HC Deb 11 February 1870 vol 199 cc178-85

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the conduct of the Returning Officer for the Borough of Southwark, as set forth in the Petition of George Odger, a candidate for the said Borough; and to move a Resolution thereon. The House was aware that there were three candidates in the field, and that one of them, Mr. Odger, was a member of the working classes, whose interests, influenced by a laudable ambition, he desired to represent in that House. He (Mr. Serjeant Simon) did not wish to impute any unworthy motive to the High Bailiff of Southwark, but he did intend to submit that there were good grounds for the adoption of the Resolution of which he had given notice. On the 3rd of February Mr. Odger called upon the High Bailiff, who was the Returning Officer for the Borough, and deposited with him the sum of £100. The next day Mr. Odger received a letter from the High Bailiff stating that the £100 would be applied towards Mr. Odger's share of the official expenses of the election. The letter went on to say that there was no legal obligation on the High Bailiff to provide accommodation for check clerks, &c, but that in order that such accommodation might be provided he asked Mr. Odger to increase his deposit to £200, the latter being the sum lodged with him by the two other candidates, Colonel Beresford and Sir Sidney Waterlow. Before Mr. Odger's Election agent was aware of this letter, he called on the High Bailiff to obtain the usual documentary information with reference to the polling places and matters of that kind, and also to procure tickets for the admission of Mr. Odger's supporters to the Southwark hustings. The High Bailiff refused the information, and also the tickets; and he intimated that unless the deposit was increased to £200 he would not provide accommodation for Mr. Odger's polling clerks. The law relating to the subject was contained in two statutes. By the Reform Act of 11832, 2 Will. IV. c. 45, s. 68, the returning officer was bound, at the request; of each candidate, and if not at his request, as far as he should deem it expedient, to provide polling booths for the various polling districts. The 71st section enacted that the expenses should be paid by the candidates in equal proportions, and it prescribed the number of deputy returning officers and polling clerks and their remuneration. By the 31 & 32 Vict. c. 125, s. 3, it was declared that a candidate should be held to be any person who had been elected or nominated, or who should declare himself to be a candidate. Therefore, until a person has been elected, nominated, or has declared himself to be a candidate, no liability attached to him in respect of polling places. His first complaint against Mr. Gresham was that, when he made his demand for expenses, Mr. Odger was not a candidate within the meaning of the Act; indeed he could not have been a candidate, the vacancy in the representation not having then occurred. Mr. Odger paid £100, but protested that even this was an excessive amount; and he (Mr. Serjeant Simon) would show that it was. The number of booths to be erected for Southwark was eight. These at the maximum charge under the statute of £25 would amount to £200. The deputy returning officers at these booths received by the same statute £2 2s. each, making £16 16s., and thirty-eight polling compartments were necessary for the election, involving the employment of thirty-eight clerks at £1 1s., making £39 18s. for polling clerks. This made a total of £256 14s., which being divided among three candidates left only £85 11s. 4d. to be paid by each. But he believed that it would not be necessary to erect eight polling booths, because the High Bailiff might and usually did engage schoolrooms and other places of that kind. As a matter of fact, as he was informed, four had been hired at a charge of from £2 2s. to £4 4s. each; but taking them at £10 a-piece, there was thus a reduction of £60 on the whole, so that the expense to each candidate would be reduced to about £65 or £66, whereas Mr. Odger had already paid £100. The High Bailiff did not allege that Mr. Odger had not paid enough for polling booths, but that he had not paid for the special luxury of providing for the check clerks of the candidates. That objection, however, was mere moonshine, because the space allotted to each polling clerk was large enough to admit of three persons standing behind him, one for each candidate, to see that he took the poll correctly. It was clear that, under the Act, Mr. Odger, until he became a candidate, was not liable for a shilling for providing polling booths; and that, if he went to the poll, he could be sued by due process of law for his share of the necessary expenses incurred; and if he retired the person who proposed him would be liable. In case, therefore, of any excess beyond what Mr. Odger had paid, the Returning Officer was protected by the law, which had made ample provision to boar him harmless. He was not there simply to arraign the conduct of Mr. Gresham, and to vindicate Mr. Odger, but to ask the House to take a larger view of the matter as it affected the freedom of election. If a Returning Officer had it in his power before an election to insist upon payment and to make his own estimate of the probable expenses and to fix it so high that no one but candidates of large means could provide the money, it would follow that the Returning Officer, and not the electors, would practically have it in his power to decide who was a fit and proper person to represent a borough or county. Such a power struck at the root of free election, and it was unwise and unsafe to leave it as it now was. He therefore begged to move his Amendment.


, in seconding the Motion, said, it appeared to him that the High Bailiff of Southwark had taken upon himself the responsibility of re-imposing the property qualification, which had been very properly repealed by Parliament. Looking at the matter as a layman, he believed that the High Bailiff had not only acted with harshness, but with utter illegality. On this latter point he hoped to hear the opinion of Her Majesty's Law Advisers. The power vested in Returning Officers was a matter which affected the interests of all who sat in that House.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, all charges and expenses of Returning Officers should be so regulated by Law that the same shall not be at the discretion of the Returning Officer,"—(Mr. Serjeant Simon,) —instead thereof.

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


wished to say a few words upon that part of this subject which related to those of the working classes who had aspirations to a seat in that House. It appeared from a Return which had been placed in the hands of hon. Members that morning, that £200 per head was the normal charge; made by the Returning Officers against the metropolitan candidates. In the borough of Chelsea, for instance, where there were four candidates at the last Election, the total charge made by the Returning Officer was £770. He regretted that the Bill of the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett) had not become law, but in default of this it would be a graceful act to pass this Resolution as an instalment of justice and equity to those who desired a seat in that House, but who had not acquired a plethora of wealth. Directly a man became a Member he was asked for subscriptions to everything that could possibly be conceived. He had not only to pay for his seat, but when he had got it he was asked to strip himself of every shilling of his income to forward objects in which other persons took an interest. Though he did not himself desire that Members should be paid for serving their country, still he thought that they ought to be permitted to serve it without being called upon to make such heavy payments. He appealed to hon. Members on the other side of the House to support this Resolution in order to show that they really did take some interest in the working classes.


said, he would support the Resolution on the ground that he thought it of the utmost consequence that the many great obstacles which now existed to working men obtaining seats in that House should be removed. From Papers which had been placed in the hands of Members it would be found that the last Election, inclusive of the expenses of successful and non-successful candidates, cost no less a sum than £1,500,000, so that the House was constituted at a cost of £2,100 per Member. The Paper did not show what proportion of that sum was paid to the Returning Officers, because their accounts had not been added up, but he should think that they would amount to at least one - tenth of the total sum. The expenses of the Returning Officer at Glasgow were £1 per 34 elect- ors, in Belfast per 30, in Birmingham per 24, in Merthyr Tydvil per 19, in Dundee per 15, and in the Royal borough of Windsor the expenses reached the astonishing sum of £1 per 4½ electors. These statistics showed the existence of a great abuse, and he was only sorry that the resolution of the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Serjeant Simon) did not go further and declare that the constituencies themselves should pay the expenses of the Returning Officers, in which event the constituencies would take good care that those expenses were greatly reduced.


said, that it might be convenient, in the course of the few observations he was about to offer to the House, that he should keep distinct that part of the subject which related to the High Bailiff of Southwark from the wider view which the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Serjeant Simon) had requested the House to take of the matter. As he understood the law, the High Bailiff had a right, if the candidates thought fit to accept his terms, to enter into a contract with them to afford them all reasonable and necessary accommodation for the election for a certain sum. In the event of the candidates not accepting his offer he was bound by law to provide them with such reasonable and necessary accommodation, and to take his chance of subsequently recovering the expenses he had been put to from the candidates. In the present case he understood that the High Bailiff of Southwark had offered to make a contract with the candidates to provide the necessary election accommodation for £200 per head, that two of the candidates had accepted his offer, while the third was only willing to pay £100, and that thereupon the High Bailiff had said—"I have no power to make you enter into the contract, because whether you enter into it or not is left by the Act of Parliament to your option, but I shall give to those who have entered into the contract more facilities than I shall give you, and I shall decline to give you such reasonable accommodation and facilities as are necessary for putting you upon equal terms with your opponents." That he understood to be the ground taken up by the High Bailiff of the Borough. As he read the law, it was plain that a High Bailiff could not force any candidate to enter into any contract, it being entirely at the option of the candidate to enter into it or not, as he might think fit. The duty cast upon the High Bailiff was to provide the necessary facilities for the accommodation of candidates at elections primarily at his own expense, and he was entitled to recover subsequently a proportionate share of the expenses from each candidate, if he could. It was necessary that he should use the expression "if he could," because, in the famous contest for the city of Westminster, when Sir Francis Burdett was elected without having appeared as a candidate, the Court of King's Bench in the time of Lord Ellenborough held that the High Bailiff could not recover a proportionate share of the expenses from Sir Francis Burdett because he had done no act that placed him in the position of a candidate—he had done nothing but take his seat in the House when elected. It might be very hard upon the High Bailiff that he should have to incur these expenses at his own risk, but such being the law he was bound by it. What the High Bailiff had threatened to do in the present ease—for he hoped that he would be too well advised to persist in such a course of action—was to act in a manner that would amount to misconduct of a public officer in his office, and would expose him to an action by the party aggrieved. The High Bailiff had threatened to give the necessary facilities to those of the candidates who had entered into the contract with him, while he refused them to the one who had not done so, and he apprehended that the High Bailiff had clearly no right to adopt such a course. The facilities of which Mr. Odger was threatened to be deprived, were—first, the accommodation for check clerks; and, secondly, the necessary documentary information to enable him to ascertain at which of the polling booths the electors were to record their votes. Now, in a large place like Southwark, it was of great importance to a candidate to know at which of the polling booths his various supporters were to record their votes, and if he were to be deprived of that information he would be placed at a disadvantage with regard to those who were contesting the seat with him, and therefore the High Bailiff would not be properly discharging his duty as a public officer if he were to withhold it from any of the candidates. Under these circumstances, in the hope that some report of the proceedings in that House might come under the notice of the High Bailiff, he ventured to submit to him for his consideration the well-known doctrine of law, that if a man was guilty of misconduct in a public office, whereby a private person suffered a private wrong, he would be liable to an action for damages, and to recommend him to be well advised before he exposed himself to the certain risk and the possible success of such an action by conduct such as that he had threatened to pursue in the present instance. He could not see that the present law, if fairly acted upon, afforded, as regarded the candidates, any real ground of complaint. He had not seen the Return to which his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Serjeant Simon) had alluded, but he believed it showed the most ludicrous disproportion between the fees demanded in different places; and perhaps the fact that large sums were occasionally demanded and paid arose from the amiable state of mind in which candidates usually found themselves just prior to an election; possibly at a sterner moment they would decline to accede to the claims preferred. It might be proper that the discretion of Returning Officers should be revised by Parliament, and, as far as he could presume to express any opinion, it was a matter well worthy the attention of Government. He, however, submitted to his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Serjeant Simon) whether it would not be better to withdraw his Motion for the present. An abstract Resolution often raised expectations it was difficult to satisfy, and the Motion before the House really did not advance the practical amendment of the law, while it seemed to pledge the House to more than was really intended. His hon. and learned Friend might rest satisfied with having drawn attention to his subject; and he would conclude by expressing an opinion that the Returning Officer had not discharged his duty properly if he had given facilities to one candidate which he had not given to another, and that possibly a recurrence of such conduct would be followed by unpleasant consequences.


said, presuming that the statement of the Solicitor General amounted to an assurance that the subject would at some future time receive the attention of the Government, he would withdraw his Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.

Motion considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Queen's Speech read.

Resolved, "That a Supply be granted to Her Majesty."

Resolution to be reported upon Monday next.