HL Deb 22 April 1833 vol 17 cc375-80
The Earl of Radnor

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said that he scarcely expected any opposition to it, because it was founded on the same principle as several Bills which had of late years been introduced without any objection into their Lordships' House for the purpose of indemnifying witnesses who might give evidence of the existence of gross bribery and corruption in certain boroughs. He admitted, that the present measure was not accompanied, like those to which he had just referred, by a proposition of disfranchisement; but their Lordships ought not on that account to reject it. The Bill was founded on the notoriety of gross and abominable bribery existing in Stafford. He understood that at the last election there were three candidates for the representation of that borough, and that the return of one of the successful candidates was petitioned against on the allegation of bribery. He had, however, good reason for believing that this proceeding was a mere ruse de guerre, for the purpose of getting some portion of the defeated candidates expenses paid. He knew that, on a former occasion, a gentleman who started for the representation of Stafford with every prospect of success up to the day before the election commenced,—having received promises of support from more than two-thirds of the voters,—was, notwithstanding defeated by an individual not at all connected with the place. The reason of this was; that this last gentleman had 14,000l. to spend in the election, while the other candidate could only spare 6,500l.; and it was actually a fact that the voters in the interest of the more wealthy candidate went to the poll with bank notes in their hats; and taunted their opponents with receiving only Birmingham counterfeits, while they got real bank notes. A petition was presented against the successful candidate, but upon his agreeing to pay down 3,000l. all further investigation was stifled. This having occurred on a former occasion he could not but think that something of the same sort was intended on the present occasion. Be that as it might, after the presentation of the petition now before the other House, two gentlemen, who had been engaged in the election, called on Mr. Ellice, with whom the present Bill originated, and stated that out of 526 electors who voted for one of the successful candidates, 524 received bribes of money. Those gentlemen, in corroboration of their statements, produced several money tickets which had been presented to the voters, and he held in his hand a further proof of the truth of their representation; which was nothing else than the poll-book of the voters in favour of the successful candidate, and he found only two names out of 526 to which the letters "p—d" were not attached. He conceived at first that these letters were put down to signify "polled," but on turning to the beginning of the book he found the word "paid "written in full, and in some parts of it the sums actually paid—sometimes 10l., at others 12l.—were entered. This was such an abominable case of bribery and corruption, that it behoved their Lordships not to refuse dealing with it; and he could not help thinking that they would not be acting wisely or with graciousness towards the House of Commons if they did not assist in eradicating this evil. He had documents in his possession, which showed that all parties agreed as to the necessity of rooting out this system of corruption, and disfranchising the borough. The noble Earl read certain resolutions, agreed to by a number of gentlemen in Stafford, admitting the prevalence of the grossest system of bribery in that borough: and an extract from a letter written by the mayor, who was returning officer of the borough, in which it was stated that bribery had been so long practised in the place that it had almost assumed the character of a prescriptive right. The letter concluded by stating that the borough exhibited manifest symptoms of its political death, and that the sooner it was dead and buried the better, provided the cost was not great to the chief mourners. He stated these facts for the purpose of showing that the corruption and bribery of Stafford was notorious, and of such a gross nature as required some remedy to be applied to it. He understood several of their Lordships felt objections to the wording of particular parts of the Bill; but that was matter for consideration in Committee, and ought not to be any obstacle to the Second Reading. As far as he was concerned, he should offer no opposition to any amendment which did not interfere with the principle and efficiency of the measure. The noble Earl moved the Second Heading of the Bill.

Lord Wynford

said that, whenever corruption was clearly proved against a considerable portion of the inhabitants of any place, he should be ready to concur in the proposition to disfranchise them and transfer the elective franchise to other persons more likely to exercise it properly. But the noble Earl's speech from the beginning to the end had convinced him that it was impossible for their Lordships to pass the present measure. He objected to this Bill, because it was not like former Bills of a similar nature founded on an inquiry previously instituted by the House of Commons. They were asked by the Bill to declare that the borough of Stafford was grossly corrupt. In his opinion the same character might justly be given to nine-tenths of the boroughs in England; and he had always expected that this would be the case when the elective franchise was given to that class of persons to whom votes were of no value, unless they were permitted to sell them. He always thought that the effect of the Reform Bill would be to put up to sale the representation of the country, and that expectation had been confirmed by what had passed at the late election; but, while he was ready to admit that nine boroughs out of ten throughout England were corrupt, he was not sure that Stafford was not the virtuous exception, and he was, therefore, not prepared to give his assent to the preamble of this Bill, without having its allegations proved by evidence. Assuming the fact that there had been bribery at Stafford there was one part of the Bill which he considered obnoxious to very serious objections; it offer-ed indemnity not only to those who gave evidence, but also to every person who was implicated in the corrupt transactions of the borough. It indemnified the great criminal who had bribed, as well as the pauper who had been bribed. In all former cases their Lordships had had a Report of a Committee to act upon, which pointed out that bribery had been practised, and also pointed out the proper persons to admit as witnesses, and consequently to include in the Bill of Indemnity. If they proceeded without such an inquiry they would shake one of the most useful principles which guided their Lordships proceedings. Under these circumstances he would suggest the propriety of appointing a secret Committee up-stairs to inquire whether any bribery had prevailed at the last and two preceding elections for Stafford, and in case any bribery did exist, to Report to the House what persons it might be fit to indemnify for the purpose of proving it. The noble and learned Lord concluded by moving that, "the second reading of the Bill be postponed, and the matter referred to a Secret Committee to inquire as to the bribery said to be practised at the last and the two preceding elections, and to Report to the House what persons it might be proper to indemnify."

Lord Ellenborough

thought that the House, though it had precedents of indemnifying witnesses, was placed at present in a very difficult situation, for the other House had not adopted any means of getting exact information as to the necessity of the present Bill. The Commons had not examined evidence or adopted any method of clearing away the doubts that might rest upon their Lordships' minds as to the case before them, and even if they had, it would be still somewhat difficult for their Lordships to decide upon it. As the matter stood it was most difficult, since it turned upon the circumstance of two persons having informed the right hon. Secretary-at-war (Mr. Ellice), that, at the last election, 024 out of 526 voters had been bribed, and, perhaps, that was all the other House knew of the business. As their Lordships' House was the highest judicial body in the realm, they should be very cautious how they established any precedents affecting the rights of the people, and the due investigation of all judicial matters which came before them. He saw great difficulty in dealing with the case, but, on the whole, he thought that it would be better to postpone the second reading of the Bill until to-morrow or the next day, that their Lordships might have time to satisfy themselves with respect to the statements made in the preamble of the Bill. It was not safe to proceed to the second reading, merely on what had been stated by the noble Earl.

The Lord Chancellor

was perfectly ready to admit, that the proceeding upon the present Bill was novel and unprecedented, at least to the extent of not hearing evidence at the bar of their Lordships' House. Though no inquiry had been instituted, such as he believed had always been resorted to on such occasions, yet he was clear in the opinion that they ought not to interpose any obstacle in the way of the due execution of justice, but that, on the contrary, they should give it every possible facility in its course. The question for their Lordships was, how they could best effect that object conformably with the practice of Parliament? In the first place, he would beg to observe, that he could not agree with his noble and learned friend in thinking that persons giving evidence before a Secret Committee of their Lordships would be exempt from penal consequences, if they had been guilty of any offence connected with the circumstances which that evidence might bring to light, though no doubt means might be devised for insuring to them that protection which the necessity of the case might demand; but, without some special arrangement, witnesses might be subjected to serious consequences arising from the evidence given before a Committee. There would, indeed, be a difficulty about finding against them, for if an application were made to the House to permit any noble Lord of the Committee to be examined as a witness against them; that would scarcely be granted, yet if it were the witnesses might be convicted in the Courts of Law by their own testimony, or at least by a circumstance, which that testimony might bring to light. That, however, was so very unusual a proceeding; and the chance of its being resorted to so remote, that it need not for a moment be taken into account; and he, therefore, thought that his noble and learned friend had a right to say, that witnesses would be perfectly safe in giving their testimony. Notwithstanding that, however, he begged to remind their Lordships, that the appointment of a Secret Committee would be itself a novelty in the proceedings of that House, and he, therefore, should wish for time to consider a proposition of that nature, and time to look for precedents. He would recommend his noble friend, the Earl of Radnor, to agree to the adjournment of the debate for a few days. He must add, that there were some things in the Bill which he did not approve of, but as his noble friend professed his readiness to admit of alterations, he would not then enter into the subject. Before he sat down, he begged to observe, that whatever bribery might have been committed in Stafford, it had no connection whatever with the great measure of Reform; for he took it for granted, that there was not a noble Lord in that House who did not well know that the bribery took place in that borough long before the Reform Bill was introduced into the other House. It was well known that, during an election in Stafford, it was no uncommon practice for electors to walk about the town with bank notes stuck in their hats by way of cockades; and that practice prevailed, and open and notorious bribery prevailed, long before the late measure of Reform had been heard of. He believed his noble and learned friend (Lord Wynford) did not mean to depreciate the value of that important measure; but he must be allowed to say, that his noble and learned friend had stepped a little out of his way to make a remark in reference to it, which was anything but favourable. The Bill then before their Lordships was one which required their attentive consideration without any reference to party feelings; and he hoped that they would come down, on the next occasion, prepared to discharge their duty to the country—to the borough of Stafford, and to the other House of Parliament, by devising the most effectual means for investigating those scandalous practices with which the borough stood charged.

Debate adjourned.