HC Deb 20 August 1881 vol 265 cc504-9

I am sure the House will only wish me to occupy its attention for a very brief time while I make the Motion which stands in my name— namely, that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty to appoint Commissioners to inquire whether corrupt practices prevailed at Wigan. I must, however, state the circumstances under which this Motion comes before the House. When the Corrupt Practices Act was passed in 1852 there was a provision in case of the Committee reporting to the House that corrupt practices prevailed, or that there was reason to believe that they prevailed. on an Address to both Houses of Parliament, that a Royal Commission should issue to inquire into the circumstances of those corrupt practices. At that time the duty of determining an Election Petition rested with the Committee of this House, and then it was that the Chairman of the Committee made his Report to the House, and was in the habit of making a similar Motion to that which I am now making. It was then, undoubtedly, the practice of the House to discuss the question whether the Report of the Election Committee was or was not well founded. In 1868 the duty of trying Election Petitions was placed upon the Judges instead of the Election Committee; and it was thought that the Report of the Judges ought to be considered conclusive. A discussion took place in this House in 1869, when Mr. Gathorne Hardy, speaking with authority on the subject, said— When the Judge reports in the terms of the Act of last Session, and when a Motion is made, as in the present instance, by the Attorney General, we ought, I think, in order to avoid all painful discussions, to act in accordance with the Judge's Report. The whole of the facts are not gone into before the Judge; there is no occasion for a party to the proceedings to go further than he thinks necessary for his own objects; but the Judge has seen reason to ask the House to go further, and, relying on his Report, and the action of the Attorney General, I think it is our bounden duty to accept the recommendation of the Judge."—[3 Hansard, cxcv. 15.] From that time the House has followed the suggestion made by Mr. Grathorne Hardy, and, with one exception, has always followed the finding of the Judge on this subject. The only exception was in one case where the Judge reported that the corrupt practice of treating only prevailed, and then the House declined to grant the Commission. That was where the offence was corrupt treating only, and if reference be made to the Corrupt Practices Act it will be seen that the Commission have no power to report persons guilty of treating; but in the case of bribery there has been no attempt to go back from Mr. Gathorne Hardy's suggestion. Now, in this case the Judges have reported that corrupt practices prevailed extensively—that is, in the words of the statute, and they think further inquiry should be made; and I know no reason, from looking into the Report or Judgment of the learned Judges, who have found, in terms that they have reason to believe, that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed, to see why the House should deviate from the path it has followed since 1869. Now, I understand that there is a good deal of local feeling on this matter, and I am warned by one of my hon. Friends that he will oppose this Motion; but I must ask the House to see what dangerous ground we shall tread upon if we go behind the Judges' Report. If once we give way to the feeling of the majority of this House, and say that in some instances we will follow, and in other instances we will not follow, the recommendation of the Judges, we shall lay ourselves open to the charge of determining the matter according to the political feeling of the House, and not according to any acknowledged rule or principle. We shall go back to those very worst days when matters of this kind were made the occasion of voting away the existence of a Ministry.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as followeth: Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave humbly to represent to Your Majesty that Sir William Robert Grove, knight, and Sir Synge Christopher Charles Bowen, knight, two of the Justices of the High Court of Justice, being two of the Judges appointed for the trial of Election Petitions, pursuant to "The Parliamentary Elections Act 1868," and "The Parliamentary Elections and Corrupt Practices Act 1879," have reported to the House of Commons that there is reason to believe that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed at the last Election for the Borough of Wigan: We therefore humbly pray Your Majesty,' that Your Majesty will be graciously pleased to cause inquiry to be made, pursuant to the powers of the Act of Parliament passed in the sixteenth year of the reign of Your Majesty, intituled" An Act to provide for the more effectual inquiry into the existence of Corrupt Practices at Elections for Members to serve in Parliament,'' by the appointing of John Morgan Howard, esquire, one of Your Majesty's Counsel, Thomas William Snagge, esquire, barrister at law, and Douglas Kingsford, esquire, barrister at law, as Commissioners, for the purpose of making inquiry into the existence of such corrupt practices."—(Mr. Attorney General.)


I must ask the House, notwithstanding what my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has stated, to disagree with the Motion which he has put before us. The Attorney General asks us not to give way to our political feelings in the matter. I also ask the House not to be led away by its feelings, but rather to judge by the broad facts as to whether they should agree to an Election Commission being sent down to Wigan or not. At the time of this election there had been in Lancashire a strike which lasted six or seven weeks, and more than 50,000 workpeople were without work, and without wages, and without food. In that ease, it is but too likely that they would be tempted; and I believe it is a fact that on each side a number of voters had their breakfasts given to them, and after that they went to vote; and it is also a fact that there was a betting man who went round and betted that Mr. Powell would be returned, and in order to secure his return it is said that he spent some money. This having been put before the Judges, they came to the conclusion that corrupt practices had prevailed to a considerable extent, and, accordingly, they issued their Report. But I ask you, Sir, and I ask the House, whether this is a sufficient ground to issue a Commission? It does not seem to me that it is. I think we ought to have a broader ground before we send down to Wigan, which is practically a very poor place, a Commission to inquire into what has been done there for the last 25 years, imposing an enormous expense upon the town, and then coming to no very satisfactory conclusion. I regret that on this occasion the hon. Member for Wigan is not in his place. He is very ill, and cannot even write; and there is no one in this House to say a single word on behalf of the borough. Had the hon. Member been here, a single word from him would have gone a great deal further than a whole speech from me; but as he is not here, and I represent a borough neighbouring to his, and similar to it in many respects, I must say that I do not think that this Commission ought to issue. I must say that in the sense of Southern corruption, and comparing it with Southern towns, the borough of Wigan is perfectly pure. I live within seven miles of the place, and I know it perfectly well. The people are rough and ready, and a great many of them are colliers, who are certainly a dog-running, pigeon-flying, cock-fighting, Church-and-King-lot, who always vote Tory, but they are not corrupt; and I am certain that if you were to go to Wigan and offered to bribe 20 per cent of that town you would have the money thrown back in your face. I beg my hon. and learned Friend not to go to a division on this question; but if he thinks it necessary to do so I only hope that my hon. Friends will support me, and I believe that I shall get the support of the House. Wishing to expedite Business, I shall merely say that when the Question is put I shall meet it with a direct negative.


The Attorney General has inadvertently misled the House upon the state of the law on this subject, and for that reason I have intervened. The Act under which those Commissions issue, if they issue at all, is an Act which involves one of these conditions—that there should be an Address by the House for further inquiry, and when the alteration was made by which jurisdiction in election matters was transferred from the Committees of this House to the Judges no alteration whatever has been made in the jurisdiction which we are now asked to administer. It is simply an alteration of the jurisdiction of the Committees to the jurisdiction of the Judge; and my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General appeared to assume that there was some distinction to be drawn between the different forms of corrupt practices, both in the Report of the Judge and in the language of the statute. The Attorney General used the phrase that Mr. Justice Grove had reported '' corrupt practices by way of bribery had extensively prevailed."


You will find it so in the Judgment.


I have no doubt that that was the case. But what I venture to point out as an error of the Attorney General is where he states that, by a decision in a former case where the matter was discussed, and private treating only was reported, then the matter might be reviewed; but where the Judges report that corrupt practices extensively prevail all that the House has to look to, if we adopt the suggestion of the Attorney General, is the Report of the Judges. Under these circumstances we must do one of two things—either the matter is to be the subject of inquiry, or it is not. If it is, it is obvious that the whole matter is open; if it is not, and the House is to accept as of course the Report of the learned Judges, as the Attorney General has pointed out, that is not a practice which has uniformly prevailed. I have not gone into it, and I do not know about the matters of fact; but if the facts are as stated by the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Cross), and if it is open to the House to decide the matter, I shall certainly vote with the hon. Member. It seems to me that if it were considered desirable that this matter should not be determined by the House, and if it were desirable to do that which the Attorney General desires the House to do, nothing could have been easier than to have made a provision that in every case where the Judge or the Committee report that there should be a Commission such as is sought for by this Address. But that is not what the statute says. The statute enacts that where this House asks for further inquiry, that on this Address being agreed to a further inquiry should take place. Therefore, if this matter is to be discussed, I think it is fairly open to what the hon. Member has said, and if he goes into the Lobby I shall follow him.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 37; Noes 43: Majority 6.—(Div. List, No. 403.)


Mr. Speaker, I should like to ask what course the Government intend to take in this grave political crisis? [No reply was given.]