HC Deb 30 March 1860 vol 157 cc1632-7
MR. ELLICE (St. Andrew's)

said, he wished to inquire what were the intentions of Her Majesty's Government as to the Report of the Commission on Corrupt Practices at the Election for the Borough of Wakefield. The subject was one of importance, and, as the Reform Bill could not be proceeded with until after Easter, he hoped the House would take advantage of the interval to clear its conscience, for having allowed this important matter to sleep so long. In consequence of the Report of a Committee of that House, a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of the Wakefield election had been appointed, and the Commissioners presented their Report on the 28th of last January. Their Report had consequently been on the table of the House for two months. Its contents were well worthy of serious consideration, especially now that the question of reform was under discussion. The Commissioners reported that at the election of 1859 the constituency consisted of 866 voters, of whom 809 voted; and that the election was conducted by, and on the part of each of the candidates in a corrupt and illegal manner. As between the two candidates, one being a Conservative and the other an ultra-Liberal, it seemed that with regard to the amount of corruption, it, in common parlance, was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. The sum of money spent on either side was much the same. In all, the Commissioners found that £8,050 had been spent on the constituency by the two candidates, of which amount £6,900 had been spent for purposes of corruption; £3,500 of it had been laid out in direct bribery, and £3,400 for other matters closely connected with illegal and corrupt practices. The Commissioners went on to say that the candidates had provided these large sums of money with the intention of the money being employed in bribery and corruption; that the sum of £3,500 was paid in bribes to eighty-six persons, who had received on an average about £40 a head, but that in all there were 142 persons bribed or corruptly dealt with. The Report of the Commissioners, in its concluding paragraph, stated, Lastly, we find, having regard to the length of time before the ejection at which the preparations for the work of corruption were commenced, to the large proportion (142 out of 866) of the whole constituency engaged in corrupt practices and guilty of bribery, to the number of persons (including fifty-six, themselves electors) who voluntarily joined in the work of offering and giving bribes, to the zeal and skill they exhibited, to the readiness with which their services were received and their acts adopted, to the open way in which bribery was carried on by the canvassers and discussed among all classes, and to the manner in which the voters received and bargained with the canvassers on both sides, that large numbers of the electors were then not for the first time engaged in the like operations of gross corruption. By the Corrupt Practices Act, under which the Commission was issued, express provision was made for the exemption of persons who gave evidence before the Commissioners in such cases, from any penal consequences attached to acts which they themselves might have disclosed; but the Act at the same time contemplated that wherever the Commissioners thought fit to refuse a certificate of indemnity, the persons should still remain open to prosecution. Now, to the Report of the Wakefield Bribery Commissioners was annexed a schedule containing the names of the persons who had been guilty of bribery and corrupt practices there, distinguishing those to whom the statutable certificate had not been awarded by the Commissioners. In that list, and without such certificate, he found the names of the two candidates, who were stated by the Commissioners to have spent £8,000 in bribery at Wakefield. Now, he would refer to what was done last year in the case of the Beverley election. In that case, likewise, it was reported that bribery had prevailed, and the names of certain persons were reported by the Committee as having been guilty of it; and on the Motion of the Chairman of that Committee, the names of two of those persons were specially brought before the House, and the Attorney General was directed to prosecute them. Those persons were two men named Boyes and Taylor, whom the Committee had found guilty, the one of giving a bribe of £20 amongst nine persons, and the other £4 7s. between two persons. When the Motion for prosecution was brought before the House, the hon. Member for Southampton (Mr. Digby Seymour) moved as an Amendment, That, as the recent Commissions have clearly demonstrated that many persons of higher social rank have been involved in graver criminality, it would not be expedient to limit the direction to Her Majesty's Attorney General to the prosecution of Boyes and Taylor."—[3 Hansard, clvi., 489.] The right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Lewis), in supporting the original Motion, said, As far as the present case went it was quite clear that it would be a precedent for the prosecution of others guilty of a greater amount of bribery. If it were right that persons reported against by other Election Committees, or by the recent Commissions issued in respect of Wakefield and Gloucester, should be prosecuted, he was sure that the House, if those persons had not received certificates from the Commissioners, and if there appeared a prospect of success in the prosecutions, would listen to any hon. Member who should feel disposed to bring the subject under consideration. It was, therefore, a reason in favour of the present Motion that it established a principle applicable to all cases."—[3 Hansard, clvi., 494. In the eyes of the public a rather unfavourable contrast would appear between the course which the House took then with those two humble individuals, who had been employed to offer inconsiderable bribes on behalf of others, and the course which was now taken in passing over the conduct of two wealthy persons, who were proved before the Commission to have produced and applied the sum of £8,000 for corrupting and debasing a whole constituency. In the one case the House had been very eager to punish the subordinates, but if when the principals were detected, which could but rarely occur, they did nothing, the public would look upon the House as desirous of screening these persons, and shirking the application of the rule they had been ready to apply to their agents. He wished to know why a different rule should be applied to the Wakefield case, where two persons were reported against as having been guilty of corrupt practices for their own purposes, from that which was applied to the Beverley case, where two persons had been employed in a similar transaction for the advantage of somebody else? With such an inequality of dealing, it was but natural that doubts should prevail out of doors as to the purity of the intentions with which the House took up the question of Parliamentary Reform, when such a report as that of the Wakefield Commission was lying on the table unnoticed side by side with the Reform Bill. They talked of lowering the franchise to £6. Now, Wakefield was the creation of the old Reform Bill, and its constituency, composed of £10 householders, was a pure one, and uninitiated in corruption, until it was demoralized by some wealthy persons. But did the House think that if the constituencies of Wakefield, Gloucester, or Berwick, had been composed of £6 instead of £10 householders, the bribery there would have been less? On the contrary, was it not evident that the list of bribers would only have been enlarged? Before going further into the question of Reform, the House should justify itself from such slurs as were cast upon its character when a Report like that of the Wakefield Commissioners was left unnoticed. He had no fear of the result of extending the franchise if they gave the voter fair play; but, if they left him exposed to every sort of illegal appliance, it was his opinion that, instead of conferring a benefit by the enlargement of the constituencies, they were only increasing a class which, politically, —if there was any truth in these Reports of numerous Commissions—was already much demoralized. He did hope that the Government would show their sense of justice and honesty of purpose by taking care that if the delinquents in the Beverley case were punished, the Wakefield Report was also acted upon, and that the Attorney General would be instructed to prosecute the two principals who were compromised by it.


said, he wished to correct one error into which his hon. Friend had fallen, in supposing that the House or the Government were disposed to apply a different rule in these cases according to the station of life of the persons implicated in them. It was a mistake to suppose that it had in former cases been the practice of the House to direct the Attorney General to prosecute all persons who had been reported by an Election Committee to have been guilty of bribery. That course was confined to the cases in which the Committee reported, not only that certain persons had been guilty of bribery, but that in their opinion the Attorney General ought to be directed to prosecute; and in the Beverley case the Committee having reported to that effect, the Chairman moved a Resolution of the House directing that the Attorney General should institute a prosecution. There were many other persons who during the last Session had been reported to have been guilty of bribery, but in those cases no such action had been taken. With regard to the Wakefield Commission, the hon. Gentleman had not stated the case very correctly. No doubt the Commissioners expressly pointed to certain persons, whose names appeared in the schedule, as guilty of bribery and corrupt practices, and the names were also specified of those among them to whom the Commissioners had refused the certificate which alone would protect them from any prosecution or penalty. Under these circumstances it was obvious that the persons to whom certificates were refused were open to prosecution, provided the evidence was sufficient to insure a conviction in a court of law for the crime of bribery. But independently of the certificate of indemnity given to persons who spoke the whole truth to the satisfaction of the Commissioners, there was a clause in the Act which prevented the evidence given by any person on compulsion before the Commissioners from being used in evidence against him on a prosecution in a court of law. If, then, in the Wakefield case the persons from whom certificates of indemnity were withheld were proved by their own evidence only to have committed bribery, that testimony would not be available against them in a court of law. His right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, after having given a careful consideration to the Report of the Commission, had referred it to the law advisers of the Crown, calling their attention to the fact of a large number of persons having been reported guilty of acts of bribery, and also to the fact that to some of them the certificate had not been given. The law officers of the Crown had, therefore, been called upon to consider whether they considered there was sufficient evidence to support a prosecution. But independently of any proceeding on the part of the Government, the Report having been laid before the House, any hon. Member might move that the Attorney General be instructed to prosecute. On the general question he stated the other night that it was not expedient that these corrupt practices, carried on so extensively, should be overlooked, and that the writs should issue after a short temporary suspension. In Wakefield, especially, the Commissioners stated that although there were not more than 200 persons who had actually received bribes, they believed that the corruption was at all events connived at by the great bulk of the constituency, and that it was not confined to the lower class of voters, but pervaded all classes. He (Sir George Grey) believed that the most effectual means of checking those corrupt practices would be to enact that for a given term of years boroughs so circumstanced if not absolutely disfranchised should be prevented from returning Members to that House, by which means Parliament would mark its sense of the corrupt practices to which the constituencies had been proved to have resorted, and time would be given for correcting the corrupt practices. But there being now a Bill before Parliament the effect of which would be to add to the constituencies of both the boroughs in question, the Government did not think it would be right, while proposing that addition, to invite the House at the same time to suspend the exercise of the franchise in these boroughs for any lengthened period. Under the circumstances the Government recommended that no new writ should be issued for either of those boroughs during the present Parliament, and for that purpose he apprehended no Act of Parliament would be necessary, as the object might be effected by the Resolution of this House.