HC Deb 10 June 1863 vol 171 cc677-87

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, that the measure would deal with a very difficult subject, and he was sure that its details would be found to require many Amendments; but he hoped he should be able to convince the House of the expediency of affirming the general principle upon which it was founded. That principle was that no Petition against the return of a Member should in future be allowed to be withdrawn without a disclosure before a Standing Committee of the House of the circumstances under which the Petition in question was presented and withdrawn. He did not propose that petitioners should be forced to proceed against their will, but merely that the House should be in possession of the reasons for presenting in the first instance, and afterwards withdrawing those Petitions. Much of the inconvenience of the existing system arose from the tendency exhibited in the House of late years to treat Petitions entirely as questions between party and party, and as matters of no public importance. But from the Report of a Committee of Privileges appointed in 1623.4, and embracing the names of some of the highest authorities on constitutional law at that day, it appeared that the petitioners against an election of knights of the shire for the county of Middlesex being afterwards desirous of withdrawing that Petition, it was moved and debated whether the Committee ought not to proceed to an investigation of the circumstances notwithstanding that withdrawal. It was held clearly that— The House of Commons ought not to be concluded by the act of the parties in not prosecuting their complaint, which perhaps might operate, by some underhand combination, to the prejudice of the whole kingdom, which hath an interest in the election of every Member of Parliament. He was of opinion that an Election Petition complaining of an undue return was a public matter, and ought not to be treated as a civil suit. In an election carried by Corrupt means the public was wronged as well as the defeated candidate, for the views of the unbought majority of the electors were set at naught, and great scandals arose from the allegation that Members had been returned, and that legistion was carried on, through the instrumentality of corrupt agency. Frivolous Petitions affected the Legislature almost as injuriously, besides imposing additional labour upon the general body of Members, the gentleman petitioned against being disqualified from sitting upon particular Committees. The present Bill was intended to prevent Petitions from being presented with the object of extorting money, of coercing the sitting Member in to some compact relating to a future election, or for the purpose of being paired off against, some other Petition. He bad heard hon. Members deny in private conversation that sham Petitions were presented; but practically there could be no doubt that great abuses arose from Petitions getting into the hands of central agents. Petitions were, in fact, presented to keep the balance even. The abuse prevailed as much on one side as the other, and he felt considerable sympathy for the hon. Member for Sandwich (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen), who complained to his constituents, when he went down to them for re-election after taking office, that there was a Petition already hanging over his head which was frivolous and vexatious, and which was ultimately withdrawn. Some interesting evidence was taken on this subject by the Committee appointed to inquire into the working of the Corrupt Pratices Act in 1854. Mr. Phinn, a gentleman who was formerly a Member of that House, and who had considerable practice before Election Committees, stated to the Committee that the agents presented Petitions as people dealt a pack of cards; as fast as one side dealt a Petition, the other side dealt another Petition. He also stated that his experience taught him that Petitions were constantly presented with the view of putting money into people's pockets; and he added that he thought no Petition should be withdrawn without the leave of the House obtained after a due inquiry into all the circumstances. Sir Frederick Slade, a gentleman of equal, if not of even greater, experience, declared before the same Committee that sham Petitions were often got up against a Member for the purpose of extracting a thousand pounds out of his pocket. Another gentleman, of perhaps Still more extensive experience, but one who was usually supposed to have "left his country for his country's good"—namely, Mr. Edwin James, told the Committee that he had known as many as eighty Petitions presented after a general election, although it was never intended that five of them should be seriously proceeded with. Mr. James suggested that the parties petitioning should be responsible for costs. He hoped he had now satisfied the House that sham Petitions were got up for the sake of costs, and for the purpose of carrying on the war against bonâ fide Petitions. There were some of these abuses for which he confessed he could find no remedy. It seemed to him to be impossible to provide that in any case a Petitioner should be forced to go on with a Petition against his will. But he thought, that when a man stated his desire to withdraw a Petition, they might fairly call upon him to state the altered circumstances which had arisen since he had first presented it. Another abuse he wished to remedy was that in which a Petition was presented upon good grounds, while a corrupt bargain was afterwards made for its withdrawal. That was an occasion in which the House ought to show no mercy, and ought to subject the Petitioner to any loss that could reasonably be imposed upon him. Having thus stated the general principles which had influenced him in preparing the measure, he would next proceed to point out its leading provisions, He would propose that at the commencement of every Session a small standing Committee should he appointed by the General Committee of Elections, to be called the Election Petitions Withdrawal Committee. When parties wished to withdraw an Election Petition, they should give notice to the Speaker, who should refer the subject to the latter Committee. If the Committee found that the Petition was frivolous and vexatious, the Petitioners should he liable to pay the sitting Member the costs to which he had been put, and also, if they so determined, the cost of the proceedings before the Committee. If, on the other hand, bonâ fide reasons for the withdrawal could be made out, no ill consequences would follow, and after a certain interval the Petition might be withdrawn without more ado. If, however, the Committee found that any corrupt bargain had been made as to the withdrawal of the Petition, then the whole of the recognisance of £1,000, or such part thereof as the Committee might determine, should be forfeited, and any portion of the sum not required to meet the expenses of the inquiry before the Standing Committee should be paid as a fine into the Exchequer. It might be said that his Bill would throw additional costs on Petitioners, and thereby prevent them from coming forward and exposing corrupt practices. He contended, however, that the measure would not discourage any bonâ fide Petition, but that it would prevent frivolous and vexatious Petitions, which was what he wished to do. The measure was, no doubt, capable of improvement in Committee, but he trusted that the House would read it a second time, and assist him in making the Bill more perfect in Committee. The hon. Member concluded by moving that the Bill be now read a second time.


said, he cordially supported the second reading of the Bill, although he could not pledge himself to an approval of all its details. There were three classes of election Petitions. There were, first, the bonâ fide Petitions of persons who believed that corruption or intimidation had taken place. There were, secondly, frivolous and vexatious Petitions, which were presented simply as a set-off against Petitions from the opposite party. There were, in the third place, extortionate Petitions, which, without the slightest foundation, were presented with the single purpose of extracting money from the sitting Member, by allegations of intimidation, bribery, and treating. In the year 1857 he had himself suffered from the presentation of one of the last class of Petitions. The borough of Finsbury was large enough and expensive enough to contest in a legitimate manner, without an expenditure of money in bribery and corruption. But in the year 1857 a Petition was presented against his return, charging him and his Agents with nearly every crime which could invalidate an election That Petition, he should confess, had caused him considerable uneasiness, and he had gone about anxiously inquiring whether his agents might not, in disobedience of his instructions, have done something which would disqualify him from sitting in Parliament. But he could find no indication of any such offence; and within twenty-four hours of the striking of the Committee he was waited on by a person supposed to be moving in a respectable sphere of life, but who had since made the acquaintance of one of the Commissioners in Basinghall Street. That person assumed to be the leader of the party presenting the Petition, and assured him (Mr. Cox), that if he would pay him and the other petitioners the sum of £500, the Speaker should receive a letter announcing that the Petition was withdrawn. Knowing that he had not been guilty of any one of the things laid to his charge, he indignantly refused; yet the Speaker, nevertheless, had the honour of receiving the letter withdrawing the Petition. He agreed with the hon. Member who brought in the Bill that there ought to be some tribunal appointed by the House to inquire under what circumstances Election Petitions were presented and withdrawn.


said, he agreed in the doctrine laid down in the preamble of the Bill, that all costs incurred by a sitting Member in consequence of a Petition which was not proceeded with ought to be paid by the petitioner; and as he adopted that principle, he should vote for the second reading of the measure, although there was hardly one of its clauses to which he could give an unqualified approval, He concurred in thinking that something must be done to stop the presentation of sham Petitions, although he believed that more bonâ fide Petitions than sham ones were withdrawn. He believed, that if Committees were more strict in visiting frivolous and vexatious petitions with costs, and in making the costs follow the suit, as in the courts of law, fewer sham Petitions would be got up. He feared, that if the Bill passed in its then shape, the expenses of sitting Members would be increased rather than diminished. It was said that an Election Petition was a public matter, and not a private suit. If that were so, the House, when a bonâ fide case was made out, ought to defray the cost out of a public fund. If, on the other hand, an Election Petition remained a private suit between parties, it would be impossible to prevent compromises. A paragraph was going the round of the papers, in which it was stated that the Petition against the return for Reigate had been withdrawn, in consequence of an arrangement by which the sitting Member agreed not to contest the next election. He did not believe that any provision in the Bill would prevent corrupt bargains of that nature being made.


said, he felt hound to demur to the new view laid down by the hon. Member who had just sat down—that if he approved the preamble of a Bill, it was his duty to vote for the second reading. It was, as he conceived, the duty of the House, on the contrary, to see if the Bill effectually carried out the object which the preamble asserted to be worthy of the consideration of Parliament; and if it did not, to reject it on the second reading. The House was, he thought, greatly indebted to the hon. Member (Mr. Hunt) for bringing in the Bill. There were two distinct matters with which the House had to deal—the presentation of a great number of Petitions that were never intended to be prosecuted, and the withdrawal of Petitions that ought to be proceeded with, in consequence of bargains made outside the House. In the first class of Petitions conscious virtue on the part of the sitting Member was of no use. An election was said to be like a horse, for there was no such thing as a sound one. It was alleged that at every election something was done by an ardent partisan or committeeman which, if known and proved, would invalidate it. Sitting Members when petitioned against fancied that there must be some tremendous case behind, and they were therefore kept in a state of anxiety and annoyance. The Grenville Act, upon which the present practice of the House was founded, made no provision for the costs of frivolous and vexatious Petitions. That provision was introduced eighteen or twenty years afterwards by Lord Grenville, and it was accompanied by a clause prohibiting the withdrawal of any Petition. Lord Grenville hoped that the costs of frivolous and vexatious Petitions would be a security that none but bonâ fide Petitions would be presented. That was the law up to the year 1838. Under ordinary circumstances, although a Committee might find that a Member petitioned against was entitled to keep his seat, yet they also found a certain number of suspicious circumstances. They therefore were disposed to declare that there was a primâ facie case for a Petition, and they were unwilling to saddle petitioners with the costs, by declaring it to be frivolous and vexations. The other practice, of withdrawing Petitions as a matter of bargain, was illustrated the other day in the matter of the Lisburn Petition. It was there most conclusively proved, that at the very time the Petition was signed, the agent or solicitor interested in the matter obtained also the signatures of the petitioners to the withdrawal of the Petition. Could any man doubt what that was for? Was it not for the purpose of making a corrupt bargain, if possible, with the sitting Member? It was true, as had been alleged, that the appointment of the proposed Committee for the withdrawal of Election Petitions would not cure the evil, unless the parties themselves were animated with a proper spirit. And the old adage was perfectly true in that case, that one man might take a horse to the water, but ten men could not make him drink. When people came before these Committees, they could not torture them for the purpose of forcing all the facts out of them. The appointment of such a Committee as that proposed by the Bill would facilitate the disposal of matters, because it would afford to persons who had petitioned in a bonâ fide spirit, and who afterwards found that the evidence would not, in the opinion of competent persons, support the allegations of the Petition, the opportunity of at once coming forward to withdraw it. At the same time, when they came to consider the clauses of this Bill, he thought a good deal of alteration would be required. One defect of the Bill was, that there was no security that a Petition should be proceeded with. It was left at the mercy of anybody whether a Petition should go on or not. He was inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Knaresborough (Mr. Collins), that where a strong case was made out, it would be desirable to provide an inquiry by a Committee, assisted by some public officer appointed by the Speaker. The House owed it to itself to check the practice that prevailed at the beginning of every new Parliament of presenting indiscriminately a number of Petitions against the return of hon. Members.


said, the subject was not altogether new, for soon after the late election an attempt was made to legislate, the gentlemen against whom Petitions were presented being anxious to do so; but the majority of the House, amongst whom he was, being averse to discourage Petitions. The question was whether that was a better attempt, and whether they would not be doing more harm than good by any law which would have a tendency to discourage the presentation of Petitions against the return of Members of that House. In the first place, hon. Gentlemen should consider that they had already imposed a very close restriction as to the time within which such Petitions could be presented; and if the Bill were passed, it would be necessary to extend that time, so that persons might have ample opportunity for considering whether they should present a Petition or not. An Election Petition was either a claim of right on the part of some one, or it was merely a piece of information for the benefit of the House and the public. In the former case there ought to be security for the costs of the inquiry; but in the latter, if they were to do more than bind a petitioner to appear before a Committee on his own recognizances, they would go beyond the law of the land in cases of public prosecution, and would discountenance at the outset all inquiry into bribery and corruption. His hon. Friend said that his Bill would not act as a discouragement to bonâ fide Petitions. But there was great difficulty at the outset in determining whether a Petition was bonâ fide or not. He submitted, if the Bill were read a second time, it would require the most careful consideration in all its details, lest it might lead to greater evils than it sought to redress. If a Petition were presented for purposes of extortion, it should be made a penal offence to withdraw it, and the petitioner should be made liable to prosecution by a common indictment. But the House should be very careful how it departed from the recognised principle of administering the law and embarked in what he would call fanciful legislation. They all knew that all sorts of prosecutions were abandoned from feelings of a private or personal nature; nor could it be otherwise, unless they introduced into this country a system of public prosecutors. That was the continental method, where the subject was nobody and the Sovereign everybody. He hoped they should never see that system introduced into England, or that the Executive should undertake to remedy evils which individuals had hitherto dealt with by themselves.


said, he joined in the approval which had been generally expressed of the main purpose of the Bill, which was to prevent the abuse of the right of petition against a sitting Member; but, at the same time, he quite admitted they were bound to guard against the evil alluded to by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets—namely, that of unduly interfering with the right of petitioning, which not only concerned individual members of the community but also affect ed the privileges of that House. It was most desirable that the fair right of petitioning against the return of Members should be preserved unimpaired; and his apprehension was, that if this Bill passed in its present form, it would be found materially to curtail that valuable right. It should be borne in mind that by the Election Petitions Act of 1848 some considerable restrictions were imposed on the exercise of the right of petition; for, by the 3rd section of that Act, before any Election Petition was presented to the House a recognizance should he entered into by one, two, or more persons to the amount of £1,000 for payment of costs. It was also required, that in the event of the withdrawal of the Petition, the petitioner should be compelled to pay the costs of any persons who might have been put to expense. The object of this Bill was to deprive the petitioner of the right to withdraw his Petition, and to make it certain, or at least reasonably probable, that he would have to incur heavy costs before he could relieve himself from a Petition which he had once presented; and before a Petition could be withdrawn, it should be referred to the Petitions Withdrawal Committee, there to enter upon, it might be, a very tedious and expensive inquiry. The question was, whether greater evils might not be incurred by provisions so stringent as those contained in the Bill. But, in the hope that at a future stage it might be so modelled as to effect the good that was desired, he was prepared to express his approval of the Motion for the second reading.


said, that though his name was on the back of the Bill, and he approved of the measure, he did not claim any portion of the credit of introducing it to the House. They were all agreed that there ought to be some legislation on the subject. From his own professional experience, he knew that a number of Petitions were presented merely as a set-off against other Petitions, or for the worse object of extortion. It was a matter in which the whole House was interested, and they ought to try and devise a remedy for so grave an evil. He could not conceive that there was any valid objection to the measure. It appeared to him that many persons might have perfectly good grounds for petitioning, and might act in a bonâ fide spirit in the first instance; nevertheless that they might afterwards find that the evidence upon which the Petition was founded was totally insufficient to support the allegations of bribery and corruption. In that case, supposing that the proposed Committee were appointed, all that such persons had then to do would be simply to go before the Committee and state that they found the evidence was not sufficient to sustain the prosecution of the Petition; and that they had had no communication whatever on the subject with the other party—that there was no mala fides in the matter, and therefore they applied to withdraw the Petition. No doubt the Election Committee would call before them the other parties; and if it really appealed that the case was wholly free from mala fides, the Election Petition could then be withdrawn without even the expense of counsel or of agents, but merely upon the simple statement of the petitioners. The evil at present was very great. Petitions were presented, as he had said, for the mere purpose of effecting, if possible, a corrupt bargain, and without the smallest idea of persevering with them. In many cases those Petitions were kept hanging over the heads of Members when Parliament was not sitting, solely with the view of inducing corrupt bargains. He agreed that the right of presenting Petitions against the return of Members should be freely exercised, but the Bill would not subject a bonâ fide petitioner to any greater risk than he now incurred, while it would protect Members who had obtained their seats by honest means from being harassed and annoyed by frivolous Petitions. He therefore looked upon the measure as a step in the right direction; and so far from it being fanciful or speculative in its character, it was a measure that, in his opinion, would be attended with the most beneficial results.


said, he gave his hon. Friend the utmost credit for bringing the matter before the House. No one who had read the proceedings of the Lisburn Election Petition Committee could have the slightest doubt of the necessity of such a Bill. Had not that Petition been sent to the general Committee of Elections, a most nefarious case of corruption would have been hushed up, and the offending parties would have escaped the cognizance of that House. He thought that the establishment of a Committee, as proposed by the Bill, would be an excellent measure, and prevent Petitions of that kind from being withdrawn without investigation.

Bill read 2o, and committed for Wednesday next.