HC Deb 23 March 1860 vol 157 cc1143-50

said, he was aware that Motions for the issue of new writs had, by recent practice of the House, been made subject to notice, and Mr. Speaker had a right to enforce that practice, if he (Mr. Duncombe) attempted to violate it. Indeed, he believed he was now moving by the indulgence of the House; but this practice was altogether inconsistent with the original privileges and rights of that House to issue writs, for there was no part of its constitution more important than that which related to the keeping up of the full complement of Members, and the representation of the people through that means. At the present moment there were nine seats vacant—two for Sudbury and two for St. Alban's (these were vacant by Act of Parliament), two for Gloucester, one for Wakefield, and two for Norwich. If he were precluded from making his present Motion now in consequence of his having been prevented from rising at half-past four, the city of Norwich might be kept in a state of excitement till he could give two days' fresh notice. On the other hand, if the Motion were not made till a late hour of the night, the writ could not reach the returning officer by the ordinary course in time to be proclaimed at Norwich before Monday. He begged therefore to move— That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of two Citizens to serve in this present Parliament for the City of Norwich, in the room of Henry William Schneider, Esq., and the Right Hon. William Coutts Keppel, commonly called Viscount Bury, whose Elections have been determined to be void.


said, he objected to the issue of the writ. The borough of Norwich was one of those that had manifested so determinedly corrupt a character as to require some very serious step to be taken with regard to it, and the hon. Gentleman himself seemed to be aware of it, for he placed Norwich in the same category with Gloucester and Wakefield. He believed the only way to punish the electors was by the non-issue of the writ. He found no fault with the late Members, for he believed more respectable Gentlemen never sat in the House. But the fault of this corruption lay chiefly with the constituencies; for he dissented from the doctrine, or rather as he would call it—the jargon, that was so common in the House, that it was the candidates who seduced the electoral innocence of the constituencies. He believed, on the contrary, that the primary inducements to bribery came almost universally from the electors. Surely it was to the interest of every candidate to get himself returned for as little expense as he could. Candidates generally went down sheltering themselves under the Corrupt Practices Act, which he believed, in spite of all that had been said against it, had been productive of much good, and, but for some defects in its machinery, would be productive of much more. But the candidate when he met his agent was sure to be told, "It is of no use your coming down unless you are prepared to spend money;" and they all knew what spending money was. In his opinion it was absolutely necessary, if the House wished its professions in favour of purity of election to be believed, that an example should be made of a constituency so notoriously corrupt as that of Norwich.


said, he did not rise to object to the issue of this writ, but rather to make an explanation on behalf of certain persons in Norwich from whom he had presented a petition last Session respecting the corruption that had existed in that city. That petition was agreed to unanimously by a very numerous meeting of the corporation of Norwich. It alleged that there had been great corruption in that city, and besought the House to institute an inquiry with the view of applying some remedy to the evil. Unfortunately the Election Committee did not report—and for sufficient reasons—that there had been extensive corruption at Norwich. Hon. Gentlemen were aware that when a petitioning party had proved sufficient to obtain its object, and overthrow the sitting Members, all further evidence was withdrawn. Nobody had any interest in incurring either the expense or the odium of promoting further inquiry, and thus the vast cesspool of electoral corruption was concealed from the House and the country. There was, indeed, an Act of Parliament under which a Special Committee could be appointed on petition, but it required that the petition asking for the Committee should be presented within a certain time after the alleged corruption had been committed. In this case the petition was presented too late for that object, and therefore he had found himself unable to move fur an inquiry under that Act. The general result, therefore, was that the corporation of Norwich had petitioned for an investigation into what, under the present state of things, there was no power to cause to be investigated; and accordingly no investigation took place. He was informed that the persons bribed at Norwich during the general election were more in number than all those bribed in the two constituencies of Gloucester and Wakefield together; and it was a great misfortune that no inquiry had been instituted. The gentleman who promoted the petition from the corporation of Norwich extremely regretted that the inquiry could not take place, and had desired him to say—what he believed to be perfectly true—that they were greatly disappointed at this result. They had, however, done everything they could to prevent the screening of the great electoral iniquity which they alleged to exist in that city.


I rise, Sir, expressly for the purpose of endeavouring to do something in this matter. Now, Sir, the hon. Member for Birmingham has stated how it was he failed, and his friends failed, to punish the borough of Norwich, but there remains at the hands of this House one means yet, and that is to prevent the issuing of the writ. Now, Sir, I will explain how that is. When a man is bribed it is his interest to be bribed again, and to that end it is to his interest to have as many elections as possible. Now, acknowledging that statement of the hon. Member that he has failed to bring this matter to light—I take his words as he uttered them, and the House will recollect that he said there was as much or more corruption than in the two boroughs of Wakefield and Gloucester in the one single city of Norwich, it would appear that this House has failed to reach the evil by its defective legislation, and I now appeal to the House to take advantage of the means at their hands. If we could pass some Resolution, which I do not suppose we can, not to issue the writ for ten years, I think it would serve the city of Norwich right; and I will tell you why. I do not believe that corruption takes place in any town without the sanction of its leading men. I do not believe that the public opinion of that town is a guide to anything but the opinion of the persons most distinguished in that town. I know that bribery is considered a venial offence, and the man who has been bribed in Norwich a few months since will be bribed again if you issue your writ. Your cry for purity will be a mere pretence unless you take the matter into your hands, and refuse the issue of this writ. I want to know why the Member for Finsbury was selected to move the issue of this writ. I have always thought my hon. Friend the great friend of purity of election. No man more than he can depend on his own individual character to be elected to this House. Well, then, why is he selected to be the instrument in this dirty business? I say it is a dirty business, and this House ought now, by their negative of this Resolution, to mark their sense of what is going on in various other parts of this country. I call on them not to issue this writ as a punishment to the whole body of the people of Norwich. That will go far to prevent any further recurrence of that corruption, of which we all complain.


said, that whatever might be the inclination of hon. Members, they could not refuse to issue this particular writ, and therefore, the opposition of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. D. Griffith) was too late. The House had already acceded to the issuing of the writ rendered necessary by the unseating of Mr. Schneider. [Cries of "No, no."] It was a fact; the question had been put, and it had been carried, that a new writ should issue for the city of Norwich to return a citizen in the room of Mr. Schneider, who was unseated last Session on account of bribery, since which no writ had been issued. But what was the case with regard to Viscount Bury, whose seat was now in question? With regard to Viscount Bury there had been a subsequent election, and his seat had been declared void on account of bribery in the April election of 1859. The House would recollect the particular circumstances of the case. Viscount Bury accepted office while there was a petition pending against his return for corruption. The noble Viscount went to Norwich again and was returned, and the Committee having taken the petition into their consideration, decided that the seat was vacant, because he was disqualified from standing at that election, on account of the bribery which had occurred in the course of the previous contest. The House had no evidence with regard to Norwich except notoriety. There was a general impression, in which he himself shared, that there was great corruption in Norwich; but, unfortunately, the Committee which tried the election petition did not report that there was extensive corruption in that city, which was an essen- tial preliminary to any subsequent inquiry. What had they done in a similar case within the last few days? The hon. and gallant Member for Clare (Colonel Vandeleur) was unseated on account of certain cases of bribery alleged against him, and yet a new writ had been issued for a new election. How could they substantially distinguish between the cases of Norwich and Clare? It appeared to him there was only one rule to go upon. Where the Committee decided that bribery existed they could suspend the writ, but if they went on suspending writs wherever hon. Members were unseated for bribery, they would have the House sitting without a very large proportion of its Members. Looking at the general features of the case, he thought they were bound to agree to the issuing of this writ.


said, the case of Norwich differed from that of Clare, because a petition had been presented from the corporation of Norwich praying for inquiry. The petition alleged that extensive bribery had prevailed, and that a sum of money was subscribed in London for election purposes in Norwich. Under these circumstances he thought the writ ought to be suspended. If the other writ had been ordered to be issued that might be remedied by a supersedeas.


thought that the House had before it no sufficient reasons for which to refuse the issuing of this writ. He did not press the point that the other writ for Norwich had been ordered to be issued, the hon. Member opposite having risen too late to oppose it.


explained. He understood the hon. Member for Fins-bury had moved the issue of a writ, but he was not aware that the question had been put from the Chair.


said, that the general ground on which he supported the Motion of the hon. Member for Finsbury was, that if the House did not agree to the issuing of this writ they would be confounding mere rumour and notoriety with absolute proof after full inquiry and examination into the facts. They would be treading upon very dangerous grounds if they adopted, and acted upon, statements in petitions without having subjected them to any investigation or examination. He was not denying that corruption prevailed in Norwich; it might be notorious that it did so. For the reasons stated by the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) no in- vestigation had taken place or could take place—a circumstance which he much regretted—and he did not think that the House would be justified in acting penally in any case except those in which there had been a full and complete inquiry into the facts. He agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), that extensive corruption could not prevail in any borough without the guilty connivance and even encouragement of the more influential inhabitants. In all such cases there should be a penal suspension of electoral privileges for a certain period, but such a course could not fairly be adopted in the present instance, because it had not been proved that extensive and systematic corruption had prevailed in Norwich.


said, he thought it proper to state that the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. D. Griffith) rose to address the House when the hon. Member for Finsbury resumed his seat, and, as be believed, before the Question was put from the Chair.


said, he could speak to the fact that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. D. Griffith) certainly rose before the hon. Member for Finsbury reached the foot of Mr. Speaker's Chair.


The hon. Member for Devizes rose immediately after the hon. Member for Finsbury had concluded his speech; but that was too early, because I had to put the Question to the House. I did so in the usual way, and the hon. Member did not rise again until after the Question had been decided. That Motion has been disposed of; the second Motion has been put, and is now under the consideration of the House.


said, it appeared to him the hon. Member for Birmingham was wrong on one point. The hon. Gentleman had stated that it was not worth while following up a petition after it had been disposed of by a Committee. Many people would be disposed to do so, but that they believed that all discussions in Parliament on the subject of bribery and corruption were mere matters of form, and meant nothing; that there was never any real or any bonâd fide intention to deal with such questions. He believed that to be the real state of the case. The whole thing was treated as a joke. Having proved during the past year that great bribery and corruption existed among the £10 householders, the House was now gravely discussing whether it would not be desirable to extend the franchise to a class of men, who, being much poorer, would be more accessible to bribery. It was a perfect farce for any hon. Member to get up in that House and say he wished to put a stop to bribery and corruption.


said, he could assure the hon. Member for Sheffield that he had not been selected to do this dirty work, as the hon. Gentleman had thought proper to term it. He had selected himself, because he thought it due to the electors of Norwich that it should be done. No case had been proved against them, and a borough was not punished for bribery and corruption, until it had been proved guilty. The hon. Member for De-vizes (Mr. D. Griffith) was not only too late in his speech, but he was twelve months too late, seeing that the circumstances to which he had alluded occurred in April and in June last. In April the seat was vacated, and a new writ was issued, on the ground of corruption. The election which then took place was pure, although it was void. If any other person than Viscount Bury—who was personally disqualified—had been returned, he would now have been Member for Norwich. And he believed that Major Boldero, who had polled a few votes, might have had the seat, if he had claimed it.


said, that as a Member of the last Norwich Committee, he wished to explain that Major Boldero could not have the seat, because it was doubtful whether, when Viscount Bury accepted office, a new writ should have been issued. The doctrine laid down by the late Speaker on a previous occasion, on a Motion for the issuing of a writ in the case of the present Lord Chief Justice Cockburn was, that, in cases where a petition was presented, and the seat prayed for, a new writ could not be issued on acceptance of office; but, if the seat was not asked, then a new writ might be issued. That doctrine was questioned before the Committee, and he thought the House should come to some understanding upon it.


remarked, that as bribery and corruption had not been legally proved against the city of Norwich, the House was bound, on constitutional grounds, to issue the writ.


said, that after the speech of his hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Hope) it seemed to him that they were treading on rather dangerous ground. The Committee up stairs had thoroughly investigated this case, and had come to the decision that Viscount Bury was not duly elected at the last election, and that it was consequently a void election. The Committee had not inquired into the question of bribery, and he hoped that the House would not re-try the point on which the Committee had actually pronounced a decision.


said, all he wished was that the House should determine what course they would pursue in similar cases for the future.


protested against being included in the sweeping censure of the hon. Member for Norfolk, who said that when questions of bribery and corruption came under consideration the House was unwilling to deal with them. He would, if it were in his power, adopt on the present occasion the course recommended by the hon. Member for Sheffield; but there were two reasons why he was not prepared to oppose the issuing of the writ in the present instance. The first was that he believed that by suspending the writ they would do an act of injustice, because there was no legal proof of corruption, however, much they might believe it took place; and the second was, that inasmuch as a writ had been issued for one of the seats, it would be an invidious course to refuse to issue a writ for the other.

Motion agreed to.

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