HC Deb 17 March 1880 vol 251 cc1176-91

Order for Consideration, as amended, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now taken into Consideration."—[Mr. Attorney General.)


in the absence of the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), begged to move that the Bill be considered that day month. He did not intend anything more than to make a final protest against this most mischievous and unhappy measure. It was a Bill to encourage profuse expenditure and corrupt practices at elections. In the course of the debate on this question, it was stated by the hon. and learned Attorney General that there was no moral law which forbade one to pay for the conveyance of a voter to the poll. There was no moral law which forbade him to give a voter a glass of beer; but yet that House had prescribed a punishment for undue treating. It had done the same thing to prevent corruption by the wholesale employment of vehicles to convey voters to the poll. There was no argument in favour of the Bill which could not be equally well adduced to do away with the prohibition to bribe voters with beer. The offence was as purely artificial in the one case as in the other. There was no more argument for robbing a poor man of his beer than for preventing the bribery of those who owned cabs. There was no necessity whatever for that Bill. It had been said that if the hours of polling were extended it would do away with all necessity for hiring cabs, and so it should. Yet in Southwark, where the hours of polling had been extended, more cabs were used than was ever the case in any metropolitan borough before. It was said this law was considerably broken, and, therefore, it should be repealed. But the same thing might be said with regard to treating voters with beer. Nothing was more notorious than that publican supporters of particular candidates gave beer to customers on the express understanding that they would vote for these candidates. Though the Government had been six years in power, and had come into Office after an Election when they had examples of all that could be said in favour of repealing the present law, they had done nothing till now. Even when they introduced a Bill dealing with the subject of corrupt practices, that Bill did not, he understood, contain one word of this last proposal, which, at the last moment, was sprung upon the House. There appeared to have dawned upon the Government that it would be an advantage to their monied candidates if such a clause as this were passed. No possible explanation of the change of policy occurred to him other than that the Carlton Club, or some other great money-bag of the Conservative Party, might have had some qualms of conscience in doing what was not legal; and to enable them to enter upon a profuse expenditure of money, and so obtain an advantage in the coming Election, this clause had been devised. This was undoubtedly a new form of corruption, intended to buy up the votes of an important class of voters. He thought it desirable that the country should know that the last act of the Government in the last days of Parliament, when there was no one present to oppose them, was to pass a Bill for the encouragement of profuse expense at elections, and giving a legal recognition to a practice hitherto condemned.


in seconding the Amendment, said, he thought there ought to have been some notice taken of the recommendations of the Report of 1875. The Committee recommended that there should not only be a change of the law, but that that change should be exactly in the opposite direction from the one now proposed by the Government. This proposal would increase the expense incurred in every borough election in England. It was the duty of Her Majesty's Government to regard the decision of the Committee which they themselves appointed, and which recommended that the employment of conveyances should be made a corrupt practice under the Act. Hardly anything more absurd or unjustifiable than this proposal was ever submitted to the House.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day month."—(Dr. Cameron.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


supported the Amendment of the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron), as he thought it would be better to leave the question open; but if the Bill should be passed, he hoped that Stroud, which he had the honour to represent, would be placed in the number of excepted boroughs, and treated as a county with reference to the conveyance of out-voters.


said, that this was the same question which was discussed yesterday; and, therefore, it would not be necessary to do more than to state the grounds for the Bill being introduced. Hon. Gentlemen belonging to both political Parties complained of the present state of the law and practice in regard to the conveyance of voters, and said that they were anomalous, and led to much inconvenience—that, in point of fact, the bringing voters up to the poll was so general that it was impossible to treat it as a corrupt practice, without causing considerable inconvenience; that it was left to private arrangement and outside the law, and could not be taken notice of; and, therefore, the practice really led to greater expenditure than if there was proper supervision. That was what the Government endeavoured to do. Everybody was aware that in the metropolis and some large towns the whole of the conveyances were taken up by private arrangement, and those expenses could not be brought under the review of the Election Officers, and there were, therefore, no means of checking the expenses of an extravagant and corrupt election. The Government now proposed to limit the action of the Bill in the manner proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Coventry (Sir Henry Jackson)—that was to say, to the conveyance of voters within boroughs. It was not within the purview of the Bill that persons should be brought from great distances to poll in boroughs by the payment of money for their expenses. He did not think it would be possible to meet the case of Stroud in the way suggested; but there could be no very great difficulty in conveying voters residing outside that borough from the boundaries to the polling places. He hoped that the House, having discussed the matter fully, would now agree to the Bill passing this stage.


said, that few things had occurred in this Parliament to cause greater regret to both sides of the House than the course adopted by the Government in reference to this Bill. Of course, the Government was master of the situation, and they were completely at its mercy. They were alike interested in maintaining the traditions of fair play in the House; but not even the staunchest supporter of the Government could say that the House had been fairly treated in regard to this question. The Government, according to their own statements, must have known that an Election was imminent. It could not be supposed they were so careless as to suddenly resolve upon this change of the law. It could not be said they had wanted opportunities of bringing forward the Bill earlier. They might have devoted to it, for instance, the night they occupied in passing a Vote of Censure upon the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll). He wished to place upon record his emphatic protest against the course proposed by the Government, and to express it still more strongly against the manner in which it was being carried out. The Government would be certain to receive the reward which unfairness always met with in this country. Many candidates had hitherto resisted the expense of conveying voters to the poll; but, under this Bill, all would have to engage conveyances, and the expenses of each candidate would be 20 or 30 per cent more than formerly. They ought all to unite in a vigorous effort to prevent any increase of expenses. Any change in the law should be in the opposite direction. It was said, he knew not with what truth, that the Government were expecting to get some advantage from the Bill at the coming Elections, and that arrangements had already been made in several places to give effect to the new law, and that all the cabs had already been secured. He would even, at this eleventh hour, make one more appeal to the Government, in the interests of fair Parliamentary discussion, to give up this proposal, which had come as a surprise upon the House and the country, and which could not fail to be mischievous in.


said, the spirit of the Constitution was that each elector should vote, and he contended that means should be afforded to all to exercise the franchise. It was a great evil that at many elections such a small proportion of electors polled.


said, it might be inferred, from what had occurred, that one of the dearest objects of the Conservatives was to poll the full sense of the constituencies; but why, if that were so, had they opposed the extension of the hours of polling in the country when it was enacted for London?


wished to call attention to the fact that the Select Committee of 1875 came to an unanimous resolution strongly opposed to the hon. and learned Member for Wexford (Sir George Bowyer). The hon. and learned Attorney General was a Member of that Committee, and he regretted that he was not present. He was glad that the Amendment had been moved, and, though there might be no hope of its being carried, it was well that they should protest once more against the course taken by the Government—the bringing forward of the Bill after many hon. Members had left London. If the Members of the Government had not been in the House, the Bill could not have passed. It was distinctly against the Report of the Committee of 1875, and was a step backward in regard to political purity. The Bill would overweight poor candidates. It was quite true that the law had in some cases been violated; but it was by no means so general a practice as the Chancellor of the Exchequer alleged, for, as he had mentioned last evening, in his own borough, where there was a very sharp contest, neither side had resorted to it. There could not be two opinions that it was a bad thing for the constituencies that cabs should be employed at all. There could be no excuse for it but absolute poverty, and he did not believe that the great body of the voters were so indifferent as to require to be conveyed to the poll as a condition of voting. It would be disgraceful if the last expiring act of this Parliament was to pass a measure of which the only effect would be to increase the cost of borough elections. The Government had admitted that it would be bad for Scotland and Ireland, which had both alike protested against it; but what was bad for Ireland and Scotland was, it seemed, good enough for England. The hon. Baronet who had just sat down had stated that the Bill would only be temporary; but he could not have heard the opinion of the Solicitor General, who declined to give a positive opinion on the point. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that there was a possible doubt as to the effect of this clause, whether it would be temporary or be permanent. However this might be, it was clear the Government, with its eyes open, had proposed a clause which their own Law Officers could not interpret, although it was the great object of the Bill. He rather gathered that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in favour of the view of the hon. and learned Baronet (Sir George Bowyer); but it could not be denied that the Government had, on the eve of a General Election, proposed an important change in the law with respect to elections without being certain whether it would be permanent or not.


said, that the intention of the Government, as he had already stated, was that the Bill would be temporary, so that the next Parliament would be able to deal with the whole question.


said, then all he could say was that the Government was badly served by its Law Officers. It came to this—that a measure which was so bad that it could not be forced upon Scotland or Ireland for the purposes of the impending Election, could be passed for England, and if the Government persisted in forcing through this measure for election purposes, they must not be surprised if its object was thoroughly exposed.


said, he should not have been sorry if the Bill had not been pressed, but, as it was before them, he should support it: the law as it at present stood was a mere brutum fulmen. It was not desirable such a state of things should continue to exist, and, consequently, this Bill proposed to get rid of the anomaly. It was but a temporary measure, and should it not work well the next Parliament would have the opportunity of considering it.


said, this Bill only affected English borough Members, and therefore the Government should give way to the expression of opinion of those Members. Admitting that the present law had been evaded, what harm would there be in permitting it to remain in force for one more Election, and then raising the entire question in the next Parliament? He declared that the employment of cabs at borough elections by the candidates was certainly not universal, and he instanced the case of his own borough—Reading—where, though cabs had been employed, they had not been paid for by the candidates, but by other parties interested in the election. The measure now forced on the House was supported mainly by a party composed of county Members. On analysing the first division of the previous day, he found that out of the 85 Members in favour of it 52 were county Members, and only eight of them were borough Members independent of the Government, who were seeking reelection. In the second division, out of the 37 Members who supported the Government only three were borough Members, all the rest being English county Members or Irish and Scotch Representatives. He again appealed to the right hon. Gentleman to proceed no further with the Bill on this occasion.


said, it had been stated that the Bill had only been supported from his side of the House; but he should point out that the strongest possible suggestions had been made by the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke), urging the Government to deal with this topic. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Stanton), again, had asked to have his borough placed in the same position as the counties, which was going beyond what the Government proposed. These were matters which ought not to be lost sight of. At present, the enactment was openly disregarded, and when the money for cabs was paid by some friend of the candidate there was no mode of formulating and putting those expenses before the public. Under the present Bill, the effect would be that all these expenses must be returned as part of the cost of the contest, and if there was a Petition, the Judge could consider what were their nature, character, and extent. He considered that the Bill would methodize, systematize, and cause to be regulated, a system which was now carried on in a manner that was furtive, clandestine, and not at all satisfactory. Scotland and Ireland had been excluded on entirely different grounds from the case of England, and there could be little objection to the proposal, for the whole Act must come under review in the new Parliament, when the House would have had the experience of how it worked in the intervening Election.


appealed to the Government, whether the pressing forward of this Bill was not a violation of the implied understanding into which they entered with the Liberal Party, that if no obstruction to Government measures were given no new legislation should be introduced? In Swansea he obeyed the law, and did not employ a single cab, and he could say that he had not lost a single vote by doing so. Were this clause of the Representation of the People Act repealed, the victory would be with those who had the longest purse, and those were the Conservatives; so that he was justified in denonncing it as a Party move.


considered that the law, as it stood, was calculated to keep the old, and, therefore, the most experienced, voters from the poll, as age not only brought with it experience, but also information. He denied that the Government was taking the Liberal Party by surprise, as he had distinctly heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the evening he announced the approaching Dissolution, state that this was one of the Bills which he would ask Parliament to pass before the Dissolution. It appeared that those expenses were neither legal nor illegal, but stood in a kind of electioneering twilight; and from his former experience as a borough Member, he would advise the House, in the interest of borough candidates, to adopt the proposal of Her Majesty's Government, for although they could not now be called upon to pay these charges at present where the law was evaded, the charge was only a deferred one, and sure to come upon them as soon as the possibility of an Election Petition got out of question. If the clause did not work well, there would be an opportunity of re-considering it. In conclusion, he regretted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made the concessions he had done to the Scotch and Irish Members.


said, that last night he appealed successfully to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to exclude Scotland from the Bill, and he thanked the right hon. Gentleman for doing so. He now ventured, in common with other hon. Members, to appeal to the Government not to press this Bill. Appeals had been made by the right hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), and the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre), and it was evident, from the statements which they had made, that a considerable number of boroughs wished to be free from the corrupt practice of hiring cabs and carriages at elections. He thought that the House should have further time to consider this question, in order to ascertain how far the law had been evaded. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the hon. and learned Attorney General had laid down a very dangerous rule, that when the law had been evaded, the practice should not be brought in accordance with the law, but that a new law should be made in order to suit the practice. That would give encourage- ment to the evasion of the law. The Attorney General for Ireland had pointed out that they were not on that side of the House unanimous. He (Mr. W. Holms) found, on looking at the Division List, that the Attorney General for Ireland was entirely wrong in what he said with reference to the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke), and, perhaps, he would be surprised to find that on the 10th of March the hon. Baronet was to be found in a Division List voting in favour of making the present law more effective. The hon. Baronet had not supported the Government proposals, but had stoutly opposed them. In his (Mr. W. Holms) opinion, they could not come to any other conclusion than that the Government had brought forward this Bill at an untimely period of the Session, and for one purpose, that of electioneering; and, moreover, that in doing so, they were giving encouragement to bribery.


hoped that no more time would be spent in discussing the Bill. Scotch Members were very anxious to go down to their constituents, and they wanted to go with the consciousness that the elections would be conducted on pure principles, and that they would not have to put their hands into their pockets for more money, in consequence of the new items of cabs. He had heard of a case where the candidates on each side were saddled with £2,500 for cabs alone, and he thought it monstrous that candidates should be called upon to pay such large additional sums. The hon. Member for East Gloucestershire (Mr. J. E. Yorke) had talked of this as a semi-legal payment; but, in his opinion, it was an illegal payment. [Mr. J. R. YORKE: What I meant was that there was no penalty attached.] That was what they wished to do—impose a penalty, and not methodize and systematize corruption, as the Attorney General for Ireland wished to do. If they methodized and systematized in this particular, he saw no reason why that should not be done in every case of corruption. He had always found that there had been a sufficient number of private carriages for the really lame and sick in every well constituted constituency, which were placed at the disposal of the candidates. He ridiculed the idea that the new clause in the Bill was in- serted for the purpose of allowing candidates to bring sick and infirm voters to the poll. It was for the purpose of bringing indifferent voters to the poll. He thought it was quite unnecessary and undesirable to bring them at all, as their vote would not be actuated by proper motives, but would carry with it that influence which they all could easily imagine. He hoped the Government would see their way to act wisely by withdrawing the Bill.


protested against the doctrine that the Government had taken the House by surprise. It would be in the recollection of the House that, on the appeal of the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated that the Bill before the House was one of the measures that would be considered before the Dissolution, and he had added that the specific object of the measure was to settle the question of the conveyance of voters to the poll. With regard to the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea, whatever his latest vote might have been, he was confident that last year he had favoured an alteration of the existing law in either direction. They all knew that cabs were used in boroughs, which involved a larger expenditure than if the payment were legal, because that which was done clandestinely was always more expensive than that which could be done openly. As to the argument that, as Scotland and Ireland had been excluded, England should not be retained, it ought to be remembered that the original Bill of the Government did not apply to Scotland and Ireland at all. Whether the clause was to be permanent or not, the whole question must come under review on a future occasion. He considered that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was fully justified in bringing in the Bill. It was merely for Party motives that an attempt was now being made to accuse the Government of a violation of an implied understanding which had never existed.


remarked, that the subject had never troubled him in the constituency which he represented. Upon reference to the Division List, he found that the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke) voted for making the law more stringent, not for relaxing it. In his (Mr. Campbell-Bannerman's) opinion, the employment of conveyances would open the door to bribery, and this view was supported by the evidence of Mr. Spofforth, given before the Committee on Corrupt Practices. He protested against the Government, in their last days, bringing in a Bill to facilitate corrupt practices.


said, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy contended that the Bill ought to be given up, because there was only a fragment left. That fragment, however, was a most important one. The Bill would do only ordinary justice to the poor, the feeble, and the hard-working of the constituents in the larger boroughs. No doubt the cost of elections were far too great; yet hon. Gentlemen opposite were not justified in objecting to a few pounds being added to the costs of candidates which enabled men now virtually disfranchised to be brought to the poll.


said, they were all very much obliged to the Government for exempting Scotland from the operation of the Bill; but these debates would show that the law was systematically violated in England, and the idea would go forth that it was only necessary to violate a law sufficiently to get the practice of violation made legal. When the conveyance of voters to the poll was made legal in England, he wished to know how it would be possible for Scotch constituencies to conduct elections without employing cabs? Some candidates with longer purses than others would certainly introduce them, and most likely the practice would thus become universal in Scotland. The only way out of the difficulty was to insert a penalty in the law as it at present stood. The measure did not touch the Scotch Members directly, though it did indirectly, and they would continue to throw in their opposition with that of the English Members as strongly as ever.


said, that the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) had told the House that there was only one way to deal with the practice, and that was to put a stringent penalty upon it. So that what was legal, permitted, and even encouraged, in every county of England, Ireland, and Scotland, and in several boroughs in England, was to be rendered not only illegal, but punishable, in the English boroughs. No Parliament, whether a moribund Parliament, as this was said to be, or a new Parliament, would put on the Statute Book so anomalous and unjust a law. It was said that the whole Liberal Party was against this measure. That was not at all an accurate statement of the case. On the second reading, when the principle was at stake, there was an important division, and he had extracted from the Division Lists the names of a number of Liberal borough Members who had voted for the Bill. The right hon. Member for Sandwich (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) was a considerable authority with the Liberal Party, and he voted for the second reading. Or was the right hon. Gentleman no longer a Member of the Liberal Party? There also voted for the second reading the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Stanton), the hon. Member for Carlow (Mr. H. O. Lewis), the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Gourley), the hon. Baronet the Member for Rochester (Sir Julian Goldsmid), the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Backhouse), and the hon. Member for Dundalk (Mr. Callan). All these being borough Members sitting on the Liberal side of the House, he ventured to protest in the strongest manner against the statement that the Liberal Party were all opposed to the Bill.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 57; Noes 34: Majority 23.—(Div. List, No. 47.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered.


in moving the insertion of the following new Clause:—

(Conveyance of voters to the poll.)

"From and after the passing of this Act it shall not be lawful for any candidate at any Parliamentary Election for any borough, directly or indirectly, to provide carriages or any other means of conveying voters to the poll, and any such candidate wilfully acting in contravention of this enactment shall be guilty of a corrupt practice within the meaning of the Acts mentioned in the Schedule to this Act,"

urged the Government to re-consider their determination to proceed with the Bill as it at present stood, and hoped they would accept the new clause he had proposed. That clause gave expression to a Resolution carried in the Committee which sat on Corrupt Practices, which had been supported by the Attorney General, the Attorney General for Ireland, the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Whitbread), and the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke).

New Clause—(Dr. Cameron,)—brought up, and read the first time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause be now read a second time."


said, that he had voted for the Bill in the last division, although previously he had opposed it, because it was quite clear that the principle had been thoroughly discussed, and the objections to it overruled. The same points had been raised over and over again on the Liberal side of the House in a spirit of the greatest obstruction that he had witnessed this Session. The last speech was merely a réoumé of that which had been made before, and he protested against the Bill being talked out by such unfair proceedings.


contended that it was the bounden duty of borough Members to offer every opposition to such an objectionable and mutilated Bill that the Forms of the House allowed. He certainly should persevere in that course. If this could be considered obstruction then he was willing to be called an Obstructionist. It was the business of the Liberal Members to see that legislation which was opposed to the feeling of the majority of the House and to the decision of a Select Committee which had recently inquired into the question, and of which the proposers of the present Bill were Members, was not forced through the House by means of the brute majority which the Government possessed, and by their method of conducting business. He considered anything they could do in accordance with the Rules of the House was not obstruction, but only a fair exercise of their privileges. He approved of the clause moved by the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron); and he hoped that opposition would be continued to the progress of the Bill unless the conveyance clause was struck out.


said, the line taken by the hon. Member for Midhurst (Sir Henry Holland) was utterly uncalled for and unjustifiable. The manner in which this Bill was being forced on was in itself almost an infringement of the Privileges of Parliament. The contention that the Bill was necessary because the law was evaded was degrading and humilitating; and if it were requsite to deal with the matter at all, it should have been dealt with on the lines of the Amendment rather than by legalizing the offence against the existing law. He charged the Government with corrupt motives in pressing this Bill. A most important contest was about to take place in Westminster, where the First Lord of the Admiralty was a candidate. The cost of conveyance of voters in that constituency could not be much under £5,000, which would be a charge upon those who contested the seats with him and his Colleague. There was, however, no knowing to what extent the cars belonging to the grocers and other tradesmen of Westminster might be brought into use, and that he would regard as a corrupt practice.


did not think the hon. Member for Midhurst was justified in his charge of obstruction. It was the duty of the Opposition, in such a case as the present, to do all they could to induce the House to refuse their consent to an unconstitutional and inconsistent proceeding. He, however, recommended his Friends, having entered their strong protest, to throw the responsibility of passing the Bill upon the Government.


begged to explain that his object was not obstruction. He would withdraw the Amendment.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

SIR DAVID WEDDERBURN moved the following new Clause:—

(Amendment of Law as to Parliamentary Elections in Scotland.)

"In all elections whatever of a Member or Members to serve in Parliament for any county, division of a county, or for any city or burgh, or districts of burghs, in Scotland, no inquiry shall be permitted at the time of polling as to the right of any person to vote, except only as follows (that is to say): that the presiding officer or clerk appointed by the returning officer to attend at a polling station shall, if required on behalf of any candidate, put to any voter at the time of his tendering his vote, and not afterwards, the following questions, or either of them:—

1. Are you the same person whoso name appears as A.B. on the register of voters now in force for the county of [or for the division of the county of], or for the city [or burgh] of or for the district of burghs [as the case may be];

2. Have you already voted, either here or elsewhere, at this election for the county of [or for the division of the county of], or for the city [or burgh] of or for the district of burghs [as the case may be]:

And if any person shall wilfully make a false answer to either of the questions aforesaid, he shall be deemed guilty of a crime and offence within the meaning of 'The Ballot Act, 1872.'"


said, there was no objection to the clause.

New Clause added.

MR. STANTON moved the omission of the words "so far as concerns the conveyance of voters within any borough."

Amendment proposed, In page 1, line 19, to leave out the words "so far as concerns the conveyance of voters within any boroughs."—(Mr. Stanton.)

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


said, the words were inserted last night after a lengthened discussion, and it would be inconsistent with the agreement that was then come to for the House to accept the proposed Amendment, It was impossible to meet all the cases of difficulty such as that presented by the peculiarities of the borough of Stroud.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill to be read the third time Tomorrow.