HC Deb 17 June 1880 vol 253 cc203-9

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 a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Evesham, in the room of Daniel Rowlinson Ratcliffe, esquire, whose Election hath been determined to be void."—(Lord Kensington.)


in moving as an Amendment— That the issue of the Writ for the Borough of Evesham be suspended until the Shorthand Writers' Notes of the Judge and the Evidence taken at the Trial of the Election Petition be laid upon the Table of the House, said, he rose for the purpose of making some observations upon the question of the time required by law to elapse between the Notice of Motion for a Writ and the Motion itself. There were two main questions to be determined whenever Judges went to the country to try an Election Petition. The direct object was to ascertain the guilt or innocence of the candidates returned; but the indirect object was to ascertain the guilt or innocence of the constituency. Now, the conditions for the due fulfilment of this second object were not satisfactory. It was comparatively rare that candidates who had been guilty of even a small breach of electoral law escaped the attacks of determined opponents; but it was quite another matter with the constituencies. The Judge could only form opinions upon the morality of the constituency from circumstances casually brought to his notice during the trial of the Petition, and the interest of all concerned in the case prompted them to make those circumstances appear as trivial as possible. No sooner had sufficient been proved before the Judge to make him declare the seat void than the parties on both sides made their bow and dispersed; and under our present system only 48 hours were required to elapse in the House of Commons before another Writ could be moved for to enable the constituency to renew what might be its malpractices, or, as it would be called, its agreeable experience with fresh candidates. What he objected to was that, as soon as sufficient had been proved to vacate a seat, every opportunity of investigating the question of the moral state of the constituency was withdrawn from the cognizance of the Judge. He contended that it was almost impossible for the House of Commons in 48 hours to make up its mind, rationally and deliberately, as to whether, in consequence of any circumstances which might have come to the cognizance of the Judge during the election, or of any other material points of which it might become aware from any other source, it was desirable or not that a Writ should be issued or withheld. He knew nothing particular about the borough of Evesham; but this was the first opportunity he had had of calling attention to the matter. He would conclude by moving the Amendment of which he had given Notice.


said, he had great pleasure in seconding the Amendment. The case, in his opinion, was even stronger than it appeared as represented by the previous speaker, for the Report of the Judges in the case of the Evesham Election Petition was not presented until Wednesday; so that practically, in this instance, there had been only an interval of 24 hours between the unseating of the Member and the moving for a new Writ. Evesham was a petty borough, the smallest in England, and a corrupt borough, and there was no great Constitutional necessity for immediately proceeding to a fresh election. Some time ago he had occasion to look into the question of rotten boroughs, and he was surprised to see how many existed. It was true that in England they were not so small as they were in Ireland, where they were as small as 2,000 and 3,000 people, or, as he might express it, it took two rotten Englishmen to make one rotten Irishman. In looking into the case of Evesham, he found that its population was 4,800, man, woman, and child, and that the circumstances which led to the Petition were of a very peculiar character. From the newspaper report of the evidence, he found that a very rich and a very charitable gentleman built a house at Evesham, and in the year immediately preceding the General Election he had in various ways given away an immense amount in charity. It was probably only a coincidence; but that gentleman had also a great desire to obtain a seat in Parliament, and perhaps it was only a still further coincidence that those in receipt of those charities had votes, and the gentleman who was appointed as his agent to distribute his charities was also the agent for his electioneering campaign, the consequence of which was that the moneys for the charities and for the election got mixed up, bringing them within the law. Then, upon the inquiry the agent was not examined, but the candidate was; and he stated, as candidates always did, that he had not had anything to do with the bribing of voters. He gave his money to his agent for charitable purposes, and the result was the bribing of voters. Finally, the candidate was pronounced guilty of bribery, through his agents, and the election was declared void. In this instance, the Report of the Judges was a shrewd one, for it stated that on the evidence before them, to which alone they confined their attention, they could not report that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. The Judges had made no inquiry of an inquisitorial character, the parties having apparently patched up the matter. In the case of that very rotten borough, and in view of the fact that the agent was not put in the box for examination, he asked the Government whether it was of such great Constitutional necessity that the Writ should immediately issue; and he thought it would not be a very great evil if the question were allowed to remain until the question of the re-distribution of seats was brought before the House; and, at any rate, he hoped the Government would let the House have an opportunity of con- sidering the whole of the circumstances before they were pledged to the issue of the Writ.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the issue of the Writ for the Borough of Evesham be suspended until the Shorthand Writers' Notes of the Judge and the Evidence taken at the Trial of the Election Petition be laid upon the Table of the House,"—(Mr. Reginald Yorke,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he hoped the House would consent to the hon. Member's (Mr. J. E. Yorke's) Amendment. It was well known to many hon. Members that he (Mr. Newdegate) had always viewed the operation of the Ballot Act with great apprehension. The first political lesson he had ever learnt was when he visited the United States of America, in the midst of the elections to Congress, and got behind the scenes as much as he could, in order to satisfy himself what was the real operation of the system of Ballot. That was now very many years ago; and every report from the United States he had since read only convinced him that the American people were unable to relieve themselves of the prevalence of corruption which ho then witnessed, and which had gone on increasing ever since. Their only protection, in fact, seemed to consist in the enormous magnitude of the constituencies, whilst even that afforded an inadequate protection. The corruption was practised not merely by individuals, but by means of a system of what were really secret societies. In the United States the feeling was growing of a desire to be delivered from the Ballot, could but the means be devised for effecting it. He did not wish to see the democratic institutions of America imported wholesale into this country, he hoped, therefore, that the House would, in the present instance, with a view of preserving something of the traditional forms of constituencies in this country, give the requisite time for examination, when cases of corruption such as that before the House had been proved to have occurred under the Ballot; because he was convinced, from the very nature of that system of voting, that it secretly afforded opportunities for corruption and concealment, and greatly increased the difficulty of detection, interposing such difficulties as did not exist under the system of open voting. It was, therefore, still more necessary to suspend Writs, as had often been done in former years, whenever evidence of corruption practised at recent elections had been proved.


concurred with the hon. Gentleman who had moved the Amendment (Mr. J. R. Yorke). It was of the greatest importance that they should take care not to issue Writs where there had been suspicion of corruption. He was totally at a loss to understand why there could be any reason for pressing the issue of this Writ. He would, however, advise the House to proceed with caution, as, on the present occasion, they were forming a precedent for future guidance.


said, he could assure the House there was not the slightest wish on the part of the Government to press forward the issue of the Writ. At the same time, it was desirable that a rule should be laid down and followed unless special circumstances justified a deviation from it. A rule had been established and acted on for some years that a Writ should not be issued until after two days' Notice, the object of which was to allow any hon. Member who wished to do so the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to any special circumstance connected with the election. Primâ facie, there ought to be no unnecessary delay in the issuing of a Writ. A constituency was entitled to representation, and it was not desirable to prolong the period of an electioneering contest. Unless there was some special circumstance on which objection could be founded, there ought not to be undue delay. If the Judges reported to the House that there was reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, there was no discretion left, and a Commission must be appointed. Let him remind the House of the position it was placed in. By the Act of 1868 the House of Commons had delegated all authority for the trial of Election Petitions to a tribunal; but what could the House do in this case if it came to the conclusion that corrupt practices had prevailed? No provision was made for further inquiry. In this case, however, the Report of the Judges was somewhat peculiar. Instead of reporting that there was no reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, they said that, from the evidence before them, and to which they had confined themselves, they had no reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. The House could not properly act upon the suggestion made that there had been an arrangement by which persons had been kept out of the witness-box, nor could it be influenced by the general description of a place as corrupt. The House must apply a general rule, apart from any particular character which hon. Members might choose to give to a place, and it must be careful not to suspend a Writ without a good reason for doing so. If, however, an attempt were made in this case to prevent the reading of the evidence before the issue of the Writ, it would be thought there was some reason in the background why the issue of the Writ was forced on. In the particular circumstances, the Government would offer no objection to delay in the issue of the Writ; but it must be understood that when the shorthand-writers' notes of the evidence had been produced the Motion for the issue of the Writ would be almost immediately renewed.


asked whether, after the statement of the hon. and learned Attorney General that it was doubtful if the House would be able to obtain further investigation of the circumstances of the election at Evesham, the Government would take steps to introduce a measure which would enable the House to give effect to its opinions, if it was decided that further investigation should be made into any case.


asked whether, seeing that the case of Evesham was not peculiar in any way, the Government would lay on the Table of the House the shorthand writers' notes in all eases in which Petitions had resulted in the unseating of the sitting Members. He knew nothing as to the particular circumstances at Evesham; but it appeared to him that it had been rather unfairly singled out, since other Petitions had disclosed quite as grave a state of things as that which had been shown to have taken place at Evesham, and the same arguments which had been used in re- spect to it applied also to the treatment of other places.


said, there was already a rule that the shorthand writers' notes in cases of this description should be laid on the Table; but it was not usual to print them, unless they were asked for on some special ground. This case appeared to be of a special character; and, as his hon. and learned Friend had explained, the Government were willing to postpone the issue of the Writ. Perhaps it would be better to withdraw the Motion, if the hon. Gentleman would withdraw the Amendment, on the understanding that it would not be renewed until after the evidence and the Report of the Judges had been received.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


then gave Notice that to-morrow he would move that the shorthand notes taken before the Judges in the Evesham case be printed.

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