HC Deb 01 December 1852 vol 123 cc805-13

Order for Committee read; Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


said, that, as the representative of a very large agricultural district (Devonshire), he felt that, if the Bill were passed in its present shape, it would be impossible for his constituency to exercise the franchise without much inconvenience. It must be evident to every one who was acquainted with the county constituencies that the greatest possible difficulty would arise from the provisions of the Bill; and he now interposed for the purpose of appealing to the noble Lord (Lord R. Grosvenor), and requesting him to postpone its further consideration until after the recess, that hon. Members might have an opportunity of communicating with their constituents, and ascertaining what were their sentiments upon the subject. If, however, the noble Lord would not accede to that suggestion, he trusted he would adopt another course, which he could assure him would meet the concurrence of several Gentlemen on that (the Ministerial) side of the House, and consent to submit the Bill to the consideration of a Select Committee. It was by no means his wish to defeat the Bill; all he desired was that it should be made as satisfactory to the country as it was possible to make it.


said, that, before the noble Lord answered the appeal of his (Mr. Miles's) hon. Friend (Mr. Buck), he trusted he would take into his consideration a point which he (Mr. Miles) thought was a necessary preliminary to the discussion of to-day. It was desirable that the noble Lord should state distinctly to the House what were his intentions in proposing this Bill. In the last Parliament the noble Lord began by confining his measure to the simple proposition that the Poll for Counties should last but one day. Subse- quently, hewever, he added one or two apparently trivial things to the Bill, the effect of which was to prevent its passing that Session. And now he had complicated a simple proposition by adding two others to it—namely, that the period to elapse between the nomination and the Poll should be only one day, and between the Poll and declaration one day more. To him (Mr. Miles) these propositions would be an almost insuperable barrier to the passing of the measure. He thought it right, therefore, that the House should perfectly understand what was the actual shape which the noble Lord intended the Bill should assume.


, in reply to the question of the hon. Member for North Devonshire (Mr. Buck), said, that if the Bill were then for the first time introduced, there might have been some reason in that hon. Gentleman's request; but the House would recollect that not only was that not the case, but the Bill was brought in last Session with the sanction of the Government to its principle—that since that time an election had taken place— and that he had in the late Parliament given notice that he should again bring forward the measure. It could not be contended, therefore, that the constituencies had not had the most ample opportunity of considering it: the hon. Gentleman would excuse him if he declined to comply with his request. The hon. Member for East Somersetshire (Mr. Miles) had desired him (Lord R. Grosvenor) to state what he really meant to accomplish by his Bill. In the first place, then, the Amendment of which he had given notice for limiting to one day the period between the nomination and the Poll having been received with so little favour by the House, it was his intention, as he had stated on a previous occasion, to withdraw it; so that, as far as he himself was concerned, he proposed now simply to limit the duration of the poll to one day instead of two, and to provide that the official declaration should be made the day following the close of the poll instead of the day but one after.


said, he concurred in the opinion expressed by the noble Lord who had charge of the Bill, that the country had had abundant opportunity to make itself acquainted with the provisions of the measure, and that there was therefore no legitimate excuse for further postponement. He did not believe that any evil result would follow from con-fining the polling to one day, as in boroughs. In the borough of Shoreham, which was of considerable extent, he believed there existed no difficulty in taking the poll in one day.


said, he must complain of the haste with which it was endeavoured to pass this Bill through the House, and he thought more time should be allowed for considering its provisions. The principal ground upon which he was opposed to the Bill was, that it would certainly operate as a measure of disfranchisement in the case of a large portion of the county electors, and these of the most important class. The state of the weather during the last fortnight ought to have convinced the House of the great difficulty which would have been experienced in many counties by the electors attempting to come to the poll at all. For these, among other reasons, he should oppose the further progress of the Bill, and move, as an Amendment, that it should be committed on that day six months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words, "this House will, upon this day six months, resolve itself into the said Committee," instead thereof.

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


said, he should support the Bill. The whole of the objections which had been urged on that (the Ministerial) side of the House might be obviated by inserting a provision for the establishment of more polling places, and for taking the votes at the houses of the electors in the same manner as was now done at elections of guardians of the poor.


said, that as the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Sir G. Pechell) had quoted the borough which he (Lord A. Lennox) had the honour to represent, as an instance that no inconvenience could arise from having only two polling places, and confining the polling to one day, that district being thirty miles long and ten wide, he begged to inform him that the inconvenience was so great, and the complaints so general, that it was his intention to move a clause to the Bill to place the borough of Shoreham upon the same footing as counties.


said, he proposed to move an instruction to the Committee to insert a clause for shortening the time between the proclamation and the day of election in counties, and between the time of the receipt of the writ and the election in boroughs. At present county elections took place under the regulations of the Act of 25 Geo. III. (1785). The first duty of the House was to take care that they limited the expenses by every possible means, and also abridged the duration of those seasons of strife, excitement, and dissipation, which were the most crying of the evils attendant upon elections in the present day. He had heard it suggested —and the suggestion. was certainly entitled to great weight—that there were circumstances and times in which it might be exceedingly difficult for the electors to get to the poll, and the present season had been instanced by one hon. Gentleman as illustrative of this difficulty; but he submitted that for such extraordinary circumstances it was impossible for Parliament to legislate. They must rather decide upon general principles, and legislate for ordinary circumstances, than attempt to provide for the many exceptional cases which would be sure to arise whatever the law might he. Considering, then, the improved means of communication in the present day—the variety of changes which had been effected in society, and the facilities for giving votes—none of which existed in 1785, the time of passing that Act, he proposed to limit the period between the receipt by the sheriff of the writ and the day of election to ten days, instead of sixteen; and the period between the proclamation and the official declaration of the poll to five days, instead of ten. So far as to county elections. With regard to borough elections, the House was aware that by the Act 3 & 4 Vict. it was provided that these should take place within eight days after the receipt of the precept by the returning officer, three clear days' notice being given by him of the time for holding the election. Now, as he proposed to alter the law relating to county elections, it was necessary that he should also propose to alter the law as to borough elections, in order that borough and county elections might not conflict. He proposed, therefore, to alter the time in respect to borough elections, so that the election should he held within six days, instead of eight, after the receipt of the precept by the returning officer, he giving two clear days' notice of the holding such election. He believed that the Bill would be greatly improved by the introduction of these clauses.


did not think that any hon. Gentleman would object to the substance of the hon. and learned Gentleman's proposition, as the feeling of the House was, that all these proceedings should be shortened as much as possible; but with respect to the period between the nomination and polling, he certainly thought that, if the polling should be limited to one day, it would not be unfair to allow more time than at present for preparation between the nomination and the poll. He had been informed by election agents that there would be no difficulty in taking the poll in one day, provided the number of polling places was increased. He thought, too, that as little trouble as possible should be given to the voters, and that the election should be taken to the electors instead of the electors to the election. He would not at present refer further to the suggestion that the poll should be taken by voting papers; but as it was the disposition of the House to deal very stringently with treating and the expenditure of money during an election, it was quite clear that if the candidates were not allowed by Parliament to bring voters up to the poll, they would not be got up. There was only one point more, and that was, that in some districts it would be impossible to get the poll-books up in time to make the declaration of the poll on the day following the election, and he would therefore suggest that the declaration should be deferred until the day but one after the election.


said, he had supported the Bill on its second reading, and intended to support the Motion for going into Committee upon it now; and if the noble Lord (Lord R. Grosvenor) confined it to the object he had just stated, he had no doubt that much time would be saved, and the Bill speedily passed. As to the Motion of his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. G. Butt), he would not say whether his hon. and learned Friend's Amendments were desirable or not; but the House should consider whether it ought to entertain an instruction to the Committee on a question of this kind, which instruction had been placed upon the Votes only the night before. For his part, he had not Seen his hon. and learned Friend's notice until that morning, and he had had no opportunity of consulting his Colleagues upon the subject. If his hon. and learned Friend would withdraw his instruction, the House might go into Committee on the Bill at once, and proceed to the consideration of its details without further delay.


said, he was of opinion that, if the Bill passed, additional polling places in counties would be indispensably necessary. In the hope that the objectionable parts of the Bill would be rectified in Committee, he would not oppose it in its present stage.


said, that the principle of the Bill having been agreed to by the House, it was desirable that they should carry it into effect with as little delay as possible. With respect to the polling places, no doubt if the polling was confined to one day, it would not only be desirable but necessary to increase the number of those places, for he thought that a person going to vote at a county election ought not to travel further than a person who had to vote for a city or borough, and resided within seven miles of it; but that could be accomplished by the law as it at present stood. It was competent for Justices of the Peace to propose any increase in the number of polling places that they might think expedient, and the power of carrying out their recommendation was reserved to the Queen in Council. There was no reason to suppose that the magistrates would not be actuated by a desire to consult the convenience of the electors, by recommending the erection of additional polling places in such situations as they, judging from their local knowledge, might consider most advantageous. The hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. G. Butt) who moved the instructions had raised a question as to the time between the issuing of the writ and the time of the election. He thought it would be better to propose that in a separate Bill; but he would ask whether, rather than abridging the time, it would not be better to extend it. Suppose a Member of that House died, and the writ were issued immediately, the constituents ought, in such a case, to have time to consider which candidate would be the best representative, and he thought three days would not be too much for that purpose. The question was one of importance, and perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman would bring it forward in a separate form.


said, that in the course of twenty-five years' experience he had had the management of many county elections, and from that experience he could say that if the polling was confined to one day, and the polling places, consequently, were increased in number, the expense would be also greatly increased, inasmuch as there must be a large additional staff of persons engaged to conduct the proceedings. If, too, the polling were confined to one day, the halt, the lame, the maimed, and the blind would all be brought up the first day at a great expense, whereas now they were reserved for the second day, and not brought up unless they were really wanted. There was one thing, however, in the Bill that very much counterbalanced the disadvantage of the increased expense—that the polling being confined to one day would tend very much to prevent the occurrence of those dreadful scenes that had in many elections been the result of the first day's polling.


said, he was surprised that difficulties should be interposed in the way of this measure. Let hon. Gentlemen look at the evidence taken before the Committee of 1836, and they would find what were the practices resorted to for the purpose of bringing up the halt, the lame, and the blind, after the polling had commenced. The whole pressure of an election was now over at 12 o'clock, and he thought that any measure would be a great improvement which would put a stop to the scenes of bribery and corruption which had heretofore disgraced our elections.


said, that the county papers were generally only circulated once a week in the county, and the notice of nomination and of the election was often not published in the county paper for several days after it had been determined upon. Thus, three-fourths of the county by this means did not know what the other fourth was doing. In his opinion, therefore, more time ought to be extended, instead of having it diminished.


said, he believed that, by having more polling places, much expense would be saved to the voters, and that an end would be put to those practices which generally took place on the first night of the election. He, therefore, hoped that the noble Lord (Lord R. Grosvenor) would not risk that which was good in his measure by mixing it up with the question of voting.


said, that after what had taken place, he would beg to withdraw his instructions; but after the recess he would introduce a measure embodying the provisions to which he had adverted.


said, he considered the Bill of great importance, not only in regard to England but to Ireland also. He was, however, afraid that the machinery of it could not be beneficially applied to Ireland. By the system which was generally adopted at the elections in the sister country in administering the bribery oath, and two other oaths, for the purposes of delay, only from 100 to 200 votes could be conveniently polled in one day. This was a scandalous practice, and should be put a stop to. He knew a case in which only sixty persons were enabled to poll in the one day in consequence of the many difficulties which the existing law permitted the opposing parties to throw in the way. He was of opinion that a beneficial change would be effected in the law if those oaths were ordered to be taken before a magistrate, and not at the polling booth.


said, he was anxious to see how the measure would work for England before the principles of it were made applicable to Ireland.


said, he knew that many of the disturbances which took place at contested elections, arose principally from the circumstances of the polling booth being errected on the premises of a public-house. He would in Committee move a proviso to prevent the continuance of that practice.


said, he had always entertained the same opinion upon this subject. He thought that the Reform Bill was intended to settle all questions of this kind, but it appeared that that was not so. The present measure was essentially a mean one. He must say he did not wish to see any change made in the law of elections. He was perfectly satisfied to represent the city which he had had the honour of representing for so many years, and he had the vanity to think that his constituency did not wish to see any change in their representation. The House was told that this measure would check bribery. Now, he had heard a great deal about bribery, He supposed it would be considered an act of bribery if a man held out his hand to discharge a mere Christian duty to his suffering fellow-creature. He had no reliance on the House of Commons, and therefore what he should do, would be to keep clear of the present proceeding. He relied on another place, which was not so liable to be actuated by violent party motives as that House; and he hoped that as they had done on former occasions they would again exercise that constitutional care for the liberty of the subject which the Upper House had ever displayed; and that they would throw out this Bill, which was a mean, dirty, shabby contrivance to save money going out of their pockets. Hon. Gentlemen would no doubt go to the hustings, and tell their beer constituents that they wished them all to be happy, and that their pledges should not be broken, but upheld. All this time it was well known that their conduct was influenced by selfish motives. He would therefore take every opportunity to check these pretences, which he thought would reflect little credit upon the honour and character of that House.


said, he had no objection to the principle of confining the raking of the poll to one day; but he thought it should be accompanied with other provisions of an important character that were necessary to remedy many evils of their present election law. He should like to see a much more extensive measure introduced than the present one.


said, he quite concurred in the necessity of limiting the polling in the counties of Ireland, as well as elsewhere, to one day.


, said, he would not press his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to; Bill considered in Committee, and reported; as amended, to be considered on Friday.