HC Deb 17 June 1875 vol 225 cc92-100

moved, 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 Sir Robert Lush, knight, one of the Justices of the Court of Queen Bench at Westminster, and one of the Judges selected for the trial of Election Petitions, pursuant to "The Parliamentary Elections Act, 1868," has reported to the House of Commons that there is reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed at the last Election for the City of Norwich: 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 John Morgan Howard, esquire, one of Her Majesty's Counsel, Patrick M'Mahon, esquire, barrister at law, and Gabriel Prior Goldney, esquire, barrister at law, as Commissioners, for the purpose of making inquiry into the existence of such corrupt practices. The hon. and learned Gentleman reminded the hon. Member for Peterborough, who had an Amendment on the Paper, that the existing Act of Parliament provided for an extension of the inquiry as suggested by his Amendment.


said his Amendment had been placed on the Paper through a misapprehension of the Act. He considered the circumstances under which the inquiry was proposed were most unusual, and declared that he had been actuated throughout in any part he had taken in the matter at the instance of what he believed, and must still believe, was the general feeling in the city of Norwich—namely, that they had been treated with considerable harshness, that there was no necessity at all for the inquiry, that the learned Judge investi- gated only two out of the eight wards, and that there could be no public object whatever in incurring this large expenditure. All that was known at the inquiry was known at the previous inquiry, for so long as they got gentlemen to find money to pay messengers there would be plenty of messengers ready to accept that money under the circumstances.


wished to ask the House whether there ought not to be some re-arrangement of the section of the Act under which the present proceedings were taken? Norwich was a very large constituency, containing 12,000 or 13,000 electors, and it seemed very hard upon an electoral body of that magnitude that if some 200 or 300 persons were addicted to corrupt practices it should tend to disqualify the great and pure body of the electors. He thought, therefore, the House might consider whether there should not be some line drawn—whether any city like Norwich ought to be disfranchised because a small minority were addicted to corrupt practices. He thought the Attorney General might before now have moved for this Commission, because he was afraid the result of granting it now would be that none of the Commissioners would find it either convenient or expedient to attend during the remainder of the Session, but would defer their sittings until the vacation, and the consequence would be that Norwich would be disfranchised until the meeting of Parliament next year. That would be a great hardship. It would have been infinitely better if the Attorney General had selected gentlemen who could immediately have proceeded to sit upon the Commission and make their Report to the House as speedily as possible, so that the disgrace of being disfranchised might not rest upon that great city until next year.


I entirely approve of the course which the Attorney General has taken in moving for the appointment of this Commission. The hon. Member for Stoke speaks possibly with more knowledge of the condition of Norwich than I have; but I am informed that there is a good deal of corruption in that city, and that it is not confined to 200 or 300 people. Norwich has been a very corrupt constituency for a long time. I recollect being there rather more than 30 years ago, and being at a dinner-party at the house of the then Mayor of Norwich. It was at a time when we were engaged in discussing the question of the repeal of the Corn Laws, and we remonstrated with the gentlemen present upon the fact that although the general belief was that there was a Liberal majority in the place, still the borough was represented by a Conservative on the one side and a Liberal on the other. "We asked them why they could not get their representation in something like harmony with the understood opinion of the city?—and the answer was that the corruption of a certain portion of the constituency was so great and apparently so incurable, that the respectable and good men on both sides had agreed that it was far better to divide the representation in that way than to bring upon the city the terrible calamity of the corruption which occurred at every period of a contested election. From that time to this, as is well known to those connected with Norwich, there has been a great deal of corruption there. There have been Petitions and a Commission before this, and yet there seems to have been no cure. I have a letter from a gentleman of that city, whose name I do not mean to publish; but I believe the hon. Gentleman who now sits for Norwich will be able to state that the writer is a respectable man and likely to be well informed. The writer says— The city is on both sides of polities held in thrall by some 600 or 800—though some say there are double the number—of persons who will not vote without money or beer, and will vote for anybody with those two articles. That gentleman is very anxious that the Commission should go back even as far as the last Commission. I suspect by the law it will not be able to do that; but at least they can go back to the election of last year, because, after all, if the House intends really to effect a cure it is very desirable that it should know if possible, the extent of the disease, and I am satisfied from what I know, and have known for the last 30 years, that there is an amount of corruption in Norwich which it is necessary should be exposed. I suspect, however, that the corruption is not of the kind that it used to be. It is now more the abject class of the electors who take the bribe of a day's pay or of a little beer. It is comprised I presume, of that class which I described some years ago as "the residuum," which there is, unfortunately, in every constituency, and which must necessarily be larger in very large constituencies. The more you extend the franchise the more it is probable you will find that residuum; but having done so, it is desirable that the House should be very severe, and resolve to convince the least political and the least moral that it is of great importance that elections should be pure. I am afraid that in Norwich the gentlemen of the two parties—I mean the leaders—have not taken the part which they ought to have taken and might have taken in this matter. I have seen some cases—the case of the borough of Rochdale, in which I live, is a very striking one—in which, after the Reform Bill, there was great corruption, and public-houses were opened, I am sorry to say, even by the party with which I have always been associated. The opposition—I mean the Conservatives—opened the public-houses six weeks, and our people opened them for the two days of the election. After the election, when the six weeks' opening of public-houses had prevailed over the two days' opening, the committee of the Liberal Party met and determined by a most solemn resolution that they would never again have anything to do with an election or a candidate by whom or by whose committee any public-house was opened or any other form of corruption practised; and from that time to this no candidate of the Liberal Party in Rochdale has been allowed to canvass or to pay any portion of his expenses, and the borough has been so far purified that the action of the Liberal Party has introduced a very great reform on the part of their opponents, and I believe now that there is probably not a more incorrupt constituency in the Kingdom. That, however, was not because the people liable to be tempted were better than others also liable, but because the leading men of a Party—and now, I believe, the leading men of both Parties—are anxious absolutely to discourage and prevent any corruption whatever. I beg to say in the presence of Gentlemen who must know a great deal about it that all the Parliament and law can do cannot cure evils of this kind among the poor and abject and ignorant, unless the candi- dates themselves and their friends and committees do all that lies in their power to make the law understood and the law respected. I am very glad that this Commission is to be appointed. I hope it will be able to go into this affair, and that Norwich at last may be lifted up from the mud of corruption in which it has been so long standing, and be made at least as respectable as the most respectable constituency in the Kingdom.


said, the House would believe him when he stated that it was with considerable embarrassment that he rose to address it on the subject under discussion. There was a wholesome rule that a Member should not take part when a matter in which he was personally interested was under discussion. This rule might be properly extended to the case of constituencies; but after the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, he begged the indulgence of the House while he stated a few of the facts of the case. The right hon. Gentleman had alluded to the fact that the law was not properly understood. It was the want of definition and distinctness which had caused much of the evil which had arisen. What had taken place in Norwich, he believed, arose from lax views on this subject, and not from corrupt motives. He had made inquiry in Norwich and was told that there were reasons in that city which might not apply to other places why a considerable employment of messengers was necessary. He was told that between October, when the register was made up, and the election in March, there had been 270 changes of residence in one ward alone. This ward represented about a fourth or fifth of the entire constituency. In a poor constituency like Norwich, removals were frequent, and hence the necessity of employing more messengers than were required in some larger and wealthier constituencies. MR. Justice Lush had referred to the difficult position in which he was placed through the inquiry ceasing, or, rather, collapsing; but he (MR. Colman), on behalf of his late Colleague (MR. Tillett), wished the House to know the circumstances under which that inquiry collapsed, and he thought a useful lesson might be learnt from the statement he had to make. There was a clause in the Corrupt Practices Act which required a deposit of £1,000 to be made as a security for costs. He presumed that sum was named in order that it might represent a fair amount of security. He believed that at the time of the passing of the Act there was a hope that the cost of those petitions would be very much reduced. Unfortunately they knew that the cost of Election Petitions had not been reduced. At the outset of this inquiry the counsel for the petitioner intimated that his case would occupy at least three weeks. The petitioner was a man of whom he did not wish to speak in any way disrespectfully, but he was a man in the receipt of weekly wages which did not represent anything like £2; perhaps £1 10s. would be more like the mark. He deposited £1,000, but that sum was not found by himself but by some other gentlemen behind him. His counsel stated, then, that the case would take three weeks, and this the House would remember meant a minimum cost of £500 per day. That was to say, that MR. Tillett had the risk of fighting for his seat at a minimum cost of nearly £10,000, and if he were successful he could only recover £1,000. However clever that course might be, it was not one that was conducive to justice or to the honour and dignity of the House. On the general question, he had simply to say that those with whom he acted, and many on the other side, did not shrink in any degree from this inquiry. While it might be a matter of great pain that the city should be subjected to the imputation, he trusted that good would come out of the inquiry. His belief was that when the Report of the Commissioners was presented, the aspect of the case would be different. He hoped at any rate that the inquiry would be a thorough one, and that it would be prosecuted with earnestness and vigour. He did not think that long inquiries were conducive to justice; for witnesses talked to each other, and if the inquiry extended over many weeks, the evidence must receive a colouring. He did not desire to enter into a discussion of any of the offences with which Norwich had been charged; but he wished to refer to a very useful Return made on the Motion of the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (MR. W. U. Heygate) of the total expenses of each candidate, and the number of votes for each at the election for 1874. He commended that Return to the notice of Members, who would see how much constituencies differed from each other. And while Norwich was not free from blame in the matter, it would be found that it was not blacker than a great many other constituencies. He hoped that hon. Gentlemen would look at it not only with the view of comparing the costs of constituencies, but of comparing the cost of one candidate with another; and it would be found useful to see what had been the cost per vote of the contests. He thanked the House for having listened to him so patiently. He hoped that this inquiry would be a complete and thorough one, and that Norwich would once again occupy the proud position it once held.


said, it appeared to him that there was a good deal of hypocrisy in all these discussions on the subject of bribery. A strong opinion adverse to electoral corruption was always expressed in the House, and it was supposed that this sentiment was shared in out-of-doors:—but as far as his experience went he was inclined to believe that there was no feeling of moral turpitude either in or out-of-doors as regarded bribery. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham had adverted to what he termed "the abject classes "—presumably the class of persons most liable to the temptations of bribery. But the right hon. Gentleman had long been distinguished throughout his brilliant career for his earnest efforts in lowering the franchise, and so had himself been the means of introducing the class of persons most likely to bring about the terrible calamity of which he complained. The right hon. Gentleman had endeavoured to cast the blame on the candidates; but he (MR. Bentinck) had never understood that if there were two parties to an offence blame could only attach to one of them. The right hon. Gentleman had told the House most distinctly that the cause of this calamity was the lowering of the franchise in boroughs, of which he had himself been one of the most distinguished advocates. He (MR. Bentinck) would contend that neither the House nor the country had any right to complain of bribery so long as the system of voting by ballot was retained. Was there one Member present who would rise and say that the ballot did not offer opportunity to bribery? No doubt a case of corruption might now and then be detected under the ballot system; but for every one found out hundreds escaped discovery.


said, he could not allow the remarks of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down (MR. Bentinck) to pass without making some observations upon them. The hon. Member's speech, if it meant anything at all, meant the palliation of those who, having wealth, education, and knowledge, exposed their poorer countrymen to the temptation of bribery. The hon. Gentleman was, however, as wrong in his facts as he was in his morality. One thing was evident, that where the higher classes had set themselves against bribery it had ceased to prevail. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham (MR. Bright) only gave an account as regarded his own borough, but it was such as other hon. Members could give of their boroughs. He was afraid it was known to too many that the town which he had the honour to represent, and which he should not have felt it an honour to represent at one time, was once as notorious for its corruption as it was now for its purity. [Laughter.] Well, he would say that it was once as notorious for its corruption as it was now remarkable for its purity. He believed that at the last few elections, on neither side, whether on the part of the candidates or those acting on their behalf, had there been any bribery whatever, or any money spent in drink. This result was produced by the expression of opinion, and determination on the part of those who had the welfare of the town at heart, that bribery should not be allowed to exist; and, if it were necessary, there would be no want of funds and determination to punish those who, having education, wealth, and other advantages on their side, should resort to a practice which—although contrary to the opinion of the hon. Member who had just sat down—he, for one, considered degrading to the man who practised it.


said, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham had stated that bribery must depend on the goodwill of the upper classes, and the hon. Member for Liverpool had just confirmed that statement. If it were true that the upper classes countenanced bribery, there was under a system of secret voting no means of detecting that corruption. Corrupt practices could now be traced only when they were practised among the "residuum" of the population—under the system of open voting it was perfectly competent to trace corruption, if such existed, either to the upper or lower classes. He believed that the old system of open voting was abandoned simply because it exposed the corruption of the upper classes, and that the mode of taking votes by ballot would soon be found to be as inefficacious here as experience had shown it to be in the United States.

Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That the said Address be communicated to The Lords, and their concurrence desired thereto.—(MR. Attorney General.)