HC Deb 23 November 1882 vol 274 cc1897-904

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery to make out a new Writ for the Election of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the borough of Wigan, in the room of Francis Sharp Powell, esquire, whose Election has been declared to be void."—(Mr. Winn.)


said, that before the Motion was acceded to, he was very anxious to state publicly that the suspension of the Writ for Wigan for nearly two years had not been the result of any arrangement whatever between political Parties in that House, but that all had been done in the matter had been done openly and publicly before the House. In opposing a Motion made some time ago by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Lewis), the view he expressed, that further time ought to elapse before the Writ was issued, was expressed only in the House, and had been acted upon until the present time. Now that the present Motion was made, he thought it right to rise and protest against its being supposed that the suspension of Writs by the House without due inquiry before a proper tribunal was a course that ought to be encouraged; and he thought the House ought in some way to mark its opinion that the practice should not be made a precedent. His own view was that the vote by which the House, in August, 1881, refused to assent to an inquiry being instituted upon the Report of the learned Judge that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed at Wigan, was much to be regretted. Up to that time it had always been held that an inquiry should follow such a Report from the learned Judge who tried an Election Petition; and the suspension of Writs without a further inquiry was only a rough-and-ready method of doing justice, and a substitute for the more proper method of a regular investigation. He hoped that the House would mark the course followed in that case as one which ought not to be pursued again in like circumstances, and that the refusal of an inquiry would not be drawn into a precedent.


said, that the Attorney General was quite right in stating that all that had been done on the one side or the other in regard to that Writ took place openly in the House, and that there was no concealment or arrangement in connection with it. Personally, he was not a party to the vote, having been absent from London at the time; and there was no reason, therefore, why he should say whether he considered it right or wrong. He entirely agreed that, although that Writ had been suspended by the action of the House in consequence of the Motion which had been referred to, it was a matter which certainly ought not to be drawn into a precedent, because in ordinary circumstances, where action was taken against a constituency, it was taken, not by a vote of the House, but by an Act of Parliament; and it would not be Constitutional for the House to make that case a precedent for itself. Nevertheless, he felt that it would be most unjust that the issue of the Writ should be again refused, as this Writ had been suspended for two years, and the borough could not be included in any Bill which might be introduced to deal with other boroughs which had been found guilty of corrupt practices. It seemed to him, therefore, that the time had come when it would be right to issue the Writ; and he joined the hon. and learned Attorney General in entering a protest against that case being drawn into a precedent for their future action.


said, he was glad that the Attorney General and the right hon. Gentleman were now ashamed of the unconstitutional course which had been followed in regard to that Writ. He had himself always understood that the representation in that House could only be suspended by an Act of Parliament; and while agreeing that that case ought not to be drawn into a, precedent, he went further and asserted that such a case ought not to have occurred at all. It was right to suspend the Writ when it was intended to issue a Royal Commission of Inquiry; but in August, 1881, the House refused to address the Crown for a Royal Commission; and it seemed to him that at the beginning of the Session, if the Government did not intend to renew their proposal of a Royal Commission, there was no Constitutional reason why the Writ for Wigan should not then have issued.


said, it seemed to him there was very little need for apology for not having issued a Writ; but he thought there was very great need of apologizing for issuing one in the case of a borough in which a learned Judge had deliberately reported that in his belief exceedingly corrupt practices had prevailed, and yet no subsequent inquiry had been made upon that Report. He hoped that before they had any case of this kind again they should have a more efficient Corrupt Practices Bill; but he wished that this should not pass without a protest against the scandal which it seemed td him was involved in the issuing of a Writ of this kind without any inquiry whatever.


said, he had heard the observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General with the utmost astonishment. For the sake of public decency and public justice the House ought to be reminded of what had happened. In May last, acting on the principle now so tardily acknowledged by the hon. and learned Gentleman, he submitted to the House a Resolution that the Writ for Wigan should issue; and the Attorney General had to-day admitted by implication that the state of circumstances which existed in May were exactly the same as existed now. But the hon. and learned Gentleman then took a totally different course; he did not produce any precedent for the course the Government then pursued; he remained obdurate, constituting himself judge of the amount of punishment he would inflict, through the Ministry, on the constituency of Wigan; and, by a majority, they succeeded in intercepting the Writ. It was then proposed, indeed, that no Writ for certain constituencies should be issued during the present Parliament; but now the Attorney General said—"I venture to protest against the issue of the Writ now being made into a precedent." Who made it a precedent? Why, the Attorney General, who invoked all the power of the Government to suspend the Constitutional rights of the constituency; and the hon. and learned Gentleman now protested that nobody else should follow his vicious example. Why, if the hon. and learned Gentleman had appeared in the white robe of penitence and walked from the Bar to the Table, he could not have done more to show that he stigmatized his own conduct.


explained that what he protested against was the course taken of not issuing a Commission upon the Report of the learned Judge that corrupt practices prevailed, and which rendered it necessary for the House to take the subsequent course, which, he trusted, would not be repeated.


said, he was sorry if he failed to understand the hon. and learned Gentleman. If the hon. and learned Gentleman had said he had made a mistake and regretted what he had done, that would he a different matter; but the Government were not sinners in this matter alone, for there were other boroughs besides Wigan that were existing politically between life and death. Last year, instead of dealing with them, they introduced their Corrupt Practices Bill; and, by a curious coincidence, it was not until the Liberal Party had at last found a candidate that the Writ was issued. He congratulated them upon the coincidence. The consequence would be that what with the clôture and the new method of issuing Writs the Government would not only shut the mouths of the Opposition, but take away their seats also by waiting until it was convenient to fill up a vacancy. He had no doubt that hon. Members opposite, who were secure in their seats, thought it of no importance that other constituencies should be represented; but he trusted the electors of Wigan would not easily forget the way in which they had been treated by the Attorney General, but would recollect that through this impropriety of conduct they had remained for six months without a Representative. He would like to ask any Constitutional lawyer in that House, what excuse was there for delaying the issue of the Writ for one hour when the House had once decided against the issue of a Commission? They were entitled to the issue of their Writ immediately; but the Motion was opposed by the whole force of the Government. 220 Members formed the majority in the division that was taken, and they were all the supporters of the Government. [Mr. ARTHUR ARNOLD: I did not.] He (Mr. Lewis) was very glad to find that the hon. Gentleman was the one virtuous Member, and supposed that the propinquity of the borough of Salford to that of Wigan exerted a favourable influence upon his conduct. What he wished to point out was this—These proceedings were carried on in the name of purity of election, and in order to exercise a favourable influence upon constituencies; but their only result would be to contribute to the corruption which had previously existed. He was happy to find, however, that although the Attorney General had not confessed his sin, he had at least owned that the ray of justice and duty had penetrated his conscience and was contented at last to allow the Writ to be issued.


said, the speech they had just listened to would have been a very suitable one for an election meeting; but it compared very unfavourably with the tone and spirit of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Assheton Cross), whose constituency, in point of propinquity, was somewhat nearer to Wigan than Derry. But he would not have risen to take part in the debate had not the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Lewis) misunderstood, and therefore misstated, what fell from his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General. His hon. and learned Friend said that he regretted that upon the Report having been made by the Judges who tried the Petition the invariable custom of issuing a Commission had not been followed; and he added that that was a circumstance that he trusted would never be repeated. He distinctly stated that he hoped the method adopted in the case of Wigan would never in the future be drawn into a precedent; and he referred to the method then adopted as an inconvenient practice. The House adopted a course less penal than the issue of a Commission in suspending the Writ. At the beginning of the Session, when it was proposed by the hon. Member for Londonderry to issue a new Writ, the House declined to do so; but it was publicly stated in the House, and with the acquiescence, he thought, of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, that at the end of the Session the time would come when it was thought that the Writ might properly be issued. Therefore the course was one thoroughly well understood and straightforward from the first; and as to there being any connection between the finding of the Liberal candidate and the issue of the Writ, he did not suppose that any Member except the hon. Member for Londonderry would suggest anything of the kind. He would only add that he joined with his hon. and learned Friend in hoping that the course—which was adopted in leniency towards the constituency, and was not according to the regular rule—would not be followed in future as a precedent, and that whenever Judges made a Report, a Commis- sion for a proper judicial inquiry should issue.


said, that the Home Secretary had made one remark which ought not to pass unobserved. It was that this course, which had been stigmatized by the Attorney General as an inconvenient one, had been adopted with the concurrence of Members sitting on the Opposition side of the House.


What I said was that after the refusal to issue the Writ was determined by the House, the intimation that at the end of the Session the Writ would be issued was received with the concurrence of the other side.


said, that he entered his emphatic protest at the time against the unconstitutional doctrine founded by the Attorney General, under which he took upon himself, on his own fiat, to inflict a punishment upon a constituency contrary to all precedent, and in the teeth of what would be, under ordinary circumstances, the will of the House. The hon. and learned Gentleman stated that the course pursued was most inconvenient; but he (Mr. J. Lowther) reminded the House that when the Writ was moved for the Attorney General opposed it, and the Opposition urged that the Writ should issue unless the Government were prepared to ask Parliament to deal by means of Statute with the question. The hon. and learned Gentleman declined to introduce a Bill, or to do anything beyond suspending the Writ on his own fiat. It might not be the fact that the coincidence of finding a Liberal candidate was in any way connected with the mysterious decision of the Government in favour of the issuing of the Writ, as the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Lewis) suggested; but it was quite clear that the practice ought not to be drawn into a precedent.


said, he would not use any hard words in respect to the Attorney General, because he had told them when the Writ should be allowed to issue—namely, at the end of the Session, and he had kept his word. But he wanted to call attention to the unconstitutional doctrine that the House had the power to punish by suspending a Writ. It was not the case of a Judge who had the power to inflict a penalty; it was the case of a wronged man acting as Judge. The Attorney General was not the person to regulate how long a constituency should be deprived of its Members. He (Mr. Warton) wished to call attention to the serious development of this principle. In 1881 the House passed an Act suspending the elections of a number of seats. All those cases were adjourned for consideration early in 1882. The Government had again done the same thing, and adjourned these cases by an Act, and the cases had therefore not been considered by Parliament. How did the Government avoid their consideration—by putting forward the Corrupt Practices Bill, which might be a good Bill or it might not be; but certainly, by its enormous length and by its containing a great number of novelties, it was not likely to pass quietly through the House. The result was that some half-dozen places were all deprived of their Members. Delighted as he was to find that the unconstitutional doctrine that places could be deprived of their seats was abandoned, he was sorry to see another doctrine set forth by the Attorney General and the Home Secretary, following upon a suggestion of the hon. and learned Member for Launceston (Sir Hardinge Giffard), that the construction of the Act of Parliament did not render it imperative upon the House to issue a Writ. He (Mr. Warton) was not going to be a party to the House abandoning its Privileges. There was the case of a Commission issued in respect of the election at Northallerton, which was one of the purest elections that ever took place. These things were a lesson to the House to be cautious. The Government had not answered his question when they were going to fill up the other vacant seats? He supposed some other great Bill was to be brought forward. He protested, however, against the unconstitutional doctrine that the issue of a Commission would justify delay in issuing a Writ; at the same time, he was delighted that another unconstitutional doctrine had been abandoned.

Motion agreed to. Ordered, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery to make out a new Writ for the Election of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the borough of Wigan, in the room of Francis Sharp Powell, esquire, whose Election has been declared to be void.

Forward to