HC Deb 02 July 1880 vol 253 cc1387-94

moved— That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Tewkesbury, in the room of William Edwin Price, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void.


reminded the House that in the case of the Evesham Election Petition the learned Judges appointed to try it had reported that they had no reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed at the late Election, and that they confined themselves strictly to the evidence before them. The Attorney General in that case submitted a Motion for the production of the shorthand writer's notes of the evidence, in order that the House might have an opportunity of considering it. Now the case for Tewkesbury was the same as that for Evesham, with this exception, that the Judges did not state that they had confined themselves to the evidence before them. The two cases were evidently to be governed by the same principle, and should stand or fall together. He should propose, therefore, that the Writ be suspended until the shorthand writer's notes of the evidence were in the hands of Members, and that, should it then appear to the House to be necessary, a Select Committee should be appointed to consider the evidence.


agreed with the hon. Member that the House ought to be in possession of the facts of the case. He should, therefore, move as an Amendment— That the Writ be postponed till the Shorthand Writers' Notes of the proceedings on the Election Petition are printed. The law, notwithstanding the powers of the Judges, was not effectual for the discovery and punishment of corrupt practices. He begged to call attention to the fact that the Report of the Election Judges in this case, as in the case of the Evesham Petition, did not report that no corrupt practices prevailed, but that from the evidence before them there was no reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed. It was quite clear this peculiar form of words was used as warning that there was a great deal of suspicion connected with the case. Tewkesbury and Evesham were two of the smallest boroughs in England, and it was most desirable to show that such constituencies were not corrupt. Of late years the expenses of contested elections had been enormously increased, and the last Election was the most expensive that ever occurred. Very soon the House would be driven to consider the matter, because if the expenses of elections were to increase at their present rate none but a rich man could possibly obtain a seat in Parliament. The evil effect of this was seen in the fact that landed squires, manufacturers, and the rich men were those who resisted the various measures of the Government though professing to be Liberals. The mode of conducting Election Petitions now-a-days was to establish one or two cases, prove the agency, then shake hands all round, and withdraw from the case. His Motion might be objected to on the score of expense, and he might be referred to the manuscript evidence. He had seen the manuscript evidence about an hour before; but he submitted that in view of the facts he had stated the House should have an opportunity of carefully considering the evidence, and to that end he begged to submit the Motion in his name.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Writ he postponed till the Shorthand Writers' Notes of the Proceedings on the Election Petition are printed,"—(Sir George Campbell,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he should not attempt to deal with the minor questions often mixed up with the one under consideration—such as the disfranchisement of small boroughs, or the growth of election expenses; but he was going to ask the House to lay down, by its vote on the Motion before it, some general principle on which it should proceed in all such cases; for if they were to act on vague words contained in an Election Petition Report, it was obvious they must involve themselves sooner or later in some very unsatisfactory conclusions. When a Report by the examining Judges contained the statement that there was reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed a Commission was issued, and until the Report of the Commissioners was received the Writ was not issued. But if the Judges were silent on the subject, or reported that there was no reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, the House had proceeded, after two day's Notice, almost without exception, to order that the new Writ be issued. The reason for that course was—first, that the constituency should not be deprived of its right of election, and also that there should not be interposed any long period of excitement in the constituency. When the Motion for the issue of the Evesham Writ was made, the hon. Member (Mr. J. B. Yorke) called attention to the words of the Judges, that— From the evidence before us, to which we have confined our attention, there is no reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed in the said election. These words were somewhat peculiar; and, therefore, the Government, when their attention was called to them, yielded to the suggestion that there should be a delay in the issue of the Writ. Well, that delay had occurred, the evidence in relation to the Evesham Election Petition had been printed, and now, when the present Motion was decided, a Motion was about to be made to issue a new Writ for Evesham. He hoped hon. Members had read the evidence in the Evesham case. He had himself read it, and he confessed he had never read a weaker case for the supposition that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed at the late Election. The Evesham Writ had been withheld for 14 days in order to enable them to know what was the meaning of the words used by the learned Judges. In the case of Tewkesbury, the Report contained words not usually found in these Reports, and he must say he did not know what the learned Judges meant. They could not act upon suspicion like his hon. Friend. The Judges were bound to confine their attention to the evidence; if they did not, they were wandering away from the duty cast upon them. If this Motion was not conceded the House should understand its position. If it deter- mined to proceed, not on evidence, but on newspaper reports, and said there was something in those reports that should induce them to withhold the Writ for an indefinite time, that would be treacherous ground to take action on. If the Judges failed to report that corrupt practices extensively prevailed, the House ought not to listen to newspaper reports or gossip in the Lobby. In justice to the constituency, he thought the House should agree to the Motion of the noble Lord.


thought the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech illustrated the extremely unsatisfactory state of the law. If he understood the argument of the hon. and learned Gentleman it came to this—that unless the Judges had legal evidence that corrupt practices extensively prevailed they were to be silent. But it was well known that parties to Election Petitions tried to minimize such matters, and counsel on each side ended by complimenting each other. It was actually made a subject of compliment the other day that a gentleman did not enter the witness-box to deny certain acts of bribery attributed to him. In the case of Tewkesbury the Judges were even more emphatic than in the case of Evesham, for they said, having regard to the evidence to which We have strictly confined ourselves, there is no reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed. The Judges, in fact, had endeavoured to invent a formula which would give the House to understand the impression left upon their minds. He thought, therefore, that a Special Committee ought to be appointed to inquire into the whole circumstances before a new Writ was ordered to be issued. What he contended was that, if the House had reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, then it should act upon that belief. The Attorney General's argument was that, though the Judges had reported in somewhat significant terms, since they had not distinctly stated that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, the House could not take action upon it. He ventured to submit, however, that the House had not parted with its final jurisdiction in the matter. If the House wished to put down corrupt practices, it must alter the grossly unsatisfactory state of the law as regarded the constituencies, which in nine cases out of ten were in fault rather than the candidates. Election after election was conducted by persons who rejoiced in their iniquity, and the impunity with which their practices were attended, and the tradition was handed down to their descendants.


was of opinion that the House would run very great danger if it adopted the course recommended by his hon. Friend, because then they would take it upon them to review the decision of the Judges. It would be very unfortunate for that House to constitute itself a sort of Court of Appeal from the decision of the Judges, because they could only deal with the same evidence which the Judges had before them. In former times, whenever they had reason to suspect that evidence was withheld, the law gave them power to issue a Commission, and the Speaker had authority for appointing counsel to inquire into the whole circumstances of the case. A corresponding power was now placed in the hands of the House when the Judges reported that there was reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. The proposition laid down by the Attorney General was the only sound and proper one.


thought the hon. Member for East Gloucester (Mr. J. R. Yorke) deserved all possible praise for his zeal as to the repression of corrupt practices. During the lifetime of the present Parliament there would, no doubt, be ample opportunity for the development of that zeal; but it was to be regretted that the hon. Gentleman did not show the same zeal in preventing, at the close of the last Parliament, the hurried passing of a most mischievous measure bearing on corrupt practices. The question now before the House was whether it was convenient that every Motion for the issue of new Writs should be made the occasion of a discussion as to the general principle on which they ought to proceed with regard to corrupt practices. At the present moment it was inconvenient, and greatly interrupted the progress of Public Business, that they should have rambling discussions of this nature, which appeared to aim, not at the establishment of general rules, but at exceptional proceedings, bringing into question, if not the integrity, certainly the judgment, of the Judges to whom they had intrusted this very important matter, and really constituting an obstacle to the House arriving at any right decision. The proposal of the Attorney General was that they should proceed by general rules; but the suggestion of the hon. Member was that when Reports of this kind were presented to the House a Select Committee should be appointed to make an inquiry, the Writ being meanwhile suspended.


I rise to explain. ["Order!"]


The right hon. Gentleman is in possession of the House.


I merely wish to make an explanation. ["Order!"]


If the hon. Member desires to make an explanation he can do so, with the indulgence of the House, at the close of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks.


It was necessary that they should have some definite method of procedure with regard to individual cases, and that definite method of procedure they were not establishing now for the first time. The trial of Election Petitions by Judges had been in force during the existence of two Parliaments; and he believed it had been a uniform rule to institute a Commission when the Judges reported that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. When, however, the Judges reported that there was no evidence of corrupt practices having extensively prevailed, the House, bearing in mind that the proceedings were penal as well as remedial, had felt bound not to offer obstacles to the issue of a Writ. That was the rule under which numbers of Writs had been issued with the general assent and concurrence of the House. Whether that rule should be altered or not was a grave question; but it was a question which should be raised in an independent way, and at a time when it could be sufficiently considered, and no good object could be gained by raising it on a Motion with reference to a particular borough which presented no exceptional circumstances. He hoped, therefore, the opinion of his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General would be followed, only observing that the Government asked nothing but that the general Rules of the House should be maintained and adhered to.


said, that the Prime Minister had misrepresented his argument. What he had urged was that the House ought to reserve to itself the power of considering the evidence in each case, and that, if necessary, a Committee should be appointed to consider the matter; not, as the right hon. Gentleman put it, that in every case a Committee should be appointed—that would be absurd.


observed, that the Attorney General had specially invited the House on the present occasion to lay down a general rule, and the hon. Member for East Gloucestershire (Mr. J. E. Yorke) was only following the lead of the hon. and learned Gentleman. He was surprised to hear the Prime Minister refer to the mischievous Act of last Session; but the Act received the support of the present Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. [Sir CHARLES W. DILKE: No, no!] The hon. Gentleman said that the payment of cabs ought either to be made a corrupt practice or it must be legalized, and he did not care which. The late Government, following the hon. Baronet's advice, had resolved to legalize the payment.


pointed out to the hon. and learned Member that the Question before the Chair was the issue of a new Writ for Tewkesbury.


said, that he would, of course, obey the ruling of the Chair; but he had been led into the digression by the example of the Prime Minister. Another reason why they should institute an inquiry into these matters was to see how far these corrupt practices were influenced by the Circular issued by the Liberal Party, and for which hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench were responsible. In the case of Tewkesbury the Judges had made an extraordinary Report. It was neither affirmative nor negative. It stated that, so far as the evidence was placed before them—and they had strictly confined their attention to it—no corrupt practices had prevailed. There was great danger that only a small fraction of the case had been brought before the Judges. It would, therefore, be wise, he thought, that a Committee should in such cases be appointed.


said, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had misrepre- sented the Attorney General, who did not ask the House to lay down a general rule on the present occasion, but only to follow the rule hitherto observed. It was not the duty of Election Judges to make fishing inquiries, but to take the evidence that came before them, and upon that to make their Report to the House. It would be an endless proceeding if they were to begin to go behind the judgments of Election Judges. If the proceedings in their Courts were unsatisfactory, the only thing to do was to revise the law under which the trial of Petitions was conducted, and on that view there was nothing exceptional in this case. A judgment had been given at Plymouth, which struck many people as extraordinary; but they did not find hon. Members opposite rising to oppose the issue of a Writ for that place. Hon. Members opposite were, however, always eager to oppose the issuing of Writs for Liberal boroughs, and the effect of their doing so was to obstruct the progress of Public Business; but the country would understand, as the House did, why such a course was resorted to, especially when it observed who some of the Members were who took a leading part in such discussions. He hoped the House would not consent to the temporary disfranchisement of the borough of Tewkesbury by refusing to issue the Writ.


protested against the insinuations made by the hon. Member who had just sat down. He did not approve of the action of his hon. Friend the Member for East Gloucestershire (Mr. J. E. Yorke); but he was convinced that his motives were perfectly pure. The only reason why Liberal Writs came before the House so frequently was that twice as many Liberal Members were unseated for bribery as Conservatives.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 238; Noes 53: Majority 185.—(Div. List, No. 37.)

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 a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Tewkesbury, in the room of William Edwin Price, esquire, whose Election has been determined to be void.

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