§ MR. E. P. BOUVERIE
, Chairman of the Reigate Election Committee, rose to move for a Commission to inquire into the existence of corrupt practices at the last election for Totnes. The Election Committee which had recently sat for the purposes of inquiring into the allegation of the petition presented against the returns for that borough, had found that there was reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed in that borough at the last election. The Act under which they came to that finding was passed in 1852, and enabled Commissioners to be appointed on a joint Address of the two Houses of Parliament to the Crown. In case the Election Committee reported either that extensive corruption had prevailed, or that there was reason to believe that extensive corruption had prevailed, a Commission might, under the Act, be moved for to inquire into those practices. The House was aware that this Act had been put in operation by past Parliaments, and he believed four or five Commissions had been issued under it. He proposed very briefly to state to the House why it was that the Committee came to that finding in the case of the borough of Totnes; and he might begin by stating that in making this Motion he believed he expressed the unanimous opinion and desire of his colleagues as well as his own opinion. The case was rather a remarkable one. Totnes was a small borough, according to the Census of 1861 the population being only 4,000; since then, it had, according to calculation, been rather reduced, and was now between 3,000 and 4,000. The electors on the register were short of 400; the exact number was, he believed, 395. 261 Petitions were presented after the last general election against both the Gentlemen who were then returned, and the Committee appointed to inquire into the matter of that petition found that one of the Members had been guilty of a breach of the Act against corrupt practices, having made an offer of employment to one of the voters, with the view of influencing his vole; and they had therefore no alternative but to report him guilty of a breach of the Act and declare his election void. They also declared the other guilty of bribery and unseated him. The evidence which satisfied the Committee that they had reason to believe corrupt practices extensively prevailed at Totnes was not direct evidence brought before them to prove a general system of bribery; in fact, the cases of bribery brought by petition against the sitting Members were few originally, and substantially failed of proof. They were, strictly speaking, offers of bribery to voters who did not vote for the sitting Members, or the voters when produced swore they did not take bribes, though they had stated on other occasions they did. Therefore the evidence was not of a very complete or conclusive character. But a very curious and he believed almost unpredecented thing occurred in the Committee. A witness was produced for the purpose of contradicting one of the previous witnesses, and to prove that he had said he had had offers of money. That witness was named Screech; and on his cross-examination it appeared that he had been largely engaged by the opposite party in corrupting voters at Totnes. He appealed to the Chairman whether he was bound to answer the questions put to him. The Chairman told him he was bound to answer, because by a recent wholesome change of the law, a witness was not at liberty to screen himself from answering questions, the Committee having the power to give him a certificate which would exonerate him from any penalty. Screech had therefore to make a clean breast of it, and he told the Committee that he had been engaged on previous elections for the Liberal party, and at the last election for the Conservative party, to go about the borough offering to bribe, and bribing the electors. He admitted that he had applied to forty, and he believed that he had bribed twelve or fourteen. The reason he gave for not being more successful—and there was no reason to doubt his statement 262 —was that those to whom he applied told him they had done better on the other side. He (Mr. Bouverie) thought the Committee—certainly he himself—had a sort of impression from the tenour of the evidence that there was a general system of corruption, and they were informed that the market price of votes in Totnes, which was quoted quite like a share-list on the Stock Exchange, was higher at the last election than it had ever been before. Screech was asked whether on previous elections, when he was employed by the Liberal side, money had been going to any amount? Oh yes, he said, the amount was fearful; but it was never so largo as at the last election He was given to understand that the market price of a vote at Totnes during the last election was something like £200. He was bound to say from the way in which this evidence was given, Screech's evidence appeared to be generally truthful. The witness was produced on the petitioners' side; and the opposing counsel, while seeking to discredit his testimony, had of course no interest in proving the general prevalence of corruption; the main facts were consequently elicited by questions from the Committee, who, having got upon the scent, felt it their duty to follow it up; but, as the House must be aware, they had but feeble means of getting out the whole truth. They had also before them a man named Harris, who was the witness that proved that Mr. Pender, the late sitting Member, had offered him a situation if he would not take an active part against him; and on this evidence, in tact, the Committee unseated the sitting Member. He was what would be generally called a respectable man in appearance and occupation, and though an attempt was made in cross-examination to throw doubt on his veracity, the Committee believed him to be a credible witness. This witness Harris said he had known Totnes from his youth, and he expressed his belief that there were not fifty electors in the borough who were not influenced, directly or indirectly, by money considerations. Harris calculated that there were seventy-five electors of Conservative and fifty of Liberal politics who wore accessible to direct bribes. This was Harris' estimate of the political virtue and morality of Totnes; and the Committee unanimously arrived at the conclusion that there was strong reason to believe that bribery had extensively prevailed in the borough at the 263 last election. The House would remember that by an Act more recent than that under which these Commissioners were appointed, an Election Committee was prevented from giving the go-by to the question, but was bound to report whether or not there was reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed. The Totnes Committee, with the evidence before them, could come to no other finding; and having come to that finding the natural and necessary conclusion, as the law stood, was that a Commission should be sent down to inquire into the existence of this corruption, and endeavour to get at the whole facts. He knew it was said that the Commissions that had been issued in previous Parliaments, though they gave rise to exciting discussions in that House, had led to no legislation in regard to corrupt boroughs, and were practically useless for any purpose except that of putting a certain amount of money into the pockets of the learned Gentlemen who carried on the investigation. He (Mr. Bouverie) was not, however, quite of that opinion, and at any rate, while the law existed in its present shape, he thought the House was bound to act upon it and appoint a Commission. Moreover, the first step to the remedy of a great evil was to ascertain the extent of that evil, and there was no effective method of probing this sore of corruption except a Commission of Inquiry. Having, therefore, stated briefly the grounds on which the Committee felt compelled to come to the conclusion that there was reason to believe that bribery had extensively prevailed at the last election for Totnes, it seemed to him that the proper step to take was to appoint a Commission. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving—That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty praying for the appointment of Henry Bullar, Montague Bere, and Charles E. Coleridge, Esqs., as Commissioners for the purpose of making inquiry into the existence of corrupt practices at Totnes.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as followeth:—
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal Subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave humbly to represent to Your Majesty, that a Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to try a Petition complaining of an undue Election and Return for the Borough of Totnes, have reported to the House, that it has been distinctly stated by some
witnesses, and the general tenor of the Evidence given leads the Committee to believe, that a system of gross corruption prevailed at the last Election for the Borough of Totnes, and also on former similar occasions, and that there is reason to believe that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed in the said Borough:
We therefore humbly pray your Majesty, that Your Majesty will be graciously pleased to cause inquiry to be made, pursuant to the Provisions of the Act of Parliament passed in the sixteenth year of the reign of Your Majesty, intituled, "An Act to provide for more effectual inquiry into the existence of Corrupt Practices at Elections for Members to serve in Parliament," by the appointment of Henry Bullar, esquire, Montague Bere, esquire, and Charles E. Coleridge, esquire, as Commissioners for the purpose of making inquiry into the existence of such corrupt practices.
§ MR. BAXTER
said, he did not rise for the purpose of opposing the Motion of his right hon. Friend, but he could not refrain from expressing a doubt whether such an inquiry would be attended with any practical result. In the course of the eleven years during which he had had the honour of a seat in that House he recollected at least three Commissions of a similar nature— namely, those of Gloucester, 'Wakefield, and Berwick-on-Tweed, in all which instances the Commissioners reported that corrupt practices extensively prevailed. Each of those inquiries cost £1,700 or £1,800, but none of them had been followed by any legislation. He would venture to submit that they had really quite sufficient evidence before them as to the existence of electoral corruption, not only in Totnes, but in Great Yarmouth, in Reigate, and various other places. It was not into the existence of the evil that they needed to inquire, but into the remedy. He was sure hon. Gentlemen would bear him out when he said that there was no part of our constitutional system of which we ought to be so thoroughly ashamed, and which intelligent foreigners, whether from the Continent or from the other side of the Atlantic, were so apt to put their finger upon, as the continued existence of these constituencies, which, as they all knew right well, could be bought and sold in the market. Apart altogether from the question of re-distribution of seats, it appeared to him that it was competent for Gentlemen on both sides of the House, without regard to their political opinions, to try and do something to put an end to a state of things so discreditable to the country. Her Majesty's Government, if he was not mistaken, had made some promise on the subject; but if they were not prepared to legislate upon it, he knew no 265 one in whose hands it would be safer or more likely to be carried to a satisfactory conclusion than the right hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. It appeared to him that whenever Committees of that House had over and over again reported that corrupt practices prevailed in certain boroughs, those boroughs should by virtue of such Reports cease to return Members to that House. He felt satisfied that some self-acting law like that would do a great deal more to put down bribery than all the Commissions that had been or might be issued. It was perfectly obvious, too, that the law with respect to prosecutions for bribery should be changed, for at present, except in very rare cases, a man might give or take a bribe with perfect impunity. The true remedy, he thought, would be to render it imperative upon Her Majesty's Attorney General to prosecute every such offender, and instead of incapacitating a candidate who had been guilty of bribery from sitting in one Parliament, he would disqualify him for life. He had made these observations because he had often heard the remark made that the House was not in earnest in dealing with this subject, and that it always threw its shield over corrupt practices. He thought, therefore, that it was necessary for the sake of their own reputation, as well as for the public good, that they should set themselves seriously to legislate in such a manner that not only the constituencies but that individuals guilty of corrupt practices should be punished.
§ MR. DARBY GRIFFITH
said, he believed the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bouverie) would have the support of that side of the House in taking measures for the suppression of an evil which, as the right hon. Gentleman justly remarked, disgraced this country in the eyes of the world. Therefore, he did not rise to offer the least opposition to this Motion, which he should be glad to see carried further. There were now so many technicalities to be encountered before the Committee that it was almost impossible to obtain any satisfactory and rational verdict at all, and it was quite necessary that more stringent measures should be adopted. By the Act of 1852 it was required, before anything could be done, that proof should be given before the Committee that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. They knew that before these Bribery Committees the real state of the case was very frequently con- 266 cealed—for instance, at Helston it was said that both candidates were tarred with the same brush; and when one was ejected the other could not claim the seat. The Committee was satisfied with a single case of bribery sufficient to void the election, and the remainder of the case was con-coaled, and an Australian millionaire was sent down by the Liberal party and matters would probably be made still worse. These things were done with the assent of the leaders of the House. He should like to know what they were going to do with Nottingham? The first thing that the candidate there did was to put £.3,000 into the hands of his solicitor, and to ask no questions; and it did not require much knowledge of the world to know in what manner that money would be spent. As many as 666 messengers were required in that borough; and yet in the face of these facts the small boroughs were continually being said to be particularly corrupt. Nottingham was not to be disfranchised, but a candidate who was connected with the Government in a remarkable manner was to be sent down to profit by the system. The fact was that the Committees of the House were not proper tribunals to take cognizance of these matters. For instance, the Chairman of the Committee was generally a layman, and barristers appeared before him and frequently raised difficult questions of law which he was incompetent to decide, and it was a matter of chance which way the decision went. ["Oh, oh !"] It was quite natural that hon. Gentlemen opposite who were such excessive purists should deprecate any discussion of this kind. The Chairman of a Committee must also necessarily be more or less a partizan of one side or the other; and a man of delicate feelings, believing that he was liable to be biassed on one side, would be unconsciously induced to bear hard upon the opposite side. They ought to get Gentlemen of great impartiality to occupy such a position, and they knew that at all events there were among the Members of the House thirty-three who were strictly impartial in their politics, and from among those the Chairman of Committees should be selected. Hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed to reserve all their wrath for particular instances of bribery, and let other cases pass by without observation. For his own part, he believed that it would be better to send out a Commission at once to investigate cases of this kind on the spot, without resorting to the expen- 267 sive machinery of a Committee. The expenses of bringing a petition frequently operated as a denial of justice, especially as witnesses often for the sake of their expenses up to London stated things on the spot as facts which they could prove in evidence which they denied when before a Committee.
§ MR. KENDALL
protested against the charges of corruption which the hon. Member who had just sat down (Mr. Darby Griffith) had brought against a gentleman of high honour, who had utterly repudiated the charge that he had been guilty of corruption in any form. He was not justified in using such phrases as that both the candidates for Helston were "tarred with the same brush." It would be better if the hon. Gentleman were to speak less, and to be more careful when he did speak.
MR. OWEN STANLEY
trusted that if the Commission were appointed it would meet forthwith, and would come to an early decision upon the question laid before it.
§ COLONEL EDWARDS
was glad to find that the hon. Member for Devizes had met with one perfectly pure borough. He rose for the purpose of complaining that the borough he represented (Beverley) had been mentioned on several occasions as being included in the category of corrupt boroughs. Hon. Members would find by referring to a Report which had not long been issued that during the thirty-four years that had elapsed since the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, only three petitions had been presented to that House against the borough of Beverley, and of those three two had failed, and in the third the then most Liberal Member of that House had been unseated. He thought it was a very hard case that a certain number of boroughs should be constantly paraded before the House as frightful examples of corruption, when, in fact, they were not more guilty than the others. In many instances petitions were presented against sitting Members for special purposes—he did not say that in all cases there was conspiracy; but it was well known that individuals might bring forward petitions for the purpose of extorting money from Members, and that at the last moment such petitions might be withdrawn. In the event of the law upon this subject being altered he trusted that the possibility he had referred to would not be lost sight of, and that measures 268 would be taken that would put a stop to such practices. It was exceedingly unpleasant to hon. Members to be kept in a state of suspense for five or six months as to the nature of the evidence to be given against them, and to be taunted during that period with representing a corrupt borough. In conclusion, he begged again to vindicate the character of the borough he represented from the charges that were habitually made against it.
§ MR. BRADY
objected to the appointment of Commissions, as he believed, while they were most expensive, they were practically useless for the purpose for which they were intended. There was already sufficient evidence to prove that extensive bribery had prevailed at the recent election for Totnes. Why had not the Attorney General power to prosecute in cases of corruption as palpable as those proved to have occurred at that election? The hon. Gentleman the Member for Beverley (Colonel Edwards) stated that petitions were often withdrawn at the last moment. Now, in one instance which had come to his knowledge a candidate was perfectly prepared to show that the sitting Member had been guilty of corruption; but he had been compelled to withdraw his petition.
§ MR. BRADY
declined to answer the question. The gentleman to whom he had referred had been compelled to withdraw his petition against the sitting Member, in obedience to the request of 100 of his own supporters. ["Name, name!"] He believed that the House would accept his statement on his vouching to its truth. He did not see that the issuing of the Commission in this instance could result in any good; but he trusted that the necessity for issuing so many Commissions after one general election would have the effect of attracting attention and showing the importance of action being taken in the matter.
§ SIR GEORGE GREY
thought that it was quite right that in the case of a borough in which an Election Committee had reported that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, the House should exercise the power placed in its hands, and adopt the course now proposed in order to ascertain whether the opinion of the Committee was well founded; and to take ulterior measures if it should be found that corrupt practices had exten- 269 sively prevailed. He agreed that the proceeding involved delay, but he thought it would be too stringent a course to disfranchise a borough on the Report of an Election Committee.
§ MR. BAXTER
desired to explain. His proposal was that a borough should be disfranchised on the Report of an Election Committee, where it had previously been I made the subject of similar Reports.
§ SIR GEORGE GREY
But the Report of one Committee as to the last election adds no weight to the opinions of a previous Committee. The question was as to the best means of ascertaining the fact of bribery. But where a Committee reported that there was extensive bribery, and a Commission reported to the same effect, he thought they ought to be less slow in dealing with the delinquent borough. He believed that disfranchisement in such a ease would greatly tend to check corruption.
§ MR. DARBY GRIFFITH
explained to the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Cornwall (Mr. Kendall) that the statement he had made with regard to the defeated candidate for the borough of Helston was made upon report only. He was, however perfectly willing to accept the disclaimer and would retract with pleasure any imputations which he had made.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Ordered, That the said Address be communicated to the Lords, and their concurrence desired thereto.—(Mr. Bouverie.)