HC Deb 12 August 1853 vol 129 cc1699-705

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said, he did so with the purpose rather of engaging the attention of the House and getting the principle confirmed, than with any expectation of passing the Bill at this period of the Session. The object of the Bill was best explained by the title of it. It was to consolidate and amend the law for the prevention of corrupt practices at elections; to consolidate the law, and, therefore, to simplify it; to amend the law, and, therefore, to improve it; by preventing, as far as might be, all those corrupt and dishonourable practices which at all interfered with the free exercise of the franchise. The law, as it at present stood, was somewhat anomalous and contradictory. The Statutes at present relating to it were the 6 & 7 Will. III., chap. 4; the 2 Geo II., chap. 24; the 47 Geo. III., chap. 118; the 4 & 5 Vict., chap. 27; and the 5 & 6 Vict., chap. 103. These Acts related to bribery and treating, but they were entirely silent as to the other, and, to his mind, greater offence, intimidation and undue influence. With regard to bribery, the 2 Geo. II., chap. 24, applied to the voter The 47 Geo. III., chap. 118, extended it to the other persons engaged in bribery and made it apply to head money and money paid in consideration of usage as well as direct bribery. With regard to treating there were some anomalies in the Statutes, and he might also say some contradictions. By the Statute of Will. III., the treating prohibited was the treating which took place between the issue of the writ and the time of the election. By the Statute of Victoria, the treating that was prohibited was not merely that which took place between the periods to which he had referred, but which took place at any time before, during, or after the election. By the former of these Statutes the treating which was prohibited was treating provided by the candidate or on his behalf, though it was not provided at his charge. By the subsequent Statutes it was somewhat extraordinary that the treating prohibited was not treating paid for wholly or partly by the candidate. The consequence of treating by the Statute of Will. III., was to "void such election," and there was great ambiguity and uncertainty at this moment as to what these words meant. He proposed to repeal all these Statutes that he had mentioned, to re-enact some of their provisions, and to lay down in definite terms that which he thought ought to be the foundation of any law on this subject, and the exact meaning and full extent of the offences which they desired to prevent. He had framed this Bill with this view. He defined bribery under three heads: first, any person who agreed to give any sum of money, office, place, or employment, or any person who lent or agreed to lend any sum of money to any person to induce him to vote or refrain from voting; the second head was payment of money, whether as head money or in compliance with any practice or usage; and the third head related to persons receiving the bribe under the same circumstances as in the two former heads related to persons who gave or offered the bribe. Corrupt treating he defined under two heads: the first was, any person providing meat, drink, or provisions for the purpose of corruptly influencing the person to whom it was given to vote; the second head was receiving this meat, drink, or provision. With regard to intimidation and undue influence, the Bill provided that any person who shall by any kind of intimidation, threat, abduction, violence, fraud, concealment, or other device, impede, prevent, or otherwise interfere with the free exercise of the franchise of any voter who shall thereby be induced to give his vote, or refrain from giving his vote, shall be deemed guilty of having exercised intimidation and undue influence within the meaning of the Act. And he proposed to inflict the penalty of 50l. upon the conviction of any of these offences, to be recovered by any person who sued for the penalty. The law at present was partly preventive and partly punitive; it was preventive by requiring the voter to declare, if required at the time of the election, that he had not been bribed; it was punitive by imposing a pecuniary fine on the party bribing or bribed, and by incapacitating the person from sitting; and in the case of bribery during the whole of that Parliament. These modes of dealing with the offence were insufficient, first by putting the candidate upon a better footing than the voter, the more guilty being on a more favourable footing than the less guilty; in the second place, Committees had not the power of fully investigating the offence; and in the third place, the mode of punishment was not suited to the character of the offence. He therefore, proposed to remedy these three objections. If they required from the elector a declaration that he had not been bribed, it was right that they should require the candidate to make a similar declaration that he had not committed any of these offences. And here he might be allowed to say that this mode of dealing with the matter was pointed out by Judge Blackstone, in his Commentaries. Mr. Justice Coleridge, in a note, expressed the same opinion; and Lord Brougham, two years ago, expressed a similar opinion. He proposed that every Member should be required to make a declaration at the election, that he had not been in any way guilty of bribery, or treating, or undue influence, or any other offence defined in this Act of Parliament; and at the table of that House he would be required to declare that he had not sanctioned or authorised any one to commit any of these offences on his behalf; that he had not paid, and did not intend to pay, any sum in respect thereof. He believed that if they intended to put down these three offences, they could only do so by some such method as he had proposed. The second difficulty which he proposed to remedy was with regard to the Election Committees. At present, when a Committee was struck, no list was required in the first instance, and the sitting Member therefore was uncertain as to what might be the course of the inquiry. No doubt the Committee required it; but the law did not require it, and the sitting Member, until the time the Committee met, was ignorant of the nature of the charge against him. The second difficulty with regard to Committees was, that in cases of bribery they must prove agency in the first instance. Then, as regarded the Committee's Report, at present the Committee simply made such a Report as would void the election, and they seldom pointed out the guilty party. He therefore proposed, in the first place, before the Committee met, to require that ally person who petitioned against another for any of these offences, should give in a list of the names to the parties; that the Committee should be allowed to go into the investigation of the charges of bribery before agency was established; and by a third clause he proposed that the Committees should report specifically to the House on every case submitted to them, whether the offences were committed with the knowledge or consent of the sitting Member; and when bribery was brought home to the sitting Member himself, as having been practised by him, or with his knowledge or consent, that he should be incapacitated from sitting again during that Parliament. He proposed to repeal the penalties of 500l. and 1,000l., as experience showed no one sued for them, and he substituted a penalty of 50l., and he hoped that when a Committee reported that the offences had been committed, the House would act on its Sessional Orders, and direct a prosecution of the offenders. The Bill would deprive the party taking or offering a bribe of the advantages he proposed to himself, and the means of perpetrating the offence again. The object of the elector was his vote, and the object of the candidate was the honour he sought; but where the party had abused the privilege and right confided in him, he should be no longer entrusted with it. In case of conviction, he proposed that the offender should be deprived of his vote, or the party seeking the honour of a seat in that House of the right of sitting in it for a period of seven years. The mere dread of such a punishment would, he thought, prevent the commission of the offence. He believed that the result of the recent proceedings before that House had been that bribery was greatly diminished, while treating and intimidation had been increased. That was undoubtedly owing to the fact that Committees of that House had done their duty firmly and impartially. Many persons were, he believed, deterred from the commission of these offences more from the fear of exposure than from any other punishment. He thought the sense of shame and fear of public exposure would operate more beneficially in these cases than in any other. He proposed that when judgment was obtained against any person for these offences, the Judge should be required to send a certified copy to Mr. Speaker, to be kept by an officer of that House in a book containing a registry of election disqualifications. That could also be entered in the list of voters for the borough or county to which the party belonged, and the offence would, therefore, be known in the place where it would produce the greatest effect. He did not propose to deal with the Bills of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, one of which enabled Committees of that House to prosecute their inquiries still further, on making application to the House; and the other, which enabled the Crown to send a Commission to inquire into the corrupt practices prevailing in any particular locality. He had now pointed out the chief provisions of his measure, which, he believed, if fully carried out, would tend very much to promote purity of election, and the independence and character of that House. As he had already said, he did not intend to press the Bill further during the present Session; but he thought it desirable that it should be in the hands of hon. Members during the recess, so that it might receive ample consideration.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would allow this Bill to go to a Committee upstairs, by whom its details might be considered, and by whom amendments might be introduced. Agreeing as he did with the right hon. Gentleman in general, he nevertheless differed with him on some points which he would mention. He would inflict no money penalty whatever in cases of bribery, but would simply deprive individuals found guilty of the offence of giving or taking a bribe of the franchise for a period of ten years. No doubt, there would be great difficulty in the definition of bribery and treating (which he would punish with the same penalties), and that would be matter for the consideration of the Select Committee. When the agent who gave the bribe or carried on the treating was not a voter, it would of course be necessary to punish him by some other penalty. Then, as the offences of bribery and treating were clearly offences against the nation and against Parliament, whose purity they tended to impair, he thought that the duty of prosecuting the guilty persons should not devolve upon individuals, but should be undertaken by Parliament itself, the cost being defrayed by the national funds; and in order to prevent delay and diminish the costs, he would have the cases tried before a County or other local Court. He believed that these measures would be more effectual for the prevention of bribery and treating than any that had yet been adopted. He must express his thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for his labours on this subject, which he believed would lay the foundation of an inquiry that must lead to a beneficial change in the law of elections. He would only in conclusion suggest, that it would be necessary to devise means for preventing a person labouring under a temporary sentence of disfranchisement for offences committed in one county or borough from voting in another.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."


said, that he had seen many measures of various descriptions brought into that House, with the pretended object of attaining what was called purity of election; but he had never seen one which was founded on the sound principle of uniting purity of election with a proper consideration for all classes of the people. His family had represented Lincoln since 1714; and as during that time none of them had ever sought either place or pension, in either Church or State, from the Ministry of the day, he at any rate could not fairly be charged with being implicated in corrupt practices. The present Bill seemed to him to be wholly unintelligible, and to be so drawn as to involve innocent persons within the scope of its penalties. It might do very well as applied to a person who came down to a borough from the clouds, never having seen it before; but persons who like him were closely connected with the place they represented, might, under its provisions, be involved in great difficulty by merely attending, as they ought to do, to the local claims upon them, and to their local duties. He must protest against bringing forward a Bill introducing such extensive changes into our representative system at this late period of the Session; it was neither fair to that House nor to the people, and, even had he stood alone, he would have divided against the present Bill, had it been intended to carry it further than the second reading during the present Ses- sion. With regard to treating, as he understood this Bill, if a gentleman to whom the refreshment could be no matter of object, dropped into his (Colonel Sibthorp's) electioneering quarters, and he asked him to take a bowl of soup, or a glass of wine, or a cup of tea, or of coffee, that was to be considered bribery in that pure House of Commons. [An Hon. MEMBER: And so it is.] Well, I shall do it. According to this Bill, you were to be watched by your opponents for a year after your election, and if during that time you gave a poor woman a shilling while she was lying on a bed of sickness, you were to lose your seat for it. If this was the "liberal" mode of proceeding, he should say "Away with such measures!" Talk of purity of election, indeed! How many Members of that House who talked very earnestly about purity of election were looking for places for themselves or their relatives? Thank God he did not. He believed that this Bill was not only unintelligible on many points, but that it was also delusive and dangerous. He would take care that it, with some other measures, should be laid before the constituency which he had the honour to represent, and that the House should know their opinions upon it. He believed that they would feel, as he felt, that all these trumpery measures, instead of promoting the honour and dignity of that House, or the welfare and prosperity of the people, were unworthy of a legislative assembly, and were only low dirty manœuvres which pretended to secure purity of election, while the real object was nothing of the kind.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Friday 26th August.

The House adjourned at a quarter after Nine o'clock.