HC Deb 29 April 1853 vol 126 cc871-5

said, he now rose to move that a new writ be issued for the borough of Chatham. Nothing could be further from his intention than to prevent the infliction of a legitimate punishment in a borough where bribery and corruption prevailed; but writs ought not to be withheld except upon very strong and urgent grounds, and upon some definite and intelligible rule. Where a case was made out for a Commission, let a Commission issue by all means; but where no such case was made out, it seemed to him fair that a writ should issue, or otherwise a constituency must be said to be subjected to a penalty, not only without a conviction, but without a trial. In the present instance, only one case of bribery had been reported by the Committee to exist, and that was the case of an individual who had been bribed by a situation in the Post Office; so that there was no question of Admiralty influence in the matter. It was true the Committee had also reported that the Government for the time being had influence in the borough; but the same thing would apply to every town in which there was a Government establishment like that at Chatham. This matter would be much better dealt with by legislative enactment than by singling out one borough for disfranchisement. It would be well worthy of consideration whether persons employed in our dockyards should be allowed to vote at all; but it was not fair to single out Chatham for disfranchisement when no case had been made made out as to the existence of bribery and corruption. He understood that the Chairman of the Chatham Election Committee would not oppose the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Chatham, in the room of Sir Frederic Smith, whose election has been determined to be void.


said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the Report of the Committee upon the Chatham Election, which went much further than the point alluded to by the hon. and learned Member for Plymouth. After alluding to its having been proved that Joseph Greathead, an elector, was bribed by a situation as a letter carrier in the Post Office, the Report went on to add— That it was proved before the Committee that a largo number of the electors are employed in Her Majesty's dockyard and other public departments at Chatham, and that they are under the influence of the Government for the time being; and it appears that there is no instance of a candidate being elected for this borough who has not had the support of the Government. Under these circumstances, it will be for the House to determine whether the right of returning a Member should not for the future be withdrawn from the borough of Chatham. Now, if the House cared so little for the Report of this Committee as to issue the writ without investigation after such a Report as this, he thought it was high time some other tribunal should be appointed for the trial of election petitions. The matter rested entirely with the House; but if any hon. Member would move for the issue of a Commission, he should certainly feel it his duty to support that Motion.


, as the Chairman of the Committee who had investigated the case, said he was of opinion, that after the Report of that Committee, the House could not refuse to issue the writ. The Committee, from the evidence before them, did not think it right to move either for the reappointment of that body, or for the issue of a Commission; and it seemed to him, therefore, impossible for the House now to adopt the proposition of the hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley), and proceed to issue a Commission with a view to disfranchise the borough. At another time it would be very proper for the House to investigate the circumstances connected with the right of voting in these dockyard boroughs, as they might be called, where there were a great number of voters under the influence of the Government; but this was rather a subject for future legislation than for present decision by the House. At the same time, while he thought the writ ought to issue, the Committee were justified in the Report made by the facts which came before them, for it was proved that out of 1,200 or 1,300 electors in Chatham, 300 or 400 were under the direct influence of the Government. It might be expected, from the very stringent provisions of the order which had now been issued, that the influence over the votes of the dockyard officials would be very much less than it had been. He (Mr. Bramston) should support the Motion for the issuing of the writ.


said, he was disposed to agree with the hon. Member, but he thought the case of Chatham deserved most serious consideration. It appeared that a very large amount of Government influence was always used, and about one-third of the voters were under the direct influence of the Government—400 out of 1,300. Here was one case that came out: A working shipwright in Chatham voted against the wish of the Government in 1835, and from that time he had never been promoted, but had been carefully kept back and prevented from rising, in consequence of his conscientious discharge of his political duty. It was a case of which the hon. Member for Bristol (Mr. H. Berkeley) might take advantage when he brought forward his Motion for the Ballot.


said, he was very much in favour of supporting the Resolutions of Committees, and would call the attention of the House to the finding of this Committee. It was very well to say that there was only one case found; but we all knew that in Committees, generally, when one case was found, there was a great deal of laxity with regard to every other case. If the writ were to issue, the finding of the Committee and the proceedings of the House would be considered by the country to be a farce. One case was given of what was called bribery, and then there was a general finding that the borough was in such a condition that it was not independent in its choice; and the Committee stated that, under the circumstances, it would be for the House to determine whether the right of returning a Member should not be for the future withdrawn. Were these merely idle words—words of course? They showed that the opinion and feeling of the Committee was that the writ should not issue without inquiry; and if these words were to have no weight, he (Mr. Aglionby) hoped that no Committee would call the attention of the House to such circumstances in future.


said, it seemed to him that this Report was of a very peculiar character; it was not of the character of those with which the House had usually dealt, which stated that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, and upon which a Commission might issue according to the Act of Parliament. No such course was proposed by the Committee; but they had suggested to the House, as the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Aglionby) had just stated, that it might be proper to withhold, not the writ for Chatham on this particular occasion, but altogether the power of returning Members for Chatham to that House. That appeared to him (Lord J. Russell) to be a very serious question. It would be a question whether Chatham was in that situation that it was quite unable independently to choose Members. It would be a question whether or not there were other dockyards in a similar situation. Therefore the matter was one of very considerable importance. The question of disfranchising the borough, singly, ought to go upon grounds of very great public justice. He, therefore, was not prepared at once to come to that conclusion. There was another remedy which was well worthy of consideration, namely, if there were at Chatham, or other dockyards, a number of persons under Government influence, and who were liable either to be coerced to vote for the candidate in favour of the Government, or to be in fear of losing their situations if they did not so vote, whether it would not be proper that such persons should be placed in the situation of revenue officers who are not entitled to vote. He did not say whether this or the disfranchisement of Chatham would he the proper remedy; but it seemed to him a question requiring such grave consideration, that he did not think that at that time of night, when the House had been occupied with a totally different subject all the evening, they ought at once to come to a decision on so important a subject. If the House should be of opinion that no remedy should be immediately proposed, then it might be proper to issue the writ at once; if, on the contrary, the House should determine to proceed to some remedy, he did not think there would be such great injustice in withholding the writ. What he would now suggest was, that this debate should be adjourned to Friday next, or some other day, that the House might consider the question. He would therefore move that.

Debate adjourned till Friday next.