HC Deb 02 August 1881 vol 264 cc560-4

rose to call attention to the following statements in the Report of the Royal Commissioners appointed to inquire into alleged Corrupt Practices in the Borough of Knares-borough:— We find that corrupt practices did not extensively prevail at the election of 1874. We find that corrupt practices did not extensively prevail at the election of 1880. We cannot close our Report, having regard to the conclusions we have arrived at, without expressing our regret that the expense of this inquiry should, under the 31st and 32nd Vic. c. 125, s. 15, fall on the ratepayers of the borough of Knaresborough; and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, having regard to statements of the Royal Commissioners, it is not in accordance with justice nor with the policy of the Act of 31 and 32 Vic. c. 125, that the cost of this inquiry should he borne by the ratepayers of the borough of Knaresborough. The hon. Gentleman said, he had no desire to delay the taking of Supply, and would not have brought the subject forward on the Motion for going into Supply if it were open to him to do so on another occasion. What the ratepayers of Knaresborough complained of was that their borough being pure—as boroughs went—had been saddled with a rate of some 4s. in the pound. He thought this was a case in which the old maxim, De minimis non curat lex, would have applied; and if the rate had been not more than 6d. in the pound he should not have brought forward his complaint, although the principle was the same. Election Commissions dated back as far as 1850, when, under the Premiership of Lord John Russell, a Commission was appointed by Act of Parliament to inquire as to the proceedings at an election for St. Alban's. Two years later another Act was passed which practically perpetuated and made general the St. Alban's Act, and by that Act the cost of Commissions was defrayed from the taxes of the country. This state of things went on until 1867, when a Committee, comprising many of the experts in matters of electoral law, then sitting in Parliament, sat; and, on the Motion of Mr. Whitbread in that Committee, it was determined that in cases where corrupt practices had extensively prevailed the expenses incurred in holding the inquiries should be paid out of the county or borough rates of the localities. This seemed to him to be a very fair proposal; but he would remind the House that in the following year the scope of the Motion of Mr. Whitbread was enlarged, and provision was made that payment of the cost of inquiries should be laid upon the rates in all cases where the Judges reported that, in their opinion, this should be done. He could not but think that, in comparison with the other places in which Commissions had sat, Knaresborough was very badly treated. The object of the Legislature had been the prevention of corrupt practices, and they had refused to allow a Commission to be issued, where the Judge had reported that corrupt practices had not extensively prevailed, merely because a Member had been unseated. It was quite true that in this instance the Judge had reported that he believed that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed; but the inquiry had shown that that belief was not well founded. In such circumstances, it was contrary to the spirit, if not to the letter, of the Act that the borough should be called upon to pay a rate of 4s. in the pound in establishing its virtue. He might quote many cases in which the Government had awarded compensation where they were satisfied a mis- carriage of justice had taken place. The case of Habron might be mentioned, as well as that of Barber. The issuing of the Commission was an act of inadvertence. The intention of the Act was never to fine the electors for merely isolated cases of corruption, such as was the case at Knaresborough, and therefore it no more fell within the spirit of the Act than the cases of Gravesend or Evesham, where the Members were unseated. He knew that at this period of the Session he was quite in the hands of the Government. It was impossible, without their assistance, to make any headway. He regretted, however, that the Prime Minister was not in his place, that he might make his appeal to him on the subject. He knew that, technically, he had no defence on the question of statutory liability; but he must say that the constituency had suffered from an accident, and this being a wrong created by an Act of Parliament, it was the business of Parliament to find a remedy.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, having regard to statements of the Royal Commissioners, it is not in accordance with justice nor with the policy of the Act of 31 and 32 Vic. c. 125, that the cost of this inquiry should he home hy the ratepayers of the borough of Knaresborough,"—(Mr. Thomas Collins,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he was sure the House must feel that the hon. and learned Member had very fairly stated the case to the House, and that he was fully entitled to bring the exceptional circumstances under the consideration of the House. He also felt that there was a substantial grievance to bring forward; but, at the same time, it was impossible to give way to his Motion. The substantial Motion of the hon. and learned Member was that the expenses of this Commission should be borne out of the Imperial taxation of the country. He did not suggest any other means by which it could be met. In the first place, that could not be done without an Act of Parliament. Therefore, he asked the House to agree to a declaration, which must, of necessity, be fol- lowed by an Act of Parliament, to relieve the ratepayers of Knaresborough from the cost of this inquiry. He was unable to see that either the letter or the spirit of the Act had been defeated. It must have been anticipated by those who framed the Act that Judges not being infallible might make Reports either upon evidence which, upon further inquiry, proved not to be well founded, or upon error. The hon. and learned Gentleman did not himself blame the Judges, and he might mention that this was the first case in which the result had been contrary to their Report. The case had often occurred of prisoners found guilty 'of crime, and afterwards proved to be innocent, but except in very rare cases the Crown did not compensate them, or even repay the expenses to which they might have been put in their defence; and in those exceptional cases in which compensation had been awarded it had been the subject of severe criticism. If the position of the hon. and learned Gentleman was correct, it would be necessary for the State to pay the expenses of any person who, on appeal to a higher Court, succeeded in having the judgment of the lower Court reversed. He quite agreed that the evidence did not support the Report of the Judges; but while he regretted that Knaresborough should have to bear this expense, he could not see how, so long as the law was as it was, any compensation could be made. The only satisfaction to the people was that they had got one compensation—they had proved their right to elect a Member, and they had secured the able services of his hon. and learned Friend.


said, it was admitted that the Judges were mistaken, and he felt the force of the Attorney General's argument that it was not competent for the Government to accede to the Motion in face of the Act of Parliament; but it was manifest that the law required improvement. He did not expect the law to be infallible; but in adopting a system of secret voting they had raised a great obstacle to inquiries into electoral corruption, and to judge from what he had read they would convert that which in most cases was corruption by a few into a wholesale system of corruption. It was clearly the duty of the Attorney General to bring this question forward again; and he could only add that his hon. and learned Friend had clearly done his duty in bringing the facts connected with the constituency he represented before the attention of the House.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.