HC Deb 09 February 1860 vol 156 cc726-37

said, that in asking permission of the House to intro- duce a Bill for the prevention of bribery, it was not his intention to enter into any lengthened discussion on the subject. Since he had placed his notice on the paper, the question had been brought before them by the hon. Member for Marylebone (Mr. Edwin James); and the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Mellor) had also given notice of a Motion on the subject; besides which, the noble Lord the First Minister of the Crown had intimated that the subject was under the consideration of the Government, and that it was not unlikely that a Government measure would be introduced. In addition to all this, the noble Lord the Member for London had informed the House that it was his intention, on the 20th inst., to introduce his long promised and long expected, if not much-desired, measure of Parliamentary Reform. Under those circumstances, he (Sir FitzRoy Kelly) felt that his duty was limited to a short and concise statement of the objects of his Bill; he should then ask leave to lay it upon the table. He would at once say that it was not his intention to move the second reading of his Bill until after the Reform Bill of the noble Lord had been considered, and until they knew what measure, if any, the Government had it in contemplation to propose for the repression of bribery; but be could hardly believe it possible, after the recent disclosures at Wakefield and Gloucester, that this Session would be allowed to pass away without some measure on this subject being brought forward under the direct sanction of Her Majesty's Government. After that, he should, if necessary, proceed to bring this Bill before the House. He might say at once that it differed to some extent, but not greatly, from the provisions originally introduced in the Corrupt Practices Bill of 1854. His first object was to compel the candidate to pay all monies to be expended for election purposes, and under his own control, through the hands of a public officer, and thus to render it certain that unless that public officer should himself be a party to bribery, it would be impossible for bribery to occur. His second object was to make the offence of bribery disgraceful—one which no man could commit and afterwards hold up his head in society, and such as no gentleman, or any one aspiring to be a Member of that House, could contemplate without fear and shame. His third and last, but not least difficult object, would be to provide, if possible, some legislative means to render it probable, if not certain, that when bribery had been committed it should be followed by prosecution and punishment. With respect to the first of these objects, it might be secured if the money first found its way into the hands of the election auditor, for then he thought it might fairly be said that bribery would be almost impossible. It was true that no man, however much he might disclaim any resort to corrupt influences, could in all cases prevent money being improperly spent; but inasmuch as an oath or declaration equivalent to an oath must be made under this Bill by the candidate, that he would pay no money for election purposes except through a specified public officer, it became impossible without perjury that money should be passed, as it was now from the candidate through various channels to persons by whom it is at last applied to corrupt purposes. He could not conceive that any gentleman really desiring that such money should be applied legitimately, would hesitate to make this declaration. The evidence recently laid before the House proved that the money expended in elections was often paid by the candidates into the hands of parties unknown in the locality, who went down from London, and appeared in the town under assumed names. By them the money was paid to others, through whom at length it reached the hands of the electors; and thus the system of corruption was carried out. Now, if the candidates, and all to whose bands the money should come, were made liable to all the penalties of perjury, unless it were paid to the election auditors, it was impossible to suppose but that they would apply it accordingly, and the bribery would thus be prevented. A series of clauses was inserted in this Bill, enacting that every candidate should make a declaration, with all the solemnity of an oath, that he had not paid, and never would pay, directly or indirectly, any money for election purposes except to the election officer. But it had been said that effectually to prevent bribery it was necessary to turn against it the current of public opinion, and to make it a disgraceful offence of which any man would be ashamed. How could this be more effectually done, then, by rendering it impossible for the candidate to be a party to bribery without at the same time being guilty of perjury? Bribery, he was afraid, might have been treated with indifference or lenity; but no one has any sympathy with perjury, and if this Bill should become law, and a candidate were to violate the oath to be taken, public condemnation would be directed against him, and he would be disgraced in the eyes of society. The Bill, in addition to the penalties of perjury, provided that any candidate violating this solemn declaration, and paying or sanctioning any application of money, except through the election auditor, in addition to all other penalties should be incapable of sitting in that House, or of holding office under the Crown, or any municipal office in the kingdom. Other provisions of the Bill would facilitate the prosecution and punishment of offenders; but there was also a, proviso in the Bill calculated to meet the numerous applications of money to corrupt purposes which were made without the sanction of the candidate, but where the money passed from or through some relative or friend, or the member of some political club, to prevent money being so devoted to any hut lawful purposes, there was a clause which made it a misdemeanour in any one whomsoever to pay or apply any money for the purposes of an election except through the auditor. At present it often happened that when bribery is to be resorted to some one unknown to the candidate advances the necessary funds; and after the return, and when the time for petitioning is past, the Member is told that an advance has been made on his behalf, which it would be well for him to discharge, and many Gentlemen felt bound in honour to pay such advances. But if the candidate made oath that he never would pay any money except through the election auditor, he would at once be furnished with a decisive answer, and the result would be that these zealous friends would not advance their money, and the bribery would not be committed. He thought the adoption of these clauses would have a great effect in deterring persons from resorting to corrupt practices at elections. He might be told that it would be possible to evade the provision of the Bill which he had just sketched out by means of false accounts rendered by the agents, and indeed it could not be denied that such evasions had occurred under the existing law. He had therefore endeavoured to provide against the recurrence of such a state of things by giving power to the election auditors to scrutinize every item of expense, and to disallow all that should appear illegal or colourable. The next question to be considered related to the election auditors themselves. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1854 had the effect of telling candidates that they ought to pay money through the election auditor, but no adequate penalty was imposed for any breach of the provision. A proviso similar to the one he now sought to introduce had been endeavoured to he inserted in that Act, and was supported by the leading Members on both sides of the House, but was defeated by a narrow majority; so that while the payment of money, except through the auditor, was forbidden, no punishment was annexed. He sought to provide that those persons who now acted as revising barristers should he the election auditors. He was aware that great difference of opinion existed on the question, which that was not the time for entering upon, but he hoped it would be considered in Committee upon that or some similar bill; but certainly the officers who were selected to perform the duties of election auditors should be persons whose character, ability, and experience would entitle them to general respect. He thought the election auditors ought to have the power of making a minute and specific investigation into the items composing the accounts; it would be the duty of these officers to make these inquiries; and then he thought it would he impossible that money passing through their hands should be improperly applied. The only remaining point was, perhaps, the most difficult; and that was, the means of ensuring the prosecution and punishment of offenders against the law. At present, though bribery may have been extensive and notorious, many causes conduce to prevent prosecution. He would particularly instance the case of elections where bribery had been committed on both sides, and where persons on either side were afraid to prosecute those whom they knew to be guilty, owing to fear of retaliation. It was not likely that private individuals would undertake the work of prosecution. What he proposed by this Bill was that the election auditor, whom he would assume to be a barrister, or some one acquainted with judicial proceedings, should within a certain time after the election, if he thought fit, institute an investigation—supposing that he had reason to think that bribery or corrupt practices had been resorted to—and that he should have the power to hold a court to which he might summon the candidates, their committees, friends, and par-tizans—in short, any witnesses whose evidence he might deem likely to be of import- ance to the object in view:—and that he should prosecute the inquiry by oath or otherwise, and if the result should be such as to afford reasonable grounds for suspicion that bribery to a great extent had prevailed in a particular borough, he might make a special report of the facts to the Attorney General, and should further be obliged to report that he had made such report to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Under these circumstances it would be difficult to find a case in which an election auditor would not have the means of ascertaining whether bribery had been committed, and of all the particulars relating to the offence. By means of this court of inquiry the most extensive information could be obtained on the subject, and all that should come under its cognisance must be reported to the Attorney General, who, either with or without the instruction of that House, would be competent to prosecute the offending parties. If during the progress of this Bill—supposing he would be permitted to lay it on the table—any better means could be devised to secure the detection and punishment of offenders, no man would more rejoice than he would at the adoption by the House of such means in preference to his own. He had, then, only to ask the leave of the House to introduce his Bill, and to intreat the attention of hon. Members to the important subject of which it treats, with a view to render the measure as effectual as possible for its object. The hon. and learned Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill for the Prevention of Bribery, and to amend "The Corrupt Practices Prevention Act (1854)."


said, that having given much attention to the subject, the result of his consideration was to lead him to the conclusion that neither the Bill of the hon. and learned Member for Nottingham (Mr. Mellor), nor that of the hon. and learned Member for East Suffolk (Sir FitzRoy Kelly), was calculated to effect the object they all had in view. On the other hand, he thought that there were means by which that object could be reached, to a great extent, which both Bills overlooked. He would not now discuss the Bill of the hon. and learned Gentleman at any length, but he would take the liberty of making one or two observations in relation to the subject generally. It appeared to him that any attempt to check an offence against the public interests by so severe a punishment as was proposed would in effect be bringing them back to the state of I things that existed half a century ago, when the criminal legislation of the country was marked by a character of great severity, but which for the last forty years had given way to much more humane and enlightened views. He must own he feared that the punishment provided by this Bill, as well as by the other Bill to which he had referred, went beyond public opinion. The public was aware that, he would not say at present, but he believed at a time not very remote, a large number of Members of that House owed their seats to that practice which the hon. and learned Gentleman now proposed to punish so severely; and he therefore doubted whether public opinion would support the hon. Gentleman in his endeavour to inflict for the crime in question a punishment which would permanently disgrace a man or affect his future standing in society. He felt that if the hon. and learned Gentleman did succeed in his object, without at the same time providing means by which even in corrupt boroughs a man might be returned without corruption, the effect would be to deter gentlemen from coming forward to prosecute, or to assist in the prosecution of, the offending parties. It might also have this effect, that corrupt boroughs might be represented by persons who in no respect deserved the character of gentlemen. If they wished to prevent men entering that House by means of bribery, they must provide the means of entering it without corruption, even as the representative of a constituency of which a portion was corrupt. He would merely state, that it appeared to him that the provision which would be more effective than any other would be this—to provide that whenever a successful candidate was unseated on the score of bribery, the opposing candidate, after he had established his case, without any recriminatory case being made out against him, should obtain the vacant seat without the necessity of a new election, The great difficulty under the present state of the law was to induce the unsuccessful candidate to prosecute the offending party, inasmuch as in the event of his success in ousting the sitting Member he would be further than ever from the object he sought in petitioning, because he would be compelled to go again before the same constituency, after he had made himself unpopular in their eyes by exposing their corruption, and his chance of being returned would consequently be much di- minished. This state of the law operated as a great discouragement to petitions. He believed that those best acquainted with the subject were convinced that in the immense majority of cases in which bribery was committed no petitions were presented against them; and it was well known that although every general election was followed by a great number of petitions, the number in which they were effectively followed up was small. He attributed that state of things to the defective state of the law in this respect. It was that which he believed gave the greatest encouragement to bribery. The plan he would suggest—a plan which was not then for the first time submitted to the House, but which had never been fully considered—would enable them to give the honest candidate a mode by which he might enter Parliament as the Member for even a corrupt borough, without having participated in any corruption. He was aware that that was not the time for proposing any such measure; but unless he saw it taken up by a more competent Member he should feel it his duty, upon a future occasion, to state more fully the principles upon which he believed that any measure to be effective in putting down bribery should be based.


felt that, in order to have some well-digested scheme of legislation on this important subject, it would be extremely desirable that the various measures which had been or might be laid on the table, should undergo some scrutiny and investigation before a Committee. Some parts of this Bill were perfectly impracticable, and he trusted would be reviewed by his hon. and learned Friend before the second reading. One objection he ventured to urge was this,—it took for its basis the Corrupt Practices at Elections Act, and sought to amend the system as respects the appointment of the election auditor. Immediately after 1854, when this machinery first came into force, it proved to be an entire failure. It had no operation at all, because, there being no time fixed upon when accounts were to be furnished, and the auditor was to make his report, it often happened that election petitions came on for trial without any report being made by the election auditor. It did appear to him to be a great mistake to make election auditors of revising barristers. The revising barrister of a district was to be the election auditor of the borough. A candidate could not move without a revising barrister at his elbow; and inasmuch as frequently several elections in the same district were held simultaneously, his hon. and learned Friend would almost require to make his revising barristers ubiquitous. A revising barrister would have several boroughs in his district, and there must necessarily be a much larger number of revising barristers appointed. Then—what appeared to him a most extraordinary proposition—these revising barristers were to be constituted into a Court of Inquisition, with power to summon persons before them, and if they did not appear, these young gentlemen might issue their warrant to run to all parts of the country—England, Scotland, and Ireland, and he supposed to commit them if they refused to answer any question put to them. This would be an apotheosis for those young gentlemen who were to act as grand inquisitors in order to ascertain whether an offence had been committed against any of the provisions of this Bill. His hon. and learned Friend could hardly be serious in sanctioning a system of machinery of this kind. It would be absolutely necessary, if these points were not corrected before the second reading, that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee.


thought the House ought to provide some protection for the candidate to prevent him being entrapped into bribery by the acts of his agents, for all of which he was now responsible. He believed that there would be much less bribery both in towns and counties, if paid canvassers, messengers, and other paid agents could be got rid of. The only plan was to allow Members to incur certain limited expenses for these purposes. Boroughs, for example, were at present divided into certain polling districts by the municipal authorities; candidates might be allowed to engage a Committee-room and a certain staff in each polling district, proportioned to the number of electors or the area of the district. So many messengers and paid agents might be permitted, and the employment of any greater number should be strictly prohibited. He believed that if the House adopted such a provision, and if they declared that all paid agents thus employed should be restricted from voting, they would do more to prevent bribery than had ever yet been done.


remarked that it was perhaps premature to discuss the provisions of this Bill; but he thought there was a view of the matter which it was highly important the House should take, and that was this, that though there had been a great deal of useless legislation there had also been some useful legislation on this subject. He thought the House was deeply indebted to the hon. and learned Gentleman for bringing in this Bill, and also to all the other Gentlemen who had prepared independent measures on the same subject. He did not see that any harm was done by bringing forward separate measures for the prevention of bribery, nor could he see any good reason for abstaining from legislation on the subject from time to time in order to await the time when they could consider the subject as a whole and pass a complete measure. His hon. and learned Friend the Member for Marylebone (Mr. E. James) was of opinion that all Bills connected with this subject should be submitted to a Select Committee, and considered together. He (Mr. Denman) thought that an inexpedient mode of proceeding, as tending to unnecessary delay, and not promising so great a security for the punishment and prevention of all the various phases of this detestable offence, as would be given by assisting the independent efforts of individual Members, each endeavouring to meet one or more of those phases, by several remedies. He believed that every Bill on the subject laid upon the table of the House had some good in it and that the several provisions of those Bills were not inconsistent with each other. Let the House strike rapidly and in earnest at the offence of bribery wherever they could find it, and then eventually it would be put clown. With that view he hoped the House would allow this Bill to be brought in, and give their best assistance to carry through all the provisions in it which were most efficient.


said, that he, for one, would give his cordial assent to any measure calculated to put down bribery at elections. He would, however, make one suggestion in regard to the inconvenience arising from employing paid messengers and clerks. As soon as the poorer class of voters could be brought to believe that the possession of the franchise was not to be made a pecuniary advantage to them, directly or indirectly, this system of bribery would be abolished, and the moral condition of the people would be improved. That desirable state of things was, however, hopeless of attainment, unless professional men were determined to refuse fees from candidates for their services. Those gentlemen would shrink from horror at being charged with bribery; nevertheless, by accepting of professional fees from the candidates, and then giving them their votes and services at the elections, they were really committing that offence against which they exclaimed so loudly. If a man in a humble station of life took a sum of money for his vote, it was called a bribe; and however much professional men might attempt to disguise that fact from themselves, if they received retainers, as they called them, for their services at elections, those payments could not be viewed otherwise than as remuneration for the exercise of their own franchise, and for exercising their influence in behalf of the party who feed them. Those gentlemen might call this money retainers, but he called it bribery. He took that opportunity of making these observations, because he was proud of the profession to which he belonged, and of the respectable body of men with whom he associated. He was anxious that they should look the truth in the face, and that they should not allow themselves to be deceived any longer. The habit was such an inveterate one with those gentlemen, that it would not allow them to see the truth. Those fees at elections were nothing more nor less than an indirect mode of taking a bribe. They had before them the Report of the Gloucester Election Commission. Though he objected at the time to the appointment of that Commission, he was bound now to admit that the Report they had presented was a most able document. It unravelled the system of bribery, and placed in such a glaring light the practice of professional men being employed at elections, and taking retainers to give their services and use their influence for particular candidates, that the fact could not be misunderstood. He mentioned this practice for the benefit of the profession, and he did hope that those gentlemen would from that moment perfectly understand it was the opinion of the House that such conduct was deserving of censure; and that, if they wished to exercise their franchise, they should do so as free-born Englishmen, and should set an example to the voters, by showing that they would not make the possession of the franchise the means of bringing them any pecuniary advantage. He trusted it would be provided in the Bill, that if a voter should be employed at elections, he was from that circumstance to be deprived of the power of exercising his vote.


said, that the difficulty of the subject might be measured by the variety of the suggestions offered. He attached great value to a solemn and most positive declaration by the candidate of his non-participation in any corrupt practices. Many Members obtained seats, who, at the declaration of the poll, sincerely believed they were elected by the unanimous feeling of their constituents, but whoso election cost them thousands, where they believed it would be covered by hundreds. After the election, however, the Member was told by his agents that such and such expenses had been incurred in his behalf, and that he was bound in honour to pay them. Now, he would exact from every candidate a declaration, when he came to the table, that neither before nor after the election, and neither directly nor indirectly would he pay, or become responsible, for any expenses that were not legal expenses, or that had not been brought before the election auditor. If this were done, the business of the election auditor, which was now a farce, would become a useful reality. He might be told that the honourable man would have no chance under such a system, and that the dishonourable man would make the declaration. He did not believe that any hon. Member would take such a declaration, and then break it. If he did, he would commit an infamous offence, for which a man would be blackballed at his club, and excluded from the society of gentlemen. By means of such a declaration alone would bribery, in his opinion, be put down.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir FITZROY KELLY and Mr. CAVENDISH BEN-TINCK.