HC Deb 24 July 1868 vol 193 cc1744-7

said, he could not forego the present opportunity of calling the attention of the Government and the House to the Report from the Select Committee on the Bristol Election Petition, because he had given way on two previous occasions; and if he consented to do so now, another opportunity might not be afforded him. He considered the purity of the British elector far more important than that of British cattle. He could not help thinking that Her Majesty's Government were very little inclined to adopt serious measures for the repression of bribery and corruption, notwithstanding the pretentious pressing forward of the Bill which had been passed, otherwise they would have advised the Crown to issue a Commission. He quite admitted the purity of the Committee that tried the Petition, but he admired their simplicity more than their purity. The Committee had reported that it did not appear to them that, considering the large constituency Bristol possessed, bribery extensively prevailed. Any one who read the evidence, and was made acquainted with the position of some of the persons who took part in that bribery, would probably come to a very different conclusion. He thought if they had had regard, not only to the cases that were actually proved, but to those witnesses who had stayed away under suspicious circumstances, their Report would have been of a more decided character. It appeared to him to be the desire of all parties that just sufficient bribery should be proved to unseat the Member, and that all the rest should be hushed up. He wished to know whether the Attorney General had read the evidence, and, if so, whether it was his intention to prosecute the bribers, two at least of whom had also been guilty of subornation of perjury? He wished also to know, supposing the offenders were out of the way, what excuse the Government could have for not offering a reward for their apprehension? He regretted that Bristol had not been disfranchised, like Yarmouth and Totnes, at least for seven years.


Sir, as Chairman of the Bristol Election Committee, I must express my opinion that a Committee has rarely met that was more anxious to come to a fair and impartial conclusion. We were bound by Act of Parliament to say whether we had any reason to believe that there had been any extensive bribery at the Election, and those words, in my opinion, clearly exclude the idea of our giving expression to a mere suspicion. The hon. and learned Gentleman, after bearing full witness to the purity of the Committee, remarked that he admired their simplicity more than their purity. Our simplicity may have led us to form a suspicion, but our feelings of justice induced us to weigh the evidence brought before us, and we had no valid reason to suppose that there was any extensive system of bribery, though bribery to a small extent was proved. We gave our verdict, and I believe it has been generally accepted as fair; at all events, it was a conscientious one. I believe my hon. and learned Friend was rarely present, if at all, during the sittings of that Committee, and I will ask him whether it is possible for anybody to put himself in the position of a Member of the Committee when he has not heard the whole of the evidence adduced, or observed the demeanour of the witnesses? The witnesses brought before us were certainly not those who on any principle of natural selection would have been chosen to elicit the truth of the matter. There was certainly sufficient evidence of bribery to unseat the Member, but a great deal of the evidence adduced was utterly disbelieved by the Committee.


said, he must utterly deny that the evidence taken before the Committee, which he believed was as fair a one as ever sat, justified the supposition that corrupt practices had been carried on in Bristol to such an extent as would require the issue of a Royal Commission. No doubt bribery was carried on to a certain extent, and personation also; but suppose there were 500 such cases in a constituency of 13,000 persons, that could be no reason for proceeding against the city, or attempting to disfranchise it. He did not know whether Her Majesty's Law Officers would think it worth their while to crush the poor wretches implicated in these practices, many of whom had been driven to them by want, and some of whom had perjured themselves for 6s.


said, he regretted that he had not had leisure to read the evidence taken before the Committee from beginning to end, but so far as he had read it he entirely differed from the hon. and learned Member for Oxford (Mr. Neate), who thought that the investigation had been conducted upon the plan of bringing forward as many cases of bribery as were necessary to unseat the sitting Member and of then going no further. As far as he (the Attorney General) could make out, every case of bribery was brought forward and pressed, in many instances upon most disreputable evidence. The Committee came to the conclusion that the evidence was not sufficient to authorize them in recommending that the proceedings usual in grave circumstances of bribery and corruption should be instituted. He had found that extensive bribery was not charged, nor was personal bribery charged against the candidate at all. The description of bribery rife at the last Election for Bristol seemed to have been carried on amongst the lower classes of the constituency, and not to have been instigated by the personal agents of the Member or the Member himself. He should like to know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman thought that it was the duty of the Attorney General in every case in which it was reported that there had been bribery at an Election, to take upon himself the office of public prosecutor, and institute proceedings against those charged with the offence. From that view he, at all events, begged to express his dissent, for it was utterly impossible, with the various duties which he had to discharge, that any one occupying the position of Attorney General could make himself thoroughly acquainted with all the evidence which was given before Committees in these cases. He quite admitted, at the same time, that in those instances in which it was proved that extensive bribery had prevailed it was necessary that those implicated in it should not go unpunished. Bribes it would appear were in the case of Bristol offered and received; but the result of blindly rushing into a prosecution when the persons who would come forward as witnesses were parties to those transactions, would be, as was well-known, that the Bill would be thrown out, or at all events that the proceedings would end in failure. Whenever a case came before him in which, in his judgment, it was the duty of the Attorney General, as the legal representative of the Government, to interfere, he should be prepared to do so. It was his intention to look through the rest of the evidence. But having regard to the Report of the Committee in the present instance, and to the fact that a new body of electors were coming into existence in Bristol, he looked upon it as unjust that such a penalty as the hon. and learned Gentleman proposed should be inflicted.