HC Deb 05 August 1882 vol 273 cc914-20

(Mr. Attorney General, Secretary Sir William Harcourt.)


Order for Second Reading read.

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


pointed out that the object of this Bill was to suspend elections in certain boroughs until seven days after the meeting of Parliament in the Session of 1883. This would have the effect of preventing the constituencies in question from electing Members in the event of what appeared to be an impending General Election taking place, which would be a very serious thing. He did not know whether it was right or wrong to punish constituencies in this way; but he would point out that under the dying Disfranchisement Bill introduced by the Government four of the corrupt constituencies were only to be disfranchised during the Parliament of 1880; whereas this Bill, which they were told was the same as that of last year, would, in the case of a General Election taking place before next Session, carry the suspension into another and a new Parliament. This, he contended, would be an injury and a cruel injustice to the four boroughs in question. Why, he asked, should the Bill not be delayed to the October Sitting? He begged to move that the Bill be read a second time on that day three months.


seconded the Amendment, and regretted that the Bill had not been brought on earlier, so that hon. Members would have had an opportunity of ascertaining what its provisions were. It was only brought on late that morning, and was now pressed to a second reading. As a very mild protest against the very hasty course the Government had taken on this subject, he would support his hon. and learned. Friend the Member for Bridport if he would go to a division.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Warton.)

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


said, he could not think his hon. Friends opposite were serious in opposing the second reading of the Bill, because it could scarcely be contended that, in the event of a General Election, those boroughs included in the Schedule of the Bill should have an opportunity of again returning Members. He hoped the Attorney General would seriously consider, before he again proceeded with legislation on the subject, the propriety of inflicting an equal punishment on all the boroughs, and whether that punishment should not consist of the withdrawal of one of their Representatives in each case.


said, he could not join the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) in opposing this Bill. Although it was an early day to take the second reading, he should, not advise the hon. and learned Member to take a division on that point. He did not think the boroughs concerned could complain of the suspension of their electoral rights, in view of the serious charges which were brought against them. He would like to ask the Attorney General whether, in the event of a Dissolution—as they had very good reason to expect—in October or Novem- ber next, the right to return Members to Parliament would be taken away from these boroughs? If the Attorney General could not answer that question, he would move in Committee to insert a Proviso to secure that the Bill should not affect the Constitutional rights of those boroughs which had not been adjudicated upon or considered by Parliament, in the event of a General Election taking place between now and February next. The amount of punishment which should be meted out to these boroughs was a different matter from the just condemnation which had been expressed with regard to them; but it was a great hardship to some of the boroughs that the measure of punishment which should be awarded to them should not have been considered by a Select Committee before Parliament dealt with the subject.


said, he did not propose to discuss the provisions of the Corrupt Practices Disfranchisement Bill, which the Government had been reluctantly compelled to withdraw. He was sure it was the wish of the Government to meet the general feeling of Members on both sides of the House as to the punishment which should be meted out to those boroughs, and he was certain that any suggestion which came from the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Rylands) would be considered. The Government only desired to do strict right in regard to those boroughs. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk) asked whether, if a Dissolution should take place between now and the meeting of Parliament in 1883, there would be power in those defaulting constituencies to return Members? His answer must be in the negative; and if there were no other reason, he thought the hon. Member would agree with him that if they did not take steps—and he assured the hon. Member they could not—to disfranchise those individual electors who had been reported as guilty of corrupt practices, the result would be that out of constituencies with an aggregate number of 32,000 electors, in the event of an election, 9,000 who had been reported as corrupt would be entitled to vote. Therefore, this House would receive the return of 14 Members from constituencies of whom considerably more than one-fourth would be corrupt electors. Under any circumstances, he thought the House would not wish to see that; it would be a scandal that these corrupt voters should have an equal right with the pure voters to exercise the franchise. The hon. Member for Gloucester asked the Government to give a pledge that they would not introduce any amendment into the Bill in Committee. He was unable to make any such promise; but there was at present nothing in his mind which rendered it likely that Amendments would be proposed. He proposed to go into Committee on the Bill, subject to the usual course in regard to Bills in Committee. The hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) had charged the Government with having introduced the Bill in its present form for Party purposes, because they intended to dissolve Parliament before the ensuing year, and that the Government was under the impression that the return of Members from those constituencies would benefit the Opposition. He had no anticipation of a Dissolution of Parliament being likely. He knew nothing at all as to what might be probable in the future; but, at all events, this Bill had not been introduced with a view to any such contingency. But assuming that 14 Members were returned from those boroughs, and that their political complexion remained unaltered, he knew this, that out of the 14 Members that would be returned, if there were no Suspensory Bill, 11 would be Liberals and only three Conservatives. If any inference could be drawn from that fact, it was that the introduction of the Bill could not have been the result of any Party action on the part of the Government, because if the chances of the next Election were the same as the last, they would be gainers by withdrawing the suspension. He could not believe that the hon. and learned Member was serious in the Amendment he had moved. The Bill itself had only been introduced on account of the difficulties and embarrassments which had arisen in regard to dealing with the question by the Disfranchisement Bill. The necessity for the present Bill arose from the condition of the legislative action of the House. He admitted that, both theoretically and practically, the Disfranchisement Bill ought to have been proceeded with, and that not only should it have been passed, but that it should have been accompanied by the General Corrupt Practices Bill. But the House was perfectly well aware of what had occurred, and the Prime Minister had most reluctantly been compelled to withdraw the Corrupt Practices Bill owing to the more pressing necessity for passing a punitive measure for the prevention of crime in Ireland, and a measure to remove the grievances under which the Irish people were now suffering. The House had consequently been debarred of all opportunity of legislating upon the question of corrupt practices, because the Prime Minister found he had no alternative but to yield to the appeal made to him not to deal with the question of disfranchising either constituencies or individuals in an empty House at the end of the Session. But, if the present Bill were not passed, every future election for these constituencies which had been proved to be corrupt would take place on the present un-purged register. He did not apprehend that his hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester desired that. [Mr. MONK: No, I do not.] Then it became absolutely necessary to pass this Suspensory Bill. If it were not passed the corrupt electors would have the same power of voting as those who were pure. The practical effect of passing a Suspensory Bill would be, that if a General Election were to be brought about this year—although why it should be deemed likely he was at a loss to understand—the only punishment inflicted upon the corrupt electors of the seven suspended boroughs would be that they would have been deprived for two years—since the Report of the Election Commission in 1881—of the power of returning Representatives. Hitherto, under similar circumstances, the conviction of a constituency of so serious an offence had always been visited by a much heavier punishment. It would be a perfect scandal to pass over the offence as if nothing out of the ordinary course had occurred, and it was absolutely essential to visit the corrupt voters with the displeasure of Parliament. The hon. Member for West Cheshire (Mr. Tollemache) said that the people of the city of Chester had been hardly dealt with; but there were some persons who were of opinion, on the contrary, that Chester had been rather lightly dealt with. It had certainly been said, he believed by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Lewis), that Chester had special friends in the Cabinet.


appealed to the Speaker, whether the hon. and learned Gentleman was regular in referring to past debates?


did not notice the interruption.


said, he had no desire to refer to past debates; but he simply wanted to point out how unfounded the allegations of the hon. and learned Member for Bridport were. He hoped the hon. and learned Member would not throw any obstacle in the way of the passing of the Bill; because it was admitted by everybody that something should be done during the present Session to convince the offending persons that the widespread corruption of which they had been found guilty should not be allowed to pass altogether without punishment.


said, that he thought that the Attorney General had hardly given a sufficient answer to a suggestion made by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk)—namely, that, instead of disfranchising these boroughs, and depriving them of their rights, the electors who had been reported by the Commissioners as corrupt, and who had been scheduled, should be individually dealt with and prevented from voting. If this were done, the objection raised by the Attorney General, with great force, that if this Bill did not become law, these voters who had been scheduled by the Commissioners would be entitled to vote, and might materially influence an election, would be removed. He would venture to urge on the Attorney General to consider whether a clause might not be introduced to prevent those who had been scheduled by the Commissioners from voting. He was aware that, in some cases, this might work hardship, as some of those persons might be able to clear themselves from the charge; but he would prefer that rough justice should be done in this way rather than that the whole boroughs, and the large number of pure voters in those boroughs, should be disfranchised, as they were, by this Bill.


pointed out that there had been a good many Amend- ments put down to the Disfranchisement Bill to refer the measure to a Select Committee, in order to enable some of those who were scheduled as having been guilty of corrupt practices to give evidence to show why their names should not be retained on that Schedule. If the suggestion of the hon. Baronet were accepted, however, and they summarily disfranchised these persons, it would have the effect of excluding any such proceedings before a Select Committee in the future.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.