HC Deb 26 January 1860 vol 156 cc180-90

said, he rose to move— That no Motion for the issuing of any New Writ for the City of Gloucester or the Borough of Wakefield be made without seven days' previous notice thereof being given in the Votes. It would be in the recollection of the House that Committees were appointed last Session to inquire into the Returns for the City of Gloucester and for the borough of Wakefield, and that those Committees had reported the extensive prevalence of corruption in both of those constituencies. In consequence of this an address was adopted to the Crown to inquire into the matters attending the elections in these two boroughs. The Commission in the case of Gloucester had made their report to the effect that corruption had existed extensively during the last two elections in that city. That report was on the table of the House, and would be in the hands of hon. Members in the course of a few days. It was unnecessary for him to detain the House with the details of these circumstances; but hon. Gentlemen would see when the report was presented that such was the case. With respect to the borough of Wakefield, the report was not yet presented to the Crown, and consequently he did not know what was the result arrived at by the Commissioners; but he had been informed by the Secretary of the Commission that the report would be ready in a few days, and it would then be laid on the table of the House. As to Wakefield, there was a Committee of last Session which reported the existence of corrupt practices in that borough, and a Commission was issued in consequence. Under these circumstances the House would not think that he adopted an unusual or objectionable course in requesting them to resolve that no writ for a new member to represent the constituencies of Gloucester or Wakefield should issue without a previous notice of seven days being given in the Votes.


said, he wished to know from the right hon. Gentleman, the Home Secretary, what was the position in which the delinquents at Wakefield and Gloucester stood; whether the bribers and bribees were amenable to the law, or whether any pledge had been given to them that on making full disclosures they should be indemnified against any prosecution for the offences they had committed. If legal punishment was not to be visited on the heads of those who had been guilty of such flagrant acts of corruption, the appointment of these Commissions was a perfect farce, and only defeated the ends of justice.


I have already stated that the report of the Wakefield Election Commission has not been presented. With regard to the City of Gloucester, I can only say, as far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned, that they have made no promise whatever—nor has the Attorney General or any other law officer of the Crown made any promise—to any of the witnesses who gave evidence before the Commissioners. Without referring to the report, which is not now before me, I should be unwilling to answer the question of my hon. Friend as to what may have been done by the Commissioners themselves under the powers in the Act of Parliament. If, however, he will repeat his question to-morrow or Monday I will give him precise information as to any steps that may have been taken by the Commissioners.


said, that when the Gloucester Commission was appointed, the objection was urged that no result would be attained by its issue; and, although no understanding was come to or pledge given by the Government that action should be taken upon the report of the Commissioners being presented, there was certainly a feeling among hon. Members that, after the expense attending such an inquiry had been incurred, something should be done to prevent their being nugatory. Commissions had been issued for Galway, Hull, Cambridge, and numerous other places, the records of which slumbered on the shelves of the library as monuments of the impotence of Parliament to deal with the evils they disclosed. The matter ought to receive the serious consideration of the Government, and the law officers of the Crown should have their attention immediately directed to the propriety of commencing proceedings against the delinquents. If that were not done, these investigations would become the laughingstock of the public. The practice was to give both the bribers and the bribed cer- tificates of indemnification, and it was even doubtful whether the granting of those certificates would not preclude the raising of any question of disfranchisement.


said, he hoped the right hon. Baronet would do his best to expedite the production of the Report of the Wakefield Commission. It was important that the House should be in possession, at an early period, of the Reports of the Commissioners appointed in the Gloucester and Wakefield cases. With respect to what had just fallen from his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Marylebone (Mr. E. James), he should merely observe that the law officers of the Crown would, he feared, find it extremely difficult to prosecute and attempt to bring about, with any hope of success, the punishment of those persons who had been discovered by the Commissioners to have violated the law, owing to the fact that immunity had been not only offered but promised to those who had so offended. He at the same time hoped that when the Report of the Commissioners was laid before the House, some means would be devised without violating pledges, to visit with the severity which they merited practices such as those which the inquiry before the Commissioners had brought to light.


If I rightly understand the hon. and learned Gentleman who has just spoken, he thinks the case under our notice is not one in which the Law Officers of the Crown, or even Parliament, can proceed with a view to the punishment of those electors who have been shown to have received bribes before the Commissioners. The point, I may add, is one which seems to me to have been settled some time ago in the case of the electors of Hull, or some other borough, when the House of Commons came—and came very properly, in my opinion—to the conclusion, that after a certificate had been given to certain persons who had been bribed, exempting them from all penal consequences to which they might be liable in consequence of any disclosures which they might make, it would not be strictly just to inflict upon them the punishment of disfranchisement. I therefore am prepared to admit that neither the Government nor the House is in a position to deal with the offences which have been committed at Wakefield and Gloucester by visiting with penalties the voters who have given evidence before the Commissioners in those boroughs. I at the same time feel that we shall still less find ourselves able to disfranchise two towns which possess populations so large and an influence so considerable. There is, however, another course which it appears to me may fairly be pursued both as regards the individuals and the representative rights of even two such large constituencies, and the adoption of which I would recommend to the notice of the Government. That course is, that the constitutional right of the boroughs in question to send representatives to Parliament should be suspended for a lengthened period, so as to mark the condemnation of the Legislature of the practices which have recently been brought to light. Such a step would, I feel assured, meet with the sanction of the country at large. So far as Wakefield is concerned, I happen to possess—for two reasons, which will immediately suggest themselves to the House, the one being that I am connected with the gentleman who was the unfortunate candidate for that borough at the late election, and the other, that I happen to reside in its immediate neighbourhood— an intimate acquaintance with the result of the recent investigation into the existence there of bribery and corruption. That result is, that out of 800 electors 100 appear to have accepted bribes, and I confess it is to me a subject of astonishment that only so small a number should have been guilty of this offence, when I bear in mind, that a single voter could not show his face in the streets of Wakefield without having a bribe offered to him at almost every hour of the day as well as of the night. While, therefore, we are shocked at the corruption of 100 electors, we must not shut our eyes to the fact that 700 others, to the great majority of whom £30 or £40 was a matter of some consequence, resisted the temptations which lay in their path. Now, in speaking thus, I may appear to be about to argue that it would not be fair to disfranchise a borough in which, out of 800 electors, there are 700 who are innocent of the offence of receiving bribes. The fact is, however, that these 700 voters are not so free from blame as may seem to be the case. I lay down this proposition, because no corruption can, in my opinion, take place such as that which has been proved to have existed in Wakefield and Gloucester without the leading men belonging to both political parties—although they may not be guilty of bribery by any direct act—being cognizant of, and morally mixed up with those transactions. In the borough in which I happen to reside, an election took place in the year 1835, or 1837, I think it was, and upon that occasion—hon. Gentlemen opposite may perhaps suppose that I am not speaking impartially in saying so—there was a very profuse expenditure of money on the part of the Conservative candidate, while upon our side, on the days of polling and nomination, there was a good deal which I could not deem right, not exactly in giving bribes but in keeping open the public-houses in the town. Fortunately for us, however, our candidate was defeated, and after the election was over a meeting was held at which a considerable number of the influential members of the Liberal party in the borough were present, and we there pledged ourselves to a resolution, under no circumstances whatever, to take part in an election, or to invite any gentlemen to come into the town for the purpose of being a candidate at an election, which was to be conducted upon any other principles than those which were strictly legal and moral. I recollect myself having said at that meeting, "You may bring forward any candidate you like, but I for one will never go across the street again to assist any man unless an agreement is entered into that not one shilling will be laid out in the contest the expenditure of which will not bear the test of being scrutinized by Parliament and the country." The result was most satisfactory, and I am strongly of opinion that if a dozen, or even half-a-dozen, of the leading men belonging to either political party would come forward in Wakefield or Gloucester, or any other borough, and adopt a similar resolution, the corruption of which we complain would soon cease to exist. The fact is, however, that, instead of taking this course, everybody at Wakefield and Gloucester seems to have winked at what was taking place. I should be glad, therefore, if those influential persons who cannot be held to be totally blameless in the matter should be made to feel that the country regards their conduct with something like horror, for nothing can be more prejudicial to us as a nation than that transactions such as those which we are discussing should continue to prevail. Parliament, then, in order to mark its sense of the enormity of such proceedings, would, in my opinion, act wisely if it were to deprive those boroughs for a considerable time—say for some period not exceeding ten years—of their right to return Members to thin House. I would have them, in short, debarred from the exercise of that privilege for a period so long that the whole country might be able to point to them as black spots—not, perhaps, spots in reality one bit blacker than others, but more unfortunate in this respect, that their blackness had been found out. I am not one of those, whatever may be my feelings with regard to individuals or to particular constituencies, who can for one moment countenance such disgraceful proceedings as those to which I am adverting. They are a disgrace to this House as well as to the nation at large, and I trust the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary for the Home Department, may take into his serious consideration the suggestions which I have thrown out, with a view to putting an end to this system of corruption at elections as far as possible. He cannot, as I said before, punish particular individuals, or completely disfranchise entire constituencies, but then he may, by taking the course which I have indicated, do all the good that can be done until this House has passed into a law the only measure that can be really effectual in such cases—I mean a measure bestowing the right to vote by ballot.


said, that with regard to the observations which had fallen from the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright), it had never been proposed to disfranchise the electors of Hull. A Bill of the nature referred to had indeed been brought in with regard to the town of Galway. He must decline to express an opinion as to the legal construction of that portion of the Act relating to bribery which granted an indemnity to those persons guilty of that offence who happen to give evidence before a Commission, but he contended that the Act in no way deprived Parliament of the right to disfranchise, if it should deem fit to do so, any portion or the whole of the electors of a borough in which extensive corruption had been proved to have taken place. He concurred with the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bright), in the expediency of suspending the right of exercising the franchise for a time in such cases. That right had for a considerable period been suspended, in the borough in which he had the honour to represent, for as long a period indeed as a year and a half. He had the satisfaction, however, of being in a position to state that anything like direct bribery was now unknown in that borough, and that the expenses of a contest for it were not one-sixth of the sum to which they used formerly to amount.


said, he would express a hope that the Government in dealing with the cases of Wakefield and Gloucester would feel themselves completely unembarrassed by any consideration leading to the supposition that the Commissioners had the power to enter into a pledge that Parliament should not disfranchise, either as a whole or in classes, the electors of those constituencies in which the existence of corruption on a large scale had been brought to light. The object of a Commission would be a farce if it were not issued for that very purpose. The certificate they had the power to give only protected those who gave evidence from the pains and penalties attached to bribery.


said, that he was one of those who protested against the issuing of these Election Commissions. A great deal of expense was incurred without leading to any practical result. If it were really intended to take any effective measures for putting down bribery, what a ridiculous thing it was to send three Commissioners to Gloucester and three to Wakefield, for the mere purpose of preparing another blue-book, upon the production of which no proceedings were to be taken. He confessed he could not understand the object of the Home Secretary in moving that the writ be suspended for seven days. If, indeed, the right hon. Gentleman had proposed the suspension of these writs until he and his colleagues had read the reports of the Commissioners, and considered what measures they should adopt in consequence of them, his course would have been intelligible; but the present Resolution was without meaning. If it were true, as the hon. Member for Birmingham said, that only 100 voters at Wakefield, of which he seemed to know a great deal, out of 800 were bribed, he would ask where was the justice of punishing 700 innocent men for the misconduct of 100, who perhaps from their poverty were more exposed to temptation than the others? Unless the Government were prepared to bring in a measure that would effectually detect and punish the bribers, he repeated it was most absurd to have issued those Commissions. He would ask the Government if, in the forthcoming Reform Bill, or by any other means, whether they really intended to go to the root of the evil? If the leaders of a party, as was suggested, had been guilty of sanctioning the practice of bribery, let them be visited with the proper meed of punishment. He should certainly rejoice if he lived to see the day when the abominable practice of bribery was effectually put down. This he was satisfied of, that the nostrum of the hon. Member for Birmingham would never put it down. The ballot would never have the effect of extinguishing this evil. He trusted therefore the House would make up their minds to a measure that would have some practical result.


said, he wished to state in explanation that the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Clay), was under a mistake in saying that he (Mr. Bright) was in error in what he said as to the course taken by former Governments in relation to bribery. He found by reference to Hansard that in 1854 the Attorney General of that day moved for leave to bring in a Bill directed against Canterbury, Barnstaple, Hull, and Marlborough. The House, however, did not feel disposed to concur in the objects of that measure.


said, he wished to remind the House that it was only by moral evidence of the most doubtful and delicate character that they could arrive at a suspicion of who were the bribers at an election. In the recent cases he did not think that more than a glance of suspicion had fallen upon the leaders of parties. Some slight suspicion bad attached to the right hon. Member for Wells (Sir W. Hayter), but all who knew the character of that right hon. Gentleman must be persuaded that that suspicion was entirely without foundation. But if the House were to proceed to inflict punishment upon persons taking bribes they would have to proceed in the ordinary courts of law, and he believed it would be impossible to get any jury to convict upon such evidence as could be produced. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Malins), talked about going to the root of the matter—but it appeared to him that the root of the matter was not the guilt of either briber or bribee. It lay in the fact that the franchise had been extended to people who were so poor that they were liable to be bribed. The elective privilege was enjoyed by a great number of persons who had no proper sense of its value, and, therefore, sold it for the highest price they could get. Some people seemed to think that if they could prevent the passage of a bribe from the hands of the canvasser to those of the voter all would be accomplished that could be desired; but supposing that a man was willing to take a bribe if he could get it, would the preven- tion of its receipt make him a patriotic, intelligent and enlightened citizen, fit to elect Members of Parliament? Nothing of the kind. The recent inquiries had thrown considerable light upon the ballot. He was one of the Members who sat on the Election Committee with respect to Gloucester, and it was proved before them that in almost every case the bribe was given to the elector before he voted, and in some instances the recipient voted contrary to his promise—a clear proof that for the suppression of bribery the ballot would be an entirely inefficacious nostrum. For himself, he regarded this matter with despair. Bribery was the result of legislative steps which could not be retracted, and they must make up their minds to the existence of an evil which no human forethought could remove.


said, he trusted that the statements just expressed by the noble Lord would have no weight in that House when the Reform Bill was introduced. He would remind the noble Lord, however, that every voter must occupy a £10 house, and that therefore electors could not be persons in very inferior circumstances. He believed that there were cases in which persons in what were called respectable positions had been bribed.


said, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary would consider the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham with reference to the suspension of these writs. At Wakefield, which he knew well, the electors, especially the poorer classes, were now ardently longing for a new election; and should such an event occur without the introduction of new blood, which would result from the suspension of the writ for five or ten years, he believed that corruption would prevail there to as great an extent as it did at the late contest, and the longest purse would carry the day. He would suggest that in future the expenses of an election petition should fall, not upon the petitioner, who was almost invariably the rejected candidate, but upon the borough or upon the country at large. If upon the borough, the electors who had accepted bribes would come to be regarded as nuisances by their fellow townsmen, and bribery would soon cease to be practised. Meanwhile he hoped the recommendation of the hon. Member for Birmingham, in the cases of Gloucester and Wakefield, might be adopted, and the writs suspended at least till the end of the Session.


—I hold in my hand a printed copy of the report of the Gloucester Commissioners, and I trust that printed copies of the same document will be distributed to hon. Members within a few days. Inasmuch, however, as the report in a printed form has not yet been circulated, I intentionally abstain from making any allusion to its contents, thinking that any discussion upon it should be postponed until the House has been put in possession of the entire Report, and has had an opportunity of perusing it with the attention which it deserves. I confine myself, therefore, within the bounds of the limited Motion which I have made—namely, to suspend the writs for Gloucester and Wakefield until a notice of seven days has been given. It is not desirable to go into any questions as to what the House might be disposed to do with respect either to Gloucester or to Wakefield. The Report on the latter borough has not yet been presented to Her Majesty. I may state, however, that I had been informed by the Commissioners that their Report would he ready before the meeting of Parliament. It has not yet been received, but I presume it is in a state of forwardness. As the House as thought fit to go into a discussion upon the general question of bribery and of the Corrupt Practices Act, I may say that the Report of the Gloucester Commissioners condemns in very strong terms, and with a statement of very forcible reasons, the provisions of that Act. The Commissioners find that its main provisions—those respecting an election auditor and the return of expenses by candidates—are altogether nugatory and inoperative. I do not wish to discuss that subject at present. Two hon. and learned Members have already announced their intention to bring before the House measures for the amendment of the Corrupt Practices Act and dealing generally with the law respecting bribery at elections. I may state that the Government has under consideration a measure on that subject. We are preparing, and hope to be able to introduce a Bill for materially altering the Corrupt Practices Act, and also, if possible, for amending the procedure for the trial of election petitions. However, I do not desire to interfere with the discussion of measures that may be proposed by private Members. I merely wish to show that the Government has not overlooked the important questions which have been and will be raised by the Gloucester and Wakefield Reports.

Motion agreed to.

Ordered accordingly.