HC Deb 05 June 1857 vol 145 cc1202-12

said, he feared he must take the same course as the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield, and, before the noble Lord rose to reply to the questions which had just been put to him, submit the subject of what he might call sham election petitions to the notice of the House. The presentation of sham election petitions was now become a wholesale practice; and he might state that he had been upon two occasions himself the victim of that obnoxious system. He would ask the House whether it was consistent with their own honour and interests to permit this system to continue. He had within the last few days been accused by a man, whom he had never previously heard of, of having been guilty of every species of corruption which it was possible could take place within the limits of a contested election. That person, however, as had been announced by the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair, had, without assigning any reason, intimated it to be his intention to forego his accusation, and he (Mr. Adderley) was therefore justified in arriving at the conclusion, from the manner in which the charge had been made and withdrawn, that its author never had the slightest ground for those suspicions in reference to his conduct which he seemed to entertain. Now, it appeared to him a somewhat peculiar position for any Englishman to stand in, that his character should be assailed without an opportunity being afforded him of being brought face to face with his accuser. Such an accusation once made should, if well founded, be proceeded with, if false, exposed. He had upon four different occasions been returned to that House for the county of Stafford. Upon two of those occasions there had been a contested election, and he had in both cases been used in the manner which he had just described by some unknown person, who thought that he would serve very well as a cushion off which to make a hazard either into his own pocket or into the pocket of somebody else. In the former case there had been various dark whispers to the effect that if he would accede to the proposition, terms of accommodation might easily be entered into. He had, however, he was happy to be able to say, treated all such hints with the contempt which they merited—with all the scorn which in his heart he felt towards any man, whatever might be his position, who connected himself with pro- ceedings of a character so disgraceful. He had done his utmost by means of taunts—he might almost say by a recourse to insults, to induce the parties to the petition to which he referred to proceed with it, but he had been unable to induce those men of straw to come into the face of daylight to prefer their accusations. He consequently had had no opportunity of rebutting those charges, and of clearing his character of the foul aspersions which had been cast upon it. The petition which had lately been presented against his return to that House had been signed by a person named Fox, whom he had with difficulty ascertained to be a journeyman hatter at Newcastle-under-Lyme, and in that petition he had been charged with the commission of acts of bribery and treating, and with having in various other ways corruptly influenced the late election for North Staffordshire. Now, his opponent in the election for that county, Mr. Edward Buller, and his friends, so far from concurring in that accusation, had expressed their indignation at its ever having been made. Such, he might add, was the general feeling of those who had been opposed to him in North Staffordshire. He should, nevertheless, have desired to meet his accuser in open day; but, from a letter read by the right hon. Gentleman in the chair, he discovered that Mr. Coppock, the agent of James Fox, had intimated that it was not his intention to proceed with the petition. When, however, he found that such was the case, and that he could not hope for redress from a Committee of that House, he had appealed to some gentlemen connected with the legal profession with a view of ascertaining from them whether he could not obtain such redress in the Courts of Law. He was perfectly willing to spend £1,000 in the endeavour to obtain it. [Laughter.] It would seem as if those hon. Gentlemen opposite who laughed could not connect with the mention of a sum of £1,000 any idea but that of corruption. [Cries of "No, no!"] But, be that as it might, he was perfectly ready to expend that sum in the endeavour to convict upon a charge of libel the man who had now unjustly assailed his character, and who, having done so, was screened from the punishment which he deserved by the privileges of the House of Commons itself. It might be regarded as squeamishness upon his part to exhibit so much sensitiveness upon the subject, but he would confess he could not look upon the matter as trivial. He recollected a debate in that House, in which several eminent men—and among them the late Sir Robert Peel—after admitting the difficulty of legislating in such a manner as to produce perfect purity of election, had given it as their opinion that the attainment of an object so desirable must, after all, be left to a great extent to public feeling, and that it could never he accomplished until candidates had learnt to look upon corruption at elections as a disgrace to a man of honour. If such was the light, then, in which it ought to be viewed, there was, he considered, every reason why he should exhibit some sensitiveness with respect to the accusation of wholesale corruption, brought against himself, even though it was notoriously a mere trick for electioneering purposes. If that House were to legislate for purity of election, and were itself to become the fountain of corruption, it would be guilty of a farce which it was time should be put an end to. If, too, the House continued to make itself the channel of such libels, and slanders, and to protect by its privileges those from whom they proceeded, it ought to cease to keep up the farce of attempting to legislate for purity of election. He would ask the House, and above all he would ask the leader of the House, whether it would be right and proper to leave this system of libel and slander, in the process of their judicial inquiries into corrupt practices, in its present state, or whether the noble Lord was prepared to take measures to put an end to it? It was not incumbent upon him to suggest a mode of putting a stop to the practice of which he complained, it was the business of the Government to say that it was impossible, or else to put it down. But, in his opinion, there was this simple mode of dealing with such cases. Recognizances were now entered into in order to ascertain that parties who proceeded with election petitions for corrupt practices were able to pay the expense of the proceedings if they took place. Now, by a very trifling extension of the provisions of a clause in the Act of 1848, it might be enacted that the petitioners should forfeit their recognizances if they did not proceed with their petition, or, at all events, show good ground for withdrawing it. Out of seventy-seven election petitions presented in the present Session, perhaps not fifty per cent were bonâ fide. Probably more than fifty per cent were what were called pairing-off petitions, while many of those petitions were brought forward with an object not known to the House, but not unknown to the agents of corruption—namely, for the direct purpose of extorting money from the Members petitioned against.


said, the present, he considered, was a fitting opportunity to call attention to another abuse of the right of petitioning. Charges of the grossest character had been brought against him in an Election Petition which had been presented against his return. Of course he had no right to complain, as those charges would form the subject of investigation before the proper tribunal; but he had a right to complain that the public press and some Members of that House should use the allegations contained in that petition for such purposes against him, and should have deliberately attempted to prejudge and prejudice a case which stood for judgment before a Committee of that House. An article was published a few days since in The Times newspaper, in which all the allegations in the petition were quoted, and adding that those allegations—which were of a most disgraceful character—would in all probability be proved before the Election Committee. It was not only that those statements were read by Members of that House, but that they were read also by the very parties who were to try the case, and became the subject of public conversation from one end of London to the other; and men's minds became saturated with opinions which it was very difficult to remove. But he had, beyond this, to call attention to the fact that an hon. Member of that House—a gentleman for whom he entertained the highest respect, and whom he knew to be incapable, intentionally, of prejudging or prejudicing any case—the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Spooner), who on a late occasion quoted the allegations in the petition against his (Mr. Moore's) return, as proving certain undue interference by the Roman Catholic Clergy, to which he was at the time calling attention. Now, he certainly thought that in all cases those petitions should be left to the constituted tribunals, and that any interference with the duties of those tribunals—any attempt to dictate to or prejudice their minds, by comments either by the press or by individuals ought not to be tolerated. In any other case there would be a remedy for the publication of such charges by an action for libel; but in the case of a member whose return was petitioned against, there was no redress whatever. He hoped the charges which had been brought against him would be fully investigated by the Committee, and fairly tried; but he must protest against the abuse of the privileges of the press and the privilege of public speech for the purpose of endeavouring to prejudge and prejudice the minds of those who were to sit in judgment on the merits of the case.


said, that if the hon. Member for North Staffordshire (Mr. Adderley) were a new Member he should not be so much surprised at the complaint he had brought forward, but seeing that he was a Member of the late Parliament, the hon. Member must surely have forgotten what occurred when that Parliament met. They had, he believed, some 120 or 130 election petitions presented, many of them, it was notorious, solely for the purpose of being paired off against others. All those election petitions contained much the same statements, and the same accusations of every species of iniquity connected with electioneering. Therefore, any Member who was a Member of the late Parliament, knowing those things, and who yet took no pains whatever to remedy the evil, had no right to complain of what was taking place now. He would ask what took place at the beginning of the late Parliament? He (Mr. T. Duncombe) was Chairman of the Committee that sat upon the Norwich election petition. Mr. James Coppock, the agent on the one side, and Mr. Brown, the Conservative agent, on the other, withdrew the petition, without consulting either the petitioner or the sitting Member. Colonel Dickson was the petitioner, he having been one of the candidates at the election. Colonel Dickson thought he had a good case—but without asking his consent, the petition was withdrawn by an arrangement between the agents. He appealed to the House, but no redress could be afforded to him under the Act of 1848. There was no doubt that the agent had the right to withdraw the petition, and it was found that the House could not inquire into the matter. Of the 120 or 130 petitions presented, about one-half only were proceeded with. Thirty-six Members were unseated, and the writs for the new elections were suspended in regard to nine of the boroughs—four of them for a short time, and five until the Corrupt Practices Bill was passed. The noble Lord (Lord John Russell) who introduced that Bill led the House to believe that it would cure everything, and effectually prevent anything like bribery or corruption of any kind for the future. And thereupon the writs were issued for Canterbury, Marlborough, Barn-staple, Cambridge, and Hull. But had that Act done any good? None whatever. Instead of a Bill for preventing corrupt practices, it ought, more properly, to have been entitled, a "Bill to conceal Corrupt Practices at Elections." There was the election auditor, it was true, but the candidates returned to him only such expenses as they knew were proper and would be allowed. No man would think of sending to the auditor what would be, in fact, evidence against himself. And yet the auditor's Report was the evidence which the Committee were to take. He contended, therefore, that that Act left the matter of corrupt practices at elections just where it was before. The attention of the House was called in the Norwich case, but what had the House done in reference to it from the year 1853 to the present time? Nothing whatever. The Committee reported that it had been proved that the petition from Norwich had been withdrawn, and that this withdrawal formed part of an Arrangement or compromise between Mr. Brown and Mr. Coppock by which eight petitions were simultaneously withdrawn, implicating the seats of ten Members of the House. The Committee added— Your Committee think it right to direct the serious attention of the House to the facility that at present exists for originating and withdrawing election petitions, and to the public scandal that is notoriously created by the process of what politital partisans and the parties professionally engaged therein term 'pairing off petitions,' which abuse takes place under cover of the 8th section of the Act, entitled, 'The Election Petitions Act, 1848;' and whether it is not desirable that such alterations should be made in the said law as shall prevent the continuance of a system which, in the opinion of your Committee, is calculated to cause injustice and expense to innocent parties, and to bring the proceedings of this branch of the Legislature into contempt, as restricting this House in the exercise of the power of administering relief which the law, through the medium of election petitions, was specifically passed to afford. In consequence of that Report he (Mr. T. Duncombe) gave notice of a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill for remedying the evil; but the Government said, "We will bring in a Bill that shall answer every purpose," but they had never done so. The remedy appeared to him perfectly easy. It might be accomplished by a short Bill, providing that, instead of going through the process of entering into recognisances, a certain sum—something under the £1,000, for which the recognisances were now entered—say one-half, or £500, should be paid down and deposited in the hands of Mr. Speaker. That would show whether the petition was bonâ fide or not. He would further provide, that no petition, when once presented, should be withdrawn, except with the consent of the House obtained by another petition, in which the grounds for such withdrawal should be made out, stating that the petitioners had been deceived in the statements made to them of corrupt practices, and that they believed there was no case again the sitting Member. That would completely meet the complaint of the hon. Member for North Staffordshire. He hoped, now that the attention of the House had been brought to the subject, that the present Parliament would not be allowed to pass over without at least something being done to remedy the evil.


said, that as the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. G. H. Moore) had specifically alluded to him, he hoped the House would bear with him for a few moments while he offered a few observations in explanation. The hon. Member for Mayo had done him no more than justice in declaring that he (Mr. Spooner) would never do anything likely to prejudice a cause—or likely to induce hon. Members to prejudge a cause. Nor did he think that he had done anything in the present instance to forfeit his claim to such a character. What he had endeavoured to show was, that the education of the priesthood at Maynooth necessarily led to the interference of priests at elections; that there were many cases in which it was quite clear they had so interfered; and that he (Mr. Spooner) was not their only accuser, for that similar accusations were urged even by Members of the Roman Catholic Church in a petition before that House. Perhaps there would be some justice in charging him with unfairness if he had not referred to documents in the hands of Members, and to circumstances known to the whole House; besides which, he had specifically declared he should not offer any opinion as to the truth or falsehood of the allegations in the petition. He was quite sure that there was not a single Gentleman sitting in that House who would be led to form an opinion as to the merits of the case from anything that had fallen from him, and he could assure the hon. Member for Mayo that if his conduct was capable of being construed into an attempt to influence Gentlemen's minds he should not have acted as he had done.


I am quite sure, Sir, that the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir J. Pakington) will believe me when I say—what I am convinced must be the opinion of the whole House—that no Member is more entitled to courtesy than himself in regard to anything in which his own personal wishes are concerned. I am also ready to admit that the subject of education on which he wishes to state his views is one eminently deserving attention in the new House of Commons. On the other hand, I would submit to the right hon. Baronet, who, whatever may be his anxiety on his own question, will, I am persuaded, enter into the natural feelings of the Government, that we have made very little way yet in the Estimates, many of which remain to be discussed; and that there are several important measures which the Government is desirous of passing through this House in time to afford a chance of their receiving proper consideration by the other, branch of the Legislature. The Session has not been long begun, and therefore—though the right hon. Gentleman has not been successful hitherto in his attempts to obtain a night by ballot—a measure for which this mishap is not very likely to conciliate his support; still I hope he may be more fortunate on a future occasion. All I can say is, that I am afraid I cannot at the present moment offer him a Government day on which to bring on his Motion. But if, after the lapse of a certain time, when we have made more progress with the public business, it should really appear that the right hon. Baronet has not been able to secure a day for his purpose, we shall then be very happy to give him the opportunity he desires. In answer to my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Roebuck), I may observe that what I stated the other evening was exactly what he has mentioned just now; namely, that the operation of the Act of 1845, in regard to the Brazilian slave trade, was suspended by the mutual consent of the two Governments. Now, if the hon. and learned Member or the House understood from this that I meant to say the Brazilian Government had consented to the continuance of the Act, even in a suspended state, they misunderstood me: I may, perhaps, have used that expression hastily and without due consideration, but what I intended to convey was, that the Act was suspended in consequence of communications between the two Governments—suspended by the British Government in deference to the wishes of the Brazilian Government, and on the faith that that Government would persevere in its active exertions to put down the slave trade. The papers connected with the Brazilian slave trade have been annually laid before Parliament in the volumes A, B, and C, published every Session, and the correspondence on this specific point must be contained in those papers. I shall not, however, give my hon. and learned Friend the trouble of hunting out the particular documents relating to this transaction from so large and bulky a mass; but I will take care to have references made for him to the page and volume in which this correspondence is to be found, and then he may readily discover for himself in the library the documents in question, together with the agreements which have been come to. With respect to the inquiry put by the hon. Member for North Staffordshire (Mr. Adderley), and also adverted to by the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. G. H. Moore) and my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe), it is no doubt perfectly true that the practice of petitioning against the return of Members of Parliament is frequently abused. Sometimes charges are brought which the parties making them know to be unfounded—at other times they are brought in order to extort either a compromise or possibly a money payment. Now, Sir, it would certainly be very desirable to prevent such things. On the other hand we have the character of Parliament to consider, and we ought not, for the sake of checking the abusive exercise of a power now given by law, to restrict too much the opportunity enjoyed by electors or defeated candidates of bringing before Parliament practices on the part of the successful candidate which may properly demand inquiry and lead to the avoiding of the election. At the same time there is a serious evil in the right of petitioning being perverted for the purposes already mentioned. But a petition can only proceed from an elector or a candidate. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. G. H. Moore) says, petitions are received containing libellous charges against Members, and that then the petitions are dropped. But surely there cannot be a greater admission of the groundless nature of the accusations than the dropping the petition. Nobody at all acquainted with the public or private character of the hon. Member can for a moment suppose him to have been guilty of the charges which he states have been made against him. Now, the petitioner petitions under certain conditions, namely, the condition of paying the expenses incurred by proceeding with his petition. Then, as to the case of petitions being presented with the view of extorting money, I should say it is the duty of any Member to whom such an intimation has been given to bring that fact before the House as a breach of privilege; and I am sure this House, when appealed to, would be perfectly ready to take proper cognizance of the matter. Again, when one petition is presented for the purpose of inducing another to be withdrawn, if that other petition is well-founded, why do the parties withdraw it? They ought to say "No, your petition is groundless; we dare you to proceed with it; or if you don't bring it to trial we will compel you to drop it. But we will not pair off your petition with ours, which is well-founded. We shall go on, and leave you to do as you please." It is, therefore, in the power of parties confident in the truth of their petition to resist any attempt to induce them to withdraw it by offering to withdraw a counter charge. There are other cases, however, in which a petition may be rightfully presented and rightfully abandoned. Persons are obliged to present their petitions within a fortnight after the meeting of Parliament, at which time they may believe they have perfectly good grounds for challenging the election. In the interval before the trial of the petition those grounds may fail them. An important witness may have died, gone away, or been tampered with by the other side; or the petitioners may find on a more accurate examination that the evidence on which they relied would not bear sifting to the bottom. Therefore we should be injuriously curtailing the means of bringing to light practices which we wish to prevent were we too rigidly to limit the right of petitioning against election returns. Still, if anything can be suggested which would on the one hand give ample opportunity for the exposure of proceedings with which this House ought to deal, and on the other remove those abuses to which, the hon. Gentleman find others have referred, it will certainly deserve careful consideration. But this can only be done by the alteration of the law, because the practice now complained of is authorized by the law, with which this House alone cannot interfere. The hon. Member for Mayo says that premature opinions have been expressed in the newspapers and elsewhere on a petition which is still pending. Why, hardly a case comes before the Courts of Law on which, in some way or another, opinions are not pronounced in public before the trial actually takes place. But I am quite satisfied that those hon. Members who are appointed to inquire into Election Petitions, and who are obliged to try them on their oath, will be guided solely by the evidence adduced before them, and not suffer their minds in any degree to be prejudiced by what they may read in the public prints, or what they may hear in clubs, or learn through any other channel.


said, he thought he could make a suggestion to the noble Lord, founded on the practice of the courts of law. If an indictment was preferred against a person he could apply to the Court for a copy of the indictment, and the Court, upon cause being shown, would furnish a copy to the party accused, who thereupon could take such proceedings against the prosecutor as he might think fit. Now, he (Mr. Hildyard) would propose that, in the same way, upon a petition being presented, the party against whom it was presented should be at liberty to apply to the House for a copy; and if the petition could be reasonably justified, and a fair case for presenting it could be made out, then the application should be refused; but otherwise, if no sufficient reason for presenting it could be shown, the application should be complied with. He believed that a measure of that nature would operate as a salutary check upon parties presenting petitions without any sufficient grounds, for he thought he knew how a Judge would charge the jury in case proceedings were taken, and how a jury would decide.