§ On the Motion for the consideration of this Bill as amended by the Standing Committee,
§ MR. BYLES
said this Bill was regarded in some respects as a dangerous Bill. He thought that it could not be doubted that the Bill contained a dangerous principle. It exposed a poor man to actions at law, and where a poor man opposed a rich man there would be a petition. With regard to the first clause, there was a provision as to a statement made before a Parliamentary Election. At any time before? Surely that would need Amendment. He had hoped that the Bill would be withdrawn. Then, again, "any person who makes or publishes any false statements;" but a man might make or publish a false statement without having the slightest intention of doing a candidate any injury.
SIR W. HART-DYKE (Kent, Dartford)
regarded the opposition of the hon. Member as an absurd farce. The hon. Member had claimed that many Members with him objected to this Bill. He should like to see the number of Members who supported the hon. Member in opposing this Bill. Nothing would delight him more than to put that to the test of a division. The hon. Member wanted to know how long before an election the Bill would apply. That was 197 a practical question. He assumed that the responsibility would commence when a candidate had issued his address. Charges were often made against many of them after their addresses were issued. He was one who had suffered very grievously, and many Members on both sides had suffered, and this was a practice which they ought to put a stop to. Let the hon. Member go into the Division Lobby, and then they should see the number of supporters he had got.
§ MR. DALZIEL
was sorry the hon. Member who had just spoken had mentioned anything like taking a Division, as the statement of the Leader of the House was that they should take only unopposed Bills. No Division which was now taken would be any real test of the opinion of the House with regard to this Bill. It was understood that the Bill would be considerably amended. What was the fear they entertained? It was that in the case, say, of a poor man who was contesting a seat against a rich man a foolish story might be circulated in the constituency during the progress of the election; and under this Bill it would be possible for a petition to be brought against the poor candidate, even as a matter of revenge, and thus he would be in the position of having the petition hanging over his head, with the consequent worry of having to contest it in an Election Court, which eventually might decide in his favour. Hon. Gentlemen would, no doubt, say that this position of affairs was not possible and that the election agent must be personally responsible for any statement made. But he pointed out that under the Bill as it stood if any money was paid for the publication of any particular statement the candidate was liable.
§ *MR. T. H. BOLTON (St. Pancras, N.)
Only if paid by the candidate himself or the expense agent. The hon. Gentleman will find in the principal Act that the illegal practice, to sustain a petition, must be done by the candidate himself or by the principal agent.
§ MR. DALZIEL
said, that this particular clause did not apply to the special Act. If a sub-agent in the excitement of the election day, having a story brought to him which might be hostile to the candidate and which might prove to be untrue, took the responsibility of printing and circulating it, the candidate was responsible and liable for all the expenses. The Bill would have been much more acceptable if the responsible agent had been made liable with regard to the circulation of any particular statement. There was no definition of the words "any other agent." "Agent" was a term capable of wide interpretation indeed, and it might be held to include a private secretary or a chairman of Committee. He contended, therefore, that the definition was so wide that any person feeling aggrieved by a foolish statement would have reasonable ground for lodging an election petition. This was the only objection he offered to the Bill. They were all anxious that everything should be done to put an end to the circulation of slanderous statements, but, at the same time, they were also anxious that it should not be possible for a man, solely because he was defeated, to take the advantage which this Bill would give him, to bring forward an election petition and keep it hanging for months over the head of a candidate.
§ MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN
referred to the statement of the hon. Member that the First Lord of the Treasury had promised that no Bill would be taken if it was opposed. This was not the statement of his right hon. Friend. What the Government had said was that they would not take any Business that might fairly be called contentious. He thought, however, that this could not be called a contentious Bill, looking especially to the circumstances in which it had reached its present stage. Indeed, the hon. Member and his Friends said that they were burning with a desire that something should be done to prevent the circulation of the slanderous statements 199 against which this Bill was directed. He did not accuse the hon. Member for Shipley of having any sympathy with the circulation of slanderous statements, but he maintained that it was the interest of both sides of the House that a practice already very common, and of late grown much more common, should be peremptorily put down. The hon. Member was afraid that something would happen if statements were made before an election. The contingency contemplated was not probable; but it was a common practice at election times to find that some statement detrimental and dishonourable to the candidate was brought forward on the eve of the election, and when the candidate might find himself in a position where it was impossible promptly to contradict it. He did not think that a more disgraceful practice could be conceived, and he was sure that the desire of the House would be to deal with such a scandal. He thought also that there was evidence even in the present election that the necessity of some such Bill as this was paramount. He would take his own case. He had that morning received nearly half-a-dozen letters calling his attention to statements made in newspapers, and also by candidates and their agents, to the effect that the vote he had given with reference to small arms ammunition was dictated by the fact that some of his relatives had a pecuniary interest in an undertaking which had received an order from the Government.
§ MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN
Yes, I think it would. In one of the cases brought before him it was said that his hands were tainted. He was not a lawyer, but he imagined that this statement was a libel. According to the opinion of his hon. Friend, however, his proper remedy was to proceed by action for damages for libel. But his hon. Friend knew that it was not a very plea- 200 sant thing to appeal for damages, because in order to secure damages one must say that he had been specifically damaged by the statements. He had not been so damaged by this statement, and his opponents could make it until they were black in the face. [Laughter.] Under this Bill, however, if a statement of that kind were made by a candidate under all the conditions stated in the Bill without being able to show reasonable ground for believing it, he would be guilty of an illegal practice; and this would be a more deterrent remedy than a probable action for libel which he or any one else should be inclined to bring. In these circumstances he could not believe that the hon. Member who had expressed sympathy with the object of the Bill could persist in his opposition to its progress. The hon. Gentleman was afraid of some abuse arising under the operation of this Bill. That was not his fear. On the contrary, his fear was that the Bill did not go far enough. There was no doubt that it afforded all kinds of loopholes to the persons who were guilty of these acts; but, at any rate, he did not think that the hon. Member need have the slightest fear that any person not clearly guilty could come within its provisions. He trusted, therefore, that this useful Bill would be proceeded with.
§ *MR. T. H. BOLTON
showed that the Division which was taken after the Second Reading was whether the Bill should be referred to the Grand Committee or whether the Committee stage should be proceeded with in the House itself. For reference to the Grand Committee 254 voted, and 38 against; but the Division was taken in no sense against the Bill itself. The Bill was very carefully considered in the Committee, and his only difficulty as the Member in charge of it had been to prevent it from being made too drastic. Every Amendment was proposed with that object, and his anxiety had been to cast the Bill in such a form as not to raise 201 any opposition to its further progress in the House. The illegal practice constituting the basis of a petition to unseat must be an illegal practice which the candidate or his principal agent had been a party to, and therefore the measure would only punish a Member who was directly implicated, and who deserved to lose his seat.
§ MR. ASQUITH
suggested that his hon. Friend should allow the Bill to go through the House. They were all agreed that the making of statements of this kind affecting the character of a candidate on the eve of and during an election was a most reprehensible practice. It was a policy which they ought to try to stamp out if possible, as it was certainly reprobated by every reputable politician. On the other hand, he must say that there was a growing tendency to be too thin-skinned in these matters. Most Members of Parliament had in their time been accused of a fair proportion of the crimes in the calendar. He had himself; but he had never looked with concern upon these accusations, which were not seriously meant, which were not believed, and which never influenced a vote on one side or the other. He was sure that the sensible practice would prevail in the future as it had done in the past; and this Bill would only be put in operation in cases where the statement was so clearly malicious, and its possibility of influencing votes was so dangerous, that it could not be treated with absolute indifference. As to the possibility of frivolous petitions, he thought that the safeguards in the fourth clause were adequate. No one would go to the length of presenting a petition unless he had an overwhelming case. He thought his hon. Friends would do well to allow the Bill to pass.
§ MR. DARLING
hoped that, in their own interest, hon. Gentlemen who had objected to the Bill would withdraw their objection. It was not necessary to present a petition in order to punish people who might be guilty of slandering 202 a candidate. Such slander would be constituted an illegal practice, and would subject the guilty person to immediate prosecution.
§ MR. DALZIEL
said, that after the appeal of the right hon. Members for West Birmingham and East Fife it was clear that the sense of the House was in favour of passing the Bill. He should not object, therefore, but his own opinion was that the Bill would give rise to election petitions.
§ Bill considered; read 3° and Passed.