HC Deb 12 August 1878 vol 242 cc1769-76

(Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson, Sir Matthew Ridley.)


Order for Second Reading read.


, who had the following Motion on the Paper:— That this House regrets that legislation with regard to Corrupt Practices at Elections has not taken place in the course of the present Session, said, he did not, under the circumstances, intend to move his Resolution; but he would point out that this Bill contained a renewal of the Corrupt Practices Act now in force. Last year he had called attention to the negligence of Her Majesty's Government in relation to Corrupt Practices at Elections. During the present year there had been no legislation on that question, although the hours of polling and the subject of registration had been dealt with. For the last three years they had had promises from the Government on the matter, and not only had those promises been made, but they had been made in very direct terms on three several occasions by the Home Secretary, the Attorney General, and the Leader of the House respectively, and yet the Bill dealing with the subject had not been introduced until the last week of the Session. He did not think that was a proper way of dealing with a large and serious question; and he hoped to receive from the Government a promise of such a character on this occasion that they would be ashamed to meet the House next year without having it carried out. The Bill now before the House proposed to continue in its present objectionable state the law regarding the employment of cabs, when it was notorious that at every Election that law was broken, and the sooner it was made clear the better.


reminded the House that one of the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1875, which was carried by a majority of 11 to 5, was that Election Petitions should be tried by more than one Judge, and that no seat should be vacated upon an allegation of corrupt practices, except by a decision of two Judges. There were strong reasons for supposing that the Government did not intend to propose a measure to give effect to that recommendation. He wished to call attention to a short Return, from which hon. Members might form their own opinions as to the desirability of leaving the liberties and privileges of constituencies at the mercy of the decisions of Judges from whom there was no appeal. It was a Return showing the number of cases in which the decisions of single Judges in Chancery had been reversed on appeal; and the statistics proved that out of 253 decisions given, between January 1, 1877, and March 4, 1878, only 106 had remained undisturbed by superior Courts. Such, then, was the fallibility of single Judges. It was to be noticed that the Act had been originally passed for only three years; and he thought that now that it had been seven times renewed by a Continuance Bill, in spite of the strongest evidence for its discontinuance, the Government ought to have introduced a measure of reform. He trusted that during the Recess the hon. and learned Attorney General would apply his vigorous and practical mind to the matter.


called attention to the continuance of the Corrupt Practices Bill. Although it was expected in 1874 that something effectual would be done in the matter of corrupt practices, nothing was attempted, for a new Government came into Office, and the matter was forgotten in the excitement of Election Petitions. Great dissatisfaction was expressed at the inaction of the Government in the matter. In 1875 they promised to introduce a Bill. The promised Bill, however, did not make its appearance that year. Indeed, it was not until the 8th of August, 1876, that a Bill appeared on the subject, and that entirely ignored the chief recommendations of a Select Committee that had sat on the subject. The Home Secretary, who had charge of the Bill, stated that his object in introducing the measure at so late a period of the Session was that it might be considered in the Recess. It was a very comprehensive Bill. It was that Bill which made permanent the system which was established in 1868. Last year he asked the hon. and learned Attorney General whether he intended to introduce the same Bill as the previous year; and he replied that it was the intention of the Government to substantially introduce the same Bill. He (Mr. O'Conor) was, however, astonished to find, after this assurance, that an entirely different Bill was introduced —a Bill, in fact, for continuing for two years more the Act of 1868. That Bill was introduced in May, but never passed the second reading. They had not now any opportunity of discussing the question, and he thought it time that some steps should be taken to put an end to this farce which was going on. He hoped, if the Government did not show greater aptitude next Session, that some private Member would force on the subject by the introduction of a Bill.


criticized the continuance of one section of the Salmon Fisheries Act of 1861, by which the Government were enabled to appoint Inspectors under the Act. These gentlemen, who were originally appointed for three years, had neither powers nor duties of an important character, and he could not understand why an ineffectual Act should be continued.


said, there could be no doubt that a Committee was appointed in 1875 to consider the whole question, and that they presented a Report; but they were not unanimous except on one point, and on other points their views were not in accord with the opinions of the Government. The Government were, however, convinced that some of the suggestions made by the Committee should be adopted. A promise was certainly made that a Bill should be introduced in 1876, and, if his memory served him, a Bill was introduced at a tolerably early part of the Session; but, owing to the state of Business, it could not be advanced so as to afford an opportunity for having the subject discussed. He promised to re-introduce the measure in the Session of 1877; but a good deal of time was then occupied— he did not care to say how—and his intentions could not be carried into effect. When, he might add, he promised to bring in another Bill this Session, he fully intended to perform that promise; but, owing to circumstances over which he had no control, he was unable to give it practical effect. It was thought right that where a candidate had been guilty of personal bribery, and where that bribery would subject him to grievous penalties under the 43rd section of the Act of 1868, there should be some further remedy given to him, and that he should have an opportunity of appealing, not only upon questions of law, but also upon questions of fact; and he was directed to introduce provisions in the Government Bill to that effect. In consequence of that alteration, and other matters to which he need not refer, he had been unable to fulfil his promise as he should have liked, or to bring forward the Bill until the other day; and if he had done so, no opportunity could have been afforded for discussion on the subject, in consequence of the time which had to be given to the debates on the Eastern Question, and other questions of importance. He would do his best to secure an early discussion on the subject next Session; and when that discussion was obtained, no doubt hon. Gentlemen who entertained strong views on the question would strongly express them. He would further observe that if the Committee were right in the views which they took, the Government were wrong; for, with regard to their principal recommendation—that an Election Petition should in future be tried before two Judges, instead of one—the Government differed from them in opinion, inasmuch as they believed that the present tribunal for the trial of those Petitions had, in the main, worked satisfactorily. It was desirable that cases affecting the seats of Members of Parliament should be disposed of quickly; and, generally speaking, the questions of fact which were raised were exceedingly simple, and there was no difficulty in. dealing with them once intelligible principles had been laid down with reference to what did and what did not constitute agency, and some other matters. On questions of law there was an appeal; but he certainly felt—and the feeling was shared by the Government—that where a candidate was pronounced by the decision of an Election Judge to be guilty of personal bribery, and where such a decision entailed on the candidate the loss of his seat and other grievous disabilities and penalties, fixing on him a stigma which might last for life, there ought to be either a tribunal consisting of a greater number of Judges, or, it might be, a jury trial presided over by a Judge, or, what he thought still better, a right of appeal. That appeal the Government measure proposed to give, and he hoped the question would be fully discussed next Session.


hoped the Government would deal with the matter before a General Election took place, which could not be very far distant. The question was one of very great importance. In other cases of importance, where questions of fact were left to the decision of one Judge, there was in- variably an appeal, subject to certain limitations; and surely the question of unseating a Member for personal bribery was one of sufficient importance to justify an appeal even on matters of fact. There would be no difficulty in forming a tribunal which would be satisfactory to the country. He had himself a doubt as to whether two Judges would be better than one, because, when they differed in opinion, the trial would prove inoperative; but he suggested that there might be two Assessors appointed to act with the Judge in trying questions of fact, or that there should be a right of new trial on application to a Court consisting of several Judges—it being necessary, as in other cases, in order to obtain a new trial, to show that the decision in question was against the weight of evidence. What objection could there be to introducing some principle of appeal of that description into the trial of Election Petitions? He hoped the Government would take the matter into their serious consideration, and that the hon. and learned Attorney General would, in the name and on behalf of the Government, promise to introduce and carry a Bill dealing with the subject in the course of next Session.


, who had been a Member of the Committee of 1875, said, he would not long take up the time of the House on the subject; but he wished to call attention to the position in which the question now stood. He did think it was a very serious thing to give to one Judge the power of inflicting a penalty in addition to unseating Members, and of disqualifying them from seeking election again in the same Parliament. It was contrary to the general principles of our law. He was very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department was not in his place, because he asked him, in the year 1876, not to resort in future to the expedient of renewing this measure —the Parliamentary Elections (Corrupt Practices) Bill—in the ordinary Continuance Bill, but to give the House an opportunity of discussing the subject; and the answer of the right hon. Gentleman was positive—that it would not be placed in the Continuance Bill, but would be put forward in such a shape that the House would have an opportunity of considering the whole question. Were the right hon. Gentleman now present, he (Mr. Butt) would ask whether it was the intention of the Government to introduce into the Bill one of its provisions to which many hon. Members objected? He would remind the House of a very remarkable instance in connection with this matter. In the year 1874, the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry) quoted from some declarations of Lord Salisbury which were made in the House of Lords, in which the noble Lord made the strongest protest against this system of renewing important Bills under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. At that time assurances were given, which amounted to a distinct pledge to the House, that this system of continuing Bills would be dropped, and that no important Bills would be thereby renewed. In 1877, he (Mr. Butt) again asked the right hon. Gentleman a Question on this subject, whether he would then give an assurance on this matter, and the assurance was repeated; and he did now think that before they renewed this Bill for another year they ought to have an assurance, not from the hon. and learned Attorney General, who had the best intentions in regard to this matter, but from the Government, that this Bill would be brought forward early next Session. For himself, he would rather go back to the old system than be subjected to the present Bill, which, he thought, ought to be fairly considered.


joined in the appeal which had been made to the Government, that they would give some assurance as to this Bill being placed in a different position next Session. He did not attribute any blame to the hon. and learned Attorney General, who had done all he could to redeem his promise; but the question was one of great importance, and ought to be dealt with before the General Election, which could not be very far off. He asked that the Bill might be placed in the first rank of Government measures next Session, with the intention of then re-considering the subject, so that it might not be hung up for an indefinite period.


said, he was quite ready, on the part of the Government, to give the assurance which was asked for by the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt). He thought it was undoubtedly a matter which ought not to stand over any longer; and although, of course, there had been a great jostling amongst Bills this Session, and this measure could not be brought forward in time, he thought he could undertake, with a good conscience, that the Government would make it one of their first measures next year.


wished to remind the House that a promise had been given early in this Session that a Bill for continuing and extending the powers of the Railway Commissioners Act should be brought in this year, and said, that both the Railway Commissioners and the public interested in the matter were extremely anxious that an amending Bill should be brought forward, and that the powers of the Commissioners should not be limited as they were at present. He hoped an assurance would be given that the whole subject would be dealt with next year.


said, that the pledges to which the hon. Gentleman referred were only conditional. Besides, there were two classes of views on the subject, some persons being desirous that the Commission should be abolished, while others wished to see its powers enlarged. He had thought it better, in these circumstances, to postpone legislation with regard to it till next year; but he hoped early in the Session to bring in a Bill dealing with it.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.