HC Deb 06 May 1867 vol 187 cc56-66

(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Walpole, Mr. Hunt.)

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


said, that the Bill involved a most important principle, and it would have been more satisfactory had some explanation been given on the subject. The main provision of the measure was that inquiries into corrupt practices at elections should be conducted upon the spot. That was a provision which he was entirely in favour of. It would make the inquiries more efficient and would tend to diminish expense. But that provision was coupled with others which would go far to neutralize it. If they were to have a local tribunal, the decision of that tribunal ought to be final. But, instead of that, any Member of the House might call attention to the Report of the Committee, ask the House to refer that Report to another Committee, and bring the whole of the evidence under review. The effect of such a course would be that almost every election petition would become the subject of discussion in that House. The decision of the Committee would be complained of, and they would revert very much to the state of things which existed before the passing of Grenville's Act. They would have a second inquiry entirely upon written evidence, and a tribunal which had only written evidence before it, perhaps reversing the decision of one which had acted upon vivâ voce evidence. Everyone understood the advantage which evidence given vivâ voce had over merely written evidence. It might be said, however, that in the second inquiry the evidence might be also vivâ voce. Such a proceeding would be attended with very bad results, as protracted litigation would be encouraged, and the man with the long purse would have an undue advantage. The Bill contained other provisions of an objectionable nature, but upon these he would not dwell at present. He moved that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.


seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Bill be committed to a Select Committee,"—(Sir Robert Collier,) —instead thereof.


said, he regretted to find that the Bill contained no provision for giving the seat to a petitioning candidate who had carried on the contest on purity principles. He regarded this as the only way of repressing bribery. He hoped that if the measure went to a Select Committee a clause to that effect, which the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer originally intended to propose, would be inserted. He had made the same proposal in 1860, and again in 1863. At present a candidate who petitioned was further off his object than ever, for if a fresh election took place the corrupt electors would naturally vote against him, even without being bribed.


said, he should support the Motion for sending the Bill to a Select Committee. He hoped that the House would never agree to the principle of placing the power to determine the legality of elections in the hands of barristers of seven years' standing. It was true that it was proposed that there should be a sort of appeal to the House, but that would be available only in the case of rich candidates. Both sides of the House were sincere in the wish to put down bribery. But to do this he would suggest a course entirely different to that named in the Bill, Election petitions should continue to be tried by the House, and whenever bribery was proved, even although agency was not proved, a Commission should be sent down to the borough, at the expense of the borough. The consequence of this would be that the candidate who had been guilty of the bribery would never be able again to show his face in the borough, and if the inhabitants could only be convinced that it was against their interest that there should be bribery, no candidate likely to cause bribery would be brought forward.


said, he agreed in the proposal to send the Bill to a Select Committee, He was surprised that no explanation of the principles of the measure had been afforded by the Government. Unless the Bill were changed in almost every particular, it would not accomplish its object. The radical defect was that it combined two things that should be totally separate and distinct, and which were almost incompatible. These were — an inquiry as a matter of litigation between two candidates as to the right to the seat or the validity of a return, and a general inquiry into corruption at an election. The efficiency of the general inquiry would, under the provisions of the Bill, be sacrificed to the special inquiry. The Bill repealed an Act that had been most effectual in the suppression of bribery, the 15 & 16 Vict. c. 57. Under this Act a Commission could only issue on a Report of an Election Committee that there was reason to believe that extensive bribery had prevailed, and no petition alleging bribery was hereafter to be tried by an Election Committee. The principle of the Bill was that the whole inquiry, general as well as personal, was to depend upon the petition presented against the return. Many petitioners would not expose their borough to disfranchisement if they could frame the petition so as to exclude an inquiry which might lead to such a result. Again, the petitioners were to be empowered at any stage to withdraw the petition upon payment of costs, and the whole proceedings would thereupon full to the ground. He believed that the Bill would deprive the House of the means which they at present possessed of detecting and exposing bribery. The apparent intention of the Bill was that there should be a local inquiry, conducted upon the spot; but it was not even provided that the inquiry should take place within the borough or the county in which the election had taken place, and the place of meeting was left entirely in the discretion of the returning officer. If there were to be such power, it should be vested in some more important person than the returning officer. The Bill proposed to transfer the jurisdiction now exercised by Committees of the House in matters of controverted election to three barristers of seven years' standing, to be selected by the Speaker. That, he thought, a most objectionable proposal. If the jurisdiction exercised in these cases by Committees of the House was to be transferred to some other authority, let it be transferred to the Judges of the land, whose decisions would carry such authority with them that they could be accepted as final. With regard to the duties to be placed upon the Speaker, he thought that a very unfair and invidious task would be imposed on him. He was to be intrusted not only with the sole power of nominating the persons to try election petitions, but also of selecting the persons who were to try each petition, and that without any of the checks imposed by the present law. He could also enlarge the time for doing any act under the Bill, and for this purpose he would have to sit as a court, not only during the Session of Parliament, but during the recess. The most important principle, however, was the transfer of the jurisdiction of the House to another tribunal. Without giving any opinion upon the question whether this transfer should take place, the mode proposed was the most objectionable way in which it could be done. It was also very objectionable that it should be open to any Member to raise the whole question again before the House by way of appeal. If the Bill were referred to a Select Committee he thought that the Government should desire the gentlemen who drew the Bill to attend the Committee and explain its provisions, many of which were not very intelligible, in order that, if possible, it might be put into a shape in which it would be more deserving the attention of the House.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had complained that no explanation of the Bill had been given by the Government. It was in the recollection — he would not say of the House—but of the hon. Member (Sir Francis Goldsmid) that an explanation of the measure was given some time ago by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for the hon. Member had referred to the terms of that explanation. His right hon. Friend gave a general description of the nature of the Bill he was about to introduce. Owing to the pressure of business, and the importance of carrying it forward as rapidly as possible, it had been brought to the present stage without being made the subject of a discussion. It was now proposed that the measure should be referred to a Select Committee. The Government had no objection to that course. They thought it was the desirable course to be pursued. In a matter of that sort the great and cardinal question was how far they could carry the House of Commons with them in any provisions which might be made for the repression of bribery and corruption. Nothing was so easy as to make speeches and declarations, and to get cheers in that House upon abstract Resolutions as to the repression of bribery. But what they wanted to do was to devise some means by which a stop should as far as possible be put to it. They could not put a stop to an offence of that kind unless in what they did they carried public sympathy, and, above all, the sympathy of the House of Commons, with them. There were two methods of dealing with bribery. Suggestions had been made that they should impose severe penalties upon persons guilty of bribery, and that they ought to require Members on taking their seats in the House to make solemn declarations that they had not committed the offence. Those provisions might seem to be effective. But the question was whether, when they had enacted them—well as they might look on paper—they would really attain their end. The Government, on looking the matter over, thought it would be better not to rely either upon severe penalties, or upon solemn declarations, which might, perhaps, harass tender consciences, and be only laughed at by guilty persons. They thought it desirable to institute a more searching inquiry in order to discover, punish, and put down on offence which was one of the greatest blots in our electoral system. They considered of course the machinery now in force, and they found that there were many difficulties in the way of the present system of proceedings before Election Committees. Among those difficulties was a very obvious one, perfectly well-known, no doubt, to hon. Members—namely, that after an election had taken place in which corrupt practices had prevailed, there was the greatest possible uncertainty whether they would ever be brought under the notice of an Election Committee at all. There was, in the first instance, the question whether some arrangement might not be made in the place where the election occurred to stifle the proceedings, get rid of witnesses, and in other ways prevent investigation. Then there was the further danger which undoubtedly had at different times been incurred — that election petitions might be treated as mere matters of party. That the one party might make proposals to the other that if they withdrew their petition in one case they would withdraw theirs in another. In that wav, no doubt, under the present system there was great difficulty in bringing a case to be fairly tried before a Committee of the House. Moreover, the knowledge that several months would elapse, during which there was no knowing what might happen, encouraged these practices by giving the perpetrators a chance of escape, and thus rendering them more careless than they otherwise might be. The object of the Government was to bring these matters as quickly as possible under the knowledge of the persons whose duty it would be to inquire upon the spot, who had no interest in the election, and who could act before—as the phrase went—matters could be "squared." They hoped that this would operate as a check on objectionable practices. It appeared to the Government that it would be best to put their proposal in the form of a Bill, and submit it to the House of Commons in such a shape that it could be worked. They felt, however, that it was of no use to force it upon the House, and that all depended upon the House being satisfied with the measure. The Government thought that if the House should determine to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, where the details could be considered, then the measure might go out to the country not so much the measure of the Government as that of the House itself. With regard to the proposal that the Report of the Commission should not be final and should be subject to appeal to the House itself, that was done by the Government in order to save the privileges of the House. If the House should be prepared to abandon that appeal to itself—and he wag himself far from saying that it would not be desirable to do so—the Government would be prepared to omit that clause. It would not have been desirable for the Government to bring forward a measure which should run the risk of being rejected by the House because it was too strong. The measure which seemed desirable was not so much that which might look best on paper, but that which the Government could hope to carry. The Government for these reasons would be prepared to accept the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, which would call before it the gentlemen who drew the Bill, who would explain its provisions. If the Government were able to carry this Session a measure which should effectually repress bribery at future Parliamentary elections it would be the proudest chaplet in the history of any Administration.


said, that the Bill was little better than a sham, and totally inadequate to prevent corruption, at elections. It was not a Bill to prevent corrupt practices at elections, but one to punish them after they had not been prevented, and sometimes not even that, with its provision enabling the prosecutor at his pleasure to drop the prosecution. It was a proposal to shut the stable door after the steed was stolen. He confessed to a liking—recollecting the allusion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day, to the country in which his ancestors had for several generations sojourned—to that good old-fashioned Batavian honesty for which the Dutch were so conspicuous in their commercial transactions, and by which they had created their national greatness. He did not see this honesty in the purpose of the present Bill, and he could not therefore accept it as it stood. The House was on its trial. The real way to put an end to corrupt practices was to go to the root of the matters, and to alter the whole machinery of elections. That which broke down candidates and perpetuated the crying evil was not the direct corruption to which he hoped very few persons in their desire to get into Parliament would purposely and in cold blood lend themselves; but that category of doubtful and slippery expenses, which in moderation might be legal and necessary, but which, if used in excess, became in fact, though not in name, mere bribery. It was against these expenses of committee-rooms, treating, canvassing, and so forth—expenses which he might describe as certainly not the heaven of electioneering, nor yet quite another place—but undoubtedly its purgatory that he would desire to see the House legislating. He wished to see the line drawn clearly and unmistakably between expenses which were really right, legal, and necessary, and those which were absolutely corrupt, so that the man who meant to come in by his money should have to follow Luther's prescription, pecca fortiter, and take the consequences. Above all things the prohibition against holding any committee-rooms in houses of public entertainment must be absolute and without exception. He might here say that of all the Amendments on the Reform Bill, the one which he observed with the greatest pleasure was that of the hon. Baronet the Member for Cardiganshire (Sir Thomas Lloyd) proposing to declare that practice illegal. He trusted that the hon. Member would persevere in it as the truest Bill for the prevention of corrupt practices at elections. He would also put an end to all banners and such fooleries which made a contested election like Hyde Park under Tory Government. The better education and moral feeling of this century had abolished duelling and had extinguished bull-baiting and cock-fighting, and other barbarous old English amusements; and really he thought that all the rioting and revelling at elections was but the last bad relic of the same barbarism which they could not too soon dismiss to join the other extinct abuses. The suggestion which he should make would be that whenever an election was imminent some competent authority, the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas for instance, should appoint a person of legal standing—the County Court Judge when available—or some other lawyer of equivalent position to act as arbiter of all the election expenses. This person, who would be more powerful than any election agent or auditor, and whom he would call the election Judge, should open his court in the borough or county, and all expenses to be legal should be previously sanctioned by him. The system would be self-working. The election Judge would approve on either side only as many committee rooms—none of them in any place of public entertainment—agents, canvassers, and other machinery as he thought necessary. His order book would be the test of the legality of each item of the expenditure, and any expense contracted without his order would be ipso facto illegal, and liable to void the election. If such a machinery were introduced into the Bill it might be made that which it was not at present, a measure really calculated to put down that plague of our constitutional system—corruption at elections.


said, that if there was a necessity for a Reform Bill, there was infinitely more for a Corrupt Practices Prevention Bill. If the franchise was extended without being accompanied by a very stringent measure for that object, both intimidation and bribery would be extended. In this Bill there was nothing to prevent intimidation, and very little to prevent bribery. They must, if they were in earnest, come to the ballot. Without that the reference of this or any other Bill to a Select Committee was a mere mockery. If the Select Committee succeeded in making it a good Bill, he for one should be very much astonished.


said, it was very pleasing to hear those little ebullitions of indignation in which most of the Members of that House indulged whenever the subject of bribery came on for discussion. There were, be believed, some new Members who really persuaded themselves, and wished to persuade the public, that the House of Commons was thoroughly in earnest in its endeavour to put down corrupt practices at elections. He (Mr. Osborne) did not believe it. At the risk of offending many hon. Gentlemen, he must say that he thought their proceedings on those occasions were very much on the commercial principle. There were not thirty Members in that House who had obtained their seats by what he termed fair means. ["Oh!"] He had no doubt that those who cried "Oh!" were pure and honest men. The hon. Member (Mr. Whalley), who appeared to be so indignant at the statement which he had just made, had secured his seat, not by appealing to the pockets of his constituents, but to their passions and prejudices, which, to his mind, was as much bribery as anything else. The Government had, he was prepared to admit, gone as far as they dared, and had taken a great step in dealing with the matter. The President of the India Board (Sir Stafford Northcote) corroborated his statement, for he said, "This is not a good Bill, but it is the best which the House of Commons is capable of passing." The Government, at all events, had taken a step in the right direction, for they had had the courage to initiate the idea of taking away the power from the House of being judge and jury in its own case. Without doing this there could not be even an approximation to giving satisfaction out of doors or inspiring confidence in decisions. He was, under those circumstances, disposed to give the Government great credit for the proposal they had made. If such a proposal had been brought forward some years ago, the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Wilson Patten), who was so great on the subject of the privileges of the House, would be sure to have arisen in his place and pronounced an anathema upon the Government for taking away its powers. He was reminded by what had fallen from the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Beresford Hope) of two lines which described, not his great ancestors, but an illustrious countryman of theirs. A poet of the time of Queen Anne said— Batavian William knows the British tribes, He scorns all merit and appeals to bribes. He did not concur with the hon. Gentleman as to the honesty of those Batavians. It was a Batavian Parliament which initiated the bribery which now so extensively prevailed. It was as well to speak plainly in the matter. Was it not a fact that two-thirds of the Members of the upper House had obtained their peerages because they had freely spent their money in contested elections? Who was looked upon as a worthy Member of a party? A man who had contested a county and spent some thousands in the undertaking. Why were Baronets made? He would not say hon. Members might learn the reason from anybody. It was a very low form of promotion, and was sometimes given for contesting boroughs. It was very easy to get up in that House and make fine speeches. He did not believe that half of those whom he addressed—not even excepting the hon. Member (Mr. Whalley) who cried "Oh!" so loudly—were sincere in their endeavours to put down bribery. The fact was that one-half of the House would never have entered it at all had they not happened to have long purses and had they not been prepared to spend the contents of those purses. Although the provision of the Bill which took away the power from the House would operate most usefully, bribery would continue to exist until it came to be looked upon as infamous, and what was termed ungentlemanly. At present it was the fashion, and no man seemed to think the worse of another because he happened to have bribed. He begged to thank the Government for having dared as much as they had done. It was, at the same time, clear to him that as long as the House was content with periodical disquisitions on the subject—whether the Parliament was a Batavian or an English one—so long must hon. Members make up their minds to go through a solemn farce every year. Bribery would continue. Loyal adherents would be made Peers, and obsequious followers Baronets.


said, one of the best means to effect the abolition of bribery and corruption at elections would be the multiplication of the number of the electors. The purses of those who now obtained their returns by bribery would not then be long enough to corrupt the constituents. The ballot might be opportunely adopted now when the franchise was about to be given to people who were peculiarly exposed to the influence of the wealthy classes.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.

And, on May 16, Select Committee nominated as follows:—Mr. MOWBRAY, Mr. WHITBREAD, Sir RAINALD KNIGHTLEY, Sir ROBERT COLLIER, Lord EDWIN HILL-TREVOR, Mr. Lows, Lord ELCHO, Mr. KNATCHULL-HUGESSEN, Mr. RUSSELL GURNEY, Mr. BAXTER, Mr. BRETT, Mr. CLIVE, Mr. SCOCRFIELD, Mr. SULLIVAN, Mr. BEACH, Mr. OTWAY, and Mr. HUNT:—Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Five to be the quorum. And, on May 17, Sir GEOROE GREY, Sir STAFFORD NORTHCOTE added.