HC Deb 17 July 1856 vol 143 cc977-90

Order for Committee read.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


said, he rose to move that the Committee should be deferred for three months. He should have opposed the Bill upon its second reading; but, owing to the extraordinary manner in which, at this period of the Session, Bills jumped through stages, and perhaps, also, to the studied want of articulation on the part of some Members of the Government, he had failed to seize the proper moment for doing so. He trusted that the House would not forget that this Bill, which was the Act of 1854 redivivus, was first introduced immediately after a general election, during which both the great parties in that House had used every means and appliance to obtain a majority. The consequence was, John Bull and his family had been, as usual, coaxed, cajoled, bought, sold, bullied, intimidated, and screwed. The present Bill had been brought forward as a substitute for the proposition which he and the 224 lunatics in that House who did him the honour to agree with him in opinion regarded as an efficient remedy for a most deplorable and dishonourable state of things. But it had proved a most inadequate substitute, and he still adhered to the opinion that the true remedy was to be found in the Motion which he had repeatedly submitted to the consideration of the House. That Motion had been received in some quarters with ridicule, and it had been said that it came round regularly every year with green peas. From others it had experienced still more unworthy treatment, and the noble Lord at the head of the Government had endeavoured to put it down by pooh-poohing it in that easy, jovial, and offhand style for which he was so celebrated. However, he (Mr. H. Berkeley) would not trespass on the attention of the House with any further allusions to his Motion. He would endeavour that evening to avoid the question of the ballot. He had nothing whatever to do with it; his concern was with the Bill that had been substituted for it. As regarded that Bill what course had been taken? When it was found that the state of the country was so bad that something must be done the usual safety valve was opened—a Select Committee of that House. It was agreed that the corrupt affairs of the country should be submitted to a Committee. That Committee sent down a Bill which was laid upon the table of the House, and, after it had been cut and mutilated and shorn of all its valuable attributes, it was transmitted in a completely emasculated condition to the House of Lords. There it was received with vast approbation, for their aristocratic neighbours appeared to take delight in adopting measures which, while they pretended to do a great deal, in fact did nothing. Just such a measure was the one in question, for, while it affected to promote reform, it was in reality conservative of corruption. That was a proposition which he hoped to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the House. The Bill passed rapidly through the Upper House, and receiving the Royal Assent became the law of the land. It was then noticed by that great member of the press, The Times. In the columns of that journal there appeared a very able analysis of the Bill, said to be from the pen of an eminent Parliamentary casuist. The Editor of The Times pronounced the Bill to be a "pompous profession;" intended to be inoperative. In that dictum there was a serious accusation against that House—an accusation of hypocrisy, which he, who had the honour to be a Member, would not presume to iterate. With reference, however, to the Bill itself, he would take leave to say that, having been tested throughout the country, it was found to be "inoperative." That it was a "pompous profession" no hon. Member would venture to deny. Its avowed object was to prevent bribery and undue influence, and the preamble set forth that it was intended to promote the freedom of election. That was on the face of it a "pompous profession;" and, if it could be also shown that the Bill was "inoperative," there would be ample justification for the course he was about to take in imploring the House not to stultify itself by perpetuating such a statute. He had before him a list of boroughs in which elections had taken place since the passing of the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act, and as regarded those boroughs the press had been almost unanimous in stating that the Act had been quite inefficacious to correct the grievances complained of. This being so, the First Minister of the Crown would have done well to attend to the representations both of the press and of the persons who had petitioned that House, and to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, instead of contenting himself with simply moving that the Bill be read a Second time. The following summary, the accuracy of which might be relied on, would show how utterly useless for all practical purposes the Act had proved:—Abingdon: Electors did not vote more independently than before. Screw used, especially where there were debts. Many who had promised to vote one way voted the other. The new Act useless. Bedford: Bribery suspected to have been practised to a great extent. The screw used more than ever. New Act a failure. Barnstaple: The Act had no effect whatever in enabling men to vote more independently. Frome: The screw strong as ever, the signs of bribery as apparent. Dinners given, and travelling expenses paid. Workpeople publicly told they might vote as they pleased, but privately had such intimations given to them as showed them that they would be turned off if they did. Many tradesmen voted against their party, their convictions, their friends. Exclusive dealing after the election practised by non-electors to a great extent. Maldon: The constituency in no way changed. From the poll it was evident that the screw had been put on with effect. The Act laughed at. Norwich: No difference as to voting of dependents. The Act, as far as intimidation is concerned, waste paper. Portsmouth: Government screw too potent to be resisted. Sunderland: Bribery strongly suspected. Screw decidedly used. Wigan: Screw used as much as ever, unquestionably. The outward signs of bribery apparent. The Act not thought of. Bath: Sixteen cases of intimidation asserted by the candidates. Application for loans as a condition of voting. The Act waste paper. Wells: Bribery, treating, and the screw. The Standard and Globe had drawn faithful pictures of this borough, the latter stating that the Act was not of the slightest use. Both papers could be completely confirmed. Boston: The notoriety of this place for profligate corruption has no way diminished. Colonel Sleigh, a late candidate, ready to verify on oath the statement of the papers in this respect. Leominster: The Act had no effect at all. The screw extensively applied. Many persons deterred from voting for fear of offending their employers. Rochester: In the same condition as ever, and loudly calling for the ballot. Such was the unfortunate condition of the boroughs which had had the "benefit" of the Act which the House was now called upon to renew. It was curious to observe with what perverse ingenuity care had been taken to destroy any clause of the Act which seemed likely to work well. The payment of electors' travelling expenses, for instance, was objected to by the Act, and very properly so. Such payments were not only a fertile source of bribery in all places, but in counties they placed the poorer candidate in a less advantageous position than his rich rival. The Judges of the Court of Exchequer had decided, however, that under the Act the travelling expenses might be paid, provided that it could not be proved that the candidate made, or that the elector accepted, the payment with a corrupt intention. Who was to prove the corrupt intention? It was a farce to legislate in that way. What election agent was likely, with this Bill before him, to tell a man, "I shall pay you this sum more than your expenses, and you must go down and vote for Mr. So-and-So?" Why, the agent might send the voter down, and then somebody else might pay him; so that, when they talked of proving a corrupt intent, he recurred to the dictum of The Times, and said it was "a pompous profession, meant to be inoperative." Another provision of the Bill required each candidate, before his nomination, to give to the election auditor, in writing, the names of the agents who alone should have authority to expend money on his behalf, and afterwards to render to the same officer an account of all payments made by them. Thus the old law touching agency was set aside, and, although they might make acknowledged agents answerable, fifty unacknowledged agents might do the work, without any of their acts, however flagrant, affecting the candidate's seat. This so-called improvement of the old law offered direct facilities for bribery. Having carefully guarded the candidate by naming his agents, a body of unacknowledged agents might be let loose, and then anybody from the Carlton or the Reform Club—any man from the moon—might descend upon any borough, as in the ease of Aylesbury and Carlisle, and, taking up his station at some hotel, lavish money on behalf of any candidate, and yet that candidate, if returned, would be quite safe in his seat. Instead, therefore, of preventing corruption, this Bill only opened a wider door to it, and was nothing but a false pretence. Such, then, were the sins of commission in this measure; but its sins of omission were quite as flagrant. All who were conversant with the proceedings of the Election Committees well knew that the granting of loans to electors was a mode of purchasing their votes. This was proved before the Rye Committee to have been a fruitful source of bribery in that borough. Yet not one word in this Bill was pointed against that practice. So much as to bribery and corruption, neither of which was touched by this measure. A much more serious part of the question related to intimidation—the great disease of our electoral system. By intimidation the landlord controlled the tenant, the customer controlled the tradesman, the manufacturer controlled the operative, and so on through every grade of society—the great body of the electors being reduced by this engine to the level of political serfs. How, then, did the Bill deal with this widely ramified and inveterate evil? The 5th clause was supposed to supply a sufficient check for it. The mode, however, by which this was to be done, even if it could be carried into effect, which it could not, was unconstitutional. It violated the rights of property, and consequently also the liberty of the subject. How could an Act of Parliament be defended which pretended to coerce a landlord in the choice of his tenant, and to dictate to a customer what tradesman he should employ? Could they maintain a law imposing penalties to keep a tenant in his holding, and continue to a tradesman his custom? The very attempt to do such a thing was an absurdity. He would not leave the enforcement of this important point to his own feeble advocacy, but beg the House to listen to the opinions of two of the highest authorities, Mr. Macaulay and the late Sir Robert Peel. In an address to the electors of Edinburgh Mr. Macaulay, after arguing that corruption might be reached, and citing instances where men had been imprisoned and find £500, wound up this portion of the subject thus:— You can trace out and punish a man for corruption, or deprive him of all the advantages he has gained by it, but in cases of intimidation the evil cannot be corrected by penal laws. You cannot put them in force without affecting the sacred rights of property. Can I tell a man that he must deal with such and such a tradesman who has voted against him, or that he shall renew a lease to a tenant who has done the same? If I did that, it would destroy the sacred rights of property. What is it the Jew says in the play? 'I'll not answer that: But, say, it is my humour.' Or, as a Christian of my own time expressed himself, 'I have a right to do what I like with my own.' There is a great deal of weight in the reasoning of Shylock and the Duke of Newcastle —'I have a right to do what I like with my own.' If you tell a landlord that he is not to eject a particular tenant, you might as well tell a man that he must employ a particular butcher, and take as much beef from him this year as last. The principle of the rights of property is, that a man is not only to be allowed to dispose of his wealth according to common sense and in an ordinary way, but that he shall be allowed to indulge his whims and caprices, to employ whatever tradesmen and labourers he pleases, and rent, or refuse to rent, his land to tenants according to his own pleasure, however absurd the principle on which he chose to let it to them. The first evening I had a seat in the House of Commons Mr. Poulett Thomson made a Motion for Parliamentary censure on the Duke of Newcastle, in reference to the borough of Newark. Sir Robert Peel opposed the Motion, with his accustomed ability, and with really forcible and unanswerable reasons. He asked if it was meant to be held that the tenant who voted against the landlord was to be kept in his place by penal laws because of his vote? If so, the tenant who wished to keep possession of his tack had only to vote against the landlord, and receive protection from the law. Such is the argument against penal laws in relation to the rights of property. Were they enacted, it would be impossible to tell what the consequences would be, and, therefore, we are obliged to consider whether there is any other means of prevention. The only mode of putting down the practice of intimidation appears to be vote by ballot. The last sentence that he had read was not necessary to his present argument, but he had quoted it because it was word for word the same language as was used by Daniel Defoe. So much for the principle of the £50 penalty contained in the fifth clause of this Bill. Landlords did not tell their tenants, neither did customers tell their tradesmen, that they were discharged because of their votes. Yet, undoubtedly, tenants and tradesmen were frequently so discharged; and no clause like this, however ingeniously worded, could remedy the evil against which it professed to be directed. He could not describe the virtues of this Bill more forcibly than by adopting the language of an eminent political casuist who wrote in The Times, and upon whose analysis of the measure the editor of The Times pronounced that the Bill was a mockery, meant to be inoperative. He need not quote the analysis of the measure, but the writer said in conclusion:— Now, what will be the effect of this new Bill? Direct bribery and the direct use of undue influence will be more difficult and dangerous, but will not be suppressed; greater circumspection and care with whom done will be required; but indirect and circuitous bribery, by payment for fancied services and by feigned ways and means, notices to tenants to quit without reasons assigned, and secret influence, will not be, in the slightest degree affected thereby. A penalty is imposed on a candidate who shall give, be accessory to giving, or shall pay for, any treating; but the penalty attaches only to a candidate. A stranger, a friend, or a body of people may give meat, drink, and entertainment to any extent; the voter corruptly receiving it will lose his vote. But, by the insertion of that word 'corruptly,' the intention is referred to the committee, who will have to decide in each case whether a voter accepted it corruptly or not. By the section prohibiting the giving, or causing to be given, to any voter on the days of nomination or polling, of any refreshment or refreshment ticket, the giving is limited to those two days, and the voter is made the only person to whom it is not lawful to give refreshment; so that on any other day such tickets may be given to a voter, and to any but a voter on those days. The payment of any money for chairing, bands of music, flags, or banners is declared illegal, but no penalty is attached; and this enactment will be inoperative. The providing of cockades and ribands being made illegal, will probably put a stop to that practice, as the riband or cockade-seller, who provides them, will be liable to the penalty. By the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, no election can be questioned later than fourteen days after the assembling of Parliament, or, during the Session, than fourteen days after the return is in the Crown Office. Yet the election auditor is not to have the bills of expenditure until three months after the day the return is declared; so that the effect of this will be effectually to prevent any charge being made against the Member, which if the bills were sooner sent in might have been the case, and the publication of an abstract of the Bill becomes a mere gratification of idle curiosity without benefit to any one but the proprietor of the newspaper in which it is advertised. The notification by the candidate to the election auditor in writing, of his agent or agents, who alone shall have authority to expend money or incur expenses on behalf of the candidate, is the most cunning device to shield the candidate and cover corruption ever propounded. A B and C D are appointed agents; their acts alone bind or affect the candidate; but the whole fry of corruption agents in every borough will work for the benefit of the candidate, who has secured himself from the penalty attaching to their acts by artful disclaimer and the immunity afforded by this enactment. The candidate is legally answerable only for the acts of A B and C D; they sanction nothing, but they know what will be done, and their ignorance is an ignorance which candidates and agents alike know well how to assume and to preserve. Such are the provisions, and such will be the effect of the new Bill for consolidation and amendment of the laws relating to bribery, treating, and undue influence. The consolidation is perfect, the amendment imperfect; but how could it be otherwise? After the Bill came from the Select Committee every attempt in the House of Commons was made to damage it and to neutralise its enactments. When Members of Parliament decline to make a declaration, 'that they have not knowingly heretofore made any illegal payments, and that they will not knowingly hereafter make any illegal payments on account of being elected to Parliament,' and strike such declaration out of the Act, they may call the Act by any name they please; but all the world knows what they intend it to prove. He (Mr. Berkeley) asked the House to pause before they committed themselves to this measure. He submitted that he had torn the Bill to rags, and he thought it would puzzle any hon. Gentleman who supported the measure to put the tatters together. There might be good points in the Bill, but that must be a wretched measure indeed in which a decent clause could not be found. The Bill was nothing less than a snare and a delusion to the people, and mockery to legislation, and an insult to common sense. Some hon. Gentlemen had told him that it would be an advantage to get rid of bands of music, banners, and cockades. He was prepared to admit that it would be an advantage, but be it remembered that a Bill to prevent the use of bands, banners, and cockades, was brought into that House some time ago by his hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester (Mr. Mullings), in conjunction with an hon. and gallant relative of his own, the Member for Cheltenham, now no more. That Bill contained clauses with reference to bands and banners, similar to those included in the present measure, but it was unceremoniously kicked out of the House; and why? The Bill to which he referred passed through several stages; but at that time the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) was First Lord of the Admiralty, and the right hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Cowper) was a Lord of the Admiralty, and they could not then do without music and banners. The right hon. Baronet objurgated the hon. Member for Cirencester and his (Mr. Berkeley's) hon. relative for endeavouring to put down the glorious pomp, pride, and panoply, of glorious elections. The right hon. Baronet's taste for music was so strong that it seemed he could not go to an election without "Rule Britannia" played before him, and the right hon. Member for Hertford could not be induced to give up "The Girl he left behind Him." This Bill, however, included similar clauses to those to which the right hon. Baronet and the right hon. Gentleman formerly objected. Were they prepared now to adopt the Bill because it contained clauses which they before argued were grounds for its rejection? It might be a good thing to get rid of music and banners and cockades, but he (Mr. Berkeley) believed that the provisions of the measure which professed to prevent corrupt practices and intimidation would be wholly inoperative, and he should therefore move, as an Amendment, that the House resolve itself into Committee on that day three months.


seconded the Motion. He said he supported the Bill on a former occasion by voting for it on several stages; but when the House rejected the declaration he considered the measure would be a failure, and he could no longer support it. The Bill was only carried through by a very narrow majority. If he wanted any authoriry to support the views he entertained, he need only refer to the late decision in the Court of Exchequer on the question of expenses. The question there raised was, that although it was proper, and within the provisions of the Bill, to furnish carriages for the electors, yet it was uncertain whether there could be a legal payment for travelling expenses; and the Court, after a most able argument, and taking time to consider their judgment, held that those expenses might be paid. It was stated by one of the learned Judges on that occasion that the Act had been inconsiderately framed, and ought to be amended. He might mention that the last election for the county of Ayr, which lasted only one day, cost more than the previous election, which lasted two days. In that case, therefore, the Act had been clearly inoperative. He also must condemn the system of placing an election auditor, like a toll-keeper, over candidates, to tax them as far as he pleased, but without being able to do them the slightest benefit. Now, he would beg to ask the noble Lord at the head of the Government whether he would, with the knowledge he possessed, press this Bill through the House? Legislation of this sort was not required; it did not check expenses, but it added to the expenses those of a useless officer.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House will, upon this day three months, resolve itself into the said Committee," instead thereof.

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


said, he could not help expressing his great surprise that the hon. Member for Bristol (Mr. H. Berkeley) should oppose the Bill. The experience which he (Mr. Ingram) had had in the borough he had the honour to represent (Boston) convinced him that the Act was of very great use in checking expenses. He could state that at the last election for that borough not one single farthing was expended in treating, and cockades were not required; and whatever might be considered necessary with regard to having bands of music in the parks on Sundays, there was but one opinion as to the impropriety of having music at elections. He should support the Bill, because he felt certain that great benefits would be derived from its operation.


said, that he agreed with very much that had been said by the hon. Member for Bristol; and having had the experience of two contested elections and one Election Committee, he could only say that there was but one remedy for the evils that prevailed, and that was the remedy which the hon. Member had so often proposed, and which the House had so often rejected. Since his experience of contested elections, he had always supported the Ballot, and should continue to do so, thinking it the only means of putting a stop to the evils of contested elections and the intimidation, which did not cease with the election, but was continued by the publication of the list of voters. He held in his hand one of those famous Bluebooks in which, not only the name of the voter but the amount of the rating was given—an invitation to exclusive dealing, and a mode of keeping up political irritation, which the ballot would effectually put an end to. He thought, therefore, there was but little use in passing a mere continuance Bill, as this really was, but that the Legislature should direct its attention to a remedy for the evil itself. He would admit, however, that there was some good in the Bill. It defined the character of bribery and the nature of agency: the appointment of the election auditors, and the compulsory render of accounts, was also a good measure, though clumsily carried out; he thought, too, that the expenses of the auditors were excessive, and the mode of payment, by fees, absurd. In some cases these gentlemen would pocket £50 or £60 for preliminary fees, for merely walking into a borough and then walking out. There were 912 candidates at the last general election, and forty members lost their seats; if there were the same number of candidates at the next election, they would have to pay £9,500 in the first instance. He would by no means abolish the office of election auditor—which, as he had said, he thought a very useful institution—but he thought that if the Town Clerk or the Clerk of the Peace were ex-officio the election auditor, there would be less complaint, and such a person holding a public office, for which he was responsible, would be less liable to corrupt influences. He had given notice of several Amendments, which would remedy some of the inconveniences of the existing law. Among them was one which provided that the declaration of the agents should he made before the returning officer and kept by the auditor. Again, the present state of the law as to travelling expenses was uncertain and full of peril to the candi- dates by a recent decision in the courts of law. The whole question turned on the mere wording of a note: that is whether in the language of the law the letter inviting the voter to come contained a condition precedent or not. If the House were not prepared to do away with such expenses, they were bound to legalise them, and that could best be done by reintroducing the clause which was expunged by the House of Lords; and he had therefore, proposed an Amendment introducing words permitting the candidate to pay, or cause to be paid, the actual and reasonable expenses of bringing voters to the poll. But the most important Amendment he proposed was, to compel the petitioner and sitting Member, on inquiry before any Select Committee of the House of Commons, to give evidence, but in such case he would take away the penalty attached to the act of bribery, and would provide that such evidence should not afterwards be used in any indictment or criminal proceeding against the parties giving it. With regard to the accusation of bribery at the last election in Bath, he believed there was no foundation for such a charge. He believed there was no bribery, and he knew that none of his money was spent in any such way. If the Bill were to be merely a continuance Bill for one year, and a promise given that a Committee would be appointed next Session, he would not propose his Amendments; but if not, he should move them in Committee.


said, that the present Bill was not proposed for the first time as a Bill for checking corrupt practices at elections, nor was it a Bill for rendering permanent the present law. The Government merely asked the House to continue the Bill for one year, without Amendment, the intention of the Government being to propose next Session a Committee of Inquiry into the operation of the Bill in those elections which had taken place since the measure became law. Hon. Members did not seem to be agreed as to the operation of the Act, because, while the hon. Member for Bristol (Mr. H. Berkeley) said the Act was a failure, the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Ingram), who had had recent experience of the working of its provisions, said its operation was most beneficial. The question was one upon which other hon. Members were just as well enabled to judge as the hon. Member for Bristol. He would not express any opinion one way or the other on the subject, but it was desirable that some inquiry should take place before a Select Committee previous to the Act being either continued permanently or abandoned as a failure. [Mr. H. BERKELEY: Has the right hon. Gentleman heard Colonel Sleigh's statement?] He had not heard Colonel Sleigh's statement, but he had heard the statement made by the hon. Member for Boston. Colonel Sleigh's statement was not before the House. It might be true, but let it be submitted to a Committee, and let evidence be tendered by those who complained of the operation of the Act. If it was the opinion of the House that the Act should be continued for a year, it would be better to go into Committee on the present Bill at once, instead of getting up a desultory discussion upon the details.


said, he believed that the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act had been of great benefit to the country. He stood in that House fresh from a severely contested election, which was followed up by a petition, and he had therefore had some experience of the working of the Act. There were no open houses on either side in the city which he had the honour to represent (Rochester), and he did not believe that so much as £5 had been spent in drinking during the election in a town of 16,000 inhabitants, if there had been he was sure some of his Friends would have detected it. There had been no treating and no bribery, and he wished for the credit of the inhabitants to say that any charge to the contrary was quite unfounded. He should be glad to see an Amendment agreed to in Committee with regard to travelling expenses, since the alteration which had been proposed would make an enormous difference to the pockets of the candidates. If travelling expenses were prohibited altogether the prohibition would be nugatory, for a labouring man could not be expected to lose a day's work and spend a day's pay in coming to the poll. But if such expenses as the House agreed to allow were paid openly through the election auditor, a great improvement would be effected.


said, that although the Bill could in no way prevent bribery or intimidation, it effectually prevented treating; and so far it was, no doubt, productive of considerable advantage. He very much regretted that the measure had not passed the House with that provision recommend- ed by the Committee from which it had emanated in its original form, under which every Member would have been required before taking his seat to make a declaration that he had incurred no illegal expense at his election. Persons well acquainted with the subject had expressed their belief that that was the only proposal which had ever been made for the prevention of corruption in the return of Members to that House.


said, he thought the Bill a very useful one. Every shilling of expense he had incurred at his recent election for Norwich had been laid before the world under the provisions of that measure.


said, he would not withdraw his Amendment, that the Bill be read a third time that day three months, unless he should receive a distinct assurance from the Government that they would merely make it a continuance measure, and that they would refer the whole subject to the consideration of a Select Committee early next Session.


I stated, Sir, on a former occasion, and I have not the least difficulty in repeating now, that it is the intention of the Government to refer the Bill to a Committee at the earliest period possible next Session. We are quite aware that the Bill is imperfect. We Cannot, however, admit that it is a failure, but it certainly requires, and is susceptible, of amendment, and that amendment can be better made in a Select Committee than in a Committee of the whole House. I am, therefore, quite ready to give the pledge which the hon. Member requires.


said, he thought it would be desirable to insert in the Bill an Amendment of which the hon. Baronet the Member for Shoreham (Sir C. Burrell) had given notice, under which the number of polling places would be increased among such constituencies as those of East Retford, Aylesbury, Shoreham, and other places, which extended over large portions of counties.


said, that such a provision would not come within the scope of the Bill now before the House.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill considered in Committee.

House resumed.

Bill reported without Amendment.