HC Deb 31 May 1853 vol 127 cc956-64

Order read, for resuming adjourned Debate on Question [10th May], "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the circumstances under which the petitions against the return of William Atherton, esquire, and Thomas Colpitts Grainger, esquire, for the City of Durham, have been withdrawn, and that the Petition of certain Electors of the City of Durham, presented to this House on the 20th day of April, be referred to the said Committee."

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


said, when this subject was last under discussion, the House agreed to adjourn the debate until a decision had been come to upon a Motion for the appointment of a General Committee for an inquiry into all cases of this kind. That Motion had stood for to-night; but it had been postponed until Tuesday, and he therefore moved that this debate be adjourned till that day.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the debate be now adjourned."


observed that the proposition of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Locke King) was for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into election petitions that had been withdrawn. Now, no less than sixty-eight election petitions had been withdrawn, and he did not think Members would readily consent to serve upon a Committee which was to conduct so extensive an inquiry, neither could the investigation have been got through in the present Session.


said, a grievance had been complained of, and a debate had taken place on the subject about three weeks ago. The noble Lord now said that the hon. Member for Surrey was going to propose a Motion which, if carried, would provide a mode of remedying that grievance; but it was by no means certain that the Motion of the hon. Member for Surrey would be agreed to. He (Mr. Disraeli) thought the best course would be to ap- point a specific Committee to inquire into She grievance alleged in this case.


recommended that at that hour in the morning the debate should be adjourned.


certainly thought that there was more in this case than could be laid at the door of the agents. It must be remembered that election agents acted generally under the instructions of others. The names of agents were sometimes bandied about as being the parties solely responsible; but he believed that if the House instituted the inquiry now asked for, they would have to go far beyond the agents, and to ascertain whence they had derived their instructions. The agents were often very unjustly charged with acts with which they had no direct connexion.


said, he could not consent to the adjournment of this debate. The case involved a very great irregularity, and an infringement of the privileges of that House, supposed to have been committed by a Parliamentary agent; but since he last addressed the House the case had assumed an entirely new aspect, and it had become matter of notoriety that the agent had not acted upon his own suggestions, but upon much higher authority. He (Mr. Bentinck) thought he should adopt the most straightforward course in stating the rumours he had heard on the subject, and in giving the hon. and learned Gentleman, whose name had been mentioned in connexion with the matter, an opportunity of either admitting or denying the share attributed to him in this affair. It had been a matter of notoriety, mentioned to him by many hon. Members, that the suggestion of the petition to which he had, on a former occasion, called attention, did not emanate from the Parliamentary agent, but came from Her Majesty's Attorney General (Sir Alexander Cockburn). In confirmation of this statement he had in his hand a letter addressed to Lord Adolphus Vane by a gentleman connected with the county of Durham, who said he had heard it stated generally that Mr. Atherton went to Sir A. Cockburn seeking his advice, and stating that he had spent 1,000 l. in contesting the city of Durham, and was fearful of losing his seat; upon which Sir A. Cockburn advised a counter petition against Mr. Grainger, which he thought might cause the withdrawal of the petition against Mr. Atherton. [Cries of "Name, name!"] The writer of the letter was Mr. Trotter, a medical gentleman resident at Stockton.


would not have risen to speak on this subject, had it not bees for the very unfounded piece of gossip which the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck) had thought proper to publish to the House. He said, without the slightest hesitation, that there was not a word nor a semblance of truth in that statement. He never stated to the Attorney General that he had expended 1,000 l. or a single farthing, in contesting the city "of Durham, nor had he asked the hon. and learned Gentleman's assistance or advice for the purpose of getting rid of the petition. But as the matter had been broached, though the suggestion was made in the confidence of private friendship, and he did not know how it had escaped, he would state to the House what actually took place. At the general election Mr. Grainger and himself were returned for Durham, and a petition was threatened immediately afterwards on the ground of a premature close of the poll, it being alleged that the poll had closed in one of the booths four minutes before four o'clock; though, as far as he and his friends could make out, there was no foundation for the assertion. Mr. Grainger died within a month; and he himself, when at Liverpool on the circuit, received a letter from a gentleman whose name was very familiar to the House in connexion with such matters—Mr. Brown. It stated in effect," I am anxious to communicate with you on your return from circuit, on the subject of the last and previous elections for Durham; my firm has been retained against the last return, and my object is to prevent a contest at the ensuing election"—a very intelligible letter, considering that his present Colleague (Lord Adolphus Vane) had already announced his intention to stand. The meaning he conceived to be," Allow the present candidate on the Conservative side to walk over the course, and we will abandon the petition that has been threatened against you. "To that letter he returned the answer which he believed would have been made by every Gentleman then listening to him—simply, but civilly, declining any communication on the subject. Mr. Brown thereupon betook himself to a gentleman in his own walk of life—Mr. Coppock—desiring him to put him in communication with some leading Liberal of the city of Durham, for the purpose of ascertaining whether some arrangement could not be made to prevent the opposition to Lord Adolphus Vane, on condition of the threatened petition being withheld. That appli- cation met with the same fate as the first; and the petition was ultimately presented, on the sole ground of a premature close of the poll, it being alleged that a booth had been obliged to be closed in consequence of a disturbance; but it was not pretended that this in any way affected the majority. The prayer of the petition was to avoid his seat only; but the view he took was, that notwithstanding the narrow prayer of the petition, the general facts alleged would have the effect, if proved, of avoiding both seats. He was thereupon led to believe that he should stand the contest under the advantageous circumstances of a double vacancy. In this state of things he came into contact with his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General. He stated to him the facts upon which the petition was founded. He stated to him the prayer, and the limit of the prayer, of the petition, expressing his own opinion possibly, that notwithstanding the terms of the prayer, the effect of the petition would be to void both seats if it were substantiated. His learned Friend, however, who had had experience in Parliamentary Committees, stated this, and this only, "I doubt your opinion; for, in my judgment, the jurisdiction of a Committee is limited, and defined by the terms of the prayer; and no Committee to whom the petition can be referred can avoid more than one of the seats." No further conversation took place; but he (Mr. Atherton) reiterated his own opinion. He had been partly confirmed in that view by a gentleman with whom he was in connexion; and he was advised, on considering the matter over, adopting the opinion that if that petition should not have the effect of putting him in the position in which he ought to be, that another petition ought to be presented for that purpose, praying to avoid the other seat, as the existing petition prayed to avoid his. He left the gentle-man by whom the petition was to be prepared with the understanding that he was to prepare a petition to carry this into effect; and it was under these circumstances and for these reasons that the petition was presented. This petition, upon being presented, immediately brought Mr. Brown into communication with Mr. Coppock, to suggest the withdrawal of the petition upon the terms of the first being withdrawn. These were the whole facts of the case; and he thought he was justified in the course he had taken. It had been said that they were not similar to other cases where petitions had been withdrawn. He himself hoped that in no case had petitions been withdrawn under circumstances less justifiable than those he had stated. It was obvious, from the conduct pursued by the Conservative agent in seeking to make use of the threat of a petition to deter opposition to the return of his candidate; from the fact of that petition being presented after the application, which had been fruitless; and from the limited prayer of the petition, that by that petition he was sought to be put to a disadvantage; and he had every reason to believe, and he still believed, that the petition levelled against him was unfairly levelled at him for an indirect object. Under these circumstances, the forms of law and the proceedings of Parliament being levelled against him the sitting Member for such indirect purpose, some of his friends and supporters—who made no disguise about the matter, for one of his own agents put his name unnecessarily to the petition, and there were two petitions, whereas one would suffice—presented the petition; and it was presented under circumstances which he then thought, and still thought, perfectly warranted the course that had been adopted. He had at no time declined a fair and proper inquiry; but he did object to being singled out invidiously, and directly to be marked out as an object for such a special inquiry as was proposed by the hon. Gentleman opposite.


said, he had nothing to complain of in the conduct of the hon. Member in bringing forward this Motion. The hon. Member had given him notice, not exactly of the charge he intended to make, but that he was about to bring his name and conduct into question. Upon this, he had desired Her Majesty's Government should resist the Motion; for he was most desirous of meeting and testing any charge which the hon. Gentleman might bring against him. The House had now heard the hon. Gentleman's explanation. No man was more sensible than himself of the liability of any man occupying a public position, to have his public or official conduct and conversation made the subject of inquiry and investigation; but he must protest altogether, although he needed no protest on this occasion, against having the private conversations which took place between one gentleman and another, in the unreserved confidence of private friendship, being disclosed. Whatever passed between his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Atherton) and himself, passed as between one gentleman and another, as between one private friend and another. He could easily conceive, if the petition presented on behalf of his hon. and learned Friend, which was proposed to be made the subject of inquiry, was. one which had ulterior objects, that the present petition which the hon. Gentleman opposite proposed to refer to the Select Committee, had also ulterior objects, with which the House was not acquainted. He could easily conceive a private conversation taking place between the hon. Gentleman who brought the subject forward, and those from whom the petition emanated; but he should deem himself guilty of a great violation of private delicacy if he ventured to ask the hon. Gentleman what conversation he might have had with particular individuals. But he would state in a few words what had passed between his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Atherton) and himself. It was a most hurried conversation, and took place without the slightest deliberation on his part. He was in the Court of Exchequer—a causewas going on, and he expected to address the Court every moment. His hon. and learned Friend said, he wanted to speak to him for a moment; and he replied it must be only for a moment. His hon. and learned Friend then stated that a petition had been presented against him, and propounded the question which he had just stated. He (the Attorney General) gave to him in a moment and off-hand his opinion; he told him he was wrong in expecting that the effect of the petition against him would be to suspend the issue of the writ after the death of Mr. Grainger, and that nothing could prevent the writ from issuing except a petition presented against Mr. Grainger. The conversation had proceeded to that point when he was called upon to address the Court; he did address it; and there, so far as he was concerned, the whole thing ended. His hon. and learned Friend sought his agent; they took their own course, and he heard no more about the matter; nor had he even thought about it until a few days after, when by accident he met his learned Friend in Westminster Hall, who told him that a petition had been presented, and that Mr. Brown had put himself in communication with him, proposing to withdraw the petition against him. These were the true facts of the case. That was the whole story; but he could not conclude without making one remark. This petition was presented in November last. The proposition for a compromise proceeded from the noble Lord opposite (Lord Adolphus Vane), with a view to open a field for the noble Lord in the representation of Durham. The noble Lord afterwards went down to that city, and was returned, and had sat for Durham from that time to the present. Six months had elapsed, and when the Committee was on the eve of being struck, the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck) had brought forward this Motion. He could not but think that the Motion had been brought forward for the purpose of intimidating his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Atherton). He could only say, with regard to himself, that he had no intention whatever of leading his hon. and learned Friend into any course which would be derogatory to him, or inconsistent with the dignity of the House.


denied that he had been guilty of any breach of private confidence in the statement he had made. He had given the names of all the parties concerned; and he maintained that the explanations which had just been tendered had justified him in all that he had said.

The House divided:—Ayes 80; Noes 89: Majority 9.

Original Question again proposed.


said, the simple question seemed to be, whether the inquiry should be conducted by the general or by a special Committee. If the prayer of the petition was very complicated, there might be some ground for saying a general Committee would be too much overladen with matter to see to the subject; but it did not appear to be of any very extraordinary difficulty, or to require much explanation. It remained for Gentlemen opposite to show that it was so. He had not the slightest wish to prevent the fullest inquiry; but they ought to state some special circumstance to prove the case was one for a special Committee.


said, the House had before it a factious petition, presented to Parliament in order to effect a return, and that by a notorious presenter of petitions and dealer in Parliamentary seats. They had that fact before them; and he thought it a subject for examination and inquiry. Then, what was the suggestion made on the part of the Government? Why, this—that the remedy should be a hypothesis. A grievance was admitted:—but on Tuesday next an hon. Member was going to make a Motion which might possibly suit the parties complaining. Who could tell what would happen next Tuesday? He would counsel the House to come to this conclusion, that they would inquire into that grievance, existing as it did under circumstances which he thought formed a flagrant trifling with the privileges of the House, and he did not think they would do that more effectually than by appointing a Committee.


said, the circumstances were such as to induce him to press the House to divide on his Motion.


said, the petition itself was presented in November; and he wished to know if any new facts had been presented to the hon. Member (Mr. Bentinck) to render this case different from what it was sis months ago?


said, this Motion was brought forward some time ago, and was postponed then on the ground that till the inquiry by the Committee on the petition on the Durham election was disposed of, it was not expedient to go into the present petition. He contended that the same reasons still existed for postponement.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."


then moved the adjournment of the House on the ground of the late hour to which the debate had been protracted, and the rather as the Government business was never allowed to proceed at such a late hour.


said, there was no similarity between this case and that of Government business. The Government had the whole night to bring forward their business, but here was the case of a private Member who could not bring on his Motion until after midnight. The opposition, therefore, was not only vexatious, but it struck at the privileges of independent Members, and he appealed to the noble Lord opposite not to sanction such a proceeding.


advised the House to agree to the Motion, as he thought the case was an exceedingly trumpery one, which any Committee would agree upon in a few hours.


said, the Government had not the slightest objection to inquiry. The only question was, whether, as there was a Motion for a Committee to inquire into all compromises of election petitions, and as this was such a case of compromise, this case should not be referred to that general Committee, or whether it should be referred to a Select Committee on its own merits.


would vote for a Committee of Inquiry, because he thought this was the grossest breach of Parliamentary privilege that had ever been brought forward.


said, that all parties were agreed that there should be inquiry. The only question was as to the mode and the time. As to the mode, he should not care how it was settled; but with regard to the time, he really thought that as the petition on the last Durham election was to come on the day after to-morrow, this inquiry ought to be postponed till it was settled.


said, if the House would agree to a Select Committee, he would not name that Committee till the Durham petition was disposed of.


would recommend the House to close with this proposition.

Motion for adjournment withdrawn,:—Original question put, and agreed to.

House adjourned at half after Two o'clock.