HC Deb 25 June 1852 vol 122 cc1301-15

The Lords' Amendments on this Bill having been brought up,


said: Mr. Speaker, I take this opportunity of stating the general course I mean to pursue with regard to these Amendments. The Bill, in my opinion, has not been at all amended or improved in its progress through the House of Lords. On the contrary, I think that the alterations which have been made in it tend, to a certain degree, to diminish the efficiency of the Bill. They will, in my opinion, throw obstacles in the way of inquiry into corrupt practices at elections. Now, with regard to the first of these Amendments, it is proposed by this Amendment that, instead of an address proceeding from this House alone for a Commission of Inquiry, it shall be necessary for a joint address of both Houses of Parliament to be presented to the Crown, as a preliminary to the issue of a Commission. It certainly appeared to me that, as the whole of the Bill was directed to the promotion of inquiry into corruption at elections, it would be sufficient for the House of Commons, after an inquiry by a Select Committee, to proceed by Address to ask the Crown to appoint Commissioners to inquire into an alleged case of corruption at an election. But, according to this Amendment, it will be necessary that the House of Lords should, in the first place, consider our evidence, and say whether there is a case for any further inquiry. Thus there are to be two inquiries before you reach the real and effectual inquiry. That is to say, you must go before two grand juries before you can proceed to try a case. It does appear to me that this will rather be an obstacle to, than a furtherance of, inquiry. I should have thought it likely that the House of Lords would have objected to have been brought at so early a stage to decide on the evidence taken by us, for I conclude that they will not propose that there should be an additional Committee appointed by themselves. My noble Friend the Marquess of Lansdowne had no opportunity of informing me as to the nature of the Amendment to be proposed. He informed me that he was taken by surprise, and that no intimation was given to him that any such Amendment would be proposed. He objected to it as much as I could do, as considerably diminishing the efficiency of the Bill. With regard to the other Amendments, I do not think they are of much importance as that which I have stated. It is true that the House of Lords by subsequent Amendments have decided that it shall not be in the power of a Commission to inquire into any allegations retrospectively, if there have not been proved to have been corrupt practices at the election with respect to which they are ordered to inquire. It will appear at first sight that if the last election, for instance, took place by compromise, in which there might be no opportunity for corrupt practices, then all the corrupt practices which prevailed for a series of years previously would pass without inquiry. But that is not the effect of the Bill as it has been sent down to us, because, although the Select Committee of the House of Commons would of course make inquiries with respect to the last election, unless otherwise directed, yet, if it was desired that the inquiry should be made with regard to corrupt practices at any election, the inquiry, of course, need not be directed to the last election. There may have been, for instance, most corrupt practices at the general election; almost every person in the borough may have been bribed; there may have been subsequent elections at which there has been no bribery or corrupt practice whatever; but that would not prevent this House, if they thought fit, to appoint a Committee of Inquiry into corrupt practices which had prevailed at the time of the general election. And, therefore, I do think that this Amendment would not be so injurious to inquiry as at first sight it would appear to be. There is another Amendment, namely, the omission of the word "treating," as one of the offences which are to be inquired into under this Bill. The Bill was intended to apply generally only to bribery and corrupt practices, and not to treating. It would be necessary, if there were such gross treating as to affect the character of a borough, to have a special Bill with respect to it. In some cases, the treating is of so small an amount, that it is obviously simply for the purpose of refreshing parties who may have come from distant districts to record their votes, whilst in other cases it is so gross as to be as corrupt as bribery. I do not think it unreasonable that the House should retain the power of proceeding, in such special cases, by Bill rather than by Address. I conceive, upon the whole, that the Bill, even as amended, will be a very considerable advantage in the way of prosecuting corrupt practices and brihery in boroughs. If we rejected these Amendments, with a view of having the Bill restored to its original state, the Bill might be lost for this Session; and therefore, while I lament that these changes have been made, which do not in any way improve the Bill, but, on the contrary, make it less efficient, I propose that we agree with the Lords' Amendments in every respect.


said, he would certainly bow to the decision of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, and agree to the Amendments which the Lords had made in the Bill; but he must say that the Bill, while it would still be efficient to a certain extent for the purpose of putting down corrupt practices at elections, had yet been most materially mutilated by these alterations. Her Majesty's Government, while the Bill was in the House of Commons, gave, as the House understood, their cordial assent to the passing of the Bill. No such alterations were then proposed: if they had been, there would have been an opportunity of discussing without endangering the passing of the Bill. This Bill had been the means of furnishing another instance of what he might term the duality of organs of Her Majesty's Government; one thing was said by the Government in the Commons, whilst the very opposite was said by the Government in the Lords. In the Commons the Bill was allowed by the Government to pass without much comment; but when it reached the Lords, the Government were parties to a most important alteration in it. Hon. Members might not be aware of the full effect of the alteration made: it was this, that although a Committee of that House might report that corrupt practices existed in a particular borough, and that it was desirable that further inquiry, by means of a Commission, should be made in such borough, and the House would consequently be prepared to vote an Address to the Crown praying that such Commission should be issued, they would be prevented from going back to the last election, or to any election, however corrupt might have been the practices, if at any time there should have intervened a single pure election. Now, he would take as an instance the borough of Harwich. There had prevailed a very extensive and general opinion, that systematic and general corruption prevailed at the elections in that borough. He did not say that it was so; he merely alluded to the prevalent opinion upon that subject for the purpose of his argument. That House, in the course of the last Session, suspended the issuing of a new writ, on the occasion of a vacancy occurring in the representation of Harwich. And why? Because it was believed that the state of that borough was so corrupt, that it would not be consistent with propriety and with the dignity of that House to issue a writ for a new election until some further inquiry had been made into the state of the constituency. It so happened, however, that in the present Session of Parliament an opportunity occurred for the issue of the writ. It was moved that a writ be issued, and a writ was issued accordingly. His hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General, who had long been seeking an opportunity to get into Parliament, went down to solicit the favour of the constituency of Harwich. His hon. and learned Friend was returned without opposition for an expiring Parliament, and, as one did not pay one's Swiss unless the Swiss did service, there was no doubt that no votes were paid for where no votes had been given. The hon. and learned Solicitor General, however, had not thought fit to maintain his connexion with Harwich longer than he could obtain another seat, and he had been returned by Suffolk as a Protectionist; whereupon another hon. and learned Gentleman, who had been for a long time seeking a constituency in Ireland, appeared in his place and was elected for Harwich. At the last two elections for Harwich there was no opposition, and consequently no corruption; but it was quite possible that at the ensuing election there might be a contest, and that corrup- tion and bribery might then be as rife as ever; and if so, would anybody tell him that the inquiries of the Commission that would be appointed ought to be limited simply to the proceedings at that particular election. No instance had ever occurred of Parliament having disfranchised a constituency on account of the corruption prevailing at one single election. In order to the disfranchisement of a borough, it was necessary to prove that the corruption there prevailing was long established, systematic, and inveterate; but if this Bill were passed, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove such a charge against any borough, however profligate, for it would not be permitted to refer to the proceedings at any preceding elections. It was his decided conviction that the Amendments of the Lords had spoiled and mutilated the Bill to a very considerable extent, and it was greatly to be deplored that the Government should have incurred before the House and the country so serious a responsibility as was implied in the sanctioning of such Amendments.


said, he was rather surprised at the concluding observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman, as well as at the commencement of his speech. The hon. and learned Gentleman attacked the Government for making alterations in a Bill which did not originate with them. It was not dealt with as a Government Bill either in that or in the other House of Parliament. The Government supported the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord J. Russell) in carrying the Bill through that House, except in reference to one Amendment, which was substantially the same as that which had been since adopted by the House of Lords. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Government supported the Bill in one House of Parliament, and assisted in mutilating it in the other House. Was it the hon. and learned Gentleman's doctrine of the Constitution, that an independent Member of the other House of Parliament had not the power of proposing an Amendment which he thought just, and that the Government had not the power of agreeing to it if they thought it reasonable? Yet that was exactly what had taken place in the House of Lords. The Amendment as to the joint Address was proposed by a noble Lord who was not a Member of the Government, and it was only adopted by the Government, not originated by them. The constitutional doctrines laid down by the hon. and learned Gentleman were certainly new. He would go further, and say that even the constitutional doctrines propounded by the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) were not quite what he should have expected from one whose authority was so high on questions of this kind; advocating, as the noble Lord always had done, the rights of the House of Commons. He would undertake to say that, with regard to these Amendments, they took away from the Government an enormous power of disfranchising boroughs which might be opposed to them. The majority in that House generally supported the Government; and if the Bill had remained as it stood originally, it would have been in the power of the Government to appoint Commissions independently of the House of Lords, in order to institute inquiries with respect to any particular borough against which they cherished a dislike. He was perfectly confident that if such a Bill had emanated from a Tory Government in former times, the Whig Opposition would have been the very first to have said that they would not arm the Minister with a power like this, which may be exercised to the detriment of the House of Commons. He had made these preliminary observations, which he was sure were just, in reference to the constitutional doctrines laid down by the noble Lord and by his late Attorney General. He would now ask the House to calmly examine with him, clearly and temperately, the Amendments made by the House of Lords. The first Amendment was to the effect that the Address to the Crown should be made by both Houses, instead of one only. The second Amendment struck out the word "treating" from the operation of the Bill; and the third provided that when a borough was found by the Report of a Committee to be corrupt, the Commissioners should not have a retrospective power of inquiry for ten or twenty years. With regard to the first Amendment, that there should be a joint Address from the two Houses of Parliament, if it were not the case that Parliament was going to arm the Commissioners with greater powers than were possessed by any Court of Justice, he should have said that an Address from one House would have been sufficient. But, considering the enormous powers that were to be entrusted to the Commissioners, he thought Parliament ought to proceed with great caution, and that the House of Lords, as well as the House of Commons, ought to have a voice in an Address to the Crown to issue such a Commission. It must be remembered that there were only two precedents in modern times of inquiry by Commissioners—the cases of Sudbury and St. Albans. The enormous powers invested by the Commissioners were never conferred upon the presentation of an Address from the House of Commons, nor was any attempt of the kind ever made. A Bill was passed for that purpose. The hon. and learned Member opposite said that the joint Address would impede inquiry; but it should be recollected that an Address was carried by a vote, and he did not think that much time would be lost in procuring a joint Address from both Houses whenever it was necessary. As to the omission of the words "treating" from the Bill, the noble Lord did not seem to object very strongly to it; and if his (Mr. Walpole's) recollection served him right, it was an interpolation in the original Bill. With regard to the retrospective operation of the inquiry to be made by the Commissioners, the Government contested this point very much before the Bill went up to the House of Lords; and he must say, that if the inquiry were permitted to go back to any period, no borough in the Kingdom would be safe from being attacked by a majority of the House of Commons merely because it was opposed to their way of thinking. It ought to be assumed at this moment, on the eve of a general election, that no corrupt practices had been carried on which would justify such an inquiry, and, if so, there was no necessity for any inquiry of the kind.


said, that he had understood from the usual sources of information that the Prime Minister had moved these Amendments in another place. Perhaps, as the House were under a false impression, the right hon. Gentleman would inform him who the independent Peer was who had moved them. [Mr. WALPOLE: The Amendments were proposed by Lord Redesdale.] But when the Prime Minister first acceded to office he had stated that he warmly approved of this Bill; and at that time it contained no such Amendment as that now introduced. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend the late Attorney General, who had asked why this Amendment had not been introduced in that House, and fully discussed there. He (Mr. Duncombe) was afraid that it had been introduced for the purpose of defeating and delaying the Bill; and he certainly was astonished and surprised that the other House had not sought to evade being compelled to join the House of Commons in so disagreeable a duty as the adoption of an Address to the Crown, for inquiring into the corrupt practices of certain filthy boroughs. Their taste might be disputed, but their right could not be denied. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walpole) assumed that from this moment all the corrupt boroughs in the Kingdom would be pure and honest. That was a strange assumption on the face of the evidence taken, but very few years back, with regard to Stafford and Harwich and other boroughs. Were those boroughs pure? The impression existed in some men's minds that there were democratic tendencies in that House, and they had therefore had recourse to this interposition of the House of Lords in order to curb those tendencies. But in the present instance the democratic tendency was to establish purity of election. The question for consideration now was, whether the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) did right in accepting the Bill as it at present stood. He (Mr. Duncombe) wished that the noble Lord would try a compromise with the Lords, for they had been told that the great principle of the present Government was that of concession and compromise. Perhaps something might be conceded or compromised in a conference. But, seeing that they were on the eve of a general election, he thought the noble Lord was right in accepting the Bill, as it would make some of those filthy and corrupt boroughs look about them. He wished also to call the attention of the noble Lord and of the House to the strange anomaly that at present existed under the Controverted Elections Law. In the case of St. Albans, that borough had been disfranchised, but yet the hon. Member (Mr. J. Bell) was allowed to retain his seat. Unless some alteration in that law were made, Members, whose elections might be proved to have been carried by corruption and bribery before the Commissions which the present Bill proposed to establish, would not lose their seats, though the borough might be disfranchised; and after the next general election, there might perhaps be fifty or sixty Gentlemen sitting in that House for disfranchised boroughs. In the case of Sudbury, the electors and the elected were punished together; and he maintained that, for the purposes of justice, the law on controverted elections should be revised, and an end be put to the anomaly he had described. He should certainly advise the noble Lord to accept the Bill, though he was sure that it would not do half the good that was anticipated from it.


said, that the hon. and learned Member for Southampton (Sir A. Cockburn) was wrong in supposing that the Bill had passed through the Commons without opposition, for it would be in the remembrance of the House that he (Colonel Sibthorp) gave it from first to last an uncompromising resistance, believing it, as he still believed it to be, a most unchristian measure, and one which involved a moan and dastardly attack on the constitutional rights and privileges of the people of this country. The Bill was founded on a low, mean, cowardly, unmanly principle, and it was his happiness to reflect that he had opposed it at every stage, notwithstanding that he had never in his life been guilty of corrupt practices. He attributed some blame to the Government for permitting such a Bill to pass, and he was sure that the day would yet arrive when they would acknowledge it to be what he now denounced it to be, namely, an unchristian and unconstitutional measure, disgraceful to the Legislature, and wholly unworthy the spirit of the age.


said, he would have been glad if the House would agree with the suggestion that had been thrown out by the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Buncombe); but as that was not likely to be attended with any satisfactory result, he would leave the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) to carry out the measure according to his own views. He did not think they ought entirely to reject a Bill containing so many improvements on account of the Amendments that had been made in the other House. It appeared to him that "treating" was worse than bribery—that was the very worst of the Amendments introduced by the Lords. Many hon. Members in that House would hesitate to give money to a voter, who would not hesitate to throw open public-houses and give them as much as they could drink. Many electors also who would shrink from taking a sovereign, would partake of this eating and drinking. On these grounds he regretted that the question of treating had been treated with so much levity; he would content himself with entering his protest against the Amendment.


said, that what he had stated on a former occasion was, that "treating" might include offences of very dissimilar magnitude, and that it was quite possible that there might be cases of "treating" quite as bad as any form of bribery and corruption, and that it might be expedient to introduce a measure for the express purpose of discouraging such aggravated cases.


said, he regretted to find the House so lukewarm upon this subject, He was sorry also the noble Lord did not decide upon rejecting the Amendment. The bulk of the Members of that House were merely the nominees of the House of Lords; but, as the representatives of the people, they were bound, he thought, to originate all improvements in the constitution of that House with themselves. It would, in his opinion, be better if the noble Lord had rejected the Bill altogether; for be, for one, had anticipated a greater degree of improvement and amelioration at the hands of the noble Lord. He complained of hon. Members in that House denouncing democratic principles. It was only by their diffusion that the progress of the people of this country could be secured.


said, he had objected to the Bill originally, and was glad to find it had been rendered so much more constitutional by the Amendments introduced by the Lords. They heard much of the privileges of that House; but they ought to bear in mind that the people also had rights and privileges, and that they ought not to be lightly violated. Either the House of Lords must be an active efficient branch of the Legislature, or it must be done away with altogether. He hoped they were not yet arrived at that point. The moment the Government opposed the views of the Radical party in that House, they were denounced as favouring the oligarchical body, and attempting to put down the opinions of the people. He (Mr. Hudson) had been sent there as a representative of the people, and he denied that he was influenced by any such motives. He believed the Bill was a mischievous one, and he should be glad to see it rejected altogether; but he was satisfied to receive it with the great improvements made in it by the House of Lords.


said, he thought too much importance had been attributed to the Amendments made in the House of Lords. The only cases in which the Bill would come into operation would be the cases of inexperienced parties, who knew nothing about electioneering trickery, and not being initiated, placed themselves in the hands of agents, and had the misfortune to fall into bad hands. In a case like that, a man who had no friends in that House, was just the man to single out as a victim to show up the virtue of the House. There was nothing in the Bill which would have a tendency to prevent or check bribery and corruption. The Bill was simply devised for the purpose of exposure. Whilst this Bill was under consideration, the old kind of negotiations were still going on. A great number of boroughs had been offered to him, at prices varying from 500l. up to 3,000l. He had never listened for a moment to such propositions; but he knew these things were going on, and that other parties were receiving similar applications. He mentioned the fact for the purpose of showing that Bills of this kind were not calculated to prevent the evils at which they were aimed. Bribery was an aristocratic, and gentlemanly, and respectable offence. The more skill a man brought into play in concealing that bribery, the higher he stood as a politician. So long as the House sanctioned such proceedings, it was quite useless to attempt to put a stop to bribery. The proper way was to disgrace the person giving the bribe; and if every elector taking a bribe were liable to be disfranchised, and subjected to a small penalty, such a regulation would produce a greater effect than a Bill of this sort, which, as he had said, would only be brought into operation in the case of unknown individuals, and where a Solicitor General might be interested in holding up a borough as a model of purity.


said, he was of opinion that the Bill, even as originally worded, was weak and inefficient; but it had been so seriously disimproved by the Amendments of the Lords, that he now regarded it as nothing better than so much waste paper; and he was confident that it was regarded in that light by all other Members.


said, he could not help deeply regretting the course which the noble Lord the Member for the City of London had pursued in reference to this Bill. As a Member of the House of Commons, he could never consent to extend to the House of Lords the right of interference which was claimed by the first Amendment, because he thought that by so doing he should be surrendering a privilege which ought to be defended with the most jealous care. The Amendment introduced in the 6th Clause did away with all the advantage of the Bill, by providing that Parliament should be precluded from inquiring into corrupt practices at any election, if an election free from bribery had intervened. The nature of the Amendments might be judged of from the fact that they had been supported in that House only by two hon. Members, who had had the courage on a former occasion to vote against the second reading of the Bill. The truth was, that Parliament had not been in earnest upon this subject. But they might depend upon it, that at length they would be compelled, by the force of public opinion, to pass some measure which would make it as disgraceful for a rich man to bribe as it was for a poor man to be bribed; and that could only be done by excluding from that House any Member who was guilty of bribery. Feeling that the present measure would be totally inoperative in many cases, he should move, as an Amendment, that that House should not agree to the Amendments which had been added to the Bill.


said, that the Motion before the House being that the Amendments be agreed to, it was only competent for the hon. Member to record his vote for or against that Motion.


said, he could not concur in the censure which had been cast on the noble Lord the Member for the City of London for his conduct in respect to the Amendments, though, for his own part, he must say that he thought they so defaced the Bill that it was difficult to recognise it. He sincerely believed the present measure to be a step in favour of corruption rather than against it.


said, he thought that the observations which had been made during the dicussion that evening must show clearly that it was the opinion of one side of the House at least, that this Bill was very unsatisfactory in its present shape; and that the noble Lord the Member for the City of London had taken a course which, if not very inconsistent, was at all events exceedingly feeble in regard to his own measure. The noble Lord's first proposition had been that, instead of requiring an Act of Parliament for the purpose of instituting an inquiry into the corruption existing in any borough, it should be sufficient for any Member of that House to move for such an inquiry. But the noble Lord, having left office, assented very complacently to an important alteration proposed by the right hon. Secretary of State for the Home Department; and now that the Bill had come down from that place where no good Bill had any chance of being considered unless there was a strong pressure from without, the noble Lord agreed to the Amendments which had been there introduced. The House of Lords had inserted a proviso that a Commission of Inquiry should only be applied for by both Houses of Parliament. If a Commission had the power of disfranchising a borough, he (Mr. Bright) could understand the propriety of such an Amendment; but as it was, he thought that the right of applying for a Commission might as safely be entrusted to one House as to both, because in cither case the House of Lords would have the power of placing a veto on the disfranchisement of any borough, if they should think the evidence of corruption insufficient. He, therefore, maintained that the interjection of an Address from the Lords as well as from the Commons, before a Commission could issue for an inquiry into the state of any borough, was simply an obstacle purposely placed in the way of fair and honest inquiry, having its origin in the resolution on the part of both Houses to prevent a genuine scrutiny, that must end in laying bare a system of representation which had no parallel in any country on the face of the earth where a representative system existed at all. It was the bounden duty of Parliament honestly to face this question, and no longer to deceive the country with legislative shams, which were of all others the worst.


said, he would not have taken any part in this discussion, if the hon. Member for Ayrshire (Mr. Oswald) had not announced his intention of dividing the House; and in reply to an observation which had fallen from the hon. Member, he (Sir J. Graham) felt bound to say that he thought, though others might have said more, no one had done more in checking corrupt practices at elections or had been more successful in preventing those evils by legislative means, than his noble Friend the Member for the City of London (Lord John Russell). There was this peculiarity about the present Bill that it had been introduced when his noble Friend was in power; but his exertions in checking corrupt practices bad not been limited to the period when he sat on the benches opposite, for he had always exhibited a steady perseverance in his purpose, on whatever side of the House he might be sitting, to which his conduct with reference to the present Bill formed no exception. It had been introduced when his noble Friend was a Minister of the Crown, and it was the only measure which, having been brought forward when be was in the Government, he had from a sense of the public interest proceeded with when in opposition, and had finally succeeded in carrying through that House. He (Sir J. Graham) quite agreed with the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright) that the Amendments which had been introduced by the right hon. Home Secretary had materially damaged the measure; but his noble Friend the Member for London had not easily assented to those Amendments; on the contrary, he had protested against them, and it was submission to necessity, and not a cheerful acquiescence, that had marked his proceedings in reference to them. The practical question for them now to decide was this: were the alterations of the right hon. Secretary of State for the Home Department, and much more the alterations which bad been introduced by the other House of Parliament, of a character that would destroy the usefulness of the measure? He (Sir J. Graham) admitted that they impaired its usefulness exceedingly; but the question they had to decide was whether the Bill was worthless, and should they by refusing the Amendments render it impossible to legislate at all on the subject (luring the present Session? He was most decidedly of opinion that they would act unwisely in rejecting the Bill, notwithstanding the damage it had received; for by passing it they would at least show that they were anxious to take active measures in the next Parliament for visiting with condign punishment every corrupt practice that should be brought under their notice. He quite believed that the House of Lords, when it deliberately weighed public opinion, and saw that it pronounced in favour of a given course of policy, was not disposed to give an uncompromising opposition to measures to the adoption of which their own preconceived opinions might not be favourable. He did not believe that, practically, an Address passed in that House, touching the representation of the people, and founded on evidence taken before a Committee of Inquiry, would fail to obtain the concurrence of the House of Lords. He was, therefore, of opinion that this Bill would still be of value, and would be operative, and, entertaining that opinion, he should certainly vote in favour of the Lords' Amendments; at the same time, he hoped that a division would not be insisted upon by the hon. Gentleman.


said, he concurred in the observation made by the right hon. Baronet. Almost every Member who had spoken had risen to cast a stone at the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell); but he did not believe that any one, not even his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright), would have the courage to vote against the Bill. He himself objected most strongly to the Amendments introduced by the House of Lords; but he, nevertheless, believed there was yet great benefit in the measure. He had been too long a Member of that House not to know that it was better to accept measures by instalments from the House of Lords. If they went for everything at once, they would not have the remotest chance of attaining what they desired. He thought that several hon. Members of the House had dealt somewhat unfairly with the noble Lord, more especially as none would have the courage, he believed, of voting against the Bill as at present constituted.


said, he would not, after the observations that had been made, divide on his Amendment.

Lords Amendments' agreed to.