*MR. T. H. BOLTON (St. Pancras, N.) moved the Second Reading of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act (1883) Amendment Bill, which, he said, was a non-Party Measure that appealed for sympathy and support to all quarters of the House. The fact that the Bill had been drafted by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Bury (Sir H. JAMES) was a sufficient guarantee that it had been carefully framed, and framed with attention to the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act of 1883, which it proposed to amend. The general opinion of that Act after 12 years' experience was that it was an excellent Measure. He also believed that there was a general consensus of opinion that the Act had been a great success in its operation; and the only question now with regard to it was how far it
could be amended or extended with a view to giving fuller effect to its principles. The great evils which that Act was intended to provide against were corruption and illegality in the election of Members to the House. Corrupt practices at elections had always been visited with punishment by the House and its Committees; but there were many offences which, though considered most reprehensible, were not, until the passing of the Act of 1883, made illegal. It was desirable that the House should bear in mind the distinction between corrupt practices and illegal practices. That distinction was thus laid down by the eminent Judge, Lord Field, in the Barrow-in-Furness case:—
A corrupt practice is a thing the mind goes with. An illegal practice is a thing the Legislature is determined to prevent, whether it is done honestly or dishonestly. Therefore, the question here is not one of intention, but whether, in point of fact, the Act has been contravened. Illegal practices at elections (as distinguished from corrupt practices) were not made the subject of special legislation until recently. But the result of the inquiries held after the General Election of 1880 was to disclose such an amount of corruption, and so great an expenditure upon elections, that in the following year the Act 46 and 47 Victoria, c. 51, was passed.
As he (the hon. Member) had said, some electioneering evils only were dealt with by the Act of 1883. If some of the most influential Members of the House had had their way in 1883, that Act would have been made much stronger. On referring to the Parliamentary Debates of that time, he found that the necessity for dealing with false statements at elections had been pressed upon the attention of the House. There was an Amendment moved in Committee with regard to false statements at elections. Mr. Stanhope, on behalf of Mr. Gibson, moved an amendment that—
Any person who before, during, or after an election, by poster, placard, cartoon, caricature, or other publication, knowingly publishes any false charge of or against a candidate, or any false statement of the withdrawal of the candidate in order to influence any such election, shall be guilty of an illegal practice.''
That Amendment was received with great sympathy, but was ruled by the late Speaker to be not the subject of an Amendment to the clause then under discussion, but a distinct proposition
which ought to be brought forward as a separate clause. It was subsequently brought up as a new clause, but in consequence of a discussion as to whether caricatures should be omitted it seemed to have been postponed, and ultimately withdrawn. But through that discussion there was another clause put in covering false statements in placards, it being provided that the printers and publishers of such placards should put their names at the foot of them in order that the persons might be known against whom an action for libel could be brought, and it was also made an illegal practice to falsely announce the withdrawal of a candidate. Those provisions came out of the discussion to which he had referred. He mentioned this to show that, at the time the Corrupt Practices Act was passed, the subject of making false and defamatory charges with reference to candidates was under the consideration of the House; and it was not from any doubt as to its being an offence that the matter was not embodied in the Bill; but, because a new offence, namely, Illegal Practices, was being created, it was thought desirable not to go too far in dealing with the particular offences specified. He considered the time had now arrived when they might go a step farther in the direction of strengthening the Act, and include as an illegal practice an action which, he was sorry to say, was too common in elections—the making of false and libellous statements with regard to the personal character and conduct of candidates. He did not mean to say that this was more than one of the offences which might properly be made illegal practices. There were many other acts committed at election times absolutely unjustifiable, though, perhaps, not so flagrant as this offence; but those responsible for the measure preferred to deal with the one flagrant offence which stood prominently before the public, reserving the question of the other offences to some future time. The object of the Bill was to prevent the practice at election contests of making utterly false statements affecting the personal character and conduct of a candidate. There were many statements which were unfair, misleading, and probably dictated by a suggestion of
falsehood without actual falsehood. He did not propose to deal with such cases, but only with those that could be called absolutely false statements of fact. At present statements most injurious to a candidate might be circulated at a time when there was no opportunity of contradiction, and no remedy for the injury done. The only course open to a candidate was an action for slander, which, however, only lay in a case of this kind where the libel imputed that a criminal act had been committed, or where there was a special damage. With regard to the imputing of a criminal act, that was not the more common case of slander; but the more common case would come under the category of an action for which special damage would have to be alleged, and in cases of this kind it would be found to be an almost insuperable difficulty to prove special damage. He did not know how far the judge and jury would consider the loss of votes a special damage which would sustain, an action of this kind. How far, if the election was voided and another election was the consequence, the expenses inflicted on the candidate who came forward again, would be special damage was a question he left to acute lawyers to discuss. He believed it would be exceedingly difficult to prove special damage, and, in fact, it was so doubtful an action that it had never yet been brought, and he believed experienced lawyers considered that practically there was no remedy whatever. There was, therefore, a grievance, and no practical remedy for it. The Bill proposed to create a new remedy for this evil, and in creating a new offence it was desirable that great care should be taken not to exceed the limits necessary for repression. The slanderous statements dealt with were confined to those relating to the personal character and conduct of the candidate. Such statements, if untrue, were made an illegal practice, but if the person making them could show he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, the statements to be true, he would be able to set that up as a defence. Many hon. Gentlemen considered that was a loophole which ought not to exist, and that the responsibility of making the statement should be absolutely cast on the persons making it. If it were
thought desirable that the Bill should be strengthened in that particular, he should be the last person to make any objection. But, in bringing forward the measure, he was not desirous to make the remedy too drastic, because an extreme penalty might, to a certain extent, defeat the object in view. It was thought desirable to proceed carefully, and, therefore, the matter was qualified in the way he had mentioned. The person charged with this offence would be a competent witness on his own behalf, and, therefore, would be able to give an explanation on oath. The penalty for making these false charges without any justification whatever would be the punishment inflicted for illegal practices under the Act of 1883, namely, a fine not exceeding £100, to be recovered on summary conviction, and incapacity for five years to be registered as an elector within the constituency in which the offence had been committed. With regard to the sitting Member, it had been thought unjust that he should be made responsible for the act of an ordinary agent, and at an election very many supporters of a candidate became in law his agents, so as to cause him to lose his seat, and a middle; course had been pursued by the Bill. If the Member, or his election agent, had been guilty of the illegal practice, the consequences following the committing of a corrupt practice ensued, and the seat would be vacated. But in the case of an offence committed by an agent other than the election agent, the seat would not be rendered vacant, unless it could be shown that the election of the sitting Member was procured, or materially assisted, by the circulation of the slanderous statements complained of. He thought hon. Members would agree that not only was this Bill right in principle, but that it was required in practice. He should like to mention a few cases to show the necessity for the measure. He knew the case of a candidate who heard at the last moment that one of the supporters of his opponent had concocted a carefully prepared statement of a most false, malicious and defamatory character, which was being printed in a local paper. It was only by the greatest difficulty that pressure was brought to bear on these people to prevent the paper being issued. It was
intended to circulate many thousands throughout the constituency the day before the election, but, fortunately, the design came to the knowledge of the candidate, and he was able to prevent the issue of this libellous statement, which would have done him irreparable injury. If he had brought an action, he could, no doubt, have recovered heavy damages; but that would have been poor consolation months after the election had been lost, and as all the people responsible for the libel were impecunious, he would not have got his damages. He knew of another case where, on the eve of the election, a statement was circulated that the candidate had been discreditably mixed up in a divorce case. The statement happened to be true of another man of the same name and of the same profession. The candidate repelled the slander, however, by inducing his wife to come on the platform and take a prominent part in the election. In another case, there happened to be a lecturer on Atheism of the same name as the candidate, and some opponents circulated a statement that the candidate was the Atheist lecturer. This was found out only as the polling cards were about to be distributed, but, fortunately, it was rebutted by the printing and circulation of a testimonial which the candidate had received for his services as churchwarden. It had been suggested that a candidate should, as a wise precaution, keep a set of stamped and addressed envelopes ready to send out at a moment's notice; but such a precaution involved considerable expense, and the candidate ought not to be required to take it. The present Attorney General had had an unpleasant experience of these slanderous statements. He was falsely charged at an election with bribery at a previous election. He brought an action to vindicate his character, and received an ample apology in good time. But why should hon. Gentlemen be put to the expense of an action at law by people who, in many cases, were probably unable to pay costs? In the election of 1880 a statement was circulated at the last moment in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Dartford that he had withdrawn from his candidature, and that he had behaved badly to some of his labourers; and the
right hon. Gentleman was put much expense in contradicting the statement. Then there was an instance at the Evesham Election. He referred to it in no Party spirit, and made no charge against the Liberal party at that election. It appeared that in March, 1893, a man named William Masters was charged at the Upton-on-Severn Petty Sessions, before Colonel Long, the present Member for Evesham, and two other magistrates, with stealing two lbs. of oats valued at 3d. The man pleaded guilty, admitting a previous theft of the same character, and he was sentenced to one month's imprisonment with hard labour. The magistrates arrived at this decision by a majority of votes, and Colonel Long, as a matter of fact, was in the minority. As to what happened with regard to this case of Masters, at the Evesham Election, he would quote the words of the Daily News. Colonel Long had received a testimonial from his labourers, expressing their satisfaction with him for his humane and considerate conduct, and on this the the Daily News commissioner wrote:—
The electors of Severn Stoke, who are 90 in number, and neighbours of Colonel Long, have issued a manifesto. It is very pleasant reading indeed. 'His practical sympathy with the poor knows no bounds,' says this manifesto. It speaks of many acts of kindness which he has performed, though it is with difficulty that they are now discovered, as Colonel Long keeps his good deeds to himself and never proclaims them. 'But the newspapers sometimes do. Mr. Wooding—the Liberal agent in the election—has chanced to light on one of them; and every elector will to-morrow receive with his polling-card this illustration of Colonel Long's unbounded sympathy.''
The statement for the electors was that a poor man had taken a few oats for his children to give to their rabbits; that Colonel Long had sentenced him to one month's imprisonment with hard labour; and that such punishment was harsh and monstrous. In reality, not only was it the man's second offence, but the story about the rabbits was quite untrue; and in any case Colonel Long was not responsible for the sentence. The statement was to be issued when it was too late for it to be contradicted. It was also stated that Colonel Long had had a man flogged in India. Colonel Long had never been to India, except for a few hours in an Indian port, and he had never held any command there.
It was further alleged that Colonel Long gave his agricultural labourers a miserable wage of 8s. a week; the fact being that he allowed an old man, who had worked on his estate for 40 years, a pension of 8s. a week. These statements could not have been made the subject of criminal proceedings, or of an action for slander; but they were calculated to prejudice Colonel Long's candidature, and, in a close fight, might have defeated it. Such statements ought to receive not only reprobation as immoral, but punishment as illegal. The recent Oxford election supplied another illustration of this kind of thing. The noble Lord who now represented the constituency was charged with employing labourers at 9s. per week. That charge, he was told, was without foundation. When it was pointed out how unfair it was to conduct a political contest in this way, all that the leader of the Liberal Party in the constituency had to say was, that the statement was a remanent from a former election contest of 1885; that, however untrue, it had survived; and that it was inevitable it should become the talk of the city as soon as Lord Valentia's candidature was announced. He obtained his information on this subject from The Pall Mall Gazette, a cutting from which he had in his hand. He was now told that Mr. Massey (the gentleman referred to) had explained the matter; but he had not seen the explanation. He quoted from The Pall Mall Gazette. [An hon. MEMBER: "There were two elections."] This was at the last election, and the newspaper treated the charge as a matter of common repute. Such things ought not to be matters of common repute. Matters had come to a pretty pass when charges of this kind could circulate from one person to another until they got into a newspaper as truths. It was time that this kind of thing should be stopped.
§ MR. G. R, BENSON (Oxfordshire, Woodstock)
asked the hon. Member to read Mr. Massey's letter in fairness to that gentleman.
§ *MR. T. H. BOLTON
said, that he had not seen any letter. If false statements of this sort could be traced to any person he ought to be punishable as being guilty of an illegal practice. The knowledge that the making of such statements was an illegal practice would deter persons from 225 inventing or repeating and circulating them. Then there was the case of the Mid Norfolk Election. Against the hon. Member who had been returned an unfair statement of a similar kind was made. In an agricultural constituency, where the labourers votes dominated the electorate, the hon. Member was charged with having given notice that the wages of the labourers on his estate would be reduced from 11s. to 10s. a week. He was assured that there was no foundation whatever for that charge. This falsehood was circulated on the day before the poll; and let them consider what would have been the effect in this agricultural constituency if the hon. Member's character had not stood so high in the county that nobody believed the statement. In the case of a stranger to the constituency such an allegation might have been fatal to his chances of election. Another statement made was, that the hon. Member let allotments at 40s. the acre, although the farmers paid only from l5s. to 20s. an acre for adjoining land. This statement, he was also assured, was absolutely without foundation. Possibly, in his official capacity as Chairman of the County Council, the hon. Member had had to deal with allotments in certain places, and to fix certain rents in carrying out the policy of the Council, and may have fixed some rents at 40s.an acre. The presence of this substratum of truth in the charge only made the slander more dangerous and unjustifiable. To fix upon the hon. Member personally the responsibility for doing that which he only did, if he did it at all, in his ministerial capacity as Chairman of the Council, was most unfair.
§ MR. P. J. O'BRIEN (Tipperary, N.)
asked whether no false statements were made respecting Mr.Wilson, the defeated candidate.
§ *MR. T. H. BOLTON
said, that he did not claim that lies never emanated from the Conservative and Liberal Unionist camps. There were no doubt in those Parties reckless and foolish persons who did wrong things, and it was to prevent such conduct, whether on the Unionist or the Ministerialist side, that, he proposed this Bill. He was sorry if the illustrations which he had given appeared to suggest that the Liberal Party were chiefly to blame. He disclaimed any 226 idea of making party capital out of the Bill. He appealed to every man in that House whether he had not within his own experience come across cases of false, defamatory, and unjustifiable statements at elections. The present remedy for such evils was wholly insufficient, and a new, effective, and not too drastic remedy ought to be provided. He asked for support not merely from hon. Members opposite, but from the Government itself. The present Leader of the House, speaking at Derby not long ago, said:—I sometimes wonder what kind of man it is who deliberately sits down to write that which he knows to be false to serve the purpose of the moment and to injure a political opponent. No doubt those creatures should be treated with the contempt which they deserve; but it is a profession which is discreditable, I think, in itself.He would give the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench credit for being as anxious as he was himself to do away with this unfair mode of conducting political warfare. The only thing to do was to deal with the matter by legislation, and it would be reasonable and practicable to make false and slanderous statements illegal practices, and to visit those who made them with the punishments appropriate to such practices. This was a measure for dealing with an admitted evil; and he confidently recommended it to the consideration of hon. Members. He concluded by moving the Second Reading of the Bill."
§ SIR FREDERICK MILNER (Notts, Bassetlaw)
said, he was sure he should be in agreement with hon. Members on both sides of the House when he said that it was most regrettable that, in a country so civilised as England, it should be necessary at this time to bring in a Bill to strengthen the law against Corrupt Practices at Elections. That such necessity existed could not be denied by anyone who had taken the trouble to study the tactics adopted at recent Elections. He was himself an old electioneering hand, because in 13 years he had fought no less than six contested Elections, and he had fought all his battles on strictly political issues, and had endeavoured to urge on his agents and canvassers to stick to those issues, and not to be drawn into retaliating when dishonourable tactics 227 were resorted to by his opponents. He did not think, however, that any hon. Member had been subjected to more dishonourable tricks than he had. Every contest he had taken part in had been stained by tactics of that description. He did not propose to recapitulate the various tactics that had been adopted with a view to preventing him from becoming a Member of that House, but he should like to refer to the Evesham Election, because he thought it was an especially important case. The hon. Member for St. Pancras did not bring any special charge against those who were in charge of the Election. He was sorry to say that he did. Those tactics were deliberately planned and adopted by the chief Liberal Agent. That gentleman had admitted that he was the originator of the disgraceful incident that took place at the Election. In this case it was placarded all over the division, that Colonel Long had passed a most cruel and unjust sentence upon a labouring man, because had taken a handful of corn to give to his little children's rabbits. As a matter of fact, it was stated by the man himself that he took the corn to feed his own fowls. The placard went on to say that the wife and three little children of this man were left in destitution, while he was working out his sentence in gaol. Common and ordinary inquiry on the part of this Election Agent would have proved to him—first, that the corn was not taken for the children's rabbits, and secondly, that Colonel Long himself had shown to the wife and children the greatest generosity and kindness, as was acknowledged by them. He declared that this was a slander deliberately concocted by a gentleman who held a high place in the Councils of the Ministerial Party. He had not taken advantage of the privileges of the House to say anything he would not say outside. The whole of his accusation had appeared in the columns of The Times, and the gentleman concerned had had the opportunity of taking any action he liked in the matter. He did not think that any hon. Member could attempt to justify this exceptionally dirty and dishonourable trick, which, he maintained, was concocted by the principal Election Agent for the purpose of deceiving the electors in their estimation of Colonel 228 Long. He had great pleasure in placing his name on the back of the Bill, because he thought it was a step in the right direction. At the same time, he did not think it went anything like far enough, as it would not meet a quarter of the cases he had specially ear-marked as disgraceful and scandalous. He objected, particularly to one clause in which it was said that no person should be deemed to be guilty of illegal practices if he could show that he had reasonable ground for believing, and did believe, that the statement he made was true. What right had a candidate, or his agent, to go fishing about and try to take up some rumour about the gentleman who was opposing him? They ought to tight their battles like men, on purely political issues, and if they did try to fish up scandals, whether they believed them or not, they ought to receive just retribution. He sincerely trusted that in Committee that clause would be struck out. He also hoped it would be possible to strengthen the Bill in other ways, and he would suggest that a clause should be added making it illegal to issue any poster or handbills of any sort or kind, except notices of meetings, addresses of candidates, and solicitations to vote. In wishing to prohibit posters and handbills, he had no wish to interfere with the circulation of pamphlets containing purely political literature. They could be excepted, but posters and handbills ought to be absolutely prohibited. He would like to call attention to the class of poster that would in no way be affected by this Bill, but would be completely scotched by his suggestion. During the late Election for Colchester the whole town was placarded with enormous yellow posters, and handbills were left at the house of every elector. At the head of the poster there appeared in huge capitals "£4,000 a-week," and it went on to say that the wages paid in great Britain by Sir Weetman Pearson averaged £4,000 per week—Can Captain Vereker bring £4,000, or even 4,000 pence, a-week to the working man? If everyone had done so much for work and wages as Sir Weetman Pearson, there would be no unemployed in this country.He contended that such a matter ought not to be discussed at an Election. It 229 was a direct appeal to the money bags of the hon. Member for Colchester, and it was the fact that several voters, known to be Unionists when canvassed, admitted that their principles had undergone a change, and that it was impossible to refuse support to a man whose money must do so much good to the town. He would ask hon. Members whether this was a proper kind of Bill on which to fight a political Election. This Bill would be no check whatever on tactics such as these. They were unmanly and un-English tactics. A man ought to be content to fight his battle on the merits of his case, and not on the ground of the wealth he annually put into the pockets of the electors. He had made a study of late years of the tactics adopted at Election contests, and he was sorry that they had not raised his opinion of many of his fellow countrymen. He thought it was high time that these things were put a stop to, and, if so, something more was needed than was contained in this Bill. He was well aware that in this matter they must proceed with great caution; they must not tamper with the freedom of electors. He advocated, not the forcing of truth on electors, but simply the observance of honesty in personal statements. No law could be devised which would have the effect of curbing the excited imagination of many political pamphleteers; it would be impossible to check the glib tongue of the frothy stump orator; but it ought to be easy to prohibit the use of placards such as he had exhibited, and the resorts to practices such as had been mentioned. He hoped the House would seriously consider the importance of the Bill and the importance of strengthening it, and that hon. Members would do all in their power to put a stop to dishonourable practices which were a stain upon the country, and could do nothing but injury to our political life.
§ *DR. FARQUHARSON (Aberdeenshire, W.)
said, it seemed to him, before hearing the speech in which the Second Reading had been moved, that the Bill might only add one or two more harassing restrictions to those by which Members of Parliament were now surrounded, and increase the difficulties, pitfalls, and dangers to which candidates were exposed. He thought they might state the 230 case in this way—that one set of people were just as bad as another, and that some amendment of the Bill might eventually be necessary. He must endorse the testimony which had been borne to the success of the Corrupt Practices Act. He could tell of the appalling expenditure he had to submit to in 1880, and of the way in which it was cut down, under that Act, in 1886; and he sincerely expressed his gratitude to the right hon. Member for Bury, who, in passing the Act, accomplished one of the greatest legislative achievements of modern times. In some respects the Act was too weak, but it must be remembered it had to be whittled down to meet the delicate susceptibilities of gentlemen in another place. This Bill was a laudable attempt to strengthen the Act; and private Members were waiting to hear from the Law Officers whether it went far enough, whether it would be workable, and what modifications it would require to make it available. He should like to see a strengthening of the Act. The, maximum for expenditure was a great deal too high, and elections ought to be cheaper than they are. If a man who made slanderous statements respecting a candidate were to be able to escape the consequences by showing that he honestly believed them to be true, it would be easy for him to persuade a jury that he had reasons for doing so. He should like to ask whether the word "person" would be held to apply to the editorial "we" of the newspaper, because experience showed that slanderous statements were made in the local Press. He had been called a Tory in disguise, and he had been accused of insincerity in arguing in favour of principles in which he did not believe. He had been exposed to charges which, if made in a private room, might have been productive of inconvenient physical consequences, but because they were made under cover of the editorial "we" they were made with impunity, because a candidate who would bring an action against a newspaper would be regarded by his friends as a fit subject for Hanwell. The Bill seemed to him to be a step in the right direction, and he hoped it would be the precursor of other measures to make the Corrupt Practices Act a more complete protection to Parliamentary candidates.
§ *SIR W. HART DYKE (Kent, Dartford)
said, he had been mixed up personally in political matters as Party manager, and in other ways, and he took a leading part in supporting the Bill of 1883. He then stated he had become aware that in connection with both political Parties there had grown up a system of corrupt practices which was a disgrace to civilisation. The efforts of the right hon. Member for Bury had been followed by marked, if not complete, success—not only in punishing violations of the Act, but also in deterring evildoers from committing them. This Bill, although it dealt with only one evil, would probably have a like effect, and was therefore worthy of support. The question they had to answer was whether the measure was required or not, and an answer might be given in the affirmative without any Party bias, because on both sides cases could be adduced to which its provisions might have applied, and no doubt the evil was a growing one. He was anxious that in some shape the Bill should become law, and, if anything could prevent its doing so, it would be by resorting to Party recrimination. In 1865 he was a candidate for a constituency of 10,000 or 11,000 electors, and on the eve of the poll a printed circular was sent to every voter stating that he had withdrawn from his candidature, and asking the electors to vote for his colleague and one of his opponents—there being two seats open. That was one of the most disgraceful tricks ever played upon a Parliamentary candidate; and it was most desirable that in Committee, the Bill should be made applicable to such a trick. He went through a severe election contest in 1886. The night before the poll printed slips were circulated reproducing a statement in certain London newspapers that he had evicted one of his tenants, who with his family were wandering about homeless. The house this man inhabited belonged to another landlord, and not to him; and this disgraceful libel also appeared in local newspapers. He might have made them bankrupt, but there was really no other remedy. This was a growing evil. There was another electioneering difficulty they had to deal with nowadays. The longer a man was a Member of the House of Commons the 232 more he was liable to injury by the system of publishing "black lists" of the votes of hon. Members. During his last election contest his opponent published one of these "black lists," in which he was falsely represented to have supported flogging in the Army and perpetual pensions. This lost him hundreds of votes. Would the present Bill be strong enough to deal with a case of that kind? The Bill said that any person, who made any false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of a candidate should be deemed guilty of an illegal practice. Where a candidate had been denied fair play could he obtain immunity from such conduct in the future, or secure that any person guilty of it should be severely punished? Perhaps the Members of the House connected with the legal profession would tell him whether the word "conduct" was wide enough to cover such cases as he had referred to. Then he would like to know whether the penalties in the Bill would be an adequate deterrent. For himself, he wished to make the conduct he had referred to not only vile and a punishable offence, but a corrupt practice, and that it should be understood that any man guilty of those offences was guilty of an offence against the original Corrupt Practices Act. He believed this Debate alone would have some salutary effect in checking these practices in future elections. What the Members of that House wanted to go broadcast throughout the constituencies was that it was not a question of one side of politics or the other. They endeavoured to treat each other as gentlemen in that House, to whichever side they belonged, and in entering upon a political contest they desired that it should be conducted on the same terms, not characterised by the disgraceful tricks to which he had alluded. For himself he promised to give his cordial support to this Bill, which he hoped would remove these disgraceful blots from our political system.
§ MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Somerset)
said, the right hon. Baronet supported the Bill for reasons for which he himself should be inclined to go against it. He did not believe the Bill would put a stop to the practices to which the right hon. Baronet had alluded. The issuing of false statements 233 such as that made on the eve of the poll, that the right hon. Baronet had retired, was already dealt with in the Corrupt Practices Act. Under Clause 2 of the Bill, which said that if a man published what he believed to be true he incurred no penalty; he believed newspapers publishing false statements would get off scot free. He was surprised at the quarter from which objection to these practices had come, because he had himself had lots of false reports circulated about him. But such reports should always be disbelieved, unless there was some proof of them. An effort was always made to check these reports, and this Bill would do nothing to stop them. But, no doubt, the Corrupt Practices Act could be so amended as to effect that object. It was suggested that it should not be permitted to circulate lists of the votes given in the House by a candidate. But there were such persons as "independent candidates," and it was often impossible to define their position except by their votes in the House. Surely there could be no better test of a man's real character.
§ MR. WARNER
said that he should be delighted to support a measure which would check the pernicious system of publishing libellous reports; but he could not see that this Bill, as it stood, would be anything but absolutely useless in dealing with the question. He hoped that it would lead, eventually, to some more drastic and effective measure, which would really cover the ground.
§ MR. ELLIOTT LEES (Birkenhead)
said, that during his contest at Birkenhead a story was circulated about him which gave him much pain and annoyance and was calculated to do him great damage. It was stated most circumstantially that he and a member of his family and one or two supporters had been seen reeling drunk in one of the principal streets of the borough. Some people said there could not be so much smoke unless there was some fire, and he was obliged to deal with the cruel charge—of itself a very unpleasant thing. The charge was made, no doubt, by some of the baser hangers on of the opposite Party, and he imparted no 234 blame to any one in a responsible position; and although he employed detectives he was unable to get at the originator of the slander, and he believed he was told that he had no remedy; if he prosecuted he would be told that some one had merely asked whether the story was true or not. He was informed that that was not actionable, so that one was left without remedy for the grossest personal slander, and it was to meet cases of that kind that he thought they required a Bill like the present. Both sides of the House were interested in this matter. No doubt similar stories might have been circulated by Conservatives against Liberal candidates; he did not know; but all of them were interested in trying to keep the profession of politics clear from this sort of thing. They were all more or less professional politicians, and it should be the interest of all Parties to try to keep the profession free from dirty tricks of that kind. Sometimes the charges were unjust, very often they were very unfair and very frequently they were without foundation. At the last election his colleague and himself had an extraordinary statement made at Oldham as to the raising of the age of half-timers. It was said that the raising of the age was due to Mr. Maclaren and himself. It was difficult to believe that a false statement of that kind would gain any credence, but it did, and they had to spend a great deal of time in contradicting it. He thought that sort of statement should be left to the sense of political honour on both sides. It was very difficult to deal with such questions. He remembered a slander circulated in East Dorset about Mr. George Bond. He was reported to have said that a red herring was a good enough dinner for a working man. The electors were quite new, and this slander produced a great effect. Red herrings were carried about the place and "red herring" showed constantly at Mr. Bond's meetings. Even after his death it was revived. He said to some one, "We have lost a very nice man in Mr. Bond," and the reply was "Yes, but I do think that it was a pity he said that about a working man's dinner." That was eight years after Mr. Bond's death. No kinder hearted man ever lived than Mr. Bond, and yet this slander lived 235 long after his death. He supposed that the time might come when all elections would be fought solely on political grounds. He had fought five elections during the last 10 years, and four of his opponents now sat in that House, and he was very pleased to say that he was good friends with every one of them, and neither could say a word against the other in regard to the conduct of those elections. That was the way in which all would wish to see elections fought. Small local matters and prejudices should not be brought up to confuse the electors. He would ask for the Bill the support of all hon. Gentlemen who were in favour of Payment of Members. He himself was very much opposed to the principle of Payment of Members. But surely those who advocated that principle ought, above all others, to do what they could to prevent the slandering of candidates at election times. It was a legitimate object of ambition to every man to have a seat in that House; it was a matter of shame to gain that seat by unworthy means. At present the seat meant no pecuniary gain; on the contrary, it entailed expense in many cases. But if the obtaining of a seat in that House was going to enrich the man who gained it, it would be adding enormously to the shame of using any unworthy means to obtain it. Therefore, all supporters of the principle of Payment of Members ought to try and purify the conduct of elections. He thought that a very strong case had been made out in favour of the Bill. Though some of its provisions might appear too stringent to some of them, on the other hand, to others, its provisions might not appear strong enough. Still, he thought that all of them would welcome the Bill and endeavour to carry it into law.
§ MR. CYRIL DODD (Essex, Maldon)
did not think that on either side there was a monopoly of truth, and neither side could assert that elections were always fought with freedom from misstatements which all deplored. Certain common forms of misstatement seemed to crop up in all parts of the country. For example, on the side he represented there was a common form of misstatement that a Conservative candidate had expressed an opinion that a labourer ought to live on a herring a day and 236 that nine shillings a week was enough for a labourer's wages. On the other hand, there was the common form of statement made on the other side, and made all over England, that the Liberal candidate was really an atheist, and that though he might pretend to be a devout Christian he was an atheist in his private life. But none of these matters would be dealt with by the Bill, as he was doubtful whether even the religious belief could be said to be a matter of personal conduct. But, there were other matters from which hon. Members had suffered. One hon. Friend of his was charged with being privy to the murder of a relative, who was actually alive. Another hon. Friend was charged with arson, because some mills of his had been burnt down, and, although he laughed at the matter now, at the time it was made he felt the charge deeply. Another hon. Member had a charge made against him that on a particular Derby Day he had been drunk on the race course at Epsom; and, although he was able to prove an alibi, people would not know that. With regard to Colonel Long at Evesham, he thought that his opponents might honestly enough have circulated the statement that he was in favour of a particular conviction and sentence, seeing that, as a fact, he was a member of the Bench, and actually sat to try the case. That matter was, however, dealt with by the law as it now stood. The statement appeared in print in the newspapers, and was a libel requiring no special damage to be proved. He thought it would be a great pity if this Bill were intended to bring in all the small tittle-tattle of an election, and to make a criminal offence of it; though he agreed that some legislation was needed. When the Law Officers told the House the views of the Government in regard to the Bill itself, light would, no doubt, be thrown upon it. Meanwhile, he understood that the tribunal before whom cases under the Bill would come, was to be the Bench of Magistrates, who were to deal with an offence upon summary conviction. He thought there were objections to giving county magistrates power to deal with political matters; and though the magistrate might intend to act fairly, still, at election time, his politics would have some influence on his 237 conduct. He believed that where political views were fairly and strongly held, they must have some influence on a man's conduct. On the county benches one side had a preponderance of members. Something had been done, and was still being done to redress that preponderance, but it would take more than the life of this Government, or the lives of any hon. Members present to redress that great preponderance. Therefore, he contended that they would be bringing people for a political offence before a somewhat political tribunal. He would suggest to the Law Officers of the Crown whether it would not be possible for the Government to consider the whole subject of the law of slander and libel, which was in an unsatisfactory state, and to deal with it in some compendious way, instead of only touching a small fragment of it, as was proposed in this Bill.
§ *MR. HENRY HOBHOUSE (Somerset, E.)
was glad to notice so satisfactory and unanimous an opinion in favour of this much-needed Amendment of the Corrupt Practices Act. Considering how experimental that Act was in its character, and how well it had worked, it was not unreasonable to ask the House to supplement it in some respects, especially in view of the space of time which had elapsed since that Act was passed, and all the changes which had taken place in the Franchise since that time. This Bill was promoted in the interests of no single Party. He believed that all equally wished to win elections and to win them by fair means. The constituencies which were specially affected by the evils against which the Bill was directed, were the scattered agricultural districts in the midland and southern parts of England. So far as he could gather the evil was not so common in the northern parts, perhaps because the people were more incredulous or less open to this form of political misrepresentation. In that part of England with which he himself was specially connected, the practice was a growing one. False statements of a personal character were often circulated at the last moment, especially in cases where the chances of a candidate were considered to be desperate, and where there existed, as in many agricultural districts, a large number of electors who were not deeply interested in purely political questions, but 238 who regarded the candidates mainly from a personal standpoint. In those particular constituencies there was the further difficulty that, as a rule, there was no daily Press through which the electors could be reached; and, consequently, it was often impossible to overtake and expose the falsehoods in time, except at a cost which the candidate was prohibited from incurring. It often happened that, at the end of a long contest, the candidate had got perilously near the maximum expenditure allowed, and therefore he would not be able to circulate among thousands of electors a contradiction of the misstatements made. He thought the evil had been greatly increased by the growing practice at by-elections of flooding the constituencies with irresponsible outsiders, and he hoped the time might soon come when, by an amendment of the law, this and other electoral evils might be reached. The danger of unfair play was certainly greater from the irresponsible outsider than from any man connected with the district. An hon. Member had stated that an action could be brought for libel against such persons; but, unfortunately, most of the false statements were not made in print, and, even when they were, the person attacked very often had no effectual remedy. In many of the instances which he intended presently to state to the House there was, at present, no certain remedy at law for the evil done. Moreover, nothing was more uncertain in its operation than the law of slander, and he would remind the House that, as a rule, spoken words were only defamatory when special damage had been proved—though such damage was inferred when it was proved that the person attacked had been injured in his profession or trade, or in an office of public trust. This proof, in the case of a Parliamentary candidate, was a matter of difficulty, although serious injury might have been inflicted. What we wanted in order to deal with such cases, especially with a view to prevention, was a more summary remedy than an action at law. Many of the instances he was about to state to the House, illustrating the different forms of the evil in question, the present law would not touch at all. For obvious reasons he should not mention the names of the constituencies nor of the candidates. The first case occurred in his 239 own constituency, and it was, he understood, a common form of misstatement. It was stated of the candidate that he had let his allotments at very high rents and had made a large profit from them, whereas the contrary was the fact; and in this case, fortunately, it was easy to correct the falsehood. An equally common form of misstatement against a candidate was that he underpaid his workmen. In another case a candidate was accused of killing the rabbits on the farms which he let, and making no less than £500 a year by selling them, when the fact was that he had never killed or sold a rabbit in his life. A curious case of misstatement occurred in a constituency in which the question of cooperative stores was much discussed at the time. An election agent on the other side engaged a number of men to parade the town on the morning of the poll with large placards stating that "The number of Lord——'s ticket for the Stores is 4,667." It was stated that the device won many votes for the opposition candidate, though the candidate of whom the statement was made did not belong to any stores at all. But the truth could not be brought out in time; the injury was done, and was without remedy. Then he knew of a case in which it was stated by one candidate's wife of a rival candidate that, if he were elected, he would be compelled to resign the seat, because he was on the verge of bankruptcy, and that the bailiffs were already in possession of his country house—a statement which was absolutely false from beginning to end. Such cases as these ought to be brought within the Bill. Of course, there were some kinds of falsehood and misrepresentation which could not be dealt with by this Bill; it would be difficult, for instance, to deal with inaccurate statements as to political opinions or votes made in the excitement of a political contest. But where it related to acts of personal conduct and affected the candidate's personal character, he thought the offence should certainly be put down with a strong hand, and they should do their best to discourage it in future. He did not think anyone had taken objection to those parts of the Bill which dealt with this matter as too oppressive in their character. There were many other 240 provisions which might have been put into the Bill if it had not been felt safer to proceed gradually in regard to this difficult matter, and not risk the danger of going beyond public opinion, which was slowly but surely forming on the question. He submitted that there was plenty of protection in the Bill for those persons who made statements in good faith, even if they were inaccurate. No one but a guilty man could be punished, but where they could prove that an election had been seriously affected by such practices, there he thought the full consequences of an illegal practice should prevail, and the candidate should in the last resort be unseated. It had been stated that this Bill would be absolutely useless in its present form. He was sorry that the hon. Member for North Somerset, who stated that, had thought it necessary in that connection to attack a right hon. Friend of his, and he was sure that if his right hon. Friend were present he would have a full answer. But passing that by, he wished to point out that, taking the questions which the hon. Member himself mentioned, this Bill would not be useless. He supposed the giving of a guinea for picking up a riding whip amounted, under certain circumstances, to a corrupt act, and if he was accused of a corrupt act, it affected his personal conduct and he would certainly have a remedy under this Bill. He believed that the Bill would be more effective for prevention than cure; prosecutions might be rare, but a single prosecution, or even the threat of a prosecution, would deter a hundred offences, and a great deal of useless expenditure on the part of the candidate would be saved. Though the Bill might require some slight Amendment in Committee, he believed in the main it was well considered, and was based on a desire for justice to all parties in the House.
§ MR. W. ALLAN (Gateshead)
said, he differed from the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill in regard to one or two points, chiefly owing to an experience of his own when he fought his election contest. During that contest a great number of hireling scoundrels went about the constituency—they came from Sheffield, Birmingham, and other places, and amongst other things they said that he was a pirate who had sunk English 241 ships and marooned their crews, and they also accused him of employing blacklegs, which was, of course, a falsehood. The penalty of a fine, and the incapacity to be registered as an elector within the constituency did not affect a man of straw who came from elsewhere. He would not impose a fine at all, but he would give these men three months' imprisonment with hard labour. He suggested that this alteration should be made in order that the Bill might become worthy of its name, and that our Elections might be fair and above board. The Second Clause of the Bill, he contended, ought to be deleted entirely. If no person should be deemed guilty of an illegal practice if he could show that he had reasonable ground for believing his statements to be true, who would take the trouble to go into Court? He suggested that on these two points the Bill was not drastic enough.
§ *MR. HERBERT LEON (Bucks, N.)
regretted the tone of the Mover and Seconder of the Bill, inasmuch as they had dealt with only one side of the question. The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading, gave in his speech many instances from one side in politics, but left the other side out, while he said that the Bill had no political bias whatever. This was not a question of Party Politics, it affected both sides equally, and he, did not hesitate to say that neither side had a monoply in respect of speaking the truth or of telling falsehoods at political contests. He himself had been the victim of a slander at the last General Election, when he was accused by a Conservative paper of advocating horse-racing and debauchery on Sundays, and murders committed. [Laughter.] At that time it was no laughing matter; he brought an action for libel against the proprietor or editor of the newspaper, and his hon. Friend the Solicitor General very ably represented him in that action. After a deliberation of about half-an-hour he was given the very large amount of compensation of £25. He did not at all want to speak only of his own side. On the day of the declaration of the poll in North Bucks in 1892, he was the happy recipient of numerous rotten eggs, and as his opponent was seen waving his handkerchief, the next week a Liberal newspaper accused his opponent of 242 inciting the people to throw rotten eggs at him, an accusation which was equally unfounded, but which showed that these offences occurred on both sides. One of the great defects in the Bill was that it gave a candidate who had been slandered no remedy against the person who had slandered him, and he thought it ought to be amended in reference to that matter so as to give the person slandered some adequate remedy for the injury that had been done him. If the Bill got into Committee he should either support or move an Amendment which would tend to put an end to the present practice of outsiders coming into a constituency and spending large sums of money, not belonging to the candidate, and not in the name of the candidate, for the purpose of influencing an election in favour of a particular candidate. The Bill ought to contain provisions that would render amenable to justice those who made false statements at elections. He could tell hon. Members above the Gangway that offences of this description had not been confined to one side of politics, and that they had been made by paid canvassers, although not perhaps by the candidates themselves. He hoped that the principle of the Bill would be accepted by the House, and that when the Bill got into Committee it would be made a practical and useful measure.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir ROBERT REID,) Dumfries Burghs
said, that he was strongly in favour of the principle of this Bill, and should certainly support its Second Reading. He hoped that there was no occasion for recrimination between the two sides of the House with regard to the subject-matter of the measure. In his opinion, it would be a great pity if the Bill, by becoming law, gave any encouragement to the idea that one Party or the other in that House had the monopoly of virtue. He would only refer to one particular case that had been brought under the notice of the House by the hon. Mover of the Second Reading of the Bill—that of Mr. Massey at the Oxford election. In his opinion hon. Members in discussing this subject ought to be very careful in giving the names of gentlemen who were not present to defend themselves from charges that might be made against them; but he could assure the hon. 243 Gentleman that Mr. Massey, whom he knew personally, had repudiated in the strongest terms the charge that had been made against him. Having said that, he should not refer to any other particular case that had been been cited by hon. Members in the course of the Debate. There were very few of the Members of that House who had not experienced having lies told about them at election times. He had had lies told about himself but he was himself constitutionally indifferent to them. Of course, if they went beyond a certain line he knew that he had his remedy, although he should be most reluctant to have to resort to it. But still the Bill was necessary for these reasons: In the first place, these false statements might seriously affect the result of an election, being uttered at a time when it was too late to undo the mischief which they had caused by contradiction; and, in the second place—and this was equally important—they might inflict the most acute and undeserved pain upon the man who was the candidate, and upon whose personal conduct and character the attack had been made. The only question was what classes of statement ought to be made illegal practices under the Bill? Of course, in the first instance, they must be false statements, and the Bill contained what he regarded as a wise limitation when it limited those statements to those affecting the personal character or conduct of the candidate as opposed to his political conduct. The hon. Member for Gateshead had objected to the second clause of the Bill, which exempted a person from punishment who believed, or had reasonable cause for believing, the false statement he uttered. For himself he rather sympathised with that objection. To say that he believed the statement to be true, that another had told it to him, was no defence in an action for slander, and he did not see that it should be a defence under the provisions of this Bill. Some hon. Members who had addressed the House wished to extend the Bill by including other classes of false statements besides those affecting the personal character and conduct of the candidate. He thought that that would be dangerous. For instance, the present Government 244 were often called "Spoilers of sacred institutions" and "Destroyers of the glorious Constitution," and so forth. In his opinion anything that savoured of a political character should not be made a ground for interference with an election. As long as human nature remained what it was, he believed that in elections there would be exaggerations and unfounded statements as to the opinions of people with whom other people did not agree which it would be impossible to avoid, and all they could do was to hope that the electors would have the good sense to take the necessary discount off such statements. It was a despicable and contemptible thing to mistake and misrepresent the votes of Members of that House, yet he would deprecate the application of the electoral law to that practice or make it constitute a ground for upsetting an election. Of course, it would be disreputable to say of an hon. Member that he had been guilty of dishonesty in any particular sense. The next point was, to what class of persons were they to confine the false statements which were to have the penal consequences referred to in the Bill? The net result of the present drafting of the Bill was that if the false statements were made by the candidate or the candidate's election agent, which, he took it, would in the case of a county include a sub-agent, the vacation of the seat might follow, whereas if the statements were made by an ordinary agent other consequences followed or might follow. He believed that, if a candidate deliberately made a false statement about the personal character or conduct of his opponent, it would be extremely fitting he should lose his seat; but, he thought, that if the election agent made the statement, some locus penitentœ might be allowed. It might be possible to provide that, in the event of a candidate at once disclaiming the statement and taking every step he could to disabuse the minds of the constituents as to the slanderous statement, some excuse might be extended towards him. At all events, everyone would agree that the election agent ought to stand in a different position to the ordinary agent, who was looked upon with such alarm at elections. The rule as to agency at 245 elections was very strict. He did not think it was too strict. It would not be possible to secure purity of election without some restriction; but the law refused to define in terms what constituted an agency. According to the present proposal of the Bill, if a person who made the false statement was an agent other than the election agent, the seat would not be rendered vacant unless it was shown that the election of the sitting Member was procured, or materially assisted, by the circulation of the slanderous statement complained of. He was not at all sure it would be easy to show either the affirmative or the negative of that proposition. He suggested that his hon. Friend should, before the Bill got to the Committee stage, consider whether regard should not be had to the fact whether or not a candidate took all the reasonable means he could to prevent the circulation of false statements. it seemed to him that, if a candidate was wholly innocent, it might be sufficient to punish the agent himself without entailing such a serious consequence as the vacation of the seat. In fact, the object ought to be, in the first place, not to impose an unfair burden upon a perfectly straightforward and honest candidate, but, in the second place, to impose what consequences they pleased upon any candidate who either himself was guilty of, or connived at the perpetration of, what must be regarded as an extremely shabby, dirty, and dishonourable transaction towards the person who sought to represent the constituency. An hon. Gentleman had asked whether newspapers were to be liable to penalties. He sincerely hoped that newspapers would be. It seemed to him that everybody was a great deal too much afraid of newspapers and of their criticisms. The newspapers of this country in the main were very honourably conducted, but they were by no means all honourably conducted. In newspapers on both sides there was a great deal of very dirty and cowardly work in making imputations upon the 246 character of gentlemen of whom they probably knew nothing, and whose offence was that they differed from the opinion, or the alleged opinion, of the editor or writer in the newspaper. He trusted that writers in the Press would not be shown any greater favour in this matter than any one else, Reference had also been made to the action of irresponsible outsiders who come into a constituency at the time of an election. He agreed with what had been said. He thought it was true that the action of these irresponsible outsiders had a good deal to do with the circulation of false statements. It was a matter of comparatively recent growth, but wherever an election took place, a swarm of people, mostly paid, descended upon the constituency. [" Hear, hear," and Mr. SWIFT MACNEILL—"From Ulster."] He had not spoken of any side in particular; the practice was just as bad whichever side adopted it. He was an old-fashioned person in these matters. He thought a constituency was generally able to look after itself; it was generally best able to judge not only of the candidate who ought to be selected, but also of the relative qualifications and merits of the different candidates that might be placed before it. If every elector had the same opinion about outside interference in matters of election which he had, there would be uncommonly few strangers at elections. He should certainly vote for the Bill.
§ *MR. HENRY MATTHEWS (Birmingham, E.)
said, it seemed to him the only question they were discussing was whether or not they should make a false statement about the character or conduct of a candidate an electoral offence—that was to say, whether it should affect the result of the election or not and entail electoral penalties upon those who promulgated it. Upon that subject the analogies were all one way. The electoral theory certainly was that every elector's vote ought to be given upon public grounds, and from the motive of 247 electing the best man for the interest either of the constituency or the country, and to bring any undue influence to bear upon the voters had long been recognised as an electoral offence. Upon one point only he differed from the Attorney General. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the personal character and conduct of a candidate were matters with which they had nothing to do.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. I said unless it was a flagrant case—that is, a bad case—of personal misconduct on the part of the candidate, we ought not to introduce such subjects as personal character.
§ *MR. MATTHEWS
confessed he was unable to draw a distinction. He considered that personal character and conduct were material in a candidate, and that for the average elector it was important and material he should select the man he considered the most honest of the men who were soliciting his suffrage, the man whose conduct inspired him with confidence.
§ *MR. MATTHEWS
was very glad to hear that; there was therefore no real difference between them. It was because he thought the personal character and conduct of the candidate were of great importance in duly and properly influencing the vote of an elector that false attacks made on that character and conduct ought, in his opinion, to be treated as electoral offences. He expected to hear the Attorney General explain that the Bill struck as much at laudatory falsehoods as at defamatory falsehoods. He could well imagine, in a constituency in which the temperance vote was powerful, the case of a candidate's agent, having supped with the candidate soberly, but yet joyously, as befitted the occasion, publishing next day the statement that the candidate was a teetotaller, and thereby winning him a large number of votes. Such false statements of fact 248 in regard to friends were, though intended to be laudatory, struck at, very properly, by the Bill, just as much as false and defamatory statements in regard to the character and conduct of opponents. He was in agreement with the Attorney General that they ought not to attempt to strike at expressions in regard to the opinions of a candidate. It was, in the first place, very difficult to say what particular statement about a candidate's opinions was false or to get at the particular element of falsehood in an opinion attributed to a candidate. In the next place, some consideration ought to be given to the great fluctuations which occurred now, as always, in the opinions of some men. Quotations might be given from the speeches made by an opponent 20 years ago which might not represent his present opinions. It would be true to attribute the quotations to him, but it might be false to say they represented his present state of mind. Those were difficulties he thought no legislation could overcome. The hon. Member for the Maldon Division (Mr. Cyril Dodd) had complained of the statement having been circulated in regard to him that he had said 9s. a week was enough for a labourer's wages. He did not think any Bill could make an opponent liable for attributing to a candidate opinions the candidate did not hold. The distinction between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion was broad and ascertainable, and should be adhered to. He trusted the clause which would hold guiltless a person who made a false statement of fact, if he had reasonable ground for believing it to be true, would be abandoned. Some men would not stick at a lie in order to defeat a candidate or win an election for himself, and it ought not to be held as an excuse for such a man to be able to say he had reason to believe the statement was true. He would also like to have some definition of what an "outsider" was. As a rule, the candidate himself was an outsider nowadays. Was an 249 Englishman to be considered an "outsider" in Ireland, or an Irishman an "outsider" in England, or a Devonshireman an "outsider'' in Cornwall? Where was the line to be drawn? If they were to embark in an attempt to frame clauses of that kind they would soon find themselves in a sea of difficulties. For his part, he considered an election was a matter of interest to everyone, and no one should be prohibited from giving expression to his opinion to the constituents. Barring these minor objections, he found himself in agreement with the Bill, and would give his vote in its favour.
§ SIR DONALD MACFARLANE (Argyll)
thought it an entirely new view that laudatory falsehood should be checked in the same way as defamatory falsehood. There was one very substantial reason why it was unnecessary to take any action of the kind. No one believed laudatory statements, and every one credited defamatory statements. He would give the House his own experience of some of the practices which prevailed at election times. He was a candidate for Argyllshire in 1886. Two days before the poll a local Conservative paper came out with the large, staring heading, "Mr. D. H. Macfarlane's Doings," and it went on to say that the crew of his yacht had been found on Sunday morning poaching with a net in the river for salmon. Salmon passed as a holy thing in rivers in the North, and the people were strict Sabbatarians; and therefore this false statement was ingeniously contrived and circulated in order to affect the election. If the paper had said he had sent the men of his yacht to carry off half-a-dozen of the lairds' wives, and had taken them away with him, it would not have had nearly the same effect. The people would have thought it a less heinous offence, and some of the lairds might have been grateful. After the election he brought an action against the newspaper. The Judge before whom the case came, in the 250 first instance at Edinburgh, decided that it was not a case to go to a jury, on the ground that what had been done by the newspaper was no more than what was usual at elections, and on appeal that opinion of the learned Judge was upheld by other learned Judges. He was therefore glad to find that the Bill would tend to put a stop to those mean, low, dirty slanders at elections. One would have thought those malicious falsehoods would be covered by the existing law. He had a very large amount of respect for the High Court of Scotland; but he knew very well how dangerous it was to put cases of this kind before such Judges, because the politics which he held were as obnoxious to them as politics could be.
§ SIR DONALD MACFARLANE
said, he stated the facts, and would allow hon. Members to come to their own conclusions. The Judge allowed the second count in his action against the paper, which was a small matter, to go before the jury, but though he got a verdict he could get no damages against the newspaper. He did not like to say anything harsh against the Conservative Party with regard to such transactions at elections; but in order to enable this newspaper to pay its expenses of the trial, a whip was sent round to the Tory landlords of Argyllshire, who subscribed the money, thereby allying themselves with this deliberate falsehood, which they knew to be a falsehood, for no one could be got to state that he believed the statement was true. He wished to say, however, that his noble opponent had no connection with the transaction. He was afraid it might be easy under the Bill to escape its penalties. If a man was base enough to give £100 to some mean creature to circulate slanders, there would be no chance of obtaining the penalty. What was the use of a fine in the case of a person who was unable 251 to pay? He thought there should be the alternative of imprisonment in such cases, and view with satisfaction the prospect that the Bill would be made more drastic in Committee.
§ MR. R. L. EVERETT (Suffolk, Woodbridge) rose to continue the Debate, when,
§ MR. WALTER McLAREN (Cheshire, Crewe) moved "that the Question be now put.''
§ *MR. SPEAKER
I do not think there is any necessity for that Motion. I think the Debate is concluding.
§ MR. EVERETT
said, it was delightful to see the unanimity with which all Parties had welcomed the introduction of the Bill. If ever the introduction of a Bill was justified by illustrations this Bill had been. Every Member who had spoken had been able to illustrate the libels with which he had had to contend when he entered into what ought to be a thoroughly honourable competition. When they found that after all, notwithstanding the libels which had been directed against them, they had been returned to that House they must recognise that there was some truth in the old adage that "Honesty is the best policy." His experience during the last few days of his election was rather peculiar. His constituency was placarded with bills attacking him upon the question of beer and of the closing of public houses on Sunday, stating that he was opposed to the working men having beer at all, and containing statements in absolute contradiction to all his expressed opinions. He found that these bills did not emanate either from his political opponent or his agents, but from some outside sources. He believed they were provided by the brewers' funds, which were the most effectual funds in many parts of England used at the last general election to lessen the majority of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party would have come to that House many stronger than they did if it had not been for the employment of the brewers' funds. 252 Many candidates had thus directed against them bills, pictorial and otherwise, which were mostly as false as it was possible for anything to be, and yet their only remedy was to send through the constituency and post over all the libellous placards the words "This is a lie." With all his heart he welcomed a Bill which would make the cultivation of lies less profitable in the future than it had been in the past, and the discussion that had taken place and the universal expression of opinion against the employment of such unfair means of attacking an opponent would, he hoped, also tend to purify the atmosphere of elections. He hoped the Government would give every facility for the passing of the Bill in this Session, and the measure would be so strengthened in its provisions that those guilty of dishonourable practices might be brought to justice. A fine was not enough—for instance, the money for paying the fine might come from enormously wealthy brewers in some cases—but if those who circulated the libel were clapped into jail they would be in their proper place and their punishment would exercise a wholesome, deterrent effect upon such practices.
§ MR. HENRY BROADHURST (Leicester)
regretted that anybody had found it necessary to move the closure in regard to a Bill of this kind, for if the whole of that and the following day were to be occupied in its discussion the time would not be ill spent, the measure being of so useful and beneficial a character. He rose for the purpose of saying how heartily he, as a Labour Member and a Labour candidate, welcomed the Bill, and he was gratefully indebted to the right hon. and learned Member for Bury (Sir H. James) who had interested himself in this matter, for again submitting to the House proposals dealing with corrupt, illegal, and abominable practices at Parliamentary elections. He had been through many Parliamentary contests; and he had never engaged in one, excepton the last occasion at Leicester, in which 253 there were not directed against him rumours, innuendoes, falsehoods, statements in print and on platforms—and circulated by a still more infamous system—namely, from door to door and from public house to public house—with which any honourable man should be ashamed to be associated. On one or two occasions he had been vain enough to bring these documents before some of his learned friends in London, but he had been advised on each occasion that if he brought an action the chances were a thousand to one against his obtaining a verdict; and that even if he were awarded damages, the persons against whom the verdict went would probably be men of straw from whom nothing could be obtained. Those who were engaged in this moral dead-cat, stale-fish, and rotten-egg work, took care to select for their wretched tools men of no position, in order that no action could be laid and no damages obtained. He hoped the Bill would be rapidly passed through the House. With regard to the Bill itself, he was glad to hear that the promoters were prepared to forego some of the modifications of its provisions. He was, in favour of punishing any person who made or published any slanderous statement, whether he believed it to be true or not. If a man published a false statement on the eve of the poll he ought to be punished for such an offence. His experience was, that these highly indignant and virtuous citizens generally found it perfectly convenient and consistent with their peace of mind not to be disturbed by any scruples until the night before the poll, or, if the poll was on Monday, until midnight on Saturday, when there was no opportunity for the person, libelled to refute the slanderous statements. That was exactly his experience in his last Parliamentary election but one. The directing hands in such matters were generally clever hirelings of the law, who, having been unsuccessful in the higher grades of their profession, lent themselves to this kind 254 of work, and advised their friends how to make statements of an injurious character against political opponents, but so to frame them that they did not constitute libels or slanders. These statements had the effect intended, and the persons who made them ought to be punished just as if they contained libels or slanders. The hon. Member for Birkenhead seemed to suggest that the duty of promoting and passing this Bill must rest mainly upon those who were in favour of the Payment of Members. For his part he did not limit the desire for honesty to those only in favour of Members being paid. Honour was honour, be the person concerned an aristocrat or a street-sweeper, and the means of defending that honour should belong to all alike. If they were what they all aspired to be, honourable English Gentlemen, they should all denounce, in the strongest possible terms, such proceedings as the Bill aimed at. He hoped the Bill would be referred to a Committee which would Report speedily; and particularly he hoped the Committee would Report that the Bill did not go far enough.
§ MR. HENRY LABOUCHERE (Northampton)
said, he came down with an open mind in regard to the Bill. In fact he had not read it. He thought it was one of those minor Bills about, which there would be some little trifling discussion, and that the House would speedily get to that most interesting subject, the suffrage of women.[Applause in the Ladies (Gallery; Cries of "Order," and laughter.] As he said, he came down with an open mind, yet the speeches somewhat led him to think that he ought, to vote for the Bill with doubt and hesitation. No doubt the Bill touched things which were in themselves abuses: yet sometimes in trying to remedy abuses they did more harm than good. With some personal knowledge of the law of libel, he was inclined to think that the only persons really who would profit, by this Bill would be the lawyers. There was the law of the land 255 They knew what took place in regard to an election in the case of a Member of Parliament who unfortunately recently died; an action was brought against him, and damages obtained to the extent of £5,000, which were subsequently reduced to £2,500. In that case the damages were assessed so high because it was felt by the jury that the opponent ought not to have been attacked at that special moment when standing for a constituency. Therefore he hardly thought that Members of Parliament ought to try to protect themselves in any special way beyond the ordinary law of the land. One would really suppose from the speeches that there were no other elected bodies in the country but the House of Commons. Why were not County Councillors to be protected? Or District Councillors? Or Parish Councillors? If the House of Commons was to deal with this subject, let them deal with it in a broad way, and not try to get advantages for themselves. By the first clause—Any person who … shall for the purpose of affecting the return of a candidate at such election, make any false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of such candidate"—that was exceedingly broad and wide. It was very difficult to draw the line of demarcation between what was political and what was not, in speeches. Hon. Gentlemen opposite, for example, very often accused their opponents of wishing to disintegrate the Empire. Now he thought it was contrary to proper political conduct to "disintegrate the Empire." That was a personal accusation, and he could well conceive some magistrates holding that a person came under this Act by making such an accusation. On the other hand, were the Tory Party determined to make the Irish slaves to the Saxon for ever and ever? That, again, might be regarded as a personal accusation. But he would take the case of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham and the present Duke of Devonshire. The Member 256 for West Birmingham called the Duke of Devonshire a Rip Van Winkle. Nobody would think for a moment of electing a Rip Van Winkle. It was personal—grossly personal; and it was, no doubt, intended to affect the result of the Election going on at the time. What did the Duke do? Did he go to law? No; he called the right hon. Member for West Birmingham a "robber," if he remembered right. Nobody was injured—neither the Member for West Birmingham, nor the Duke of Devonshire. In fact, the accusations paired off against each other. At the recent Evesham Election, the Conservative candidate was accused by the Liberals of having sent to prison a stableman for stealing a trifling quantity of oats. The Conservative candidate replied that he had personally been against the sentence, and that his brother magistrates were in favour of it. But what occurred just before the election? A placard was put out—the man who was put in prison was named Masters—and the placard stated that the accusation was a most cruel and wicked one against Masters. It not only reminded Masters of his unfortunate position, but so strongly did the boys in the neighbourhood feel upon the subject, that they actually attacked young Masters on his way to school. Those were the facts that were stated, evidently with the intention of having some effect on the election, yet he was credibly informed they were not entirely correct, for these two practical reasons—first, the boy could not have gone to school, because the school was shut at that particular period, and, in the second place, Mr. Masters only had daughters and had no sons. He only pointed out these things to show what trifling questions might be dragged into the law Courts if this Bill passed. Here was another clause still more wonderful:—''No person shall be deemed to be guilty of such illegal practice if he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, the statement made by him.257 Now, of course, some persons were more credulous than others, and to lay it down that magistrates were to decide whether a person had reasonable grounds for believing or not, was asking them to decide questions of the utmost importance. Again—Any person charged with an offence under this Act, and the husband or wife of such person, as the case may be, shall be competent to give evidence in answer to such charge.What would happen? A mean-spirited man would shelter himself under the petticoats of his wife, and would say, "Oh, my wife told me." Would he be told he ought not to have believed his wife? That would sow ill-feeling between husband and wife. At the same time it seemed to him that if a man were, simply through a statement of his wife, to make an accusation against his opponent, he ought to be punished. They were told that if a man loosely, perhaps in the excitement of the moment, made a statement which he could not show to be true, and the statement had an effect upon the election, then he was to be deprived of his vote for five years. He did not approve of that by any manner of means. But how was the magistrate to find out whether the statement had any effect on the election or not? Was he to call the whole constituency together? If the legal agent of the unfortunate candidate, or the gentleman himself made one of those statements, and it could be shown that the statement had an effect on the election, the seat was to be vacated. He was in favour of triennial and even more frequent elections, but he thought they ought to pause before they sanctioned this policy of throwing a constituency into the turmoil of a second election merely because some false statement had been made respecting one of the candidates at the first election. The Bill, in his opinion, might effect more harm than good, and he was himself quite willing to leave these questions to be dealt with under the common law 258 of the land. An hon. Member representing a Scotch constituency had asked that tremendous penalties should be imposed when any false statement was made. The hon. Member was specially aggrieved because, before his election, the statement was made that the crew of his yacht had been poaching for salmon on a Sunday. That was rather an indirect allegation as against the hon. Member, for, as he understood, the hon. Member was not himself supposed to have joined in this poaching. It was taking rather an exaggerated view of the circumstance to say that the election turned upon it. In fact, he had always thought that a little suspicion of poaching did no harm to a Radical candidate. Another Member had told them that over mendacious Conservative placards he pasted slips with the words, "This is a Tory lie." That was not a bad way of meeting false charges. When such charges were made against a candidate who was a decent and respectable man, rather more good than harm was done to his cause. He himself had been maligned, but that had not hindered him after his election from shaking hands with his opponent. He treated charges against himself as electoral rhetoric simply. He would not put the House to the trouble of dividing upon the Bill, but would watch it in Committee.
§ MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)
pointed out that the hon. Member for Northampton was in error when he said that this Bill related only to Parliamentary elections. It was a Bill to amend the Act of 1883, which related to County Council elections and Parish Council elections as well as to Parliamentary elections. Therefore, this alteration of law would affect all candidates for representative bodies. He congratulated the hon. Member for North St. Pancras on his action is bringing this Bill before the House. It was an earnest effort to remedy a very great and growing abuse. The Corrupt Practices Act had been productive of much 259 good. Before that Act was passed election placards could be printed without bearing the printer's name, and a candidate's opponent could print libels about him on placards of the colour which he had chosen for his own. Slanderous attacks were not often made on old candidates who were well known to their constituencies. They were made with much greater frequency on the new men, to whom they were very injurious. The false statements that were made did not, as a rule, show much originality in those who made them; but they were usually made at such a time that the candidate had but little opportunity of refuting them. They were generally made at the time of the issue of his opponent's polling cards. In 1885 this happened in his own case. A Liberal, whose views had changed, had intimated that he would support him, and the intimation was made known. His opponents, whom this Liberal gentleman had previously supported, thereupon printed on his polling cards the words, "False statements by a Conservative candidate," and the letter of support given him by this Liberal elector several years previously. He believed that this circumstance accounted to a large extent for his losing that election. A great deal had been said about the Press pillory in two or three small London evening papers. For his part he did not think that any real harm was done to the candidates attacked. There was a revulsion of feeling in their favour, because their constituencies recognised that they had been attacked unfairly. He feared that it was the case that during electoral contests very great exaggerations were indulged in by candidates on both sides. He could not, however, agree with the Attorney General as to the advisability of excluding strangers from constituencies during elections. Where were they to draw the line? Ought not a candidate to have the right and privilege of asking his political friends to assist him in his contest? Constituencies, he feared, would become 260 timid of hearing speeches from the candidates only. He hoped that in Committee the Bill would be strengthened. Clause 2 in its present form could be evaded in a hundred different ways. It was a great anomaly that an election libel should not be illegal as a corrupt practice, when a card cut in a particular fashion, and put into a man's hand might have the result of unseating a candidate. The Bill might be referred with advantage to a Committee upstairs, who should be instructed to report without delay.
§ MR. E. HENEAGE (Great Grimsby)
observed, that if the right hon. and learned Member for Bury had been present he would have been much gratified at the reception accorded to the Bill on all sides of the House. He had been fortunate in the way he had been treated at elections himself, for until his last election no false statements, as far as he knew, had been circulated about him. At his last election, however, it was said that he had been guilty of forgery in connection with the publication of some letter, but he treated the allegation with contempt, and he did not believe that he suffered any substantial loss in votes in consequence of the charge. At elections in which he had taken part he had known most unfounded statements to be made. At one election it had been stated that a candidate had been seen on a Sunday coming from a billiard room, on the arm of his chairman's coachman, drunk. On another occasion it was stated that a relative of his own had reduced his labourers' wages, whereas he had recently increased them. He did not believe that the candidates were to blame for these statements, but he disagreed with the Attorney General when he said that the Bill was too stringent with regard to the acts of election agents. An election agent was a responsible man, and if the candidate was not to suffer for his action by way of forfeiting his seat, he thought there ought to be some penalty beyond a 261 money penalty. With regard to the question that had been raised as to whether a man who made a damaging statement should be held not guilty if he had some good reason for believing it to be true, he thought that any such provision would be a mistake. He believed that the people who did most harm were those who promulgated the lies, and it would be an unfortunate thing if a man were able to say "I believed it to be true, because so and so told me." Every one ought to be warned not to promulgate any statement that he did not know of his own knowledge to be true. There was only one possible way of getting the Bill through this Session and that was by sending it to the Grand Committee on Law. He was sure that there the hon. Gentlemen in charge of the Bill would do their best to strengthen the Bill and would be only too glad to accept any Amendment for that purpose.
§ SIR CHARLES HALL (Finsbury, Holborn),
speaking on behalf of the hon. Gentleman he was associated with, said, he was sure they would do their best to meet the general sense of the House and to strengthen the Bill, as far as they could, when it went before the Committee.
§ MR. T. S. LITTLE (Whitehaven)
said, that in the Oxford election both candidates were throughout on the best possible terms. They were determined on both sides that there should be nothing unfair, and both, during and after the election, emphasised the fairness of the way in which the election had been conducted. An anonymous letter was sent to The Times in which a charge was made against the headquarters of the Liberal Party, and the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill seemed to think that the answer made to that letter was incorrect, therefore he would like to read a sentence or two from the letter of Mr. Massey, the Liberal agent, in reply. He said:—In the second place, the statement that this story 'was deliberately set in motion from the 262 Radical headquarters' is absolutely without foundation. It was neither started nor in any degree encouraged by the Liberal organisers; it was never mentioned at any of their committee meetings, and to some of them it was altogether unknown. … It is sufficient to add that Mr. Fletcher Little and his committee have from the first discountenaced, both publicly and privately, not only all discreditable tactics, but every form of personality. Speaking for myself, I may say that some days before your correspondent's letter appeared, I heard in casual conversation the story in question, and at once put a stop to its repetition, on the ground that Lord Valentia had denied it. Lord Valentia said—'He had the advantage this morning of meeting the editor of the Oxford Chronicle, the well-known Radical paper, from whom, as he told him, he had never received anything but perfectly fair treatment, opposed to him as he was, and he told the editor this story, and he said, 'I know all about it. I was looking through the back files of your speeches in 1885, and there found your denial of that calumny.' He said, 'If I can strengthen that denial that was given ten years ago, I shall be very glad to do so.'He thought it was unfair to draw Mr. Massey into this controversy when he had given so fair an answer to this anonymous letter, and when the noble Lord, the Member for Oxford, was not present.
§ Bill read 2°.
§ *MR. T. H. BOLTON moved that the Bill be referred to the Grand Committee on Law.
§ MR. WILLIAM ALLEN (Ashton-under-Lyne)
thought that was an unusual step to take with a Bill of this importance. The Committee on Law was a Committee of experts, and when this Bill was considered, the common sense of the House ought to be brought to bear upon it. It would not, he believed, take up much of the time of the House if this Bill were considered in Committee of the whole House. Two or three hours would probably be quite sufficient for the purpose, inasmuch as there was no opposition to the principle of the Bill. He therefore asked the Government what their view on the matter was?
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
I think the Bill ought to go to the Grand Committee. That is the only prospect we have of dealing with it.
§ The House divided:—Ayes 254; Noes 38.—(Division List, No. 51.)
§ Bill referred to the Standing Committee on Law.