HC Deb 12 March 1852 vol 119 cc974-83

Order for Second Reading read.


moved the Second Reading of the St. Albans Disfranchisement Bill.


said, that the Bill had been brought in by the late Government, in consequence of the Report of a Royal Commission, which had inquired into the system of bribery and corruption in the borough. He hoped the Bill would be persevered in; but having said thus much, he was prepared to leave the matter in the hands of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department.


said, it was not to be expected that he should allow this Bill to pass its second reading without making an expiring effort to save the borough he represented. However strong might be the prejudice of the House, and however forlorn the hope of success, he should not flinch from his duty to his constituents. The subject of Parliamentary elections was one in which he had never taken any interest till the time when he found himself heralded forth to the public as if he had been the inventor of a system which had existed long before he was born, and would probably prevail long after he had ceased to exist. Though the defence of the system would be quite impossible—for no one in the House detested Parliamentary corruption more than he did, or had greater reason to detest it—yet it was quite a different question whether it was just and proper to execute the sentence of the law in the manner proposed on the borough of St. Albans. He thought he might advance some pleas which would have influence with the House. First, it was customary, when several parties were arraigned under the same charge, and one turned Queen's evidence, that that one should be acquitted, while the others were punished. In the present instance, the borough of St. Albans had turned Queen's evidence, and had placed in possession of the House some very valuable information, which would enable them to pursue corruption with success throughout the kingdom; yet the only borough to be punished was the one which had rendered this important service. Again, when a confession was extorted from any party under a promise of indemnity from punishment, it was unjust, and he believed illegal, to take advantage of that confession as a ground for inflicting punishment. Now the Commissioners had stated in their report that their reception in St. Albans, and the frank and candid manner in which they were furnished with information, contrasted very favourably with the reception which other Commissioners, having a similar object in view, had met with in another borough. The Commissioners attributed this to the stringent powers with which they were invested under the Act, but he attributed it rather to the implicit reliance of the witnesses upon the good faith and honour of Parliament; and it would be a violation of both, if Parliament were now to turn round and use those confessions as a pretext for punishment. It might be said that the indemnity from punishment did not refer to the borough in its corporate capacity, but to the penalties or imprisonment incurred by individuals who were guilty of bribery. But it was usual to construe the words of an Act of Parliament in their plain meaning. The words of the Act appointing the late Commission were, that the party who should answer, to the best of his knowledge, the questions put by the Commissioners, should be indemnified from all forfeitures, punishments, disabilities, and incapacities; and the words of the Act implied that such a person should enjoy every power and privilege that he possessed before. And yet how could such a promise be held to be performed if these parties were to be deprived of the franchise, and their borough exterminated? As he had been held up to public animadversion for corrupt practices, he would assume, for the sake of argument, that there was some foundation for this charge, and that he had had some experience on this subject. He had bought this experience at his own expense, and he intended to make use of it for the benefit of the public. The Bill now before the House was one of three which had been brought forward for the ostensible purpose of putting an end to bribery and corruption; and he could show that the three together would not effect the object. In all reform discussions he had ever heard, either in the House or out of it, he had never heard any allusion made to what he believed was the primary and principal cause of corruption—the extreme severity of the laws against it, whereby they had become inoperative. He could produce evidence of the fact that those laws were inoperative. At the last election for St. Albans, where every one might suppose there were abundant opportunities for carrying out those laws, a bill had been issued, stating the penalties incurred by giving or taking a bribe, and offering to prosecute any case, free of expense, on evidence being supplied—the reward of 1,000l. or 500l. to belong to the party producing the evidence. This bill was signed by a gentleman who, at the time of the election, valued his services at ton guineas a day; and he offered those services gratuitously to any one who, in that rich harvest of corruption, would voluntarily bring forward a single offender. Yet, so inoperative was the law, that while (as it was afterwards proved) many of the electors were eager to sell themselves for 5l. and become slaves, there was not one to be found willing to be bought back again for 500l. and become a free man. Every attempt at improvement, instead of seeking to render the laws easier to be carried into effect, had increased their stringency, and made it impossible to carry them out. During the fifteen months he had been in purgatory, he had made a great many inquiries on the subject—he knew very little of it before—and he found these laws were so excessively strict, and the penalties so tremendous, that it was utterly impossible to carry them into effect, and they consequently defeated the object they had in view. It was impossible to carry out any election consistently with the law. There were voters who came from a distance; and the common rites of hospitality were denied; they must not even have a glass of beer; and if the sitting Member, or any one in his behalf, were proved to have offered them any refreshment, he would be unseated. Were these laws literally carried into effect, many agents would be subject to accumulated penalties of about 150,000l., and to an imprisonment of 300 or 400 years. That was the literal interpretation which anybody not a lawyer would put upon the law. When sheep-stealing was a capital crime, the majority of the offenders were not punished at all, and those who were punished only suffered on the same principle as St. Albans was to suffer now. Before going circuit, the Judges assembled sometimes, and said—"Sheep-stealing has been rather common lately, we had better hang a few prisoners;" and, on account of this determination, men suffered who never expected to be hanged at all. The criminal when condemned became an object of compassion with the benevolent; petitions were frequently presented to the Secretary of State in favour of such criminals; and the disgust of the crime was lost in the horror of the undue severity of the punishment. Owing to this stringency at elections, a custom had become prevalent which had acquired the force of law. There were certain expenses which were illegal, but which, nevertheless, must be paid—not the purest election in the world could be conducted without them—and yet, in the strict letter of the law, they endangered the seat. Consequently it was necessary to employ various agents. The genus "Parliamentary agent" comprised several species. Those who performed what was called the "awkward business" must be cunning, ingenious, and energetic, and must have a contrivance at hand to meet every case. They must be indefatigable, fear nothing but defeat, care for nothing but victory. These agents, while performing the most slippery business behind the candidate's back, must convince him when in his presence that they were the purest persons in the world, and that if a shilling improperly spent could save his election, they would not expend it. They perpetrated the most unblushing wrong in the most daring manner. They had many methods of accomplishing their purpose, of which an example or two might be instructive. A Parliamentary agent of this kind had a room in some part of the town called a committee-room, but which the candidate never heard of. When an elector came he was ushered into the presence of the agent, who would say, "Well, Mr. Smith, how do you do to-day?" at the same time holding up three fingers, to signify he was to have three sovereigns. The elector would perhaps say, if he were dissatisfied with the amount, "I am not very well to-day." The agent then, holding up five fingers, would say, "I am sorry you are not well to-day, Mr. Smith." The elector would then say, "Oh, I am not very ill. It is all right." He would then go and look out of the window, and while he was doing so the agent would put five sovereigns upon the table. The agent would then go and look out of the window in his turn, and the elector would walk to the table, and when the agent turned round the elector was gone, and the sovereigns had vanished. The elector did not see the agent put down the money, and the agent did not see the elector take it up. When a Parliamentary Committee was appointed the agent swore he never gave any money, and the elector swore no one gave him any. No promise had been given or required; the subject of the election had not even been mentioned. The elector went out of the room a free agent, and, without perjury, swore he had not been bribed. When the five hon. Gentlemen who sat upon the Committee heard this, they said, "There has been some clever management here, but there is no evidence." Then a learned gentleman in a wig would stand up and declare it to be a trumped-up case; that there was not a tittle of evidence against his client; and he called upon the Committee to dismiss the petition as frivolous and vexatious. This was only one method in which bribery was carried on. He had heard of fifteen or twenty guineas being given for a canary bird. There is another method which was much more easy to practise without risk of detection—that of employing people for various purposes, and paying them. There were usually a great number of agents, spies, secretaries, and messengers, all retained for five or six weeks preparatory to an election, and paid so much a week. These were put down as legal charges, though if thoroughly sifted, it would be found that almost the only service these people performed was at the hustings or polling booth. Some of the most important thus employed were spies, whose duty it was to be looking about among the people on the other side, and to obtain information as to what was going on; and thus it was that candidates knew of all the "awkward business" going on on the other side, but were kept in ignorance, being surrounded by a halo of their supporters, of what was done on their own. If, too, one of the candidates happened to be the cousin to an editor, or to have any interest with the press, he had an opportunity of putting all this tittle tattle into the newspaper, and thus all the scandal that his spies could get hold of came forth to the public in a very piquant state, while the other party was blackened very much to his surprise. He cautioned any Members who might be opposed by any hon. Gentleman connected with the press to be prepared for a denouement similar to that which had taken place lately at St. Albans. By degrees these agents acquired great influence in the borough, and were almost able to return Members themselves. It did not follow, however, that the agents selected the candidate. The party on whose side he usually acted might make the selection if they pleased, and retain the agent. An agent was like a lawyer in this respect; he did not care for whom he acted, but, once employed by a party in a borough, he set to work with great zeal. It was characteristic of an agent not to be scrupulously accurate in minor pecuniary matters. Somehow or other money adhered to his hands in passing through them; but he was faithful to his party, and, like the Spartan boy, would allow his entrails to be torn out rather than betray the fox. It was felt that disgrace was not in bribing, but in being detected. But an agent might sometimes be caught tripping. He might become too venturesome from long impunity, and might at last find his way into prison. When there his friends would know nothing of him; but yet men did not scruple to visit him privately with a view to furthering their prospects at the next election. A man who had spent 20,000l. in the most unblushing bribery, and was not petitioned against only because his opponent had bribed as much as himself, walked into the House as bold as brass, and inveighed against the corruption of St. Albans. A few words on the working of the present system. When an agent waited on a candidate it was usual to ask a few questions about Corn Laws, Jews, and Catholics, &c., and then his attention was directed to money matters. If applied to by one of the "awkward agents," he would probably, in the first instance, be asked for a certain sum of money to test the borough. This might be 100l., 200l., or 300l., according to the appetite of the agent. The agent, like a fortune-teller, could not tell anything till his hand was crossed with money. He was next asked for 300l., 400l., or 500l. for legal expenses. But this was not all, for there was a further sum to be paid some fourteen days after the Member had taken his seat; and, as to how this money was expended, he was told that he was not to ask any questions. If the candidate said, he would not sanction bribery, and that he liked to have everything above-board, the agent replied that he would have nothing to do with bribery, but that there were two or three persons who divided the borough amongst them, and if they did not get so much money they would not give their influence. He (Mr. Bell) was not an old stager in election tactics, he was not up to the tricks of the trade, and he consequently fell into the trap. The effect on the electors was quite as bad, it was perhaps even worse than the effect on the Members. They looked upon an election like a Christmas coming at an uncertain period. It made them care little for the politics of the candidates. If you ask an elector what party he belongs to, he will probably tell you he goes with the "blues" or the "reds." If you ask him about the Corn Laws, he knows nothing about them, though he will tell you he would rather get a loaf at 6d. than at 1s. The effect on the public mind was equally bad, for when people knew that Members got into that House by these means, it was impossible to respect laws made by such parties. The people must despise the House, and the laws passed by it, and contemn the hypocrisy with which corrupt practices were branded by its Members. Bribery was a disease exactly like the smallpox. It was contagious and communicable from one person to another. Secondly, a person who had suffered badly from the disease was a marked man as long as he lived. Thirdly, the contagion only took effect in cases where susceptibility prevailed. Correct feeling would operate like vaccination to prevent the disease attacking the subject. The cure for bribery was to make people feel that it was disgraceful to give or accept a bribe. The notion was not Utopian. Even in St. Albans, he was informed, there were as many as 200 electors who would not be bribed. No Reform Bill of the kind hitherto introduced would cure the evil. It was proved before the St. Albans Commission that the Reform Bill increased the bribery very much; and if another Bill of the same kind were to be passed, it was impossible to calculate the extent to which corruption might increase. He did not believe that even the ballot would cure the evil, for the "awkward agent" would still contrive to know how much the candidate would stand, and he would bribe the electors conditionally upon the return of the party for whom he acted, paying the money after the election instead of before. The "Man in the Moon," or "the Man in the Helmet," or "the Hole in the Wall," would still continue to act as paymaster, to evade detection. He believed, therefore, that even with the ballot and small constituencies they would have as much bribery as before. There was a great deal of talk about St. Albans bribery, as if other places were not just as bad. The bribery at St. Albans was but a milkscore compared with the bribery which took place in a large constituency in the metropolis, which he would not name. Let them apply the proper cure to these things. Let them not enjoin penalties for bribery which they knew would never be inflicted, but let the penalties be such as would be inflicted in every case of notorious bribery. Let them get rid of the absurdity of a trial by a Committee of five Members of that House, who might be as guilty of bribery themselves as the party whose case they were trying, and let them instead issue a Commission, as in the case of St. Albans, and compel all parties to give evidence. He could bear testimony to the excellent manner in which the St. Albans Commissioners conducted that inquiry, and he respected them as a child respected his father, who corrected him. A mouse was not more helpless before three bull terriers, than a witness was before those learned Commissioners. If one missed him, the next was sure to trip him up, and the third swallowed him. From the manner in which the inquiry was conducted before a Committee of that House, it was almost impossible to get at the truth, for as soon as a witness was about to state something to the point, the gentlemen in big wigs stopped his mouth. No one could be more grateful than he was for the exertions of his learned counsel before the Election Committee; but if he had been a Member of the Committee, he would have voted for unseating himself: for the corruption was so carefully bottled up, that though he saw no evidence, he smelt it, and could guess what was kept back, from what came out. He should use every exertion himself to put down bribery and corruption; but this Bill was not calculated to effect that object, unless other boroughs were put to the same ordeal as St. Albans. The electors of that borough were told that they would not be punished for giving their evidence; and though it was true that no fines had been levied, yet capital punishment was about to be inflicted, and that was worse than a fine. He claimed indulgence, therefore, for his borough. It was in the mud, and he was in the mud with it, but he would never shrink from performing his duty towards it. He would now move that the debate be adjourned; he would not say for three or six months, though that would answer his purpose very well, but simply that it be adjourned, as he expected a petition from some electors of St. Albans, which would throw some further light on the subject.

[The Amendment not having been seconded fell to the ground.]


said, he wished to make a few observations on the original question. In the first place, he could not refrain I from thanking Ministers for taking up this Bill, and should look upon it as an earnest of what they intended to do on the subject. The hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Bell) had admitted that if he had been on his own Committee he would have voted for unseating himself. After such an admission he thought he had only to appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite in favour of the Bill. The explanations given by the Commissioners, who had done their duty so admirably at St. Albans, and the information which had been given as to bribery, induced him to hope that the Government would take up the whole question, and not allow St. Albans to remain an individual case. It was said that the bribery at St. Albans was only an example of what took place in some eighty or ninety other boroughs. If that were so, he hoped the House would be consistent, and adopt some means for changing the whole system, for it was the system which corrupted the candidates. If the Government would take up the subject in earnest, he should be happy to support them in any real substantial measure of reform.


thought it was somewhat hard that St. Albans alone should be plucked, when there were other boroughs equally guilty. He hoped the Government would not rest satisfied with the present Bill, but would deal with other corrupt boroughs in a similar way. He had given notice of a Motion for the disfranchisement of Harwich, and he hoped the Government would support his suggestion.

Bill read 2°.