HC Deb 08 May 1874 vol 218 cc1928-43

LORD KENSINGTON moved the issuing of a new Writ for the Borough of Stroud in the room of Mr. Sebastian Stewart Dickinson and Mr. Walter John Stanton whose election had been determined to be void.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of Members to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Stroud, in the room of Sebastian Stewart Dickinson, esquire, and Walter John Stanton, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void."—(Lord Kensington.)


, in rising to move an Amendment, That no new Writ for the electing of Members to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Stroud be issued until after the shorthand writer's notes of the Evidence and Judgment have been laid before this House. said, that very few words of his would be sufficient to show that the course which he recommended was in accordance with established precedent, and was not only consistent with the proprieties and necessities of the case, but that if the House pursued any other, it would be reversing the policy which it had adopted during the last two or three Parliaments in order to put a check to bribery and corruption. The Amendment proposed the delay of the Writ not for an indefinite period, but until the House had an opportunity of reading the evidence upon which the judgment was founded. By the 31 & 32 Vict., c. 125, sec. 11, the Judge was required to report whether corrupt practices had, or there was reason to believe they bad, extensively prevailed at the election, and the same section went on to empower the Judge to make a special Report as to whether anything had occurred which ought to be submitted to the consideration of the House of Commons. The Report of Baron Bramwell, which was laid on the Table on Monday last, contained these words— I further report that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed at the election to which the Petition relates. It would be observed by the House that that was the most severe form a Report could assume as regarded a constituency. With respect to the individual Members, the Report stated that, though they were unseated for treating, it was treating without their knowledge, but for which the law made them responsible. If the Report stopped there, what would have been the duty of the House in its desire to check corrupt practices at Parliamentary Elections? Would it have been its duty, or consistent with its practice, to take no notice of such a severe Report. He apprehended the answer to that question must have been most decidedly in the negative. The House could not have been silent, nor could it, have issued the new Writ without taking notice of the subject matter included in the Report. How was the matter changed by the particular facts reported by the Judge? It was only fair to the constituency that he should state exactly what they were. The learned Judge said— The facts and reasons on which I report this are the following:—On and before the day of the Election, beer, bread and cheese, tea, coffee, and meat, were provided for and given to voters. These were consumed by a very large number of voters and others. The portion that each voter had was probably of trilling value; but the voters who were thus treated were generally poor labouring men. And when it is remembered they were wholly illiterate, knowing little more of the matter than that one party was called yellow and the other blue, incapable of understanding that they had any duty in relation to their vote, it is impossible to doubt that this treating not only had a strong influence in causing them to vote for those in whose favour the treating took place. And also it is impossible not to find, that those who gave and provided this entertainment, did so to cause the voter to vote for those in whose favour it was provided, It follows that this being the motive or one of the motives, or at least the contemplated result of the treating, it was corrupt. He would refer to the next paragraph presently. He wished merely to call the attention of the House to the fact, that it was clearly on those grounds that the Judge made that Report against the constituency, and he desired, in passing, to point out that the Judge did not express it as a matter of doubt or belief, but that he found it as a fact, that corrupt practices did prevail. There were, however, two others matter of an important character. In the first place, he wished to call attention to the preceding—the second paragraph of the Judge's Report, which was to the effect that— There was evidence before me to show that many persons were guilty of corrupt practices at the election; but as the Respondents gave up their defence, confessing the determination of the Petition must be against them, did not call all the witnesses they otherwise might have called, the persons against whom such evidence was given were not heard. I cannot therefore find that corrupt practices were proved against them, and ought not to return their names as persons against whom corrupt practices were proved. Their names will be found in the shorthand writer's notes. Upon that part of the Report he would make no observation; but he could not help saying, that apparently, judging from it, it was quite clear that the whole truth in connection with the Election had not conic out. The case was exit short by the submission of the respondents, and he believed the petitioners' case had not been closed when the respondents submitted. Another special matter was mentioned in the last paragraph of the Report in these terms— I have further to report that there is reason to believe that Edward Stevens, Hoary Asher, and three other persons, whose names I cannot give with certainty, absconded from the neighbourhood of Stroud to prevent an inquiry into a charge of bribery by Stevens of the four other persons. In other words, an inquiry which had been instituted in due course of law had been intercepted as regarded the alleged bribery, to which live persons were said to be parties, by the absconding of those persons from the neighbourhood of the place where the Judge held the inquiry. He wished the House to consider whether the issuing of Writs where elections had been decided to be void on account of bribery and treating, ought to be left to a scramble and a chance division as each case arose, or whether the House should endeavour to act on some definite principle, so that the decision in a particular case might not wear a party aspect, and all delinquent constituencies might be treated alike? There was a principle upon which the House had already acted, and it was that where a Judge had found, in the words of the statute, that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, the Writ should not issue, until the House had been informed of the materials upon which the Judge came to the conclusion. All that he asked the House to do now was simply that—to hold its hand until it was in possession of the evidence; in order that it might be seen whether it was necessary that anything further should be done to vindicate the law of purity of election; or whether this was one of those exceptional cases in which it would be right to issue a Writ, and not to keep the constituency any longer in suspense. He could suppose cases in which the detailed Report might draw the sting of the report that corrupt practices had exten- sively prevailed; he could suppose a case such as that of Norwich, in which the Report might be so specific and detailed as to put them at once in possession of the materials necessary for forming a judgment on the case. In this case, however, it did not at present appear how many persons had been treated, and the inquiry had been baffled by the premature submission of the respondents, and by the absconding of the persons charged with bribery. He had searched the Journals of the House with reference to the course pursued after the General Elections of 1865 and 1868 in similar cases. There was no case in 1865 where corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, in which a Writ was issued immediately, before the publication of the evidence, and its circulation among Members. In the four cases of Brecknock, Hereford, Stafford, and Westbury, in which the Members were turned out for corrupt practices on the part of their agents, Writs were issued immediately, before the evidence was printed; but the words of the Report were directly negative of the words of the statute, and it was declared that there was no evidence of corrupt practices having prevailed extensively. In the cases of Bewdley, Bradford, Drogheda, Youghal, and Dublin City, the Writs were delayed until the evidence was printed, although in no case, was the Report in the direct words of the statute, which were but partially adopted. In 1866, in the four cases of Devonport, Helston, Windsor, and Nottingham, where the Members were unseated for bribery, or treating by their agents, Writs were issued immediately; but in each case, the Report negatived the prevalence of corrupt practices. In the one case of Bridgwater, the Report was laid on the Table on the 25th of April, and the Writ was not issued until the 31st of May; but in that case, as in that of Stroud, it was reported that corrupt practices prevailed extensively; and the Writ was not issued, until the evidence had been five weeks before the House. The course which was now suggested was, therefore, abundantly established by precedent. It was, however, only right to say there was a palliating sentence in the Report, which was— But I feel bound to add that it was don, so openly, at least in most of the instances, I am satisfied that those who were guilty of it had in some way persuaded themselves that it was not unlawful. If that were not the statement of a learned Judge, he should describe it as somewhat naїve. Many poisons were in the habit of treating conduct as not being unlawful, when they thought it would, perhaps, not be found out, or not punished. At its best, the paragraph was a double-edged sword; for though it might absolve the guilty from the charge of wilfully breaking the law, it might imply that corrupt practices were so wide-spread, and had prevailed so long that people had become accustomed to them. One mitigating circumstance, however, might be pleaded, and that was, that full effect ought to be given to the circumstance that Stroud was not a place with an unsavoury history, like Bridgwater, Youghal, Windsor, and Lancaster. That was, he believed, the first Petition against Stroud; and one could not help recollecting that it had been represented in this House by a noble Lord who now adorned "another assemblage" (Earl Russell); by a right hon. Gentleman still a Member of that House (Mr. Horsman); and in the last Parliament by an hon. Gentleman whose talents were admired and thoroughly appreciated (Mr. Wintorbotham). He thought, therefore, such a constituency which had been so represented in that House might fairly claim favourable consideration under the particular circumstances of this case. He had not travelled out of the four corners of the Judge's Report, and had not sought to aggravate the case by introducing into it any outside elements. What, then, was to be done? He should very much mistake the temper of the House, if there was any indisposition to stay their hand till they had possession of the evidence, or, at any rate, until the particulars had been received. He would not press the question upon the House; but he thought that it was a case in which responsibility must rest on the House and its recognized Leaders; and he hoped more general and impartial rules would be laid down which would prevent these questions being made the mere shuttlecock of party, and at the same time protect the character of the House for sincerity and straightforwardness in putting down corrupt practices. There was nothing in the circumstances of the anticipated contest for Stroud which should give it greater interest on one side than on another. Stroud had long-been considered one of those robust Liberal constituencies which could not be moved by a Conservative candidate, and for years it had resisted every effort. It had, indeed, rather changed of late; but there was nothing in the present circumstances of the borough to give any party tinge to this question. He hoped they would, at all events, have the advice on this subject of the Law Officers of the Crown and of those who were the recognized Leaders on both sides of the House, and that in the result it would be impossible to say that the House had wilfully shut its eyes to the existence of corrupt practices as reported by the Judge who tried the Election Petition, and positively refused to delay issuing the Writ for a few days till the evidence on which the Judge had reported was placed in their hands. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Amendment of which he had given Notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "no new Writ for the electing of Members to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Stroud be issued until after the shorthand writer's notes of the Evidence and Judgment have been laid before this House,"—(Mr. Charles Lewis,)

—instead thereof.

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


said, that al-though the Motion was proposed by the noble Lord the Member for Haverford-west (Lord Kensington) there was no desire on that side of the House to press it forward in a party sense. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Lewis) had called the attention of the House to circumstances which, in his opinion, would justify the suspension of the Writ, and he quite agreed with the hon. and learned Gentleman when he suggested that the House would do all it could to slay corrupt practices; but it was certainly incumbent on him to show that from the suspension or delay of this Writ, some practical benefit would accrue. This question must be dealt with—they were bound to consider the constituency to some extent. Technically, the consti- tuency had a right to be represented in that House, and substantially, it should not be kept from being represented, unless for good reason. If the House allowed him briefly to call attention to the statutes affecting the subject, he thought he would be able to show that, if the proposed delay took place, no possible step could be taken afterwards. It would be observed that the whole tendency of the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument was, that the House should have an opportunity of reading the evidence taken before Baron Bram-well in the Stroud Election Inquiry; but he did not tell them what subsequent steps the House could take. Hon. Members were aware that the power of investigating such matters was by recent legislation removed from the House and vested in the Judges of the Superior Courts. Now, so far as he was aware, there was only one step the House could take after receiving the Report of the learned Judge who tried the Petition, and that step could only be taken when the Report took a particular form. They could not re-try the Petition. They could not enter into any question as to whether or not witnesses had absconded. They could not deal with any fact reported to them unless the Report was in a particular form; and then, if they came to the conclusion that the Report of the Judge was correct, they must act in accordance with the Report. The Act that regulated the matter was passed in 1852, and, with much deference to the hon. and learned Gentleman, bethought if he had referred to that statute, he would have found that in the present case they could take no practical step whatever after reading the evidence. The Report of the learned Judge stated— I further report that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed at the Election to which the Petition relates," and added "the facts and reasons on which I report this are the following. He then proceeded to state in what form the corrupt, practice of treating prevailed. He stated that treating, the corrupt practice to which he referred, extensively prevailed. Now, suppose they found in the evidence that the Report of the Judge was entirely sustained by the evidence, what step could the House take? The hon. and learned Member had referred to many precedents and instances; but he had not referred to any proceeding that had ever taken place on a similar Report to this. And for obvious reasons. All they could do in any case was to appoint a Commission to inquire into corrupt practices; but any Commission they might appoint had no power to inquire into corrupt practices which simply took the form of treating. It was very strange that it should be so, but such was the state of the law; and the result was, they had no power to inquire into anything but bribery. Consequently, there had never been any instance in which an Address had been presented praying for an inquiry into treating. He therefore asked the hon. and learned Member what he proposed to do when they had the evidence. They might read it, they might study it, they might give their opinion that the conclusion come to by the learned Judge was right or not; but—and he spoke under the correction of the Law Officers of the Crown—they could do no more. They could not inquire any further. They could not issue a Commission that would have any effect. If that were so, he asked the House, what would be the result of suspending the issuing of a new Writ? They could do nothing. He was anxious not to be misunderstood. He did not think treating was a trivial offence; but, unfortunately, it did not come within the corrupt practices that could be inquired into by a Commission. An alteration of the law might be desirable, and if the hon. and learned Member moved in that direction, he might rely on his support. Inasmuch, however, as at present treating could not be inquired into, and consequently as no practical result could come from the proposed delay, he thought the Amendment should not be pressed.


said, that the argument of the hon. and learned Member for Taunton was, that a Commission could not inquire into treating, and that, therefore, they ought not to send down a Commission. But under the 1st and 2nd sections of the Act of 1852 the two Houses might address Her Majesty to send down a Commission when it had been reported that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. Baron Bramwell, in the case of Stroud, did not limit his finding to the existence of corrupt practices in respect of treating only, but added that there was reason to believe that certain persons had absconded from the neighbourhood to prevent a charge of bribery against a person named Stevens. Therefore, under the terms used by Mr. Baron Bramwell, there were grounds for a Commission to issue. But the hon. and learned Member for Taunton said that the Judge based his decision only upon certain treating. That finding, however, did not limit the previous finding of the learned Judge, that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed in the borough. But even if that were so, the hon. and learned Gentleman had overlooked the last paragraph of the Report, because in that Mr. Baron Bramwell did not limit his finding to treating, and therefore there certainly was a primâ facie case for a Commission to issue. The House might look leniently upon the borough of Stroud because it had been well represented, and there had been no previous conviction against it; but he could not agree with the hon. and learned Member, that upon a Report such as this the House was in any way bound to issue the Writ at once.


said, it was not the fact that in all cases where it had been reported that corrupt practices extensively prevailed a Commission had been issued. He was a Member of an Election Commission for bribery in the case of Galway, which sat in 1866, which did not unseat either of the Members, although they found that corrupt practices extensively prevailed. He thought at that time that some action on the part of the Government would follow in the way of moving that a Commission should issue, and he had asked a Question on the point, of the right hon. Gentleman Sir George Grey, then Homo Secretary, who answered that it was not the intention of the Government to move for a Commission, but that if the Chairman of the Committee, or any other Member moved for it, the Government would give the Motion their support. He thereupon communicated with the Chairman, who declined to move in the matter, and the whole thing dropped through. He quite agreed that some principles should be laid down on the subject. Either the Government should undertake the matter, or there should be some self-acting rule by which certain words in a Report should be held to be sufficient for a Commission to follow. In the present case, as the only independent Representative of Stroud now in the House, he might be allowed to add that it had been eminently distinguished for the character and ability of its Representatives, and until now not a single word had been heard against the purity of its elections. No doubt, a clerk in a local bank and four working men who had been brought into communication with him had absconded, and Baron Bramwell was amply justified in reporting the circumstance. But although the treating which prevailed on the present occasion—which was the result of over zeal on the part of certain young ladies and Dissenting clergymen—and although the absence of these persons were suspicious, they hardly constituted a sufficient ground for the issue of a Commission, and he trusted that the House would allow the borough to proceed to the election of new Members without further delay.


said, he entirely concurred in the hope and belief expressed by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. E. Lewis), that this question would be approached without reference to party feeling. He had endeavoured to do so himself, and having given his best consideration to the Report of the learned Judge and to the law on the subject, he was unable to arrive at the same conclusion with his hon. and learned Friend. It was not a case in which the House would, he thought, be of opinion that the issue of the Writ should be suspended. It was only in extreme cases that the House would suspend the issue of a Writ, with the view of issuing a Commission under the Act of 1852, and its practice was not to suspend it even for a few days unless it was of opinion, from the facts before it, that there was a primâ facie case for issuing a Commission. He very much doubted whether the corrupt practices reported on by the Judge were such as Commissioners appointed under the Act could properly inquire into; but assuming that, upon an Address from both Houses of Parliament, Her Majesty should appoint Commissioners, and that the Commissioners so appointed should make the inquiry, he ventured to ask the House whether it thought that, even if all the alleged facts were established, the case was one in which the borough of Stroud should be visited with heavy punishment. It appeared from the Report of the learned Judge, that although treating extensively prevailed, the parries concerned were under the impression that they were not doing anything which was unlawful. It was also admitted that Stroud was a borough respecting which there were no unpleasant recollections; and for all these reasons he trusted the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry would consider he had sufficiently discharged his duty by bringing the matter forward, and would consent to withdraw his Amendment.


said, he was sorry to differ both from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General and the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James). On one point the hon. and learned Mover of the Amendment was mistaken; for by the Act of 1868 it was imperative in the case of Election Petitions that a copy of the evidence should accompany the certificate to the Speaker, and there was no doubt it did so in this case. What the hon. Member probably meant was that the evidence should be printed. But the reason he differed from the Attorney General was this. The statute said, that when it was found that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed—and those were the very words used in the present instance—the same consequences should follow as followed while the House retained its jurisdiction in these cases. The Act of 1852 showed what those consequences wore. On a joint Address of both Houses of Parliament a Commission might be issued. He was by no means contented with the exposition of the law so authoritatively laid down by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Taunton. He did not say that the hon. and learned Gentleman was wrong; but he was not satisfied that he was right. The Commissioners would go down to inquire into corrupt practices generally, and as they were appointed on a joint Address by both Houses of Parliament, the scope of their inquiry would not be limited to the exact terms of the finding of the Judge. He could not help thinking that under the circumstances it would be premature to issue a new Writ at once.


said, that because a Judge reported that treating had extensively prevailed, to issue a Commission to inquire into bribery was very much like a magistrate committing a man for larceny and a Judge trying him for murder. But for the high authority of the hon. and learned Member for Marylebone Mr. Forsyth), he should be very much disposed to doubt whether this was the law. The question was, whether the Commission, if appointed, would have the power to inquire into the question of treating. He was sorry to say he thought they could not do so, for that was a power which they ought to possess. No one in that House would contend that treating was not as heavy an offence as bribery. He considered it was a more insidious and a meaner method of corrupting a constituency than bribery—[laughter]—and that it ought to be dealt with by the law quite as severely. He was sorry to find that there were hon. Gentlemen who were not so anxious to put down treating as he was. Another question was, whether the 6th section did or did not apply to it. The hon. and learned Member for Marylebone had quoted two lines from the beginning of the section; but if he looked at the end of it, he would find that such Commissioners should from time to time report to Her Majesty the evidence taken by them, and what they found concerning it, and also the names of all persons guilty of corrupt practices, as well as those who had given bribes for the purpose of purchasing the votes of others, or had themselves received money or other valuable consideration. Every word in that section applied to bribery, and there was not a single word which would give the Commissioners power to report on treating. If the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry was so anxious about this matter, why had he not made that Motion in the case of Wakefield, where bribery was not only reported to have extensively prevailed, but where eight persons were scheduled as bribers by the Election Judge, instead of reserving it for this case, where there were only two?


said, he thought that according to the Act, the Commissioners had the power of calling before them every person in the place adjudged guilty of bribery and treating, and could proceed backwards through all preceding elections until they found a pure election. He had sat on one of those Commissions himself, and well knew what sort of an inquiry it was. It was unlimited in its range, capable of being applied to every person, altogether exceptional, and only to be resorted to when the Report of the Election Judge showed the clearest ground on which to found it. Now, what was the Report in the present instance? It said there was no doubt treating; but it was accompanied by a statement from the Judge that most of the persons concerned in it, both those who received and those who gave, appeared to him not to view it as an unlawful act. As regarded bribery there were one or two isolated instances, and one person had absconded. Those were not sufficient grounds on which that House ought to apply to Her Majesty's Government to put in motion powers of an exceptional nature, which were justified only in very flagrant instances of bribery and corruption. He therefore believed the present case was not one demanding such a harsh course of procedure as had been called for by the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry.


said, the subject had been argued as if it were a question of issuing a Commission. The House had always been very desirous, when there was an allegation that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, to take the fullest opportunity of judging of the whole question before they determined what steps should be taken, and whether a Commission of Inquiry should issue or not. The only issue raised by the present Amendment was, whether, on the information which the House had before them now, and which consisted solely of the finding of the Judge, without any of the evidence, they were to determine that a new Writ should issue at once. The statement of the Judge was, that corrupt practices extensively prevailed at the late election. There was also an allegation that among those corrupt practices there might have been bribery as well as treating, and, according to the provisions of the Act of Parliament which tried to put down corrupt practices, treating was an offence which incapacitated any candidate proved to be guilty of it from voting again at a subsequent election. It was important that the House should be in possession of evidence in support of these facts before they determined that there was no case made out for suspending the Writ, and that it should be issued forthwith. Could any harm happen if the Writ were suspended for three or four days? If the facts were as the hon. and learned Member for Taunton seemed to think, then probably the opinion of the House would be that the Writ ought to be issued; but if corrupt practices extensively prevailed, the House should take notice of the matter. At all events, they would lose nothing by suspending the issue of the Writ for a few days.


I am sorry, Sir, the opinions of hon. Gentlemen of the long robe have not been uniform, for I, and I am sure the House, have every wish to be guided by their superior experience and learning. It struck me there was this fallacy in the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman who has just addressed the House, and who upon ail subjects, but especially those affecting our constitutional rights, is listened to with the greatest attention. The right hon. Gentleman argued the case as if the recommendations had been founded on the Report of an Election Committee, not on the Report of a Judge. The fact is, that we are to take the judgment of the Judge upon the evidence, and upon that judgment we must really rest our conclusions. With regard to the Motion of the noble Lord, I am myself indisposed to arrest the issue of a new Writ where there is a feeling—I will not say a thorough conviction, but a general feeling—in the House that we should not in the case have recourse to ulterior proceedings. I think the character of the borough ought to be considered, and, as the opinions of hon. Gentlemen of the long robe are so various, we must look to considerations of that kind. I rest upon the opinion given by the Judge on the evidence. The Judge has given us that opinion to guide us, and on the whole I am disposed to think it is our duty not to oppose the Motion for issuing a new Writ for the borough of Stroud.


thought that was a question which ought not to be precipitately decided. The balance of the opinions which had been stated was to the effect that if the borough of Stroud had made a lapse, it might say, like the young lady in a scrape, that it was a very little one. At the same time, after the Report of the Judge, a good deal might be said in favour of not issuing the Writ—that was, if the Reports of Election Judges were worthy of the respect of the House. As an amicable way of getting out of the difficulty, he would suggest that the debate be adjourned, ["Oh. oh!"] If the House would not accept that suggestion, he should not put it to the trouble of a division; but if they did, it would be letting the borough of Stroud down easily, and yet showing that it had some regard for the purity of election and for the Reports of the appointed Judges. It would also give the House an opportunity of forming its own conclusions upon the whole of the evidence before it took a decisive step.


said, that having regard to the opinion expressed by right hon. and hon. Members on the two front benches, to whom he appealed with reference to the proper course to be pursued, he thought it would only be consistent with the tone he had throughout endeavoured to assume, if he said he would prefer not to press his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of Members to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Stroud, in the room of Sebastian Stewart Dickinson, esquire, and Walter John Stanton, esquire, whose election has been determined to be void.

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