HC Deb 23 February 1854 vol 130 cc1194-201

said, he begged to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the complaints contained in a petition presented on the 15th of February, relative to the registration of electors in the western division of Surrey. The matters referred to in this petition involved the rights of every elector in the country. What had happened in the western division of Surrey might happen in the West Riding of Yorkshire, or in the City of London; and he thought he should be able to show that gross injustice had been done to many persons who were lately constituents of his. No fewer than one hundred and fifteen persons had been struck off the register of voters for West Surrey, under circumstances which deserved the attention of the Legislature, seeing that through no fault of their own they had been deprived of the opportunity of defending their votes. Of these individuals, six had petitioned the House to be replaced on the register, and prayed for inquiry. The first part of their request he did not press; but it was fair that inquiry should be made before a Committee, because any question which affected the rights and privileges of our constituents, affected the rights and privileges of every Member in that House. The Act 6 & 7 Vict. c. 18, regulated the proceedings in respect to the registration of voters. In that Act two classes of objections were recognised. Objections to voters might be taken by overseers of the parish and by individual electors; but it was with the latter only that he was now concerned. It was the intention of the Legislature that every elector objected to should have an opportunity of defending his vote; and, therefore, any person who objected must either deliver a notice of objection at the house of the person objected to on or before the 25th of August, or he might go to the Post Office and drop the notice of objection in a box at such a time that it would arrive at the elector's residence, in the ordinary course of post, by the 25th of August. If a person posted a notice, he was bound to prove before the revising barrister that he had posted it; when it was posted he received a stamped duplicate, and when the objector appeared before the revising bar- rister with a stamped duplicate, the revising barrister was bound to receive such stamped duplicate as proving that the notice of objection had been duly posted. At the last registration for West Surrey these stamped duplicates were produced; but neither the persons objected to nor the overseers ever received any notice. The revising barrister saw the hardship of the case, but, considering himself bound by the terms of the Act, he felt bound to strike off those objected to, to whom the stamped duplicates referred. One hundred and fifteen persons were thus unjustly deprived of the franchise. He (Mr. Evelyn) afterwards sent circular letters to every one of these hundred and fifteen persons, asking them whether they had received any notice of objection; and he also wrote to the overseers of the parishes, asking them whether they had received any. To those sent to individuals whose names had been expunged he received forty-seven answers, stating that they had received no notices of objection; forty-six were unanswered, and the rest were returned from the Dead Letter Office. He was not much surprised at so many letters remaining unanswered, because many of these electors were in a humble station of life and not much accustomed to receive printed circulars except during the time of contested elections, when they not only received them, but were not a little bewildered by them. The overseers stated that in the case of 106 electors they had received no notice of objection, but that in the case of nine electors they had. These letters were proved to have been taken and duly posted at an office in the Strand. He therefore thought that this was a case which demanded inquiry. What had occurred once might occur again; and he did not think the rights and privileges of electors were safe so long as such mistakes could occur. He did not know upon what ground a Select Committee could be refused, seeing that it would be a public benefit to investigate these transactions, and to show whether the system required alteration. It was due also to the character of the Post Office that inquiry should take place. On the 24th of October he wrote to the Postmaster General, begging that a searching inquiry might be instituted. To this letter he received an answer, but the result was not satisfactory. But he submitted that even if the Post Office had made inquiry, the subject would still be one for the consideration of that House, and not for the Post Office, which really would be upon its trial in the event of the Select Committee being granted. In conclusion, he would frankly state that the persons who had been thus unfairly disfranchised were his own friends; but if they had been opposed to him he should have followed exactly the same course.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in a Petition presented upon the 15th day of this instant February, from certain persons until lately registered Electors of the western division of the county of Surrey.


said, he was not inclined to deny the great importance of the question, or the undoubted right of the parties to whom reference was made, to have the matter investigated. But he differed from the hon. Gentleman who had moved for the Committee, as to the form in which he wished inquiry to be made. It was not until within the last few minutes that he had heard anything of the merits of the question, and he regretted they had not been communicated to the Treasury, where they would have undergone a strict investigation. The case was an isolated case, though, no doubt, of extreme importance, in a constitutional point of view, with reference to the administration of a particular department of the public service. It was utterly impossible for him to give any explanation relative to it; but, considering the number of Committees appointed for public purposes, the House ought to be extremely cautious how they multiplied the subjects on which they were granted. He agreed, however, that, if the investigation by the Treasury was not satisfactory, the hon. Gentleman would then be entitled to ask for a Parliamentary Committee—relating, as the subject did, to an Act of Parliament extremely convenient in county elections, and without which it would be almost impossible for county registrations to be carried on as they now are. The posting of letters, as there provided, was to be regarded for this purpose as a great constitutional right; but he would suggest that the hon. Gentleman should submit the facts of this just complaint to the Treasury in the first instance; they would have an opportunity of inquiring into them; and if, after their inquiry, a fair explanation could not be obtained, he thought the Government would have no objection to grant a Committee.


said, he was not aware of the facts of the case until he had just heard them stated. Upon that statement he must say he thought the case ought to be inquired into, not for the purpose of impugning the Post Office, but for settling a question of immense constitutional importance, in order that constituents should not be struck off the register through any error in a public department. The hon. Gentleman (Mr.Wilson) said the ease had not been represented at the Treasury. But it had been represented at the Post Office, from which no satisfactory explanation or answer had been received which could clear up the matter. It was now proposed that the Treasury should make an investigation. He (Mr. Walpole) doubted whether such a course would be satisfactory. Then the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Wilson) said this was an isolated case. He (Mr. Walpole) could assure him it was not so; for many instances had been brought under his own special notice where notice of objection had been served, or alleged to have been served, in such a manner that they never reached the parties. Many persons had been struck off the register on the allegation that notices had been put into the Post Office, when they had no been put in, or not put in so as to ensure their delivery to the party within the time If it was important to prescribe some means by which notices of objection would be sure to reach the parties objected to, in order that they might be enabled to defend their votes, he could not conceive any tribunal so effectual for that purpose as a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry. He would therefore, beg to submit that these word should be added to the Motion:—"For the purpose of inquiring whether any better method of ensuring the due delivery of notices of objection can be obtained." These words would remove anything like censure upon the Post Office, whilst a full complete, and searching inquiry would be instituted, the results of which the House might be enabled to deal with when the new Reform Bill was under consideration.


said, he would take the opportunity of alluding to a transaction in an Irish post office, which, in his opinion, affected the Postmaster General in the last Government. On a particular occasion, subsequent to the last election for the county he had the honour to represent an official connected with the Post Office the leading inspector of the district—


here informed the hon. Member that the observations he was now making had no reference to the question before the House.


said, he would bow to the authority of the Chair. He was speaking upon the general principle of making inquiry into Post-Office malversation; and he was about to apply his observations to the conduct of Lord Hardwicke, the Postmaster General in the last Administration—[Cries of "Question."]


said, he agreed with his right hon. Friend (Mr. Walpole) that the question was one of great importance, and well deserving the attention of the House; and he also concurred with the hon. Member for West Surrey (Mr. Evelyn) that the facts he had stated were of great importance, and deserving the attention of the House. But he hoped he was not requesting too much, if he asked the hon. Member to allow the Executive Government to do its duty in the first place before a he appealed to a Parliamentary tribunal. The hon. Member said, he had applied to the Post Office, and no inquiry had been instituted; but he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) found, from the papers with which the hon. Member had just supplied him, that the complaint had been made to the Post Office in the autumn, and that on the 27th of October the Post Office wrote a letter to the hon. Gentleman, acknowledging the receipt of his letter, and requesting to be furnished with a list of the names and addresses of the persons who had been expunged from the register in consequence of the non-delivery of the notices of objection. The reply made to the Post Office was that only the names of the persons in the Chertsey district could be furnished, but that the list should be completed and sent. Now he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did not think it unnatural that the Postmaster General should wait until the complete list of names had been furnished before he instituted inquiry. He would, therefore, suggest, as it appeared probable that a misunderstanding had occurred, that the hon. Member should allow inquiry to be made by the Post Office; and then, with the result in his hand, he might take whatever steps he thought fit, and he should have every facility from the Government to enable him to prosecute the inquiry further. It was quite clear that the case was, in the strictest sense, an isolated case, for the petition said that a large number of objections had been sent through the post in the last nine years, and that no miscarriage had taken place. So far as regarded any irregularity or malversation, this, then, was an isolated case. The hon. Member contended that it was not an isolated case, because many other cases had occurred with respect to the delivery of notices by post. He believed those cases had rather turned on what constituted a legal notice than on the non-delivery of letters; but the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walpole) related to a different matter from that contained in the Motion now before the House. The Motion was founded on the belief that the Post Office had failed to perform its duty. If that was the case, there could be no objection to an inquiry. But, owing to the state in which the correspondence had been broken off, it was impossible to ascertain whether that was so or not. The subject referred to by the right hon. Gentleman ought to form the subject of a separate notice, and it was well worthy of his consideration whether it required the institution of a Parliamentary Committee. He thought the right hon. Gentleman might treat the subject without the trouble of instituting an inquiry before a Committee. If the right hon. Gentleman thought a change in the law desirable, he might move for leave to bring in a Bill to alter the law, and the House would then have no difficulty in determining the question. But if he thought the question required investigation in detail, and could only be dealt with by a Parliamentary Committee, he might submit a Motion to that effect. Looking upon this Motion as casting an imputation upon the Post Office, he trusted the hon. Member for West Surrey would not press the point until the Treasury should have had an opportunity of investigating the matter.


said, he thought this a case in which an inquiry ought to be granted. Not less than a hundred persons had been deprived of their franchise by no default of their own, and he thought this a matter which that House ought to take into its consideration. He could not conceive on what ground any impediment should be thrown in the way of a full and searching inquiry. No man ought to lose his franchise from the misconduct of public officers. The parties in the present instance had no opportunity of appealing against the revising barrister's decision, which was final and conclusive. Was it to be tolerated that, through mismanagement in the Post Office, persons might be de- prived of their franchise, and the fate of an election decided in that manner? The other day a Committee was appointed to inquire into an Irish squabble about the sale of offices, because the transaction was said to affect some Member of that House. But here was a case in which bonâ fide electors showed they had been unjustly deprived of the franchise in consequence of some error on the part of the Post Office; and, considering that a full inquiry ought to take place, he should support the Motion.


said, the right hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to imagine that inquiry had been refused. Now, there had been no refusal, and the Government had no intention of shielding the Post Office. That office was subject to the Treasury, and the Treasury ought to make the inquiry in the first instance in the regular course, and bring the matter to a regular issue.


said, he did not think the refusal of the Committee reflected any credit on the Government, when a grave constitutional principle was involved in the inquiry. The electors were all on one side, and the non-delivery of the notices might have made a difference of two seats. Not only were the notices not served on the parties themselves, but they were not served on the overseers. With regard to the assertion that this was an isolated case, he begged to remind the House that, although this was the first time the attention of Parliament had been called to the subject, rumours had been very prevalent of similar occurrences, and he knew of instances in which parties had escaped being struck off the list of voters merely in consequence of some friends happening to be in court when their names were mentioned. Although the Chancellor of the Exchequer had chosen to take advantage of the quibble that letters had not been received from all the electors, he would recommend his hon. Friend (Mr. Evelyn) to accede to the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman.


said, the hon. Member for West Surrey had made out a strong case for inquiry, but he could not help thinking that the proposition of the Chancellor of the Exchequer was a rational proposition. He trusted, however, that the promised inquiry would be made within a reasonable time.


said, there would be no difficulty in making the in- quiry immediately, and, when the facts should be laid before the House, the hon. Member would have no difficulty in renewing his Motion.


said, he thought that a strong case had been made out, but recommended his hon. Friend to postpone his Motion.


, in withdrawing his Motion, said, that on the 24th of October he wrote a letter, requesting an investigation into the matter, and referring the Postmaster General to a gentleman who could acquaint him with the whole of the facts. A communication was received from the Post Office, requiring all the names which had been expunged. Circulars were sent to all the electors and the overseers of the parishes, and a list from the Chertsey district, containing the names of thirty-two persons, was sent to the Post Office, and he thought an investigation might have been instituted into those cases.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

The House adjourned at half after Ten o'clock.