HC Deb 25 April 1884 vol 287 cc655-69

Order for Second Beading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he did not think it was necessary he should make any detailed statement. When the Bill relating to Corrupt Practices at Parliamentary Elections was before the House last Session he received remonstrances from both sides of the House, complaining that no provision was made in that Bill for dealing with corrupt practices at municipal elections. It was pointed out to him that evils prevailed at those elections, and he recognized the justice of those remonstrances. He found, however, even with the generous support of the House, that to pass the Bill dealing with Parliamentary Elections was a most difficult task, and, therefore, he felt it more advisable to postpone the measure dealing with municipal elections until this Session, so that he might learn from the experience of the Parliamentary Bill how far the feeling of the House would be willing to go with him in support of a Bill like the one now before the House. He now submitted the Bill confident that it would receive the same support given to the Parliamentary Bill. It would be remembered that the Bill of last year dealt with corrupt practices by punitive clauses, and substantially those clauses would be found in the present Bill. He saw no reason why there should be a difference in such a matter where the offence was really the same. Then the Bill of last year prohibited certain classes of expenditure, and provisions of a similar character would be found in this Bill. The Bill of last year also contained a maximum schedule of expenditure; but he thought the House would see that it was impossible to apply a maximum scale to municipal elections, the expenditure at which, except in one or two cases, was not large. They ought, of course, to make them as inexpensive as possible, so that men of every class could enter the municipal bodies. There was a class lower than that which now were returned willing to enter into municipal bodies and take part in local government. He thought the House was bound to do all it could to make it easy for these classes to enter, and they ought not to throw obstacles in the way of persons who had a great stake in relation to local affairs taking also a fair share in those affairs. He found, however, that it was not so much the expenditure as the process of election that was the difficulty. Therefore he made no attempt to deal with the maximum scale. That was the exception, and substantially the Bill was the same as the Act relating to Parliamentary elections. He would suggest the only provisions different from the Parliamentary Act. The first was as to where public meetings should be held. In the discussion on the Parliamentary Bill, such a strong representation was made to him as to the difficulty of obtaining rooms for holding public meetings, other than those in connection with public-houses, in regard to county elections, that he felt compelled to withdraw the proposal; but he had received so many respresentations on the subject as to municipal elections, that he had felt it necessary to introduce the prohibition into the Bill, because it had been felt that, in a large number of cases, meetings were held in support of candidates which were really for the benefit of the publican. But while he placed this clause in the Bill, if it could be shown in the course of the discussion that it produced greater inconvenience than benefit, he should, so far as he was personally concerned, be prepared to listen to the arguments of hon. Members. Respresentations had also been made to him that persons who were perfectly innocent had to bear the costs of the actions of their agents. When it was recollected that it was made obligatory on persons, if elected, to enter the municipal body, they ought not to add burdens which might prevent them from becoming candidates. The proposition in the Bill was that where a person had not himself taken part in any corrupt practice some relief should be given to him with respect to the payment of those heavy costs. If corrupt practices extensively prevailed, then, the commu- nity should pay the costs. If other persons bribed for the candidate, then those persons should pay. He had endeavoured to extend the provisions of this Bill not only to municipal elections, but cognate elections, such as Boards of Guardians and Local Boards. The rest of the Bill, which had only some 36 clauses, followed so closely the Parliamentary Bill, as it left that House, with the concurrence of the majority, that he did not think it necessary to go over it clause by clause. He thought it almost a duty to present the Bill to the House, for if some such measure as that suggested should not become law, all the labours of last Session would be of little avail, inconsequence of their having what he might call one hole unstopped; and the only change would be that corrupt practices would be shifted from Parliamentary to municipal elections. He thought experience justified him in saying that the Bill was not framed to aid any political Party, and that the Act of last year was wisely framed. In this, as in the other measure, he had endeavoured to be guided by gentlemen of experience, and he would gladly receive suggestions for its improvement from whatever quarter of the House they came.

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


said, he was sure the hon. and learned Member had been impelled by a sense of duty to introduce the measure, for everyone knew that bribery at municipal elections might be carried on for the express purpose of political corruption. He was glad also to hear that the Attorney General was willing to receive suggestions from any part of the House for its improvement. As to the former Bill, it had not yet been subjected to the test of a General Election, though so far as they had been able to learn it had worked well at bye-elections. At the time when the Corrupt Practices Bill was introduced great stress was laid on the principle of a maximum expenditure. Why had that principle entirely disappeared? It was just as important in municipal as in Parliamentary elections to say that a certain amount should be spent and no more. He had had no experience in municipal elections; he was happy to say he knew nothing about them; but this point certainly would demand the consideration of the House. He regretted the proposal that the Bill should be referred to a Standing Committee, and could see no reason why it could not be dealt with in the House, where they had Representatives of all the great boroughs. This was a matter specially requiring to be treated by the whole House, and he should oppose any attempt to transfer it to the Standing Committee.


said, he thought the House should bear in mind the fact that the Act of last year imposed very severe penalties, which should not be carried further than the nature of the case required. They might reasonably be applied to municipal elections, which were generally of a political character, and frequently connected with those for Parliamentary purposes; but the elections for School Boards, Boards of Health, or Guardians, were totally different matters, and it was unwise and unjust to expose persons who came forward to fulfil those duties to the heavy penalties of the Act which might be incurred by very slight inadvertence. He trusted, therefore, that, under any circumstances, elections of this nature would be omitted from the Bill.


asked why in this, in common with all previous Municipality Bills, London was to be excluded? He could see no reason why it should be, except, perhaps, the great natural virtue of its citizens. They were promised, indeed, a London Government Bill; but if they were so unfortunate as not to obtain it, they ought not to be excluded from the benefits of this one. At elections in the City of London votes had been bought and sold as completely as sheep in the open market. [Mr. WARTON: Oh, oh!] The hon. and learned Member objected to his statement. It was done in the ward of Portsoken at the last election but one, and if the hon. and learned Member would refer to The City Press, the organ of the Corporation, he would find what he had said was a fact.


said, he desired to congratulate the Attorney General on the introduction of this Bill. Any measure dealing with corrupt practices at Parliamentary elections must necessarily be supplemented by a measure like this, and he was glad the Government had seen their way to introducing it early in the Session, and seemed disposed to carry it through. The Attorney General had mentioned two points of difference in the new Bill, and in both cases they were an improvement on the former. In the first place, meetings in public-houses, where, in fact, the whole of the corrupt practices took place, were prohibited, and the cost of the proceedings were in certain cases thrown upon the constituency or the corrupt agents, instead of the unseated candidate, when personally innocent. He would, however, suggest that it was hardly satisfactory that the person incriminated should be precluded from having an appeal; but otherwise he thought it right and useful to be able to hold in terror over these gentlemen the extreme probability that they would have to pay for their malpractices. He would join very strongly in the representation of his right hon. Friend (Sir R. Assheton Cross) as to the policy of sending this measure to a Standing Committee. The Attorney General himself had not said why he thought it desirable to do so. The measure had very little to do with law, except in so far as that every measure which came before the House had something to do with a change in the law. He would suggest that it might just as well be sent to the Standing Committee on Trade, which had nothing to do at the present moment, and which would have the advantage of again being led by the President of the Board of Trade, who was well acquainted with every sort of electioneering, and whose experience might prove useful in the matter. He confessed that he would be extremely sorry to see this measure run the risk of getting into the troubled waters of a Standing Committee, and he would, therefore, venture when the question came up to challenge the proposal. He hoped, however, that the Attorney General, after what he had heard, and what he would hear in that debate, would be led to alter the conclusion to which he had come. The House ought to take a Bill of this sort in hand with great vigour and decision, and he thought that on Constitutional grounds the measure should remain under the consideration of the House. The result would be better if it were discussed hi Committee of the Whole House, rather than committed to a delegated body such as a Grand Committee.


said, he held that if the Bill was to be passed at all it must go to a Grand Committee. He understood it was proposed to make the Bill applicable to Scotland. He should like to know if that were the case, and how it was intended to proceed with the introduction of clauses giving effect to the intention?


said, that it was intended to extend the Bill to Scotland. There would be no difficulty in introducing the necessary clauses.


said, he also cordially concurred in the admiration expressed with reference to the principle of the Bill. He, however, maintained that the success of the Act of last year was entirely due to the limitation of expenses. He doubted whether the present Bill would be successful unless the expenses were similarly limited. Bribery had been undoubtedly committed in municipal elections with a view to subsequent Parliamentary elections, and the present Bill would not put a stop to the practice. A clause should be inserted to limit the expenditure. With that addition, he thought that the Bill would work as well as that of last year.


said, he was afraid that the Attorney General would be disappointed in his hope that the Bill would bring forward a better class of men for municipal elections. There was a great deal of corruption going on that was done, not by individuals, but by collective bodies, who had the control of charity and other funds, and he doubted whether the Bill would reach those cases. He did not see any reason why London should have been exempted from the action of the Bill; but still, in his opinion, the Bill was distinctly a step in the right direction.


said, he thought there was a good deal in what had just fallen from the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) with reference to the limitation of expenditure at these elections. He, too, wished to take this opportunity of pressing upon the Government that in such a Bill it was absolutely necessary that a clause limiting the expenditure should be inserted. The misfortune in this matter was that the Law Officers of the Crown had had, comparatively speaking, no experience, except in reference to elections in small boroughs, and, as all knew, the circumstances therein were certainly dissimilar to the circumstances of large towns. He understood the hon. and learned Attorney General also to say just now that such a thing as large expenditure over municipal elections was not common. Well, if he correctly apprehended what he said, he could only say that he spoke in total ignorance of the subject. Why, he knew of an election in a Midland town only a few months ago where in a single ward of the borough, which had at least 12 wards, there was in that single ward an expenditure by two candidates of £700 in order to settle which of them should represent it. Nor was that an exceptional case. He had known in his own experience in various towns very large expenditure at such elections — sums spent varying from £100, £200, and £250 — in a single ward. Now, if these sums were multiplied by the number of wards in the towns—and very often at the November ward contests there were elections in all the wards of a borough—they got absolutely a much larger sum spent in the month of November in municipal elections than could be spent in Parliamentary Elections. He therefore impressed very strongly on the Attorney General—having had, he was sorry to say, very large experience in such matters in more than one town—the absolute necessity there was of providing for the limitation of the expenditure at these elections.


said, that the expenditure in ward elections did not always fall on the candidates. The amount necessary was to some extent obtained by large subscriptions, and that money undoubtedly was employed to influence voters. In small boroughs, if a legal limit were put on expenditure at municipal elections, and that limit was exceeded, it would be difficult to find anybody to prosecute, especially as he might be floored on some technical point and have to pay very heavy costs. No doubt, there was excitement at municipal elections; but it was nothing as compared with the excitement at Parliamentary elections. However strict were the rules laid down in that matter, they would be evaded in small places, although in large towns, like Manchester or Liverpool, where political feeling ran high, they might get men who would prosecute. In a small town, if a tradesman prosecuted another for bribery his business would go at once, and he would not deem it prudent in his own interest to do so. [The ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir Henry James) was here understood to refer the hon. Member to the clause relating to the Public Prosecutor.] That was all very well; but who would move the Public Prosecutor to prosecute? No doubt, the Corrupt Practices Bill of last year had done a great deal of good. He witnessed the late contested election at Brighton, and had been at many similar results at Brighton before that, and he had never known any election there, at which there was less display of colours, less posting, or less expense incurred, than at the last Parliamentary contest. In conclusion, he would not oppose the second reading of that Bill, but at the same time he would urge that it should be considered in Committee of the Whole House, and not relegated to a Grand Committee. Why it should be sent to a Grand Committee he could not conceive, unless it were that the Attorney General desired to give the Committee work.


said, he agreed in the opinion that generally speaking the Bill was an improvement on the Bill of last Session. If he understood its principle correctly, it brought punishment more directly home to the actual offender and protected the innocent. There were, however, two alterations in the Bill to which the Attorney General had not alluded. Upon the Corrupt Practices Bill of last Session there was a long discussion as to the policy of allowing election meetings to be held at political clubs, and the result was that an exception was made in favour of those clubs in regard to meetings. In the present Bill, however, there was no suggestion in favour of political clubs. That he thought was a mistake. He agreed that the holding of such meetings at public-houses was most objectionable; but if buildings were erected where meetings might be held without the corrupting influences of public-houses, he could not see why they should not be utilized for municipal, in the same way as for Parliamentary elections. That Bill affected every man in the House, and he thought that the whole House ought to have an opportunity of considering it in Committee. He generally approved of the measure, and would give the Attorney General every aid in his power in passing it.


said, he regarded that Bill as one that was eminently fitted to be referred to the tribunal of a Grand Committee, and he believed that the Government had exercised a very wise discretion in proposing that it should be sent to such a Committee. He, at the same time, took the opportunity of saying that he thought the Bill went unnecessarily far; and while he cordially agreed in the expediency of extending the Corrupt Practices Act to municipal elections, he could not see that it was requisite to apply all its provisions to the election of Poor Law Guardians and members of School Boards. They had to be careful in legislation of that kind not to lay traps for innocent persons, who might, for some trivial act connected with these minor elections, be exposed to very heavy penalties.


said, he had not intended to speak in that debate; but since he came down to the House he understood that a serious charge had been made against the constituency which he had the honour to represent. He was told that the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Firth) had said that at municipal elections in the City of London votes were bought and sold as sheep were bought and sold in the market. He would ask, then, how it was that year by year in the various municipal wards of the City of London men were elected without any contest? There were, he thought, only two or three contests on last St. Thomas's Day in the City, and for one of those contests the hon. Member for Chelsea was responsible, because that hon. Member brought a friend into the ward to contest the seat of a much honoured member of the Common Council, a strong Liberal in politics. In all the wards the same men were generally elected from year to year. In corrupt Parliamentary boroughs there was always a contest—they did not like "dry elections." If the constituency of the City of London were corrupt, why was it that they had not contests? He repudiated the statement of the hon. Member because it had been made in the House. Of what the hon. Member said out of the House he did not take any notice. The hon. Member for Chelsea was a man of high honour, but he had a craze about the City of London; and if the hon. Gentleman were told that either his hon. Friend and Brother Alderman opposite the Member for Fins-bury (Sir Andrew Lusk) or he (the Lord Mayor) had poisoned their grandmother, he would believe it like a shot.


said, he was afraid the Bill would not work without a whitewashing clause with respect to past corrupt transactions similar to the one in the Act of last Session. There was always an aversion on either side to have past elections looked into, so that, without one, unless the party workers on both sides were free from the risk of having old events opened up, they would never be able to start on a better footing. He wished to join in the protest against sending this Bill to a Grand Committee. When the Committees were formed they were divided into two classes—a Committee on Law and a Committee on Trade. He defied anyone to bring this Bill within the definition of matters proper for the Committee on Law. It would be as easy to bring it within the scope of the Committee on Trade. It seemed to him that, with respect to these Committees, if the work of the Committees was not limited to Bills having relation to the subjects with which they were intended to be exclusively occupied, it would soon come to be the prerogative of certain Ministers of the Crown to send all Bills introduced by them to Grand Committees. This course of proceeding might be used in derogation of the Privileges of the House.


said, he hoped the Attorney General would consider the question regarding the maximum limit of expenditure. Coming, as he did, from a large city, and familiar as he was with the fact that there was a large expenditure in times of municipal elections, he should be very much disappointed if the Bill of this year was different from the measure of last year.


said, he was struck with the tone assumed by hon. Gentlemen opposite in reference to the sending of Bills to Grand Committees. He had been especially struck with the opinion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Lanarkshire (Sir Edward Colebrooke), who spoke of the Bill as being admirably suited for reference to a Grand Committee. The reasons which had been given clashed somewhat harshly with a great deal of somewhat exaggerated language to which the House had been compelled to listen not long ago as to the great improvement which might be confidently expected in their method of conducting Business by making use of those Grand Committees. The hon. Baronet had said that this Bill dealt with a subject which had been completely thrashed out, and was, therefore, capable of being dealt with in a Grand Committee. Hon. Members who had to listen to the discussions respecting the great principle of devolution must have had their original anticipations shaken when a staunch supporter of the Ministry defended the reference of a Bill to a Grand Committee on the ground that it dealt with a subject already thrashed out, and, therefore, would not introduce any political controversy. He thought the House would do well to consider how it initiated again this Session the system which had failed—the system of so-called devolution. What had been the result of the system last year? Hon. Members knew perfectly well that the so-called Grand Committees were universally admitted to be merely overgrown Select Committees, incapable of applying their energies to matters of detail with the force and the weight which a Select Committee was known to possess. When a Bill was referred to a so-called Grand Committee it had, for all practical purposes, been withdrawn from the cognizance of the House until the measure had reached such a stage as to have secured for all practical purposes its passage into law. As to the system of Grand Committees, however, it was not his intention to refer to the principle of it in any detail. He thought that when the House was asked by the Government, by Notice publicly given, to withdraw a measure from the immediate cognizance of the House, and to refer it to a Tribunal which, not only the Members of the House, but every person who was capable of forming an intelligent view of the conduct of Public Business, had admitted to have signally failed in carrying out the original high anticipations of its authors, the House ought to be very careful. The Attorney General had had appeals made to him to reconsider what he ventured to say was a most unwise resolve on his part, to refer this Bill to a Grand Committee. This was a matter which closely concerned a large number of their constituents, and it was a subject which was likely to form a topic of correspondence already sufficiently large with hon. Members. Those Members, therefore, who were not upon these so-called Grand Committees, would feel it their duty at the various stages open to them to exercise their position as independent Members of the House to open up any question which they might consider worthy to be dealt with by the House itself, whether or not attempts might have been previously made to dispose of those questions before another Tribunal. If the Attorney General had any corner in his mind open for the reconsideration of his determination, he hoped he would, while there was yet time, avoid being led into another of those fiascoes which he (Mr. J. Lowther) regretted to think had succeeded in monopolizing so large a share of the invaluable time and energies of the hon. and learned Gentleman.


said, he thought the Bill was eminently fitted to go before a Grand Committee, and that the gloomy anticipations of hon. Members opposite who objected to this course amounted, he would not say to Obstruction, but, at all events, to a denial to that House of the power of carrying through any kind of secondary legislation. If the system of Grand Committees had not fulfilled the expectations entertained of it, the reason was that the system had not been carried far enough; and he believed that until they consented to refer the greater number of the Bills that came before the House to Grand Committees, the House would never again get into working order. They wanted a radical reform of the procedure of the House in that direction.


said, he entirely disagreed with the hon. Member who had just sat down. Having served on a Grand Committee, he knew what waste of time it was for any person whose time was worth anything to serve on those Committees, and how much they withdrew the subjects submitted to them from the proper consideration of the House. He joined with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Lincolnshire (Mr. J. Lowther) in appealing to the Attorney General to withdraw this Bill from the consideration of the Grand Committee. The Corrupt Practices Act, which had been, to a great extent, a success, was so because it had the cordial support of hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House. Both sides of the House were equally wishful to so amend the Corrupt Practices Act that it might be effective to prevent corruption. It was the desire of both sides that it should be a workable Act. It was far better, he thought, that the House should return to its old principle, and have measures discussed in the House rather than send them to the Grand Committees.


said, he thought that, on the whole, the discussions which took place upon the Bankruptcy Bill last year in Grand Committee were of an eminently practical character. He was sorry he could not agree with hon. Gentlemen on his side of the House in thinking that this Bill should not be referred to a Grand Committee. They were all of opinion that the principle of the Bill was of a sound nature, and that some such measure should be passed into law; but there was very little chance of the Bill becoming law this Session, unless it was referred to a Grand Committee. The measure was of a non-contentious character, and all Members of the House were interested in seeing that the wheels of the House of Commons were greased, in order to enable them to pass a measure which the country expected them to pass. If, therefore, a Division should be taken now, he, for one, should vote for the reference of the Bill to a Grand Committee.


said, he would appeal to the House to allow the matter to be decided now. The House had met at 2 o'clock to dispose of a Bill upon which there was really no practical difference of opinion, and almost every Member who had spoken on both sides had concurred in the principle of the Bill, and that it ought to be passed. They had then been four hours and a-half in the House, and had not yet come to a decision on the second reading. He hoped, at all events, the Bill might be allowed to be read a second time, and then before the Sitting closed they might determine the other question of referring it to a Grand Committee. It would not be to the credit of the House if, when such a Bill was before it, the Sitting should close without judgment having been pronounced upon it.


said, that hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House were quite as anxious as hon. Members on the Ministerial side to support any measure which would put down corruption. The support the Government had received last year in the passage of the Bill dealing with the election of Members to that House ought to have taught them that they might safely trust the present Bill to a full Committee of the House. If the Attorney General would assent to the suggestion made to him, and withdraw his intention to send this Bill to a Grand Committee, he was quite sure that the discussion might at once stop, and that the Bill, having been read a second time, might go to a Committee of the Whole House and very soon be worked into a measure satisfactory to all parties. If the Bill was referred to a Grand Committee, it would have to be again discussed when it returned, and it would be far better to have it conducted in the old Constitutional way in that House.


said, he doubted very much if such a thing as corrupt practice at municipal elections existed in Ireland. The idea of spending money in that way would never occur to people in that country. He believed if the Government had stated, when the proposal to institute Grand Committees was before the House, that such measures as this would be referred to those Committees, they would not have obtained half the support they had received. This Bill was not at all required in Ireland, and they thought they had already a sufficient number of Bills with pains and penalties in that country. He might, therefore, inform the Home Secretary of the intention of the Irish Members to move that the Bill should not apply to Ireland.


said, he objected to the reference of this Bill to a Grand Committee on the ground that the Government were preventing the House from having its rights. The House had a right to full and ample discussions on the stage of the second reading, and on the Motion to go into Committee; but that right seemed to have been temporarily lost. The penalities in this Bill were excessive; and he wished also to point out that the Attorney General was inconsistent with his proposals last year. Why, for instance, should the House of Commons be asked to treat the Licensed Victuallers' trade with contempt? "Why did the Attorney General think it right one year, and wrong another, that meetings should be held in public-houses? Why was it that he now said he would not have meetings in public-houses, "because municipal elections were rather rough affairs?"

It being ten minutes before Seven of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.

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