punish those who accepted bribes, but not at all those who offered them, he (Mr. J. Stuart) said, that he was advocating a measure contrary to every principle of justice and fair dealing, and one in which he (Mr. J. Stuart) would take no part. The whole principle of the Bill seemed to him eminently calculated to defeat its professed object, and half the speeches that had been delivered upon it were founded on the most hypocritical pretences.


said, that he would not bandy words of this description with his hon. and learned Friend who had just resumed his seat; but he begged leave to tell him that when he charged him (Sir A. Cockburn) with hypocrisy he made a most unjust and unfounded charge. There was not, he solemnly protested, either in or out of that House, an individual who would do more than he would to put down this practice of bribery, not only in the bribed, but also in the bribers; but how could two objects be accomplished in one and the same Act? This was a Bill to prevent the corruption of a constituency, and if it had taken place, to detect and expose it. He did not contend that if they had a Report from Commissioners pointing out that corrupt practices had existed in a certain borough, and who had been guilty of them, that they should disfranchise the borough, and should pot visit with punishment the bribers as well as the bribed. What he objected to was, that it was not the matter in hand to ascertain whether bribes were given fraudulently; that it was merely to detect the, corruption of the constituency; and if his hon. and. learned Friend, having listened to him, had misunderstood him, or had thought proper to misinterpret him (he cared not which), he begged leave to tell him that no more unfounded charge was ever made than when he accused hips (Sir A. Cockburn) of hypocrisy.


said, that the hon. and learned Member for Newark (Mr. J. Stuart) appeared to have so had an opinion of the Government as to think that they would use dockyard influence at the next election for corrupt purposes. The hon. and learned Member for Southampton did not, however, represent such a borough; and he (Mr. C. Anstey) had a better opinion of the Government than to suppose they would be guilty pf that wholesale bribery which the hon. and learned Member for Newark foresaw would take place at the coming election.

Motion withdrawn.

Clause agreed to.

MR. ADDERLEY moved to add the following Proviso:— Provided that nothing contained in this Act, or any other Act, shall be construed to bring within the meaning of corrupt practices the giving reasonable refreshment to any voter who shall come from a distance of more than two miles to the poll, if any such refreshment be given not later than three hours after the time at which the polling of that day ceases. He thought that it would be a disastrous thing to go to a general election with the law in such a state as it was at present, that no one could stand a contest without breaking the laws and rendering his return liable to be voided. It had been recommended, he believed, by the noble Lord (Lord John Russell), and certainly by Mr. Speaker, that treating should be recognised by law, and that tickets for refreshment should be given by the sheriff to the ejectors who polled, the expense to be afterwards divided amongst the candidates as hustings expenses. He believed that it would be better to escape the difficulty by taking the votes of electors at their own houses; but so long as candidates had to invite their friends to their own houses—for he was afraid that candidates at ejections must consider the public-houses something like their own—it was against the feelings of Englishmen to invite their friends and not give them some refreshment. Several Chairmen of Election Committees had recommended such a provision, and he believed that both the late Sir Robert Peel and the noble Lord the Member for London had stated that the present Bill did not intend to embrace such cases as he had referred to, but was directed against corrupt treating only. The giving of any refreshment had, however, been made illegal. He had been told by eminent legal authorities that "reasonable" was a legal and legitimate word, and one that could be understood and construed by lawyers.


said, that this Proviso hardly came within the scope of the Bill, the object of which was to provide for an effectual inquiry into corrupt practices, but not to make any new law, or to define by law what was a corrupt practice. The two objects should, he thought, be kept perfectly distinct. The hon. Member (Mr. Adderley) could himself bring in a Bill on the subject, or he believed that an hon. Friend of his own intended to do so. There was much to be said in favour of such a Proviso; but at the same time great care must he taken in doing it. He thought, however, that it should be the subject of a distinct Bill.


begged to draw the attention of the noble Lord to the 56th Clause, in which treating was referred to. He thought, therefore, that it would not be inconsistent with the object of the Bill to add a Proviso, explaining what should be taken to be treating.


said, that this Clause did not attempt to define either treating or bribery, but merely pointed out how, taking the offences to be as they were at present defined by law, the fact of their having been committed might be ascertained.


begged to ask whether the proposed Bill, to which the noble Lord the Member for London had referred, would be brought in before the coming elections?


said, that it was his hon. Friend the Member for Essex to whom he had referred; but the hon. Member for North Staffordshire (Mr. Adderley) could, if he wished, bring in a Bill on the subject.


, as one of the Chairmen of the Election Committees to whom the hon. Gentleman had referred as being favourable to an amendment of the kind now proposed, recommended the hon. Gentleman not to press his Amendment at the present moment.


quite agreed with the hon. Gentleman in thinking that the subject was one of importance; but this was not the opportunity for introducing it. Besides the objections pointed out by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southampton (Sir A. Cockburn), and the noble Lord, he thought that, as this Bill was confined entirely to boroughs, the Proviso proposed by the hon. Member for North Staffordshire (Mr. Adderley) would not apply to counties where the grievance of which he complained existed.


said, in deference to the general feeling of the Committee he would withdraw the Amendment; but he would do his best to introduce a Bill on the subject.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at half after one o'clock.