HC Deb 31 January 1860 vol 156 cc378-90

said, he rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act (1854), and to make further provision for the detection and punishment of bribery, treating, and undue influence at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections. He felt much encouragement in bringing forward his Motion by the discussion which took place the other night on the notice given by the Secretary of State for the Home Department in reference to withholding the issue of the writs for Gloucester and Wakefield. Such an unanimity of condemnation of the offence of what he might properly call the crime of bribery, was then exhibited by the House that any Member who would point out more stringent provisions than those which the law already provided needed but little apology for bringing forward the subject. A deep feeling prevailed in the country that the House was not in earnest in endeavouring to put down this offence, and it was this feeling which induced him at the close of last Session to divide against the Motion for the appointment of a Commission to inquire into corrupt practices at Gloucester, because he could obtain no pledge from the Government that they would take any steps on the Report of the Commission to punish the persons who might be found guilty of bribery. The Report of the Gloucester Commission contained striking evidence of the prevalence of the opinion that the House was not sincere in its attempt to put down bribery. The right hon. Member for Wells, late Secretary of the Treasury (Sir W. Hayter) in his evidence before the Committee, speaking of the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act 1854, said, "I confess that I ought to be acquainted with that Act, but practically I have always considered it a dead letter." This was an expression of the opinion of a Gentleman who was a party to that Act. He went on to say, "Everybody acquainted with election matters knows it is almost invariably the practice to send to the different agents the money necessary for the election expenses. I have never known a contest of any sort in which that was not done, notwithstanding the Act. I think it useless. No doubt it is wrong not to observe an Act of Parliament. I am not saying it is not; but what I say is, that practically this Act of Parliament is uniformly disobeyed." Mr. Price, the late Member for Gloucester, speaking of the Act before the same Commission, said, "I always looked upon it as that sort of homage which is paid by vice to virtue." Now, if the House was to be looked upon by the country as a set of shams and impostors, well and good; but he hoped he should induce the House to come to a different conclusion, and to take some measures to show that they really were in earnest in doing something that would put a stop to this detestable offence. He was not alone in his opinion, nor were those Gentlemen who had given this evidence of the utter inutility of many of the provisions of that Act of Parliament. It was based, as it appeared to him, on the notion that the publicity given to election accounts would render candidates and agents more careful, and would, in point of fact, tend to curtail the expenses of elections. No doubt, this desirable result had been to some extent realized whenever the Act was honestly carried out, but its deficiencies were occasioned by want of power to compel the performance of its own enactments. It had become a mockery and a delusion, and the Commissioners stated that it was rather a cloak for bribery than a means of detection. A letter had lately appeared in The Times addressed to Lord Brougham, and written by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Suffolk, which afforded a most eloquent, just, and faithful account of the existing state of things, and of the law with reference to bribery and corruption at elections. It stated that— The prevalence of this crime in more than halt the electoral boroughs of the kingdom; the inadequacy of the laws in being to the repression of the offence; the utter failure of every attempt hitherto made by legislation, by punishment, by exposure, by disfranchisement, even to cheek this practice; and the discredit thus brought, not only upon the country, its laws, and character, but all free constitutions, and the very name of liberty itself, seem to render it imperative upon the Government and the Legislature to make one more effort, and resort to some yet untried means to remedy this great evil. The conclusions, however, at which his hon. and learned Friend arrived, and the suggestions which he made for endeavouring to put a stop to the abuse by a system of promissory oaths and declarations, seemed to him altogether idle, and must prove futile in practice. Men who would palter with their consciences by signing the declaration required by the existing law, according to which they bound themselves not to appoint any agent for election expenses without giving notice to the auditor, would attach as little weight to any system of oaths that could be devised. Declarations and oaths would touch the consciences of honest men, but would in no way restrain those unscrupulous aspirants to the honour of a seat in that House by whom bribery was now knowingly practised. The true remedy in the case was an increase in the severity of the punishment to which the bribers or the bribed were exposed. All the witnesses who were examined before the Gloucester Commission, and particularly one or two of great experience—Sir Maurice Berkeley for instance—gave it as their opinion, that if the House were in earnest to put down bribery, it might easily do so by passing a more stringent Act. Sir Maurice Berkeley said, "Bribery cannot be put a stop to unless severer measures of repression against the briber are resorted to." Now, the existing law made bribery, or the exercise of undue influence, a misdemeanour, punishable by a fine or imprisonment. When they talked of a more stringent measure, therefore, they meant something more than fine or imprisonment. It was obvious that the subordinate agents were generally persons of little standing and means, and that the sending them to prison was merely to enable them to live in prison as comfortably as at home; the fine would be paid by the person who employed them, and they would receive their weekly wages during the whole time they were in prison. This was no punishment whatever; to show that bribery was regarded as a degrading crime it was requisite to affix to it a degrading punishment, and he therefore would propose a stringent measure, and that was to give a larger discretion to the Judge, and enable him to impose the penalty of hard labour as well as that of imprisonment. He did not desire, as was contemplated by his learned Friend, in the letter to which he had referred, to subject the guilty parties to two years' penal servitude; neither would he adopt the view of a noble and learned Lord by making the crime felony, with a punishment of two years upon the treadmill. He merely proposed that the Judge should, if he thought fit, have power of ordering that the prisoner be kept to hard labour for a period not exceeding six months during the term of his imprisonment. The crime of bribery, was not unlike that of manslaughter, which might deserve any punishment from transportation for life down to a nominal fine, it was of various degrees, and he therefore made this power not arbitrary but discretionary. It was no wonder that men were found to accept bribes, not only from stress of circumstances, but from the belief that the act was not really looked upon as a crime, when they saw persons of superior education and position coming amongst them and resorting to such practices to obtain personal elevation. This feeling was graphically expressed by one of the witnesses before the recent Election Commission, who said, "how could a poor man be blamed for taking a little money, when twenty-four lawyers were each taking their twenty-five guineas and two guineas a day!" One of the main features of any anti-bribery Bill must be the production of a feeling of insecurity between employer and employed— between the briber and the bribee. This could only be done by giving to that one who gave information or evidence against the other an indemnity such as was given to witnesses who gave evidence before Commissions of Inquiry into these practices. There was a remarkable instance of the importance and necessity of this in the Gloucester Report. On the election in 1857 for the borough of Gloucester, two petitions were presented to that House, one on the part of the Conservatives, the other on the part of the Liberals. They failed from want of proper evidence, and the Committee dismissed both petitions. Attempts were made to prove five cases, but they wholly failed; whereas it had been elicited by the Commissioners who were armed with this power of granting indemnities, that at that very election no fewer than 109 persons had been bribed on the Conservative side. Such a fact alone showed that the existing modes of procedure and rules of evidence were wholly inappropriate to the discovery of a crime which it was to the interest of both parties to conceal. He therefore proposed to give to either the party offeringor the party receiving a bribe an idemnity against the pains and penalties which he had thereby incurred, provided that he would come forward and furnish evidence upon which his accomplice might be convicted. Another necessary provision would be to abolish the right which a witness now had of declining to answer any question which he thought fit to say tended to criminate or degrade himself. A very remarkable instance of the way in which the existing privilege of witnesses might be used for the purpose of defeating the ends of justice had lately occurred at Norwich, where a gentleman, a banker and a magistrate, had refused to answer a question on the ground that it tended to criminate him. He trusted that the attention of the Lord Chancellor had been directed to this case. Did this gentleman still remain in the commission of the peace? Was he a criminal and afraid of justice? And if so, was he fit to remain on the bench? At all events, his refusal had rendered abortive one of the most prominent cases that had presented itself of trying the effect of our criminal law upon the practice of bribery. To meet such cases for the future he proposed that any person refusing to answer before a tribunal authorized to inquire into bribery on the plea that the answer would criminate himself should be deemed guilty of contempt of court; but he would not be so unfair as to make an answer thus extorted evidence in any indictment against the witness himself, unless it were one of perjury. If a man gave a false answer upon oath he must of course take the consequences; but he (the hon. Gentleman) would not seek to convict him of bribery by his own confession. Without these two provisions the House might go on legislating for ever against bribery without effect. Another provision of great importance would be comprised in the Bill. Nothing was more notorious than the way the present enactment, which required all payments to be made through the election auditor or election agent, was evaded. Of this, too, the Gloucester Commissioners had detected a remarkable instance. The sums expended, as returned to the election auditor, were, for Sir Robert Carden, £1,021 10s. 11d. —it was really wonderful to see the particularity to which this account condescended —for Mr. Price, £464 11s. 6d., and for Mr. Monk the same. Now the sums ascer- tained by the Commissioners to have really been expended (and they were probably under the mark) were, for Sir Robert Carden £2,600, and for the other two candidates £2,300. He (Mr. Mellor) had lately seen a letter from a defeated candidate, in which it was stated that his side had spent £3,000, and the other £5,000; but on being curious enough to look at the published accounts he found the two sums modestly set down, the one at £670 and the other at £570. At present there was nothing to enforce the delivery of correct accounts, and to meet that difficulty he (Mr. Mellor) proposed to make it a misdemeanour for any person, whether candidate or not, to pay any money for any expense incurred during an election, except through the agent for the election expenses under the Act, the amount being returned to the auditor as provided by the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act. By these means, although he did not, of course, suppose that the Bill would render bribery impossible, some vitality would at least be introduced into the legislative enactments to prevent bribery, until time and opportunity concurred to effect its complete suppression. There was yet another provision to which he would refer. One of the most insidious forms of corruption was the colourable employment of voters as messengers, runners, and so on. At Gloucester 150 persons had been so employed on the one side, and 112 on the other, whereas the Commissioners said that 30 would have been an amply sufficient number. The Hull Committee had likewise reported a similar practice which had prevailed at the last election for that borough. They stated that it had been proved before them that 487 persons were thus employed on behalf of Mr. Hoare, and 493 on behalf of Messrs. Clay and Lewis; that 300 of those employed for Mr. Hoare were voters and were paid sums varying from 2s. 6d. to £3 5s. each, for which few of them had rendered any adequate services. He (Mr. Mellor) proposed to make it a misdemeanour knowingly to employ any person who was on the register of voters; and he thought it would be advisable to make the penalty also attach to the employé, with of course the same provisions as regarded indemnity as he had already described in the case of bribery. The Gloucester Commissioners had pointed out that the municipal elections were a very fertile source of bribery at the parliamentary elections, inasmuch as the effect of a bribe at the former was to retain the voter as it were for parliamentary elections; and he proposed, therefore, that his Bill should be applicable to both; for he believed that there had never been such extensive corruption at municipal elections as had prevailed during the past year. The Gloucester Commissioners pointed out that the constitution of certain friendly societies offered an easy means of extensive bribery. These societies were to be met with on both sides; there were "Reform Clubs" and "Conservative Associations;" so that a candidate had nothing to do but to become a liberal contributor to the funds of one or the other to ensure the support of a large number of mercenaries whenever a vacancy might occur. He (Mr. Mellor) thought that cases of this kind might be dealt with under the provisions which he had suggested. He had likewise added a short—and which he had no doubt would prove a useful—form of indictment; and he had carefully considered the question of costs. Proposals had been made for the appointment of a public officer to conduct prosecutions for corrupt practices; but he thought it a sufficient reason why such a course should not be adopted that public prosecutions invariably entailed an enormous expense upon the country. For instance, the prosecution of the British Bank directors had cost the country very little short of £20,000; a bill for £17,500, followed by another for £1,200 or £2,000, having already been sent in. What he proposed was, that the costs of prosecuting indictments in cases of bribery where the magistrates had committed or held the accused party to bail, and where the Judge thought it a proper case, should be defrayed in the same manner as the expenses of prosecuting other indictments; but, in order to prevent vexatious proceedings, he would compel parties preferring indictments, without first applying to the magistrates to commit the accused, to give security for costs to the amount of £200 under penalty of the proceedings being stayed. Such were the clauses which he proposed. He did not pretend to say that they would constitute a complete cure for bribery; but he was anxious to limit his suggestions to such things as he hoped would not meet with much opposition, so that if any sudden disaster should happen (which he trusted would not be the case) they might not be sent back to their constituents without having provided means in some measure calculated to give vitality to the laws against bribery and corruption. He would call on the House, in conclusion, to adopt these proposals, to show the country that they were in earnest in the strong language with which they had so often characterized the resort to undue practices in the election of Members, denouncing the cases revealed as "horrible disclosures," in terms which the greatest moralists could not complain of, and describing the practice as a cancer eating into the vitals of the political system. The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in his Bill.


said, he did not rise to oppose the introduction of the Bill, but to express his gratification that an hon. Gentleman on the other side of the House proposed to introduce a measure the effect of which, it was hoped, would be to cheek, if not utterly to put an end to, bribery throughout the kingdom. At the same time he could not help expressing his regret that no intimation in a distinct and satisfactory form had been given by any member of Her Majesty's Government that the great measure of Reform which was now promised to the House and the country would be accompanied by a measure to put down the practice of bribery; for having a much larger experience in this House than his hon. and learned Friend, he might venture to tell him that no measure that could be brought forward in this House had the least chance of success unless it were seriously and earnestly undertaken, and cordially supported, by the Government. His hon. and learned Friend had alluded in terms from which he (Sir F. Kelly) could not differ, to the effect of the Corrupt Practices Act of 1854. That Act had failed in respect of many of its objects if it had not proved entirely useless, but he attributed that result to the fact that the intention of its framers had been altogether disregarded and lost sight of in the passing of the Bill through the House. It was the intention of its original framers that all money whatever applied to any election purposes should in the first instance be paid into the hands of some public officer, and that any one who paid money as election expenses, except through that officer, should be deemed guilty of a misdemeanour, and be liable to a severe punishment; but the punishment was taken away, and a nominal pecuniary penalty alone inflicted. He agreed with his hon. and learned Friend that a promissory oath could be seldom carried into effect; and he believed that it never occurred to any Member of the Committee who sanctioned the principle of the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act of 1854, that that Act was intended to impose a promissory oath against the commission of any offence whatever. It was intended merely that an oath should be taken that no money for election purposes should be paid by any one whomsoever, whether candidate, or relation, friend or agent, of the candidate, except through the authorized public officer; but the provisions referring to this point were so mutilated in their passage through the House that he hesitated not to admit that the Bill, though it had not proved altogether a dead letter, had in many respects almost entirely failed in the effect anticipated from it. Although he could not venture to criticise a Bill that was not before them, this much he might say with regard to the measure now proposed by his hon. and learned Friend, that he entertained no hope that any mere addition to the severity of the punishment to be inflicted upon acts of bribery would be accompanied by the slightest beneficial results. The punishment of bribery at that time was such, that if gentlemen of condition and respectability entertained the remotest notion that on conviction it would be carried out, bribery would have been done away with long ago. But the severity of a punishment did not always deter from the commission of a crime, and the way in which the offence was now committed, or to speak more plainly, the way in which the money to be spent in bribery was supplied by the candidate and passed through many hands to the electors bribed, was such as to throw a protecting shield over the persons from whom it emanated, but who must know, or at any rate entertain a suspicion, often a belief, that its ultimate employment was to be in bribing voters. With respect to the Bill of the hon. and learned Member, he should rejoice to see it laid on the table. He had no doubt that it would receive due attention from Her Majesty's Government, and every clause would receive from him the most earnest consideration, though he did not suppose that the Bill, if carried, would put an effective stop to bribery. His hon. and learned Friend had stated that he anticipated, as he well might, that he (Sir F. Kelly) would acquiesce in a clause which would make bribery penal, and include it in the class of misdemeanours, making it punishable in any one, by whomsoever the offence was committed, to pay any money for the purpose of any election, except into the hands of an election auditor. A clause to the same effect was printed and laid upon the table as forming part of the Bill of 1854; but unfortunately, from the scruples of Members, who were afraid that the penalty might be abused, and from the severely penal character of the results which might follow an indictment, the clause was rejected, and the merely nominal penalty, to which he had alluded, was imposed upon those who paid money for election purposes except through the hands of an auditor. He was glad to find also that his hon. and learned Friend had reverted to the practice of paying money to voters, and to relatives and friends of voters, under the excuse of employing them as messengers at elections. This was one of the many modes by which the provisions of the Act were evaded. Great credit was due to his hon. and learned Friend for calling attention to the question, but until the House adopted some measure which would provide that every farthing of the money spent in an election, whether legal or illegal expenses, should be placed in the hands of some public responsible officer, whose position in society was such that purity and integrity in the discharge of his duties should be secured, in his (Sir F. Kelly's) opinion bribery would never be effectually prevented. He would not enter, at the present moment, into the provisions of the measure about to be introduced, but he appealed to the two noble Lords opposite to look not only into the clauses of the Bill, but into every suggestion which might be made which was calculated in any way to lead to a measure which would put an end to bribery. When the Bill was before the House he would render the hon. Gentleman the best assistance he could, and he hoped to receive a like assistance from him upon the Bill which he (Sir F. Kelly) was shortly to move. He thought that, with the assistance of the Government, and every Member of the House who was anxious to remedy the present state of things, they would be able to frame a measure which would have the effect of putting an end to an evil which had become a blot and stain upon the representative institutions of the country.


It is not my intention, Sir, to oppose the introduction of the Bill which my hon. and learned Friend behind me has moved for leave to bring in, while I shall, at the same time, refrain from giving any pledge upon the part of the Government as to the opinion we may feel ourselves obliged to pronounce with respect to its details when it comes on for consideration. The object which my hon. and learned Friend has in view is one which I am sure every man within the walls of this House must regard as in the highest degree deserving of attention, and the accomplishment of which is most important in order to secure the proper working of the constitution of the country. The subject is one, however, upon which I am afraid some sort of laxity of opinion prevails in many of our constituencies. It appears to me that in several places the electors—especially those of the lower class —do not look upon the receipt of a bribe as an offence of that moral dye which we consider it to be; and, so far from concurring with those who contend that the House of Commons is more open to censure in the matter than the country at large, I believe, upon the contrary, that a stronger feeling against bribery prevails in this House than among the public generally out of doors. But be that as it may, I hope that some measure may be devised—whether it be that which my hon. and learned Friend now proposes, or that which the hon. and learned Gentleman who spoke last leads us to infer he has in contemplation—which now, after the experience which we have have derived from a general election, may be more effectual in the attainment of its object than the Corrupt Practices at Elections Act has been found. I would remind hon. Members that upon a former occasion we, when in office, and when it was proposed to appoint a Committee with the view of inquiring into the operation of that Act, urged upon the House the expediency of deferring any such investigation until after the experiment had been tried of the mode in which the measure would operate at a general election. The result, I think, has shown that the advice which we then gave was sound, and that we stand in a better position now to revise the Act than would otherwise have been the case. In answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir F. Kelly), who says that, so far as he is aware, no intimation has been given by any Member of the Government that this important subject has at all occupied their notice, I can only say that he could hardly have been in the House when, a few days ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Home Department stated that he and his Colleagues had directed their attention to the framing of a measure with respect to it, and that he hoped to be able to submit such measure to Parliament. I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that Her Majesty's Govern- ment are not indifferent to the importance of such legislation, and that we shall be most happy carefully to consider any proposal, come from what quarter of the House it may, which we think is calculated to secure that which is a common object. I may add, that I trust we shall, before the Session closes, have succeeded in devising some means which may deal more effectually with an offence to which we all desire to put an end, than the Act which I have just mentioned. That Act has, however, I may observe, been the result of a bonâ fide intention on the part of the Legislature to abolish bribery; and, if it has failed to do so, its failure is not to be attributed to any want of inclination or determination on the part of the House of Commons, but is owing rather to the inherent difficulties by which the question is beset.


said, the question was one which ought to be treated in conjunction with a measure for introducing an improved system of trying Election Petitions.


informed the hon. Member that be was out of order in alluding to the question of Election Petitions, leave not as yet having been given to bring in the Bill.


was of opinion that bribery was to be put an end to not so much by increasing the severity of the punishment attached to it in the case of those who should be found to have been guilty of it, as by making detection, as far as possible, a matter of certainty, and punishment sure. All that he was going to say about petitions was that bribery might be investigated without a petition at all, on the memorial of factors, by an officer of the House, or by a Commission, as at Gloucester and Wakefield. He also thought the suggestion a very valuable one, that where an inquiry was directed into corrupt practices in any borough the expenses of that inquiry should fall upon the borough. He sincerely hoped, as the noble Viscount had acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with the question, if they should be found not speedily to agree upon any practical remedy, a Committee of Inquiry would be appointed, when their united efforts might lead to some good result.

Leave given.

Bill to amend "The Corrupt Practices Prevention Act (1854)," and to make further provision for the detection and punishment of bribery, treating, and undue influence at Parliamentary and Municipal Elections, ordered to be brought in by Mr. MELLOR, Mr. PAGET, and Mr. DENMAN.

Bill presented and read 1°.