HC Deb 01 March 1853 vol 124 cc875-84

said, he rose to move that the evidence taken before the Election Committees for Bridgenorth and Blackburn be laid on the table; and that the writs for the said boroughs be suspended until Monday, the 4th day of April. The House was aware that the Committee which had sat to investigate the Bridgenorth Election Petition had reported that Sir Robert Pigot was, by his agents, guilty of bribery at the last election; and that the Blackburn Committee had also reported that Mr. Eccles was, by his agents, guilty of bribery; and that they further found that treating to some extent had been practised at the election by the agents and friends of Mr. Eccles. He (Sir J. Shelley) did not know whether his Motion was to be opposed; but it certainly appeared to him, particularly at the present time, when there were so many Election Petitions before the House, that they should show the country they were determined to sift these matters to the bottom, and that in every case where an Election Committee decided that a sitting Member had been guilty of bribery, by his agents or otherwise, the evidence should be placed in the hands of Members of the House before writs were issued for the boroughs. It had always struck him that the Committees of that House were placed in an awkward position with regard to these questions. It was clear that the petitioners in such cases would go no further than suited their purpose, which was to prove sufficient to unseat the sitting Member. It was not to be expected that, for the sake of the general purity of elections, the petitioners would go one inch further than was necessary to prove their case. It therefore seemed to him that the House should take care to show the country that they were determined thoroughly to sift every case where it was proved by the decision of a Committee that bribery had taken place. He thought it was more especially the duty of the House to look carefully into these cases at this time, as the Government had given notice of their intention to propose next year what he hoped would turn out to be a thorough Parliamentary reform; and, as a sincere advocate of purity of election, he was extremely anxious that all these cases should be brought before the House and the country, in order that there might be no excuse for not making that measure of reform searching and effective. He did not think the delay of the writs for the time he proposed could be any great detriment to these boroughs; and, if it should appear from the evidence that no organised system of bribery had existed, it would be competent to the House at once to direct that the writs should issue. He hoped, however, that in every case where a system of organised bribery and corruption was proved to have prevailed, the House would issue a Commission in order thoroughly to sift the matter.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That the Evidence taken before the Election Committee for Bridgenorth be laid on the Table; and that the Writ for the said Borough be suspended until Monday the 4th day of April next.


said, that, as a general rule, he thought the House was very shy of suspending the issue of writs, but that rule ought certainly to be liable to exceptions. Generally speaking, he believed, when an Election Committee found that evidence was adduced before them, showing that an organised and extensive system of bribery had prevailed in any borough, they reported the circumstances to the House. He did not know whether any such Report had been made in these cases, but he believed not. It was, however, perfectly true, as the hon. Baronet stated, that though the Committee might not have made such a Report, there might be in the evidence given before the Committee grounds which might lead the House to come to the conclusion that a system of bribery had existed. Therefore, and especially considering the impression which existed that bribery had prevailed to a great extent at the late elections—whether well or ill-founded—he would offer no opposition to the Motion of his hon. Friend, and would be willing not only that the evidence be laid before the House, but that they should suspend for a short period the issuing of the writs, so as to enable the House to consider whether or not further proceedings should be taken.


said, as Chairman of the Bridgenorth Election Committee, he thought it right to state that there was no evidence of such an extensive system of corruption in that borough as would justify the House in taking ulterior measures. If, however, the House thought it right to take the step now proposed, they would, in his opinion, be called on to adopt it as a general rule, and he would suggest, whether this might not lead to inconvenience. There could be no objection to the House seeing the evidence, but he did not see why five weeks should be asked for that purpose.


said, he would not offer any opposition to the Motion, but he called the attention of the House to the nature of the proceeding now proposed. They had devolved upon a Committee an inquiry into what had taken place at a particular election, and that Committee, having considered all that had taken place, had resolved that they were not called on to report any special circumstances requiring the consideration of the House. This was the case both with the Bridgenorth and Blackburn Election Committees; and he put it to the House, whether they should not be very cautious as to the precedent which they were now going to establish. Was it intended that the evidence should be printed in every case


said, as Chairman of the Blackburn Election Committee, he had taken the opinion of that Committee as to the propriety of ulterior measures being taken, and they unanimously concurred in thinking that nothing had come before them to make any special Report necessary beyond the Resolution which he had read to the House—that there were no peculiarities in the case to warrant them to ask for ulterior proceedings. It was also the determination of the Committee that it would not be desirable to print the evidence. He thought the caution thrown out by the two Gentlemen who had last spoken was one well deserving the attention of the House.


thought nothing could be more unfortunate than to suppose that the House was disposed to reverse the decision of any Election Committee with respect to seats in that House. A decision on that point by a Committee was final, and not to be reversed. Nor with respect to the mode in which they discharged their duty in Committee was any question raised. But it did become that House to have regard to the circumstances of the last general election. Not fewer than 109 petitions had been presented with regard to elections, and nearly all these petitions alleged the existence of bribery. He was not prepared to say that it would be expedient in all such cases to suspend the issue of a writ; but, on the whole, he did think that where Election Committees reported that bribery had been committed, the time had arrived when it was desirable, not with a view to consider the question of the decision of the Committees, but with reference to the conduct of the constituent body, that the evidence should in all such cases be printed. This he considered expedient, in order that the Members of the House might read the evidence, and see whether any ulterior steps ought to be taken, and whether it was not the duty of the House to inquire into the conduct of the constituent body, lie would suggest to the hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley), that the time during which he proposed to suspend the writ was too long. He was in favour of printing the evidence, and of suspending the issue of the writs for a moderate period, until the House had time to examine the evidence; but he thought that a fortnight would be sufficient for that purpose.


, as Chairman of the General Committee on Elections, wished to state, before the House came to a decision, that there were above one hundred election petitions, seventy-nine of which involved separate cases—and of those seventy-nine only fourteen had been withdrawn, so that the House would be required to provide no less than sixty-five Committees for election purposes. About thirteen or fourteen Committees had been already formed, and in all of those which had presented their Reports, excepting one case, cither one or both of the Members had been unseated. He would therefore leave the House to form an opinion how its general business was to be carried on if a much larger number of Members were declared to be unseated, and their seats not to be filled up for some five or six weeks, when there would be an im- mense pressure of business upon the House. Why, it was only a day or two ago that a Committee of thirty Members was appointed; and as Election Committees had a compulsory power over their members, the effect must be the withdrawal of some of the most practical and useful Members from attendance upon Select Committees,


said, he felt bound to say that he was somewhat surprised that the Blackburn Committee had not recommended ulterior measures when he heard their Report read at the bar. They reported— That the last election, so far as William Eccles, Esq., was concerned, was a void election; that it was proved that George Clarke was bribed by an outlay of 5l. for the benefit of his son, John Clarke, the keeper of the Bird-in-Hand beer shop; that George Gorton was bribed by a promise of 5l. for the use of a room as a committee room; that Thomas Morris was bribed by an order for beer to the amount of 4l., and two tickets for more beer; that Thomas Bond was bribed by the consumption of meat and drink on the polling day to the amount of 37l.; that James Hurdle was bribed in a similar manner by an outlay of 47l. Now, he (Sir B. Hall) remembered the time when such a statement would have instantly been followed by a Motion for further inquiry; and in these times of purity of election he thought they ought to have an inquiry whether even so large a borough as Blackburn ought not to be disfranchised. He hoped that the hon. Baronet (Sir J. Shelley) would accept the proposal of the right hon. Member for Carlisle (Sir J. Graham).


said, he thought no case had been made out for departing from the ordinary practice of the House, and establishing what might be a dangerous precedent. The fate of a Ministry had been known to be dependent on one vote, and while these writs were suspended a vote might be come to by the House deciding who should be the Ministers.


said, the speech of the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Trollope) revealed a most dismal state of things, and was calculated to produce considerable effect, not only in the House, but in the country. The right hon. Baronet had informed the House that fourteen Committees had been appointed to try boroughs for corrupt practices, and that about fifty more remained to be appointed, and he spoke of the difficulty there might be in finding Members enough in the House to constitute tribunals to judge the disputed elec- tions, and at the same time to form Committees for the ordinary business of the House. This looked as if the Parliamentary machine were coming to a dead lock; but it appeared to him (Mr. Cobden) that their primary and almost only business ought to be to show to the country that they were prepared to deal firmly and vigorously with the state of things which had brought the House to such an extraordinary position. He could not conceive any business—not even the Committee on Indian Affairs—that was of so much importance to the cause of constitutional government in this country, as that the House should show itself ready to deal with the frightful amount of corruption which seemed to have taken hold of the great bulk of our constituencies. The Reports of the Committees which had come to a decision upon the respective cases committed to them, showed that there had been attempts on the part of those who had conducted those petitions, to keep back as much as possible information as to the state of the different boroughs. If this state of things went on, petitioners would be content to prove only one case of bribery, because it would be highly inconvenient to parties who profited by this corruption to have their boroughs disfranchised. That would be as unwise as to cut up the goose that laid the golden eggs. With respect to the case at Bridgenorth he had received a letter from a constituent, who was also a voter for the West Riding, stating that an inquiry ought to be strongly pressed for; and affirming that it was exceedingly difficult to procure information as to the real state of the town, because it was a pocket borough; but that if the inquiry should be fairly conducted, it would reveal an amount of corruption that would cast even Sudbury and St. Albans into the shade. This statement ought to encourage them to persevere into a sifting inquiry into Bridgenorth. Did anybody deny that Bridgenorth was the place described there; or that Cambridge was one of the most notoriously corrupt places in the Kingdom? Did not everybody know the character of Canterbury? He might run through scores of small boroughs in the south of England equally corrupt. The public would expect that the first and almost only business which the House had to do was to show themselves honest in dealing with the question of corruption in the Parliamentary boroughs. Therefore, he hoped the hon. Gentleman would persevere in the Motion he had made. He did not think a month too long to give to these abominably corrupt places to purify themselves, and to bring their minds to a proper sense of their debasement.


said, he preferred suspending the writ for a fortnight to the original proposition to suspend it for a month.


said, he concurred in the proposition to suspend the writs; but if an investigation were to take place, it must be general, and not one-sided. He thought that when proof was shown that bribery existed in a borough, time should be allowed for the inhabitants to consult together, in order that they might petition before the issue of the writ, if they were so minded, for a Commission of Inquiry. He should be happy to support the hon. Baronet if he would move that a fortnight should elapse between the printing of the evidence and the Motion for the writ.


said, he would adopt the suggestion for the postponement of these writs. He thought that, where bribery was proved, full opportunity should he given to consider the evidence, so that the House might judge for itself before the writ was moved.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee on the Bridgenorth Election Petition to be laid before the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That the Writ for the Borough of Bridgenorth be suspended till Tuesday the 15th day of this instant March,


said, he apprehended there was no Member of the House who would not say the evidence upon which they were to decide as to any further inquiry into a particular borough, must be the printed evidence before the Committee, and not vague and general statements made in that House as to there being gross corruption; but if they were to decide upon such printed evidence, who were the best judges of it—the Committee who had heard it, who had seen the witnesses and observed their demeanour, or the House who had not had that advantage? Were they prepared to reintroduce into the House, upon the case of every borough, the question whether the writ should should go or not?—a question to be decided by a party vote, the majority of votes being given by Gentlemen who had not read the evidence. If they adopted such a course they would soon get back into the state the House was in before Mr. Grenville's Act was passed.


said, it was competent for the House, on reading the evidence, to come to the conclusion that there were indications of bribery existing in these boroughs; but he was happy to believe that in every corrupt borough in this country a part of the constituency was hostile to such practices, and anxious for a remedy. He would assume there were such persons at Bridgenorth—he was sure there were at Blackburn—and if those persons should think a thorough inquiry was necessary, they might petition the House for such inquiry, and the House might appoint a Special Committee for the purpose. But if there were no such petition, and the writ were suspended for a fortnight, the time would be well spent in the borough, for it would be held up to public observation and obloquy on that account; but if they issued the writ at once, another Member might probably be returned by the same means, and the country would have ground for believing that their zeal for election purity was a sham, and that they did not care about the matter. He was astonished that any person should hesitate to adopt any measure that would put an end to such a state of things. Many men who were innocent were brought under temporary disgrace, and there were many sitting in the House at that moment, who, having seen what took place before these Committees, were in a most uncomfortable position, not only, and probably not chiefly, because they were in danger of losing their seats—for to an honourable man that was a small thing, as he had an opportunity of redeeming it—but because he felt liable through the corruption of our representative system of having his name recorded in a blue book connected with dirty and corrupt practices.


said, the House must either be content with the decision of the Committee, or begin de novo. In the case of every borough where bribery had been proved, he wished the House to express its disapprobation; but he thought it better to adhere to the course that had hitherto been followed. He considered it desirable in the present instance to settle beforehand the mode of proceeding; and he would suggest that the form of the Motion should be, that Mr. Speaker should not issue the writ until six days, five days, or three days after the day on which the evi- dence ordered to be printed should be in the hands of Members.


thought that an inquiry should be instituted, not only into cases where the petition had been compromised, but also into cases where the petitions had been defeated on mere points of form. As he considered that he was one of those against whom allegations had been made by the hon. Member for Manchester, he challenged investigation, and therefore moved an adjournment, in order that there should he time for a full inquiry.


said, he would point out that one effect of the course now proposed to the House would be, that, in future, Election Committees having once got evidence enough on which to unseat a Member, would, so to speak, shut up shop, and whatever the further evidence within their attainment, give themselves no trouble about it, but leave the inquiry to be pursued by the House, if the House so pleased.


said, he certainly considered that where a Committee had received evidence of bribery, by a Member or his agent, justifying them in unseating that Member, it was expedient that the evidence of such bribery should be printed, so that the constituency involved might be made acquainted with the facts elicited; and, if they thought fit, petition the House that further inquiry might be made into the conduct of the constituency. The House might then have a further inquiry specially into the conduct of that constituency, under the Act already on the table; or, if these cases should multiply, when the House came to consider all the cases in which inquiry was pending—seventy in number, he believed—then it would be a question, with a view to future legislation, of suspending the writs, and of instituting an inquiry into the conduct of all the constituent bodies in which such bribery had been proved to exist.


said, he felt that this subject was one of too much importance to be decided at that late hour of the night. The House must not be driven to a hasty conclusion upon so large a proposition as that which had developed itself, on a Motion which, as proposed, had only reference to two special cases. He should, therefore, support the Motion for adjournment, not with any view to oppose the proposition of the hon. Member for Westminster, but to give the House a full opportunity of deciding fairly and properly on this important question.


said, he was quite willing to assent to an adjournment of the debate.

Debate adjourned till Thursday.

The House adjourned at half after One o'clock.