HC Deb 02 August 1859 vol 155 cc865-70

said, he rose to ask a question in connection with the late election for Norwich, but as it was a matter of privilege he should in any case be entitled to precedence. It would be in the recollection of the House that at the last general election two gentlemen, Mr. Schneider and Viscount Bury, were returned for that city. A petition for bribery was presented against both those gentlemen, one of whom, Viscount Bury, subsequently accepted office under the present Government. The attention of the House was expressly called to the inconvenience of issuing a new Writ while the petition against the former election was pending, but, nevertheless, it directed that a new Writ should be issued, and at the second election Viscount Bury was again returned. Two petitions were presented against that return, and they were referred to the Committee by whom the first petition was to be tried, but on the understanding that they were not to be proceeded with, so that in fact the only petition before the House was the original one presented against Viscount Bury and Mr. Schneider. The Committee to which that petition had been referred had decided that both those gentlemen had been guilty of bribery through their agents, and that consequently the original election was void. The question he wished to ask Mr. Speaker was this:—By the 36th section of the Corrupt Practices Act it was declared that no candidate who should be found guilty of bribery by himself or his agents should be capable to sit for the place in which the bribery had been committed during the Parliament then in existence. This was a very peculiar case, because at the time the House agreed to the issuing of the second writ, Viscount Bury had not been declared incapable of sitting, but since that time the decision of the Committee by which the noble Lord was declared guilty of bribery, through his agents, had been arrived at. This decision, coupled with the second election, placed the noble Lord in a very peculiar position. He did not know that the point had ever been raised, but he believed there was a Motion of the hon. Member for Finsbury on the paper for Thursday evening, moving that one of these seats should be declared vacant. The question he wished to ask, therefore, was whether, under the peculiar circumstances of this case, both Members having on the original petition been found guilty of bribery through their agents, that fact did not in itself make void the recent election; or whether the noble Lord would stand in a similar position to that so long filled by Baron Rothschild, of being a Member of that House without being able either to sit or vote. It was desirable that the House should come to some decision on this question. In his opinion the House had acted indiscreetly in allowing the second Writ to be moved pending the decision of the Committee on the first petition. Under those circumstances, he begged to ask Mr. Speaker whether this seat was of itself vacant, or whether the noble Lord had the power of sitting and voting under his second election?


said, the subject was so important that he hoped he should be pardoned if he addressed a few words to the House before Mr. Speaker replied to the question of the hon. and gallant Member. The case stood thus. After the general election petitions were presented against the return of Viscount Bury and Mr. Schneider, on the ground that they had been guilty of bribery at the election for Norwich. Subsequently, Viscount Bury took office in the Government, when a question arose in this House as to whether the Writ, under those circumstances, should be allowed to issue. He (Mr. Walpole) was not present at the time, but he believed that upon that point the House decided, under Mr. Speaker's ruling, that the Writ could issue, if the House thought fit to direct that it should issue. If he might venture to express an opinion, he should say that that decision was unquestionably in accordance with the law and usage of Parliament, and he thought he could point out to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the greatest inconvenience would arise if it were not the law; for supposing any number of Gentlemen sitting opposite had been petitioned against, and they had been commanded by Her Majesty to take office, they would, under any other ruling, be totally incompetent to appear in their places as members of the Government so formed. The inconvenience in that case to the public service from the want of persons to explain and defend the acts of Government would have been the greatest that could be conceived. Since the election of Vicount Bury, consequent on the issue of the Writ, a second petition had been presented, praying not only that the seat may be voided on account of the bribery practised at the former election, but praying further that this House would confer the seat upon another candidate, on the ground that Viscount Bury was incapable of being elected, and that due notice to that effect having been given to all the voters, all the votes recorded for him were thrown away. When this second petition came before the General Committee for election petitions, they considered whether they could not tack the second petition to the first, and thus send them both to be considered by the same Committee. The House, however, on that point expressed an opinion—and in my mind a correct opinion—that since the General Committee was bound by Act of Parliament to take all the petitions in their order, and since the petitions arose in respect of different elections—one after the dissolution and the other when Viscount Bury took office—it was not competent for them to tack the second petition to the first. There was therefore nothing to be done but to proceed with the first petition separately and, as hon. Gentlemen knew, the Committee to whom the petition was referred had come to the conclusion that the election of the two sitting Members was void by reason of their having been guilty of bribery through their agents. The Act of Parliament was imperative under such circumstances, and declared positively that persons who had been found guilty of bribery, either by themselves or by their agents, should be incapable of sitting for that place during the existing Parliament. It did not, therefore, require any action of the House to prevent Viscount Bury from taking his scat as soon as he was declared incapable of sitting. If the noble Lord were to attempt to take his seat he would in the first place subject himself to the penalties attached to those who sit and vote contrary to the Act. But more than that, if he were to take his seat, the House would take notice of it, and recognising the law as prescribed by the Act of Parliament, he would be ordered by the Speaker on a Motion made in the House to retire. Under no circumstances, therefore, he apprehended, could the noble Lord attempt to take his Beat except at great peril to himself. But then came the question, what were they to do with reference to the seat being declared void? If the House were to continue sitting very little inconvenience would arise, for the second petition would come on in its turn, and the Committee to which it was referred would decide whether the other candidate's claims to the seat were well founded, or whether a new Writ ought to issue. But if they were asked now to issue a new Writ a question of immense difficulty would be raised, because by issuing a new Writ they would, in fact, be determining by anticipation that the petitioning candidate under the second petition was not entitled to claim the seat. He would therefore venture to suggest that the House should forbear to express any opinion that the seat was void, and that a new Writ ought to issue, lest they should deprive the person who claimed the seat, of those rights with respect to which the Committee on the petition was the proper tribunal to decide. There was in fact only one course for the House to pursue in the matter. There could be no doubt that a new Writ might issue for the city of Norwich with reference to one of the seats, but he could not allow that the Writ ought to issue with reference to the other; or the House, if it thought fit, might withhold both writs. But if both were issued now it would involve the House in immense difficulties with reference to the claim of the other candidate. The point, he admitted, was a new one, but speaking in the presence of the Attorney General he apprehended that he had stated nothing which was inconsistent with law. He must apologise for interposing between Mr. Speaker and the House, but he had done so because he felt that it was hardly a question, involving such difficulties as it did, in which they ought to appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. The proper course was for the attention of the House to be called to the subject by a Motion, when they would be able to look at all the circumstances of the case.


said, that this was a very irregular discussion. There was no Motion before the House, and the question asked related to the construction of an Act of Parliament which he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman opposite it was hardly right to call upon the Speaker to determine.


said, he rose to order. The right hon. Gentleman should be bound by his own statement that there was no Motion before the House.


said, he would move the adjournment of the House so as to put himself in order. It might be supposed that the hon. and gallant Gentleman had raised this question on behalf of Viscount Bury, as though the noble Lord were anxious to sit and vote. Now, he (Sir George Grey) was assured that this was not the case; that the question was one spontaneously raised by the hon. Gentleman in order to satisfy his own mind on the subject; that Viscount Bury had not been within the House since the decision of the Election Committee, and had no intention of sitting and voting. Under these circumstances, he thought the subject might well be deferred until the next day, when notice had been given for the issue of one of the Writs for Norwich, the hon. Member for Finsbury concurring with the right hon. Gentleman opposite that, the seat being claimed, it would be premature to prejudice the claims of Colonel Boldero by issuing the other Writ. If Viscount Bury had presented himself within the House, it might have been quite right to take notice that he was incapacitated from sitting by the decision of an Election Committee; but to put a hypothetical case to the Speaker on a subject that must after all be decided by the House was, he thought, wholly uncalled for.


said, he wished to give notice that it was his intention to oppose the issuing of a new Writ. Though it was decided in the case of Dartmouth that he was wrong, yet he believed that in the case of Norwich he had good grounds to go upon, and he intended to move an Amendment to the hon. Member for Finsbury's Motion to the effect that the Writ ought not to be issued till the evidence was in the hands of hon. Members,


said, the right hon. Gentleman (Sir George Grey) had taken it on him to assume a state of his (Colonel French's) mind which not a single word that fell from him would justify. He could tell the right hon. Gentleman that his mode of lecturing other hon. Members was extremely unpleasant, and considering his position in the House it would be well for the right hon. Gentleman to endeavour to soften his tone. The right hon. Gentleman imputed to him that he professed to stand forward as the personal friend of Viscount Bury. He would put it to the House if a single word that fell from him justified such a statement. He made it a pure question of privilege, which as an independent Member he was desirous, for the honour of the House, to have ventilated. With reference to what the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Walpole) had said, if it were correct in point of fact, he was satisfied; but he had received information that both petitions were referred to the Committee, but that the Committee declined to proceed with the second.


said, he believed there was a second petition before the House which had not been withdrawn, but it did not come under the cognizance of the Committee. It was still possible for the Committee to determine that the Gentleman who claimed the seat was entitled to it.


said, if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Cambridge had not interposed it would have been his duty to inform the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the question which he had brought before the House was not one of privilege. The only answer he could have given to this question, whether Viscount Bury had a right to sit in the House, would have been to request him to examine the Act of Parliament, which is very definite and distinct on this subject. The Act of Parliament, and not anything which might have fallen from him (the Speaker) was the proper guide for the proceedings of the House.

Motion for adjournment by leave withdrawn.

Subject dropped.