HC Deb 28 June 1853 vol 128 cc920-6

said, he should not detain the House very long whilst he introduced a subject which he believed would be found of a simple and practical nature, and to which he thought no objection would be made. He proposed to ask leave to bring in A Bill to provide that whenever a Commission to inquire into the corrupt praetices at any election for any county, division of a county, city, borough, university, or place, in the United Kingdom, shall have issued, under the provisions of the Act of the 15th & 16th years of Her present Majesty, the votes at the two elections next subsequent thereupon in any such place shall be taken by ballot. He made this proposal upon general and special grounds. No one who had paid attention to the subject could fail to have observed the singular course which the question of the ballot had taken since the Reform Bill. Every one hoped that when that Bill became law, it would have the effect of enabling those inhabitants of the country who were endowed with the electoral franchise to give their votes fairly and freely; but it was soon found that it did not put a stop to intimidation, bribery, and other corrupt practices; and the opinion began to spread that the ballot would be the only remedy. Mr. Grote, therefore, introduced the question of the ballot at an early period, and in the year 1835 it was discussed. In 1838 the great debate took place to which all subsequent debates upon the subject referred; and in 1839 it might be said that the ballot had reached its culminating point, for upon the division there were nearly 550 Members in the House. On that occasion 333 voted against the ballot, and 216 for it. But from that time the interest felt on the subject appeared somewhat to decline; and between 1842 and 1847 it seemed almost to fail. In 1839 Sir Robert Peel introduced the Bill which modified the formation of Election Committees, that being one of the measures by which it was hoped purity might have a fair trial. The ballot, therefore, was not so strongly pressed whilst that measure was in course of trial. But in the last Parliament a triumph was to a certain extent obtained; and a warning was then given which it was thought both candidates and constituencies would accept How that warning had operated was proved by the results of the last election. At that election the contest was carried on under the exciting circumstances of a stronger party struggle than we had seen for many years. All the means and resources which strong party feelings could adopt were brought into action; and in the petitions that arose out of it there were allegations of all sorts of corruption, bribery, and intimidation. The result, however, proved that bribery had not prevailed to the extent that was supposed; but upwards of thirty members altogether were unseated for bribery and corruption—fourteen on one side, and twenty upon the other—thus showing that the means hitherto taken to repress such practices had not been productive of much effect. Under such circumstances the House need not be surprised at finding that, after 225 contested elections, upwards of 100 petitions followed; and that the hopes of the friends of the ballot should revive. The division in 1852 showed that there were 246 Members against the ballot, and 144 for it; but in 1853 there were only 232 against it, whilst 172 voted for it, showing an increase in the number of the supporters of the question, and a diminution in the number of those who opposed it. The last division, indeed, proved that the strength of the question in the House was nearly as great as it was in 1839; and, looking at the constituencies of the 172 Members who gave their votes in favour of the ballot this year, it would be found that they expressed the sentiments of upwards of 500,000 electors—the constituency of the whole country being about 1,100,000; while of the 232 Members who voted the other way. there were not above fifty or sixty who sat upon his (the Government) side of the House, and more than 113 were county Members, who could hardly be good judges upon such a question. Finding that there was such a large number of Members in that House ready to support the application of the ballot, and seeing that a considerable number did not present themselves at the division, knowing probably that their constituents were not unfavourable to the measure, he had thought it right to give an opportunity to hon. Members who might be doubtful as to its application generally, to try the experiment upon a scale which would afford a favourable means of testing its merits. There was another reason why such an experiment should be tried at this time. It was expected that a great measure of electoral reform was intended to be proposed to that House, if not next year, certainly the year after. Such a measure must come sooner or later; and, come sooner or come later, it was quite clear that, whether it was an extension of the franchise alone, or a modification of the constituency, the result must give a great accession of strength to the friends of the ballot. He, therefore, thought it would be a wise step to prepare for this change, and to withdraw the ballot from the domain of mere abstract debates and reasonings, in order, if possible, to try it practically upon such a scale as would enable Parliament to judge of it by practical experiment. The Lords had not signified their assent to a Commission for Maldon; but he proposed it should be one of the boroughs in which the experiment should be tried. It contained 845 electors, and 5,888 inhabitants. Last night the Address was sanctioned by the House of Lords for Barnstaple and Tynemouth. Barnstaple had a constituency of 869 electors, and Tynemouth 1,169. For Canterbury, Kingston-upon-Hull, and Cambridge, there were Commissions sitting. In Cambridge there were 1,984 electors, in Canterbury, 1,874, and in Kingston-upon-Hull upwards of 5,000. These constituencies were of a variable character, and afforded a fair opportunity of trying the experiment. The ballot applied to these towns, would prevent any small knot of voters in any of them from ruling over the other electors, and securing a return by union among themselves. But there were in these towns, also, a large proportion of electors who were not swayed by corrupt motives. These, the respectable portion of the constituencies, ought not to be overwhelmed and swamped by the corrupt bodies which still remained, supposing the franchise was not withdrawn from them. The proposed Bill would afford an opportunity of interposing between these classes; it would step in between the corrupt and the corrupters, and pre- vent the next return from remaining in the hands of a body which did not rightly value the nature of the franchise. He would now briefly indicate the provisions of the Bill he proposed to introduce. The returning officer might, from the notoriety of the Commission, easily take steps for taking the votes by way of the ballot. As to the mode of polling, he should be ready to accept suggestions; but he apprehended that the simplest plan would be that when the elector presented himself at the booth, he should be identified by an authorised clerk. Upon being identified, he should receive an authorised card, with the names of the candidates printed upon it, with distinguishing marks for those who were unable to read; and that then, instead of the clerk taking his name down in writing, there should be a sufficient screen or boarding to prevent overlooking, and the man should put the card folded up with the name of the candidate whom he preferred into the box. He did not suggest this as by any means a perfect scheme; it was only an experiment, and he only proposed to apply it to a few constituencies. He offered it, in fact, as a contribution on his part towards a settlement of the question which had hitherto been debated only upon abstract grounds. Such a measure, he believed, would enable the electors of the country to express an independent opinion; and, believing the House would regret if it let the present opportunity pass without taking a step of this nature, he asked leave to bring in the Bill, the provisions of which he had briefly explained.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that whenever a Commission to inquire into the corrupt practices at any Election for any County, Division of a County, City, Borough, University, or place, in the United Kingdom, shall have issued, under the provisions of the Act of the fifteenth and sixteenth years of Her present Majesty, the Votes at the two Elections next subsequent thereupon in any such place shall be taken by Ballot.


said, that in the absence of other Members of the Government, whose attendance was required elsewhere, the duty had devolved upon him of asking the House not to consent to the introduction of this Bill. His noble Friend the Member for the City of London {Lord J. Russell) had spoken to him upon the subject of this measure; and he would endeavour to state one or two reasons which occurred to him as objections to the proposal, and which he hoped would pre- vail with the hon. Member so that he would not press this Motion. No discussion could have been more full and complete than that which the general question of the ballot, and its applicability to the election of Members of Parliament, had undergone in the present Session; it had been decided upon, and he (Mr. Peel) considered that it had been fairly disposed of for the remainder of the Session. But the hon. Gentleman brought it forward again with the view of obtaining a trial for the ballot in particular cases. A question, however, of such magnitude ought to be dealt with upon general grounds, and not treated in a partial and exceptional way. If the ballot was a sound measure, and was calculated really to suppress' the anomalies and corruptions of the electoral system, it ought to be applied universally. On the other hand, if it were possible that it might lead to injurious or doubtful consequences—if, as many persons believed, though it might check evils in one direction, it would produce greater evils in another—then he questioned the justice of applying it to a particular district for the purpose of teaching a lesson to other parts of the country. If a particular place or locality only was intended to be affected by a Parliamentary Act, the measure should be put in motion only at the suggestion of those who were interested; and he remembered a very fair proposition of that kind having been made. It was suggested that if the majority of any constituency requested that they might return their Members by way of the ballot, their request should be complied with. He gave no opinion upon such a proposition; but, in the present case, the hon. Gentleman proposed that, with or without the concurrence of the parties interested, they should be called upon to return their Members by way of ballot, although it might be their firm conviction that by such a mode public opinion could not obtain a fair representation. It appeared to him, therefore, that the House should not consent to the introduction of this Bill. It had, he thought, been admitted that the ballot would be inoperative to check bribery, though it might throw considerable obstructions in the way of intimidation. Where intimidation was rife, and parties were disposed to exercise undue influence, whether from property or numbers, it might fairly be contended that the ballot would prevent the repetition of those practices. But the hon. Gentleman did not propose to apply the ballot under this Bill to any such cases, but only where corrupt practices prevailed. This meant bribery. But it was admitted that the ballot would not check bribery. Under these circumstances, if the Bill became law, it would not be effectual, whilst it would be inconsistent with the measure to which the hon. Member proposed it as a supplement, namely, the Act under which Commissioners were appointed to inquire into the state of any particular borough. There might, if it became law, be an election going on in any place at the same time that the Commission was pursuing its investigation. So that there would be Commissioners, armed with extensive powers of inquiry, doing their best to throw light upon what had taken place at elections, whilst there was actually one proceeding at the same time, shrouded in all the mystery of secret voting. Such a result, he thought, would tend to paralyse the Commissioners' inquiry. The hon. Gentleman had not exactly described the plan under which he proposed the votes should be taken, but said he was open to suggestions. He should, however, have proposed some clear and tangible plan. There were many persons who did not object to the ballot on principle, but who had not made up their minds as to the mode in which the votes should be taken, that was, whether it should be compulsory or optional that they should be so taken. The hon. Gentleman had failed to enlighten the House upon these matters. For these reasons he (Mr. Pee!) must oppose the introduction of the Bill.


said, he greatly objected to have the ballot treated after the fashion proposed by the hon. Gentleman. He objected to such home opathic treatment—he objected to such infinitesimal doses. He should merely refer to one observation of the hon. Member who had just sat down. He could not permit the observation to pass that it had been ever admitted by any friend of the ballot that it was inoperative against bribery; for they all stated their belief that in any fair-sized constituency it was the best preventive of that practice. As to intimidation, which used to be disputed, that ground was given up long since. The ballot was a perfect cure for intimidation, and it would be a decided preventive of bribery. He should not vote against the Motion, and he certainly could not vote for it; therefore he should take the middle course of walking out of the House.


said, he believed that the House had no disposition to go on with this debate. Seeing there was not a Minister of the Crown present, from a cause which they all knew, and as they were aware that Mr. Speaker had also a call elsewhere [the hon. Member was understood to refer to the Royal christening], he thought they should not proceed further, and he, therefore, moved that the House do now adjourn.

Motion made, and Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

House adjourned at a quarter before Seven o'clock.