HC Deb 07 April 1853 vol 125 cc728-33

after presenting a petition from inhabitants of Cambridge in favour of the appointment of a Commission to inquire into corrupt practices in that borough, rose to bring forward the Motion of which he had given notice. He said, that he appeared to make this Motion in his capacity of Chairman of the Com- mittee to whom the petition complaining of an undue return for Cambridge had been referred; and the necessity for such a course, would, he thought, be obvious to the House. Such a course was the necessary consequence, in fact, in such cases as this, of the imperfect arrangements of the House itself for dealing with these matters. No doubt the Grenville Act had succeeded to a very much worse system; and the various amendments which had since been adopted, were great improvements on that Act itself; but a Committee of that House to try an election petition was still, after all, a party tribunal—that was to say, a tribunal which had to judge between two parties, the Petitioner and the sitting Member. The character of the inquiry was at the mercy of these parties; the moment the petitioner chose to abandon the case, or the sitting Members to throw up their defence, that moment the inquiry, so far as the House of Commons was concerned, was at an end. To meet the ends of public justice in such a case as this, where the inquiry had been brought to an abrupt close, there was therefore only one resource—such a Commission as he now proposed. As regarded Cambridge, he believed there could be little difficulty in proving that in that borough there had long prevailed extensive systematic electoral corruption. One circumstance would alone satisfy the House on this point. In 1840, Mr. Manners Sutton was unseated for the borough of Cambridge, and on that occasion the Committee reported much the same as what the Committee on this occasion had reported—that an extensive and corrupt system of treating had prevailed on the part of many influential members of the constituency of the borough of Cambridge. But nothing was done. The writ was issued as if nothing had happened; and in due course a new election took place. On that occasion, however, it was ascertained that bribery had been carried on by a person named Samuel Long; and that person was tried for bribery, found guilty, and imprisoeed for twelve months for the offence. But Mr. Long got out again at the end of his term, returned to Cambridge, and at this very last election was found in precisely the same capacity again. In that capacity this Mr. Long was a most efficient performer. The system he pursued was this. He hired an inn, at election times, in Barnwell—the Butchers Arms—and there he received all applica- tions, and managed all his business; and in Cambridge, by a strange perversity of terms, the phrase "all right" was taken to signify an agreement in a wrongful bargain for corruption, the intimation being that if a vote was given, 10l. would be paid for it. Mr. Long was accustomed to say to his electoral customers, "If you do right, I'll do right;" that is, if a proper vote was given, he would pay for it 10l.; and it would appear that the most unlimited confidence was felt that Mr. Long would keep his word. The way he did keep his word, was by a novel machinery, probably meant to complete the fascination which it seemed to begin. The bribed party went and gave his vote; and then went home, awaiting his 10l.; and in due time a lady appeared at his house—a lady with a fall—that was to say, not in the iniquitous sense, but in the sense of a veil over her face, and presented the happy voter with money, never asking him any question, except, perhaps, his identity. This fair and frail figure having passed away, the voter looked at his 10l., and, according to the general confession such voters made, went and spent it all immediately, either in drinking or conviviality of some sort. Every witness gave the same simple account of his process: and he thought he was therefore fully justified in saying that in Cambridge the bribery was systematic. And it was a matter of great regret to find that this corruption was not confined to the lower classes of voters. Some of the people in Cambridge would have it, that the extension of the suffrage under the Reform Bill had done all the mischief, and that the admission of Barnewell voters was the cause of the corruption; but the facts did not bear out the theory, for it would appear that throughout the borough, whether as regarded the freemen or the 10l. householders, or whatever the qualification was, there was no distinction in their readiness to take bribes. This was fully evidenced in a circumstance which took place before the Committee. A witness was confessing his corruption; and the counsel said, "I suppose you were poor, and the 101. was a temptation?" and the man said "Yes;" but he (Mr. Vernon Smith) suspecting the truth of the answer, judging by the appearance of the witness, pressed him further, and elicited that he was a master plasterer, well to do in the world. With other witnesses it was admitted that they took money because others did—because, at that time, every one was making money out of the election. Such was the reckless and lavish waste at Cambridge, that those men who came to the poll at three o'clock, or half-past three o'clock, when their candidates were 100 or more ahead, got exactly the same money, 10l., as the bolder rascals, who gave their votes at a crisis. In fact, one man held out for a bargain so long that when he did come up four o'clock had struck, and then they would not pay him; but though he had not his bribe he had his revenge by turning witness against the whole system. The effrontery of the witnesses generally would show that the state of things at Cambridge vied with anything that had ever existed in any of those places which had been already disfranchised and disgraced. The corruption was systematic, extensive, and continuous. All this the Commission, he was confident, would fully demonstrate; but he could not make this Motion without expressing his opinion, that however useful these Commissions might be, they still failed to meet the whole of the necessity of the case. He could not now say what he believed was the machinery required, but it was obvious that there were defects in a Commission. As regarded the bribery itself, it was seldom that the bribery oath was administered; it was never administered in Cambridge. It was also very seldom that guilty persons were prosecuted for bribery; and thus justice was allowed to wink, and the offenders did not believe in the sincerity of the Legislature to eradicate the crime. The Committee of which he bad been Chairman had in this case reported against the bribers as well as against the bribed, and the only reason why they had not come to the House to ask that the Attorney General should prosecute was, that they had not been able to continue the inquiry so far as to come at capital offenders. In the first instance they would have been very glad to have obtained sufficient evidence against parties of much greater property and standing than the secondary agents; and he would especially mention one party—the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle newspaper—and he should have been the more pleased to obtain evidence against that individual, inasmuch as he had had the assurance, after the Committee had reported, to write an article in his paper in which he spoke of the Committee as a partial and predetermined tribunal. Such a charge was of a most insolent character. The Committee had been chosen like any other Election Committee; and they had performed their duty in the most absolutely fair and judicial manner. But even if they had been able to reach these persons, there would be something more to do. If the decisions of the various Committees were examined, it would be seen how deficient was the law of agency. He believed that the law of agency, as laid down by that House, was laughed at in Westminster Hall. When the sitting Members for Cambridge threw up their defence, the Committee had hardly gone at all into the inquiry; and yet the agency traced to them and detected in bribery was said by their own counsel to be sufficient, namely, the agency of a runner of a committee. He put it to any hon. Member of that House who had stood a contested election, whether, if this was to be the law, they could feel quite safe in their seats? He could hardly see how they were to remedy all this evil. He could not quite see how that proposition of which the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Buncombe) had given notice with respect to an extension of electoral districts, would touch the mischief. The hon. Member's beau ideal of an English constituent body was one of 20,000 voters; but even in such a constituency parties might be so nearly balanced that fifty or one hundred would turn the scale: and so long as there were people willing to be corrupted, there would be no want of money to corrupt them. He was afraid that the evil lay deeper than the restricted franchise and small constituencies. He feared that among the voting body generally there was very little correct feeling on the question of purity of election. It was evident that the acceptance of a bribe was not made matter of reproach among themselves; and that being so, the country would have to wait some time to see a better state of things—until the moral tone of the people was elevated. He would not enter further into the question; but he had made these remarks in order that it might not be supposed that in making this proposal he was trusting to a Commission, as a completely curative process. With regard to the names of the Commissioners, he had to say that it was a task of great delicacy and difficulty which had been thrown on him, as Chairman, of selecting the proper Gentlemen; but he had taken the highest advice, and made a selection which he believed would prove satisfactory.


seconded the Motion.

Resolved—That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will be pleased to cause inquiry to be made by a Commission into corrupt practices reported to have extensively prevailed at the last Election for the Borough of Cambridge.

Resolved—That the said Address be communicated to the Lords, at a Conference, and their concurrence desired thereto.

Ordered—That a Conference be desired with the Lords upon the subject matter of an Address to be presented to Her Majesty under the provisions of the Act of the 15 & 16 of Her present Majesty, cap. 57.

Ordered—That Mr. Vernon Smith do go to the Lords, and desire the said Conference.

Subsequently, Mr. VERNON SMITH reported, That having been with the Lords to desire a Conference upon the subject matter of an Address to be presented to Her Majesty, under the provisions of the Act of the 15 & 16 of Her present Majesty, cap. 57, the Lords agree to a Conference, and appoint the same immediately in Committee Room A.