HC Deb 22 February 1860 vol 156 cc1552-8

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. MELLOR moved the Second Reading of this Bill.


said, he was willing to admit that the House was very much indebted to his hon. and learned Friend for bringing forward this Bill; but he would suggest that it should be referred to the Select Committee already appointed on the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act, in order that they might consider the whole system of the trial of election petitions. There was especially the question of the withdrawal of election petitions, which was known to be an evil, and demanded the greatest consideration. It was a common practice after a general election for a large number of petitions to be presented against the return of hon. Members without any reasonable or probable cause, and without any intention of pursuing them to an inquiry. As one behind the scenes, having been counsel engaged in election petitions, he could state that many were presented expressly for the purpose of either extorting a sum of money, or of having what was called a cross-petition to set off against a petition presented on the other side. This monstrous system was resorted to alike by the agents of both political parties, but it was unknown in any other tribunal or court in the kingdom. At the last general election eighty petitions were presented against hon. Members for bribery and treating; but of these not more than thirty, perhaps, would be brought before the Committee on Elections. The object of many of these was to intimidate Members into giving up their seats, or to induce them to prevail on some other Members to give up theirs. It was constantly the case that when a petition was presented against the Member for a borough in the south, a cross-petition was presented against some Member for a borough in the north. This was a disgraceful abuse of the system of petitioning, and not only put Members to great and unnecessary expense, but was calculated seriously to injure the character of the House.


remarked, that there was a difficulty in the trial of election petitions that did not affect actions in a court of law; there was a public as well as a private question involved in the trial of election proceedings. The right in litigation before the Election Committee was, in some respects, a public right; but the petition was carried on at the expense of a private individual, and the contest was also one of private right. It was, therefore, impossible to put the petitioner, or a Member defending his seat, exactly on the footing of a person defending a public right. If a Member was defending his seat, and making a determined fight against, perhaps, a wealthy opponent, it was unreasonable to saddle him at the same time with a public duty without the assistance of the public purse, and treat him as a champion of public purity and a guardian of the public against corruption at elections. It was the conflict between these two principles that produced the anomaly pointed out by the hon. and learned Member. It often happened that when the public interest required the petition to be proceeded with, and the corruption at the election to be probed and laid bare, the private interest of the party induced him to decline the contest, withdraw from it, and let the matter pass without investigation. He did not know whether it was possible altogether to reconcile entirely those two interests. It was a difficulty inherent in the question, and it was impossible to prevent an occasional failure of justice. The proceedings on a petition must be carried on by private funds; consequently, the House had no right to inquire into the private reasons for which a petition might be withdrawn. He should offer no objections to the second reading of the Bill, and, as the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the Corrupt Practices Bill must examine the mode of trying election petitions, the Bill might be referred to it with a view to see what remedy could be devised. It was impossible to dissociate the question of bribery from the question of the mode of trying petitions; the remedy to be obtained against corrupt practices depended essentially on the nature of the tribunal that tried the petitions charging them. He thought that the tribunal by which election petitions were tried admitted of improvement. He was a Member of the Select Committee, and he should be ready to place before it some material proposals in reference to the present system of trying petitions. He had no doubt an improvement of the tribunal would tend to check the abuses against which it was directed. He thought the House should agree to the SECOND READING of the Bill, and then refer it to the Select Committee.


said, he entirely concurred with the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman. The distinction he had drawn between the trial of an election petition and a trial in a court of law was perfectly correct. He hoped the Select Committee would be able, in its Report, to propose some remedy for the defects of the present mode of proceeding. It was impossible not to see that election petitions, besides raising a question between the petitioner and the sitting Member as to the right to the seat, frequently involved a question in which the public had a direct and deep interest, and an interest, perhaps, directly opposed to that of the two parties. To impose on individuals the duty of prosecuting in all cases in which the public interest required it, would be a species of tyranny. He hoped the Select Committee would consider whether it might not be possible to adopt some means of prosecuting charges of bribery under the order of the House. He should support the second reading, and the reference of the Bill to the Committee.


said, the object which he had in view in introducing the Bill was simply to prevent the recurrence of an ad- mitted grievance—the presentation of frivolous and vexatious petitions. This he endeavoured to achieve by putting a stop to their withdrawal on other than bonâ fide grounds, and by requiring that petitioners should state sufficient reasons to the House or a Committee for declining to proceed. He was by no means, however, opposed to the institution of an extensive investigation into the subject; but he would suggest that, as the Committee which had been appointed to inquire into the Corrupt Practices Act would have to travel over a very wide field, it would be desirable to refer the measure under discussion to another Select Committee.


said, that in consenting to the second reading, he wished to guard himself against giving entire approval to the main proposal contained in the Bill, because he was of opinion its effect might be to bring the trial of election petitions under the cognizance of the House itself, which would be a proceeding both inconvenient and opposed to general usage. He was, nevertheless, prepared to admit that it might be expedient to take due precautions against the presentation of petitions which were purely of a vexatious character. At the same time he believed that, whatever difficulties were placed in the way of withdrawing petitions, it would always be done where it was the interest of both parties to it, and some arrangement would be made as to the costs. There was no doubt some value in the objection that the Bill ought not to be referred to the Select Committee on the Corrupt Practices Act, which had already so important and extensive a subject to deal with. If, however, it should be submitted to that Committee, he hoped they would dispose of the question of bribery before they proceeded to investigate the proceedings which the Bill proposed to amend.


said, they might force a petitioner to go before a Committee, but when there he might still say that he had not been able to collect the necessary evidence. The old proverb applied, You may bring a horse, &c. He was also of opinion that the 7th Clause of the Bill interfered with a most important principle of English law, that no man should be compelled to criminate himself.


said, the object of the Bill was a very simple one—namely, to prevent the presentation of frivolous and vexatious election petitions. It would be within the recollection of the House that the present system had been denounced very strongly last Session by many hon. Members who, like himself, considered that they had been subjected to great and undeserved persecution from motives arising from envy, hatred, and malice. So much, indeed, had that been the case that that the hon. Member for Sandwich (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) had promised to bring in a Bill to remedy so crying an evil. That hon. Member, however, since he had reclined so luxuriously on the Treasury benches, appeared to have fallen into a state of apathy or somnolency. Now, if the House agreed to the Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for Marylebone (Mr. E. James) of sending the Bill to the Committee upstairs, it was virtually shelving the question, and he was sure that Committee had quite enough to do in remodelling the Corrupt Practices Act, without having any other subject referred to them. Under these circumstances, and as Her Majesty's Ministers evidently shrank from the responsibility of dealing with a very simple question, he hoped hon. Members would join him in vindicating the position of the House, and support the second reading of the Bill.


said, he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Morpeth (Sir G. Grey) that it was not desirable that the decision on election petitions should be transferred from Select Committees to the House generally; and he would throw out, as a suggestion for meeting the requirements of the case, that a tribunal similar to the Standing Orders Committee, and consisting of three or five members, should be appointed at the commencement of each Session, to whom the consideration of proposals for withdrawing petitions should be referred before the House gave its sanction to such proceedings. He hoped that the Bill would not be referred to a Committee which had other subjects connected with our electoral law to consider.


said, he was afraid that if the Bill was sent before the Committee on the Corrupt Practices Act, no legislation to effect its object would—so wide was the field of inquiry upon which the Committee would have to enter—take place during the present Session. He trusted, therefore, that the Bill would be sent to another Committee.


said, he would admit that a strong reason for complaint was fur- nished by the fact that petitions were brought before the House upon insufficient grounds, and frequently without any intention on the part of their promoters to proceed with them. Sham petitions were from time to time brought forward, and somebody found himself, as the result, seated in that House, while somebody else discovered that he was unseated, nobody knew how. Now, that was an evil which, in his opinion, required a remedy. It was, he believed, attended by a good deal of corruption, and, entertaining that view, he should give his cordial support to the second reading of the Bill. He might add that he concurred with the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir G. Grey) that it was desirable to prevent the trial of petitions as far as possible from being mixed up with the proceedings of the House.


maintained that it was undesirable on general grounds to add to the labours which the Committee on the Corrupt Practices Act had already undertaken to discharge. At the same time he was of opinion that the best course to pursue with respect to the Bill under discussion was to take further time to consider whether it should be referred to that Committee or to another.


said, he differed from the right hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House, as he thought that the Committee on Corrupt Practices ought not to be charged with the further duty of inquiring into the question involved in the present measure.


said, he would suggest that on the presentation of a petition some preliminary investigation as to whether a petition was or was not based upon frivolous grounds should be instituted. He would also recommend that the petitioner, before his petition was referred to the General Committee of Elections, be required to make out a primâ facie case against the sitting Member. It would be very easy for him to lodge affidavits with his petition, and it might be referred to a subcommittee to report whether such affidavits showed a primâ facie case, and if they did, the inquiry should not be conducted at the expense of the petitioner, but the matter should be taken up by the House; and if bribery and corruption to a great extent were proved to have existed in the particular borough to the return for which the petition related, a rate should be levied on the inhabitants of that borough to defray the expenses of prosecuting the petition.

Bill read 2° and committed.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee."


said, he would now move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.


observed that the whole of the proceedings were directed against the successful candidate, whereas there was often quite as much bribery upon the part of the unsuccessful candidate. He quite agreed that when there was any charge of bribery and corruption the investigation should be on the spot, and that the costs of the inquiry should be paid by the corrupt borough. That suggestion was worthy of great consideration by the Committee to which the Bill was to be referred.


suggested that, as the Committee on the Corrupt Practices Act was to meet to-morrow, it would be desirable that they should have an opportunity of considering whether they could deal with the question raised by the Bill under discussion, as well as with the other important subject which they had been appointed to investigate. Being of that opinion, he should move the adjournment of the debate.


said, he adhered to the view which he had already expressed, that to refer the Bill to the existing Committee instead of appointing another was the preferable course to pursue. He had arrived at that conclusion, because it was extremely difficult to find a duplicate Committee consisting of some fifteen or sixteen Members to inquire with due efficiency into cognate subjects, and because he thought it better that two questions intimately connected should be dealt with by one body, whose recommendations would be likely to be founded on the same principle, than by two distinct bodies, who might arrive at their conclusions on each of those questions upon principles entirely different.

Debate adjourned till to-morrow.

House adjourned at Ten minutes before Six o'clock.