HC Deb 11 March 1880 vol 251 cc859-70

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second, time."—(Mr. Attorney General.)


hoped some adequate opportunity would be given to hon. Members to consider the measure before going into Committee, and trusted the Attorney General would promise that a reasonable time should be allowed for that purpose.


said, he also wished to make an appeal to the Attorney General on the subject of this measure. Yesterday he (Mr. Anderson) had brought forward a measure; but the hon. and learned Gentleman had objected to its being proceeded with, on the ground that they had arrived at the last day or two of an expiring Parliament, and because there was a very thin attendance in the House. The At- torney General had said that the Bill was too important to be taken then; but the hon. and learned Member that same morning introduced a measure, circulated it on the following day, and in the evening expected to have it read a second time. He expected Parliament to allow it to become law before anyone in the country had seen it. He thought such conduct most unfair. It was quite unprecedented that a Bill should be brought in one night, affecting every borough in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and read a second time next night, before it was possible for any borough in the country to express an opinion on it. The Bill of the Attorney General contained a most important provision. If it had been a mere Continuance Bill he should not have raised any objection to it; but it was not. There was no need for such a Bill, for the existing measure did not expire until the end of the year, and there was thus plenty of time for the new Parliament to deal with the question of Parliamentary elections and corrupt practices in a proper and efficient manner. But why did the Bill deal with one subject, and leave everything else untouched? The 2nd clause was a very innocent looking one, and hon. Members might have looked at it without imagining that there was anything bad in it at all. He had examined into it carefully, however, and he found that it meant that for the future the conveyance of voters to the poll, and paying for that conveyance, was to be legalized all over the country. This applied to every borough in the Kingdom, and yet the Attorney General now asked them to have the Bill read a second time. Evidently the Government wished to rush it through Parliament before they could say one word about it. Such conduct was unprecedented, even in the history of the present Administration, and that was saying a good deal. There were, he felt bound to say, a great many corrupt practices besides the conveyance of voters to the poll. There was, for instance, the employing of paid canvassers. He maintained that the payment of canvassers led to an immense amount of corruption, and it was one of the practices that the House ought to do away with. Another mode of corruption was that of the faggot vote. He considered faggot voting a very corrupt practice indeed. The sys- tem of bringing strangers from an immense distance, and locating them upon a county for the purpose of swamping the opinion of the locality, was about as corrupt a practice as he knew of. There might be faggot votes that were of a perfectly innocent description, provided the people who enjoyed them really resided in the locality; but when such a person came from a distance, in order to swamp legitimate opinion, the whole affair was highly corrupt, and ought to be put an end to. There were three great questions that had to be dealt with by whatever Parliament took up the question of corrupt practices; but to attempt to deal with one of them in this offhand manner was, in his opinion, most improper. He was told that all that was done was simply to make legal a practice that was universal. Well, he denied that it was a universal practice, and what the Attorney General was doing was making an illegal practice legal. That was to say, the hon. and learned Gentleman was more than condoning breaches of the law. He was told that in a great many boroughs in England it was the practice to pay for the conveyance of voters; and he understood that in Birmingham all the cabs had been already secured for the ensuing election. That was all done in direct contravention of the law, and why should it be made legal? He could not see any reason. He thought the more sensible course for the Attorney General to have pursued would have been to specify a punishment that should attach to the offence. That would have been a change which would only have been carrying out the present law. He was glad to know, however, that this practice of conveying voters to the poll was not universal. He never heard of the practice in Scotland. The Scotch were a law-abiding people, not like the people in England, who would drive a coach and six through any Act of Parliament. In Scotland the people were law-abiding, because they objected to see a practice which they considered to be corrupt, and which they knew to be illegal, legalized in this off-hand manner. He was told that in Ireland the people also abided by the law in this respect, and he made bold to say that the law was not universally broken even in England. He could only say that, so far as he was able, and with the assistance of Scotch Members, he would endeavour to get this clause expunged from the Bill.


hoped the Government would persevere with the Bill. It would be a great boon to Wales. He thought it was right that the expenses of a poor voter should be paid, and that he should be brought to the poll. The rich candidate, who had carriages of his own, could drive voters to the poll; and it was unfair that the candidate who had no carriages should not be allowed to place himself on an equality with his richer neighbours if he were prepared to pay for conveyances. At present the law was evaded; but the candidate should do what was "straight."


said, that the effect of this clause would be the possibility of placing the rich candidate in a position unfair to the poor one. He had served on the Committee which had sat to consider the question of the extension of the hours of polling, and a great number of cases came before them, in which it was said that the law was evaded, especially in the matter of the conveyance of voters to the poll. Though it was illegal, they were told that conveyances were often hired at the expense of the candidate. Hon. Members sitting in all parts of the House were on the Committee, and there appeared to be only one opinion amongst them—namely, that the law should be amended in the sense of more properly enforcing it as it then stood. It was with great surprise, therefore, that he saw that the Bill of the Attorney General went entirely in an opposite direction. The penalties attached to an infraction of the law in this matter were not large enough. If it was possible to put down undue treating, bribery, and other forms of corruption, this particular phase could equally well have been dealt with. What his hon. Friend (Mr. Anderson) had said of Scotland was strictly true. He confessed, however, that in one burgh in Scotland recently this practice had been reported to exist; but, with that one exception, he had never heard of the practice during his whole experience. Supposing that the law were obeyed in Scotland, and conveyances not used, he did not believe the people there were sufficiently wide-awake to know that the law could be evaded. At all events, however, the law was obeyed in Scotland—whether from a regard to economy he would not say. At all events, he thought it preposterous that in an expiring Parliament they should be asked to let loose on Scotland, hitherto free from reproach, a system of extravagance and corruption, the end of which no one could see. As for the hiring of cabs, say in Edinburgh, Dundee, or Aberdeen, there could be no doubt that an immense amount of treating and improper expenditure might take place under the guise of such a practice. If the Attorney General could not devise any other means of meeting the difficulty, why did he not leave it alone? There would be plenty of time next Parliament to deal with the subject. At this moment, however, when the Scotch Members were absent—and he was certain they would oppose the Bill to a man—it was unfair to steal a march upon them. So far as he could influence other Members, he would do all in his power to obstruct the passage of the Bill. He begged to move the Amendment of which he had given Notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to th end of the Question, in order to add the words "the provisions of the Act 30 and 31 Vic. c. 102, which relates to payment of the expenses of conveyance of voters to the poll, should be amended, not by repealing the prohibition against the practice, but by rendering it effective,"—(Dr. Cameron,) —instead thereof.

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


thought the question might well have been left to the consideration of the new Parliament. There was hardly a borough in England in which the law was not evaded, not by candidates, but by their friends; and the only provision that could obviate the evil would be to make it illegal for any person to receive money in consideration of the hire of any vehicle on an election day. Neither the Bill nor the Amendment was satisfactory; and as the subject, in his opinion, had not received sufficient consideration, he begged to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Henry Samuelson.)


expressed his surprise at the speech of the hon. Member for Frome (Mr. H. Samuelson), because he certainly understood him the other day to speak in favour of the proposition of the Government. [Mr. H. SAMUELSON said, the hon. and learned Gentleman was mistaken.] His arguments, at all events, seemed susceptible of that construction. Now, what was the proposition of the Government? It was declared by the Representation of the People Act that it was illegal to pay for the conveyance of voters to the poll in boroughs, except in certain boroughs. But, although the offence was declared, there did not seem to be any specific penalty attached to it; and as it was undesirable that a law should be made only to be broken, it was clear that some change should be made, either in the direction of making the payment by a candidate or his agent for a cab a corrupt practice, or by repealing the provision altogether. Now, to render a candidate liable to be unseated for so innocent an act as the payment for a cab seemed to him a monstrous thing, while the legalizing of such an act, on the contrary, could do nobody any harm. The hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) would be under no obligation to hire a cab if he did not choose to do so. It was true that polling booths were placed at short distances; but it might happen that a workman at his dinner hour—the only time, perhaps, at which he could vote—would find himself unable to go to his own polling booth except in a conveyance, and if the employment of cabs was rendered absolutely impossible that voter would practically be disfranchised. By an error in drafting, the Bill applied only to England; but in Committee he would propose a clause extending it to Scotland and Ireland.


said, that few Members of the House but would agree that the expenses connected with elections were one of the crying evils of the day. He was quite certain that in Scotland the Amendment would be approved unanimously. Much more in the direction of doing away with conveyances not only in boroughs, but in counties, would be desirable. If that were done, they would get rid of the faggot-voting to a great extent, if not entirely. The Bill was a thoroughly retrograde one, and might, he thought, be characterized as one to legalize bribery. It would be condemned, at all events, in Scotland, by the unanimous feeling of the people. There was not a question that, if they adopted the provisions proposed by the hon. and learned Gentleman, they would inculcate bribery in all these boroughs, and would put an obstacle in the way of constituencies being open to any except the plutocracy of the land.


said, that the hon. and learned Member, in introducing the Bill, had said that the present law was inoperative because no penalty was attached. Why, then, did he not attach a penalty? He thought the Government ought to have provided a simple and speedy remedy for the evil. As matters stood at present, that House was in one respect the direct opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was especially open to the poor. To every one who had thought on the subject it must have occurred that that House was practically closed to all but the rich. If they made the use of vehicles by candidates legal, it became absolutely necessary for all who would obtain a seat in that House to have cabs and carriages at command. He thought it was wrong to attach such overwhelming influence to the possession of money. By this alteration in the law, Members would do openly and lavishly that which they now did only to a restricted extent. The expenses of Members was already quite large enough, and the proposed change would make a large addition to them inevitable. He thought it was the duty of the Government to bring about purity, simplicity, and directness into elections, and that the alteration which they proposed was in the wrong direction; and he hoped that his hon. Friends on that side of the House would oppose the Bill.


said, that he should offer a strenuous opposition to the Bill. While the property qualification had been lowered by the introduction of household suffrage, it was especially inadvisable to appeal to the voters by offering them the unusual luxury of conveyance to the polling-booth in the hired vehicles of candidates as an inducement to vote. While, however, they had lowered the property qualification of the voters, they had raised the property qualification in Members by making it only possible for rich men to sit in that House. He had hoped the sense of the House and of the country was against such a proposal, and that they should rather have had measures to diminish the extent to which a seat in that House was the rich man's privilege and perquisite. It had pained him to see that the Government, in the last few days of an expiring Parliament, had thought fit to bring in a Bill which would largely add to the expenses of election. It was a Bill which, as had been said, was not only permissive, but obligatory, and it would be more and more necessary and incumbent on Members to pay the expense of conveyances to bring voters to the poll. He would in every way he could oppose the Bill.


thought that the prohibition of the use of carriages would necessitate a very great increase in the number of polling-places. Besides, all hon. Members who wished to give every voter an opportunity of polling would desire to facilitate the conveyance of the old and infirm.


said, the object of the Legislature should be to render access to the House easier and less expensive than it was at present, and there was no doubt that the conveyance of voters added very materially to the expense of an election. On one point he concurred with the hon. and learned Attorney General—the law that was systematically broken was a bad one to maintain, and. gave a great advantage to the wrong-doer. A man who merely wished to do right would, in such a case, be inevitably worsted by one who desired only to serve himself. The existing law was most unsatisfactory, and he should prefer either to legalize the custom or to prohibit it altogether by means of a real penalty. The former alternative would be much to the disadvantage of poor candidates, and the latter was difficult of adoption, seeing that the conveyance of voters, though illegal, was not intrinsically immoral. The offence, which, by the way, was no offence at all in counties, would not be adequately punished by a fine; and he presumed that the House would not wish it to be visited by imprisonment. It would be necessary, therefore, either to adopt the proposal of the Government, or to make the employment of vehicles a corrupt practice. In his opinion, the latter course was preferable, for, after all, the conveyance of voters partook of the nature of an act of bribery. The House ought to be in earnest, and to deal with the question in a drastic manner. He would, however, suggest that the Bill should be read a second time, and they could deal with the matter in Committee.


said, as he had appealed to the Attorney General to give two or three days for consideration, and the hon. and learned Gentleman made no answer to his appeal, there was no alternative but to oppose the second reading. He had an Amendment to propose which would raise the whole question; and if full opportunity were not given to discuss it, the Bill ought to be opposed at every stage. At the close of the Session the Government had brought in a Bill which was not called for except for the purpose of repealing the clause now in question. There would be time enough to deal with the question in the new Parliament. The Government could have no object in bringing in the Bill except to steal a march on Members who were absent.


said, the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just spoken appeared to ignore the general feeling of the country that a Bill should be brought in on this question. There was a universal wish expressed last Session that a Bill should be brought in and become law, and the Government were now acceding to that request, although they had little time. He was one of the Select Committee that considered this question, and he had brought in a proposal of this kind. The division against him was only lost by 1 vote. He had, therefore, some right to speak on this question. It struck him, as it had struck many hon. Members of that Committee, that this was a common-sense and practical view to take. There could be no doubt that the hiring of vehicles was so general in borough constituencies that it was not reckoned an offence against the law. Very often there was an understood agreement entered into between the agents of the different parties. As to what had fallen from hon. Members opposite about the difficulties which poor men would have in this matter compared with rich men, the House knew that if a poor man could not afford it, he had plenty of backers ready to pay for conveyances. Though a candidate might not actually put his hand in his pocket, it was known that both voters and conveyances were often brought from a great distance, and at great expense, to be used at an election. The country was not governed by logic, but by Parliament; but if Parliament laid down a rule that they should have a penalty and not free trade in this matter, the country would not be with it. They could not legislate against the feeling of the country. He was against increasing the expenses of elections in any way; but, when the law was universally broken, the Government had taken the only practical course. They did not wish to increase the expense of elections, but to satisfy the public by laying down a general rule and principle. To say that they might bring county voters to the poll in the country, but must not convey the same voters who resided seven miles from a borough into it, when they had a right to vote there, was preposterous and unfair. He hoped the Government would press the Bill.


said, he did not think the Government had acted rightly in bringing forward this proposal at so late a period. The Bill of last Session had not this clause, and therefore the House would be justified in opposing a measure with such a clause brought in at the fag-end of the Session. He knew that in many boroughs the law was kept, and on that ground alone they ought to be very slow in altering a state of things which had been 12 years in existence. While admitting that the existing law was broken in many places, he thought it unfair to propose a change at such a period of the Session and on such short notice. The new law would not be known in many places by the time the approaching Election was held. He thought, therefore, that the matter had better be left to the new Parliament. Moreover, the indiscriminate employment of cabs throughout the country would, in his opinion, be an objectionable feature of our elections, and a source of great and unnecessary expense to candidates. For those reasons, he opposed the Bill.


said, he should give a very strong opposition to the proposed change of the law. He thought they should do nothing but pass a Continuance Bill. He did not wish to interfere with the general harmony at the close of the Session; but if the Government persisted with the measure, he should feel bound—he did not mean to threaten obstruction, because now-a-days they had to be particular—to give the portion referred to all the opposition in his power. The measure, if applied to Ireland, would handicap impecunious candidates who might not, like himself when he contested Galway, enjoy the advantage of having his voters conveyed to the poll in the cars of the rival candidate.


said, he would follow in the footsteps of the hon. Member for Dungarvan (Mr. O'Donnell), and oppose the Bill, which would give wealth an undue advantage in electoral interests. The existing law was bad, but the alteration would be worse.


said, that the notion was far too much encouraged already that the vote was a favour conferred upon candidates; and everything that limited the choice of the election to wealthy candidates was a violation of the representative principle. The exception of counties from the operation of the clause had been treated as the principle of the law. But, at present, conveyance of voters at the candidate's expense was illegal in boroughs, and he would maintain the principle, although he could not get it applied outside boroughs. As to boroughs, the main difficulty was the limited time given for polling, and it was said that men could not be got to go to the poll and record their votes within those hours. Well, the true remedy for that was the extension of the hours of polling. A case had been mentioned by an hon. Member of a voter living a great many miles from where the election was taking place, asking if the candidate was prepared to pay his expenses of coming to the borough election; and he wanted to know whether that was to be allowed under this Bill with regard to boroughs and voters residing at some distance from the place where they were registered? They had better leave the law as it was, because it asserted a principle which should not be altered at the present time; and he would, therefore, oppose the second reading, believing that the Bill was utterly unnecessary.


pointed out that the extension of the hours of polling would not be sufficient remedy, for at the recent election for Southwark, where the hours of polling were extended, nearly all the cabs in the borough were, according to a newspaper statement, engaged to convey electors to vote for the Liberal candidate. It seemed to him to be a bad thing to keep on the Statute Book a law which was systematically evaded. The whole subject might be fully considered in the next Parliament; but it would be impossible in the last days of the present one to alter the law in the way proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Sir Henry James). It had been said that it was better the old law should be kept as it was for the present, as, although there was no penalty imposed, yet conscientious persons observed the law as it stood, and that that was to a certain extent a preventative of expense at elections. But it was most unfair that conscientious persons should alone be put to a disadvantage in an election contest, and for that reason he cordially supported the proposal of the Government.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 47; Noes 120: Majority 73.—(Div. List, No. 40.)


referring to a statement he had made that he would oppose this Bill at every stage, said, he found a sufficiently resolute declaration had been made previously in the debate, and as the views of the Scotch Members on this Bill were in accord with his own, he would be very happy to follow their lead.

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

The House divided:—Ayes 115; Noes 48: Majority 68.—(Div. List, No. 41.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow at Two of the clock.