HC Deb 15 March 1853 vol 125 cc223-33

said, he had to present a petition signed by the Mayor of Blackburn, and he believed by every magistrate on the bench there, comprising men of all parties, and among them a magistrate who was a party to the petition that unseated the late Members, praying that a new writ might be issued without delay. Having taken all the precautions that were necessary in accordance with the decision of that House on a recent occasion with regard to the issuing of a new writ, it had been his intention to move for the issuing of a new writ for the borough of Blackburn without any comment; but it had come to his knowledge almost immediately previous to his making that Motion, that it was the intention of the hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley) to oppose it: he therefore should be obliged to accompany his Motion with a few observations. The House would recollect that, ten days ago, when this subject was discussed, several propositions were made as to the manner in which the issuing of a writ should be dealt with when a Committee had unseated a Member, or had made a Report stating that bribery had taken place at any particular borough. The hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley) took part in that debate, and proposed that in every case in which a Member was unseated for bribery, an inquiry should take place whether that bribery was conducted upon an extensive system, or was confined merely to the instances brought before the Committee. The House discussed the point, and decided that, when a Member was unseated for bribery and corruption, any Member moving for the issuing of a new writ, should give seven days' notice of his intention to do so. Having waited a proper time, he had acceded to a request made to him, as he supposed, because Blackburn was in that part of the county of Lancaster which he represented, by gentlemen of both parties connected with Blackburn, and had put on the paper a notice that that evening he should move for a new writ for that borough. If in the seven days that had elapsed since he gave that notice, any case had been made out that a system of bribery had existed at the late election, he would not have persisted in his Motion, but would have assisted in the investigation of such a case. After ho had given his notice, he was informed by the clerk at the table that no Member of the House had moved that the evidence taken before the Committee should be printed, so little interest was felt about it. Now, if his hon. Friend the Member for Westminster intended to oppose the Motion, it was not sufficient for him, as he (Mr. Patten) understood he intended to do, that he should oppose it, only on the ground that the evidence was not printed, but he ought to make out some case against the borough. The House would deal with the matter as they thought proper. If, however, it were opposed simply on the ground he had stated, the borough would have cause to complain, for it was the duty of his hon. Friend not to have left him to have taken the course he had taken, but to have moved that the evidence should be printed. He had made inquiry whether there was any wish existing in Blackburn on the part of any persons that the writ should not issue, and he had not got one answer to that effect. On the contrary, he was informed that great excitement existed there, and that it was unanimously desired that that excitement should be put an end to by the issuing of the writ.


then moved the issuing of the new writ.

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 Blackburn, in the room of William Eccles, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void.


said, he hoped the House would believe him when he said he rose with great diffidence. Nothing but a strong sense of duty, not only to that House but to the constituencies generally, and a determination to do his duty, however disagreeable it might be, would have induced him to rise on this occasion. He felt himself, too, in an extra difficulty, as he had to apologise to the House for an oversight on his own part. The House would recollect that at the time of the former discussion on this subject, there was some little confusion; and it was his impression that when he moved that the evidence on the Bridgenorth Election should be printed, he had moved for that of Blackburn also. On receiving that of Bridgenorth that morning, without that of Blackburn, he had made inquiry, and found the Motion was not made. The ground he took with regard to the general subject before the House was, that in every case where a Committee had reported that the sitting Member had been guilty of bribery, there should be an inquiry. It was the next thing to a farce, if the writ were immediately issued without inquiry. Would anybody get up and say that if this writ were issued for Blackburn, and A, B, or C, were elected in place of Mr. Eccles, the same proceedings would not all have to be gone over again? He did not wish to impugn the decisions of these Committees; he could, on the contrary, bear testimony to their fairness. They had seen the Committee for Hull, with a Chairman from that side of the House, unseat Members who also sat on that side of the House. They had seen the Committee for Chatham, with a Chairman from the other side of the House, unseat a Member who sat on the other side of the House. And so with regard to Blackburn, it had returned a Liberal to Parliament before, and, from what he heard, was likely to do so again, and therefore, he hoped to escape any imputations of being actuated by party motives. It was true that in the Report not many cases of bribery were shown; but although they might be trifling, that was no reason why there should not be further inquiry. In those cases the voters were, in the opinion of the Committee, induced to vote in a particular way by corrupt considerations. If a place were not perfectly pure, it was impure, and then there ought to be inquiry. A Select Committee only adjudicated upon the cases before it. The petitioners had an object in view in putting those cases before the Committee, and they went no further than was necessary to unseat the sitting Member. The Committee had no power to go further unless indeed it were so bad that its full extent could not be concealed; but, as a rule, the petitioners only let as much ooze out as was sufficient to unseat the Member. He thought the House should follow up the first inquiry. He did not wish to interfere with the decision of the Election Committees; but the House was bound to follow up their decisions beyond what those Committees had the power of doing. Never since the passing of the Reform Bill was there such gross corruption as at the last elections. Corruption on all sides. More than one hundred petitions had been presented to that House on the ground of bribery. It was the duty of the House, therefore, to show to the country that they were determined to hunt out bribery, and to put it down wherever it existed. But when he looked at the circumstances under which the last election took place, he could not much wonder that such an amount of bribery had prevailed. Lord Derby was then at the head of Government, and he avowed himself a Protectionist, though he said he would bow to the opinion of the country, as expressed by the electors. It was, therefore, the especial object of the late Government to secure a large number of representatives in their support. He believed that Free-traders had, in many instances, been induced to do evil that good might come from it; but he did not think there was a pin's worth of difference between both. Neither the Carlton Club nor the Reform Club could throw stones at one another. He trusted the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) would use his utmost influence to put down those practices, and that if he saw there was no other effectual mode of securing the independence of the voter, that he would adopt the ballot and suppress those Eat-an-swill boroughs—those nests of corruption. It was the especial duty of the noble Lord to make an attempt to purify the constituencies.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That,' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'A Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the bribery that took place at the last Election for the borough of Blackburn,' (Sir John Shelley), —instead thereof.


seconded the Amendment.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, that if he were at a loss for an argument wherewith to oppose the Amendment, he was furnished with it in the declaration of the hon. Gentleman (Sir J. Shelley), that his object was to go beyond the Committees of this House. Now hon. Members must not lose sight of the fact, that going beyond the Committees of this House in the manner alluded to by the hon. Member, was nothing more nor less than to put in juxtaposition and contrast evidence which was taken upon oath, and evidence which was not taken upon oath. The House must not lose sight of that fact, for it was a most important one. If it were the general opinion that Committees of the House of Commons could not conduct inquiries of this kind in a manner that was satisfactory to the country at large, let the law be altered, and in every instance let inquiries be instituted by other means. The hon. Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley) said that if the writ for Blackburn were issued to-morrow, they would witness the same occurrences as took place at the last election for that borough. Now the only way of testing the accuracy of that statement was to look into the evidence which was given on the late inquiry, and by which it would be seen that there was no proof whatever of practices of a corrupt nature having been resorted to at previous elections. The hon. Member was not justified in saying, therefore, that because there were corrupt practices on the last occasion, they must necessarily take place again; and unless he was able to show from the evidence that there was reason to believe that there would be a recurrence of such practices, he (Mr. Deedes) saw no reason why delay should take place in the issue of the writ. The hon. Member had not stated distinctly that he would follow up the matter with a proposal for a Commission of Inquiry. All he could gather from his speech was, that he wished to delay the issue of the writ; but he (Mr. Deedes) wanted to know upon what grounds? [Sir J. SHELLEY: For the purpose of inquiry.] The hon. Gentleman had not pointed out a system of inquiry; and all his Amendment would effect was to delay the issue of the writ, and increase the excitement which, they were informed, already prevailed at Blackburn.


said, he hoped the House would carefully consider the course it was about to take: and more especially he hoped they would do so after the speech of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Deedes). If he understood the hon. Gentleman rightly, he proposed to reverse altogether the course of proceeding which the House had now taken for a very long time. The hon. Gentleman asserted that when a Select Committee had sat upon one of these cases, that that was at once a conclusion; and that the decision of the Committee having been made as to whether a Member was duly returned or not, there was to be an end to all further inquiry; and that, although the borough might be universally corrupt, and nearly every person in it in the habit of receiving bribes, the House was precluded from any further inquiry. Now, he (Lord John Russell) submitted that such a course would be entirely new and without precedent. The Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the return. It might incidentally appear in the course of the inquiry that corruption was extended or not extended, or that it was confined to only a few persons; or it might happen that these facts might not appear at all, but that the evidence might simply refer to three or four persons only charged with bribery. But he submitted it would be a change in their proceedings if they were to say that the Report, besides deciding the point submitted to them, decided every other point, and prevented the House from going into further inquiry. With regard to inquiry that might be instituted without any Report of a Select Committee, he remembered that the first case in the discussion of which he took a part in that House, was the case of the borough of Grampound. There, nearly the whole of the people were bribed. With very few exceptions, nearly all were bribed. But although the Committee made no report of that bribery, the House thought proper to institute inquiry into the state of the borough. Lord Castlereagh, as the organ of the Government in that House, not only gave his assent to the inquiry, but assisted it; and afterwards Lord Liverpool proposed that the borough should be disfranchised. But they did not in that case proceed upon a Report from a Select Committee under the Election Act, nor was a Select Committee appointed. The question now was, what course did the House mean to take in these cases now under consideration. He was most anxious that, if possible, the House should take a consistent course with respect to them, and not have to judge as to the weight of the particular evidence in each particular case. He did not at all regret that the evidence in the Blackburn case was not before the House, because no doubt the Committee had decided properly, and he did not want to confound with that evidence his vote on this occasion. There were certain Reports with regard to elections in certain boroughs; and he supposed the House would not be far from the truth in supposing that in several of the cases in which the seats were voided by bribery, that bribery was only proved in a few cases—that it was the exception, not affecting generally the character of the election. In several other cases the House could not very well refuse to believe that, although only a few persons were reported to the House as guilty of bribery, the bribery was very extensive and very general. Suppose the House appointed a Select Committee in every one of these cases, the Committee would probably find, with regard to several of the boroughs, that there were no reasons why the writ should not immediately issue. They would find in other cases that bribery and corruption were very extensive; and on their reporting so to the House, the Act of last Session would come into operation, because the Act was not confined to those cases which were reported by Select Committees appointed to try election petitions, but extended also to cases in which Select Committees were appointed to inquire into the existence of corrupt practices. There fore that Act contemplated that there should be Select Committees in certain cases without the power of taking evidence on oath, to which the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Deedes) objected. But the Act took no such objection; it admitted of inquiry by a Committee; and if the Committee reported that a primâ facie case of general bribery and corruption had been made out, on an Address to the Crown, a Commission was appointed. If the Act so contemplated, he could not conclude that in the face of their own Act, and in spite of that Act, Select Committees should never be appointed to inquire into bribery at all. He had mentioned that the first course was in all these cases to appoint Select Committees, and then there would be no party division on the subject; because the rule would be laid down that immediately an election was declared void by bribery, a Select Committee of inquiry into that bribery should be appointed. Another course was to appoint Committees on petitions from electors, to inquire into corrupt practices, and in no other cases. The third course was not to appoint such a Committee in any case, and to carry the investigation no further than by the inquiries made by Select Committees on election petitions. The last course, he must say, was very objectionable, as it was a course which would screen a great deal of bribery. It was for the House very much to decide for itself. He did not wish to make any Motion on the subject. His preference certainly was for taking the first course. Still if the House should think fit to take the second course, he should submit to the decission of the House; but he confessed, if the House were asked to come to a decision, he should give his vote on the division in favour of the Motion of the hon. Member for Westminster.


said, he wished to explain that he never intended to say that under no circumstances should a Select Committee be appointed. He certainly said the other night that he thought, where the Committee did not make special application or a special Report, the House ought to be satisfied with the Report of the Election Committee. He never intended to say, or to have it inferred, that the House should be precluded from carrying matters further if they thought fit.


said, the hon. Baronet (Sir J. Shelley) called on them to vote for two things—firstly, that there should be an inquiry; and, secondly, that the writ should not be issued. Unless the House was prepared to affirm both these propositions, they could not support the Amendment. With deference to the great experience and exertions of the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) on this subject, he thought it would be a most dangerous course to appoint a Select Committee in every case where a Member was unseated for bribery, and no special Report was made. The reference in the Act of last year to a Committee appointed to try whether corrupt practices existed in a borough, he interpreted as referring to a Committee under the Act of 1842. Four cases were provided for by the Act of last year to meet the instances of petitions being presented and withdrawn or compromised; also where no election petition had been presented, but a petition for inquiry emanated from the borough. The Act provided for all that was necessary; and to extend it to other cases would be dangerous. Take the case of one Member being unseated for bribery, as at Derby, and another Member seated in his place; would it be said that the writ should be suspended in such a case, or that the seat should continue vacant? In the case of Bridgenorth, the subsequent petition from the inhabitants alleged no new cases from bribery; consequently, if a Committee were appointed in that case, they could do nothing more than review the proceedings of the Election Committee. This was a fair specimen of the difficulties in which they might be involved by carrying this principle too far. It was well known that the most corrupt places would not petition for inquiry; there- fore all the House could do was to touch the fringe of the case, as it were. He saw no logical connexion between the proposed supplemental inquiry, and the suspension of the writ. The boroughs could demand the issue of the writ as a matter of right. Supposing the result of the inquiry to prove that no corruption had existed, what an injustice was done the borough by depriving it of its representation for perhaps a twelvemonth. For these reasons he should vote for the Motion.


said, he had not much acquaintance with the constituencies which were represented to be so corrupt, but he believed that a very large majority of them were not corrupt. If the House gave any credit to the Committees which had sat during the present Session, they were bound to conclude that those constituencies against whom no special Report was made were incorrupt; and it would be a gross and extravagant injustice to deprive the honest portion of those electors of a fair share in the representation because a few exceptional cases of bribery had been proved. He was much struck with a remark a few evenings ago by the right hon. Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Goulburn), that if they brought under consideration of a Select Committee every Report upon election petitions, they would be going back to the time before the Grenville Act, when the dominant party in that House determined what Members should sit in that House. He would go further and say if the doctrine of the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) was carried out, the dominant party might also determine what boroughs should be represented in that House; and, with all respect to the House, be believed that was a power they had no right to arrogate to themselves alone.


said, he hoped the House would not be led away too hastily to a division by the course which had been pursued by the hon. Member for Westminster (Sir John Shelley). They really ought to proceed with far more deliberation in this matter, for great embarrassment necessarily resulted from the step he had taken of mixing up the issuing of the writ for Blackburn with an inquiry into the general question of bribery at elections. He thought it a most dangerous course to suspend writs, because, if the time should come when parties were narrowly divided, and a few votes might turn the policy of the country, it would be in the power of the majority to use the precedents for that purpose. Inquiry into bribery was totally distinct from that question. They had no right to deprive electors of the right of sending Members to that House except on the strongest grounds. On the other hand, strong measures were necessary to repress corruption, and that necessity was universally acknowledged. He agreed with the noble Lord that it would be disastrous if in no instance they were to inquire into allegations of general bribery; but they might go thus far, not to inquire further unless the Election Committee recommended it, or unless there were some special grounds laid before the House. In this instance the hon. Member (Sir J. Shelley) had made no statement, and had developed no facts to lead the House to suppose there had been any general corruption in the borough of Blackburn. It would be for the House to consider whether they would lay down any general rule. His present impression was, that they must institute some tribunal, either by Committee or Commission, which should deal with all cases where there was any ground to suppose a general system of bribery had prevailed. His reason for thinking so was, that it was manifestly the interest of parties petitioning against an election return to obtain the seat at the smallest expense, and conceal the extent of the bribery which had been practised. He thought a tribunal for the purpose of investigating general bribery might well be established; but that must be done by a fresh Act of Parliament, in order to render its proceedings efficient by giving the power to take evidence on oath. He hoped, however, that the House would not lightly refuse a writ, and thus deprive a constituency of the constitutional right to send Members to Parliament.


said, there was no petition from Blackburn alleging general bribery, and from communications he had received he had every reason to believe that the next election would be conducted on the strictest principles of honoured purity.


said, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) was very tender in this instance of the rights of the electors, and keenly alive to the injustice of depriving them for a long period of the franchise; but when the writ for Derby was moved for in 1848, three weeks after the two Members had been unseated for bribery, the hon. Member opposed the Motion, and so did also the hon. Member for East Kent (Mr. Deedes). Five different times the writ was moved, and five different times it was refused, and on every one of those occasions the late lamented Sir Robert Peel voted against the issue of the writ. It was said there were no circumstances in this case of Blackburn to justify the withholding of the writ. Had not they heard that the Member paid 2,500l. into the hands of a Committee, and made no inquiries how that sum was expended, though not a shilling was returned to him? He was in a condition to prove that, in the three instances in which Members for Derby had been unseated for bribery, they did not spend half that sum. He was persuaded that, seeing, as the country did see, that every borough in the kingdom was more or less corrupt, those which had contests and those which had none—for he was in a condition to prove that in boroughs where there were no contests, large sums were paid for the seats— if they withdrew from prosecuting inquiries when bribery was proved, the country would have no respect for that House, or any confidence in the sincerity of their desire to check corrupt practices.


in reply, said, he had listened to the discussion with the greatest attention, and had not heard any good reason assigned why the writ should not issue. He had put the House in possession of all the facts of the case—he had waited far longer than the customary period before making the Motion, and he was still more than ever of opinion that the withholding of the writ could not be justified upon any consideration of justice or of policy. He put it, therefore, to the good sense and good feeling of the hon. Member for Westminster not to press his Amendment to a division.


said, he was willing to adopt whatever course might appear most acceptable to the House. After the remarks which had fallen from the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell), and taking into consideration the general tone and tenor of the debate, he would consent to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.