HC Deb 09 February 1863 vol 169 cc194-8

said, he rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend and continue the Law relating to Corrupt Practices at Elections. The Bill he proposed to introduce was in substance, though not in form, similar to a measure which had already been twice before the House. While the Bill proposed to continue much of the existing law, it would at the same time embody certain recommendations of the Select Committee which had inquired into the subject. In a former Act of Parliament there was a provision that paid agents should not be allowed to vote at elections. That provision was not contained in the existing law. But evidence had been brought before the Committee to show that a number of persons who were electors were usually employed as messengers, and were paid at a rate which amounted to a remuneration for their votes. It was therefore proposed, not in the precise terms, but in substance, to re-enact that provision of the 7 & 8 Geo. IV, which prevented those persons from voting at any election, or struck off their votes if they had been taken. The next part of the Bill would involve the repeal of the existing clauses with respect to election auditors, which appeared to the Committee to be ineffectual for their purpose, while they caused some expense to candidates. It was proposed to substitute for those clauses provisions that all expenses of candidates, except their own personal expenses, should be paid through agents to be selected by themselves, their names being published by the returning officer before the nomination. No demand would be permitted to be enforced after a limited time subsequent to the election, and all bills would have to be paid within a month after the election. In three months from the settlement of the accounts the agent would be required, under penalties, to make to the returning officer a correct statement of all the expenses, which would be published, and every voter would have an opportunity of investigating the accounts. The next provision would extend to Election Committees the power possessed by a Commission of Inquiry to compel witnesses to give evidence, subject to an indemnity to be given to them, which would in some cases enable a Committee to elicit the facts without a subsequent Commission. There was another provision, which, when extensive bribery or corruption was reported by a Commission, would give the sanction of Parliament to a Resolution of the House of Commons to suspend for a period of five years the power of returning Members to that House. There were some provisions as to indictments and proceedings of Committees which he need not now specify. He had stated the principal provisions of the Bill, which he begged now to be permitted to introduce.


said, he wished to call attention to the fact that under the present state of the law the accounts of the election auditor might be kept back until after the petition against a return had been presented. That was a great blot on the law. It would be highly proper that the accounts should be published by such a time as the election inquiry might take place, so that the Committee might be able to go thoroughly into the accounts. He regretted that the right hon. Gentleman had not announced it his intention to go into the whole question of election petitions. Last Session petitions had been presented merely for the purpose of causing other peti- tions to be withdrawn. He thought that every discouragement should be given to presenting petitions upon frivolous grounds, and that none should be presented without having its grounds thoroughly sifted. It seemed to be thought by many that an election petition was a sort of private affair between the respective candidates, but such an opinion should not be allowed to prevail. He thought that no petition should be withdrawn until the reasons for the withdrawal had been sifted by the Committee; and that if the defeated candidate could show that corruption had existed, it was for the House to take up the prosecution, and not for the disappointed candidate. The charges made on the candidates by the sheriffs of counties and the returning officers in boroughs at present varied very much, and he thought those charge sought to be defined and scheduled.


said, he approved of the Bill, as he thought the recommendations of the Select Committee were deserving of being incorporated into the Act. Still they only touched the fringe of the evil. In three cases out of four bribery took place in the afternoon. He by no moans meant to say that bribery was never committed early in the day, and when candidates were in a large majority; but the time when it was generally committed was between two and three o'clock, when there was a very close run in the voting, and five or ten votes on either side might determine the election. The cause, in his opinion, was the publication of the half-hour states of the poll, and if any mode could be devised by which such publication could be prevented, one very great encouragement to bribery would be done away. In that matter they might take a leaf out of the Reform Bill proposed by the Earl of Derby's Government, which admitted the principle of rendering the state of the poll uncertain; for it allowed the votes of persons who lived at a distance to be recorded by means of voting-papers, the result of which could not be ascertained until later. He would propose that votes should be taken by means of voting papers filled up in the polling booth, but published after the declaration of the poll. Such a plan would not be open to the objections which some hon. Members had to the practice of secret voting, and at the same time it would have all the effect of secret voting in preventing bribery, as under such an arrangement the agents would not have sufficient know- ledge of the state of the poll to induce a resort to afternoon bribery. That would do more to put an end to bribery than the additions to the present law proposed by the present Bill.


said, he was of opinion, that if the publication of the state of the poll was to be suppressed, the voting must be earned on entirely by means of papers. If an endeavour were made to conceal the votes of the electors as they went to the poll, the course of proceeding would be, that agents would be stationed near each polling-booth to ask the voters as they returned from recording their votes how they had voted, and Englishmen, not being afraid that their conduct should be known, would generally answer the queries, and the state of the poll would in that way be known. If they adopted the system of voting by papers or registered letters, the hour by hour publication of the poll would be impossible. He assumed that bribery generally took place within the last hour of the polling, but he did not think that the difficult question how it was to be put down would find a solution, except through the instrumentality of voting papers.


said, he was of opinion that voting papers would facilitate rather than deter from the commission of bribery.


said, that all the proposals made by hon. Members were only applicable to small constituencies. He preresented a large constituency, and he did not believe that any one in it was suspected of bribery. It was only in small constituencies that the electors were open to undue influences. He thought this was a powerful argument in favour of the redistribution of seats, and of divesting small burghs of their representatives and of giving them to the large towns, which were free from any such suspicion.


said, he was in favour of giving the seat vacated through bribery to the innocent candidate, however small might be the number of his supporters, and however large that of the peccant and unseated member. Such a course would be a real security against bribery, as it would render all the previous preparations of the buying candidate of no avail. If it were suggested that it would be unfair to the constituents, he submitted that it would be a very proper penalty for permitting themselves to be bribed.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to amend and continue the Law relating to Corrupt Practices at Elections, ordered to be brought in by Sir GEORGE GREY and Mr. BRUCE.

Bill presented, and read 1o. [Bill 8.]