HL Deb 28 April 1834 vol 23 cc103-13
Lord Wynford

said, that if he understood from the noble Lord opposite that he would not oppose the Motion which he (Lord Wynford) was about to make, that the Petitioners against this Bill should be heard by their counsel and agents, he would content himself with merely making the Motion, which, in cases of this kind, had been always a matter of course. If, however, the noble Lord intended to oppose it, he (Lord Wynford) must state the grounds of his Motion.

The Earl of Durham

thought, that the House ought not to enter into the proposed inquiry, and was prepared to state the grounds of his opposition to that proceeding on the Order of the Day, or after hearing the noble and learned Lord assign his reasons on the Motion for hearing evidence, according to the noble and learned Lord's notice.

Lord Wynford

would now state his reasons for thinking that the House ought not to proceed with the Warwick Borough Bill in the manner proposed by the noble Earl. There was no case of this kind in which the House had not heard evidence at its own Bar. Though a legislative measure, the present also partook of the nature of a judicial proceeding. He asked the noble Earl to adduce any precedent for the course he now recommended to the House. The question, whether the Bill ought to pass into a law, depended on the proof of certain facts alleged in the Report of a Committee of the other House of Parliament. That preamble to the Bill declared, that gross bribery had prevailed in the borough of Warwick, which meant, if it meant anything, that bribery had prevailed to such an extent in Warwick, as to render it unfit to be intrusted with the elective franchise. Now, what was the gross bribery in this case? According to the Report, there only existed twenty cases in which the accusation of bribery was made—twenty individuals in a constituency of 1,300 were accused of corruption. Was there a town in the empire which might not be liable to a like charge? If such cases were to be entertained, the House of Commons itself might fail to furnish unchallenged Members in sufficient numbers to constitute Committees for deciding such questions. If the Commons' Committee had sent up the strongest possible case to their Lordships, they could not properly proceed, without instituting an inquiry of their own. In every former instance this had been the practice, but the practice of the House, which was also the law of Parliament, was now sought to be changed. In the cases of Cricklade, Shoreham, Aylesbury, Penryn, East Retford, and Grampound, their Lordships had heard evidence at the Bar. If the practice were now changed, and if the noble Earl could annul the Standing Order which enforced it, he should no longer desire to attend in a House of Peers which would have forfeited all claim to respect by departing from the integrity of its judicial character. He contended that it was the duty of the House to examine witnesses at its Bar on oath, and not content itself with the Commons' Report, drawn up by they did not know whom, and founded on evidence which was not given upon oath. He was aware that the first Committee which unseated the sitting Members examined evidence on oath, but on the second investigation the witnesses were not sworn. Yet, it was upon proceedings so founded that the House was asked to take away the privileges of 1,300 Englishmen, privileges which they valued more highly than house or land. If their Lordships submitted to this, they would render themselves entirely dependent on the House of Commons. He was aware that in five out of the six cases which he had referred to, the Peers had confirmed the judgment of the Commons; but in the sixth (the case of Penryn) they reversed it. In that case his noble friend convinced the House that the Commons had proceeded on insufficient evidence, and the Bill was thrown out, to the satisfaction of the whole country. It was to their Lordships that the people looked for a calm and dispassionate determination in such cases, after examining witnesses on oath. The case of Penryn proved the necessity of examining witnesses at the Bar, and he would prove, that this was a second Penryn case. He had no doubt that if the matter were dispassionately investigated, their Lordships would throw out the Bill. How did the case stand? The Committee reported that twenty persons had been guilty of bribery. Now, subsequently Assizes had been held at Warwick, and three of these cases were brought before a Judge and Jury. In all the remaining cases the parties did not dare to proceed. It was not too much to assume, then, that they were in no condition to prove what it was supposed had been established before the Committee. In two of the three actions eight cases of bribery were assigned to each. But what happened in those cases? The prosecutors took by compromise a verdict upon one charge in each case; thus admitting, that fourteen charges were untenable. Then as to the action against Mr. Tibbetts, who, if there was any truth in the evidence taken by the Committee must have been guilty in twenty cases of bribery, what had become of Mr. Tibbett's case? It was called on, a Jury was sworn, and the counsel for the prosecution stated that he had no case to offer against the defendant: consequently there was an acquittal. Of the twenty cases charged by the Report of the Committee, only one had been proved, for the two cases in which there was a verdict given by compromise must go for nothing; yet the House was called on to assent to the proposition that this was an instance of gross bribery, which justified the passing of the Bill without hearing evidence at the Bar. It was impossible to act on the case now presented to the House. Three of the witnesses examined before the Committee acknowledged having received 9l. a-piece, not as bribes (so they stated), but as loans. It was impossible to act on evidence so discredited. An individual named Collins stated that acts of bribery had been committed by Tibbetts; but when the case of Tibbetts was before the Court, nobody ventured to rely on the evidence of Collins. He never would consent to act on such evidence. It had been said, that there was also gross treating. Now he knew of no borough that had been disfranchised for treating. He was no advocate for treating, however, and did not say, that if a case of gross treating were made out, it might not afford grounds for disfranchisement. But where were the acts of gross treating here? There was no evidence of treating to any extent, not to the extent that was illegal; therefore he set aside that part of the case. With respect to rioting, if any man, having a connexion with the town of Leamington, wished to carry the Warwick franchise thither, it might be a good plan to abet riots at the elections of Warwick. The same would hold with respect to any person who had an estate in the neighbourhood. It was in evidence that some of the rioters came from Leamington, where it might be not only the inclination, but the interest of the parties to encourage rioting. He could prove, that an individual who now petitioned for the extension of the Warwick franchise to Leamington had hired persons to commit riots at the former place. On some of the rioters were found tickets, importing that they belonged to the Birmingham Political Union. Did their Lordships find themselves obliged to disfranchise the borough of Warwick because strangers from other towns had been engaged in riots there? He undertook to prove these statements at the Bar, if an opportunity was afforded for doing so. Was there any case in which rioting had led to the disfranchisement of a place when the rioters did not belong to it? Even in cases where the rioters belonged to the town, was there any instance of disfranchisement solely upon the ground of riot? If not, still less could it be pretended that their Lordships were to disfranchise a place, which was the scene of riots, provoked by persons who came from a distance. He stood upon the practice and law of Parliament, and on the principles of the British Constitution, all of which required the House to hear evidence for itself before condemning this borough. If ever there was a case in which it was improper to depart from the invariable practice of Parliament, that case was the present. He hoped, therefore, that the House would not establish in this case a principle which would render the Lords dependent on the Commons. If they consented to take their facts from the other House of Parliament in this case, they might as well do so in all others. The Commons Committee, however, had not the same means of getting at the truth as their Lordships. It would be a gross injustice, and an abandonment of their privileges, it would be passing an Act upon imperfect evidence, when perfect evidence might be obtained, if their Lordships were to proceed with this Bill on the evidence offered by the Commons. Where was the fairness of condemning 1,300 voters because twenty cases of bribery had been alleged, and two or three cases of corruption (that was all) had been proved? In the case of Grampound and other boroughs the aldermen and a majority of voters had been proved to be corrupt, and, therefore, it was considered unsafe to trust those places with the elective franchise. That was not the case here. If the House were called on to incorporate Warwick with Leamington because the former did not contain more than 1,300 pure voters, where were they to stop? What was to become of half the towns returning Members in the country, if 1,300 uncorrupt voters would not satisfy the House? Here the persons proved to have been bribed were men that were fast dying away—they were old voters, not a single 10l. voter was to he found amongst them. He had expressed his opinion on the Reform Bill discussions, that different qualifications ought to be adopted in different places, according to their peculiar circumstances. It appeared to him, that the possession of a house rated at 10l. was a good qualification in Warwick, but it would not be so in Leamington, where houses let at higher rents. This was an objection to the proposed Union, independently of all other obstacles. The persons accused of bribery were only voters for life—scot-and-lot voters, whose successors would not be entitled to the elective franchise. Under such circumstances, he thought it his duty to resist the further progress of the measure until evidence should have been taken at the Bar. He moved that "the petitioners against the Warwick Borough Bill be heard on the second reading at their Lordships' Bar by themselves, their counsel, or their agents."

The Earl of Durham

said, that it would be necessary for him to occupy but a very small portion of their Lordships' time, more especially as by far the greater part of the noble and learned Lord's speech had been addressed to facts which did not come under the cognizance of the House, from anything that appeared on the face of the present proceedings, or from the Report of the House of Commons. No doubt those facts had been furnished to the noble and learned Lord by persons who undertook to prove them; but assuming them to be capable of being established, he was at a loss to see why they had not been proved before the Committee of the other House of Parliament. If the Bill were to be discussed on the facts that came before the other House of Parliament, never was there a Bill that required less consideration, or which presented less difficulty than the present. The noble and learned Lord said, this was the first time that any noble Lord had ever proposed a Bill of this description to the House of Lords without first calling upon their Lordships to hear evidence at the Bar. He admitted the fact, but he begged the noble and learned Lord and the House to recollect, that this was the first Bill (not of disfranchisement, as the noble and learned Lord erroneously termed it, but affecting the representation of any borough now represented in Parliament,) which had been brought forward since the Reformation of the House. But if it were necessary to look for precedents, he could find some nearer at hand than those quoted by the noble and learned Lord. Within the last two years a great number of boroughs had been disfranchised without hearing evidence at the Bar. The notoriety of the case was thought sufficient. He referred the noble and learned Lord, therefore, to the precedents of the Reform Bill, and the case of the 40s. freeholders of Ireland. Where was the noble and learned Lord in the latter case, that the House did not hear his cries for justice? He did not wish, however, to rest it upon the point of precedent; but the question which their Lordships ought to consider was this—were they prepared to enter into a contest with the other House of Parliament? Would they, by their decision, assert that the other House had not examined carefully into all the cases which had come before them? Had the cases neither of Warwick, Liverpool, Hertford, Carrickfergus, and Stafford, been examined in the other House of Parliament? Had not the Committees appointed to examine into those cases given the accused an opportunity to be heard, and had they not afterwards produced these Bills as remedies for the malpractices of which the accused had been convicted? Would it, then, be wise in their Lordships to embark in a contest out of which they could not emerge with credit? Did they think, that if this Bill were thrown out now, it would not be returned upon their hands again in another Session? Was not the very credit and existence of the Reformed House of Commons pledged to the purification of their body from all abuses? He therefore thought that, as a matter of policy, it would be a most imprudent course in their Lordships to oppose the progress of this measure. It was not supposed that the evidence now called for was wanted for the purposes of justice. The parties accused had not brought forward a single witness to exculpate them from the charges contained in the Report. He called upon their Lordships to consider the parties with whom they were going to enter into conflict, and those with whom they were going to enter into alliance. Who were the supporters of the Bill? The House of Commons. Who were its opponents? That part of the constituency of Warwick which had been convicted of fraud, bribery, and mis-application of money to all sorts of unconstitutional purposes. Surely those were not the allies with whom their Lordships would embark in a contest against the House of Commons. One word as to the recent trials at Warwick, to which the noble and learned Lord had alluded. From whom the noble and learned Lord had received his information, he (Lord Durham) knew not; but the noble and learned Lord had said, that out of twenty actions which had been brought against electors of Warwick for bribery, verdicts had been given only upon three, thereby leading their Lordships to suppose, that all those actions had been brought by the same party. Now, there had only been four actions brought by the petitioners for the Bill. On the night preceding the trial, the parties who brought the action against Mr. Tibbetts had abandoned it on account of the consequences in which it must have involved him as a solicitor. In the other three cases the actions had been discontinued, as the object of the plaintiffs had not been the money, but the disqualification of the defendants. With the other sixteen actions to which the noble and learned Lord had referred, the parties supporting the Bill had nothing whatever to do. They were sham actions, brought by the chief agent of Sir Charles Greville against his own partisans, for the mere purpose of preventing any other party from bringing them. These were facts, and at a proper season he would, if it were necessary, prove them to be so, from the declarations which had been filed in each of these actions respectively. In giving a short account of the reasons which induced the House of Commons to pass the Bill, if he should have occasion to mention the name of a noble Earl in their Lordships' House, he begged to say, that it would be with feelings of great pain, as he had always borne that noble Earl in great respect. It appeared that in the year 1831, in consequence of the great feeling which had been excited in favour of the Reform Bill, two Members who were supporters of it had been returned to Parliament by the borough of Warwick. On that occasion, Sir Charles Greville, the brother of the Earl of Warwick, had been defeated, after a severe contest, by a majority of eighteen. In the following year, there was another election; but the state of the poll had, on that occasion, been reversed, and Sir Charles Greville was at the head of the poll by a majority of 108. The means of defeat being obvious to the inhabitants, they presented petitions to the House of Commons, stating, that the return of Sir Charles Greville had been effected by bribery. A Committee was balloted for, and Sir Ronald Ferguson was appointed its chairman. That Committee examined evidence upon oath; and, after sitting five days, and examining twenty-four witnesses, Sir Charles Greville thought fit to abandon his seat. The Committee reported that he was unseated, and that he was guilty of gross bribery. The House of Commons ordered the evidence to be printed, from which it appeared, that gross bribery had been practised at Warwick, and that large sums of money had been contributed for that purpose by the Earl of Warwick. In consequence of Sir Charles Greville having abandoned his seat, the inquiry by the Committee could not be continued. The House of Commons, however, determined to revive it; it was revived, and it sat fifteen days, and examined ninety-two witnesses. No evidence was offered before that Committee in behalf of Sir Charles Greville, the Earl of Warwick, or the petitioners, who now came forward for the first time that evening. They did, indeed, attempt something like recrimination, but that entirely failed. In that report it was proved, that bribery, treating, tyrannical notices to quit, and tyrannical applications for money, had been employed by those petitioners. In consequence of that, Sir Ronald Ferguson had been ordered to bring in the present Bill. It was brought in, and passed through the other House of Parliament without a division. The object of it was, to incorporate Leamington and Warwick as one borough: and so far was it from disfranchising Warwick, that it even added to its constituency. Not one single voter created under the Reform Act would be prevented from exercising his franchise. As to the examination of witnesses at the bar of the House of Lords, he did not think it necessary for the purposes of justice, that their Lordships should institute any investigation. The parties accused had enjoyed ample opportunities for stating their case before the other House of Parliament; and he had heard no reason from the noble and learned Lord, why the circumstances which he had stated as facts had not been stated previously. He would suggest, therefore, to the noble and learned Lord, whether it would not be a more manly course to throw out the Bill at the present stage than to defeat it, as was now aimed at, by procrastination. He knew that it was in the power of the noble Lords on the other side of the House so to defeat it. "We know (said Lord Durham) that on any question dear to the people of England, the noble Lords have the power, if they so please, to throw out any measure. I beseech your Lordships, however, be merciful, as we know you are strong. Do not, my Lords, lightly embark in a contest with the House of Commons; for it is impossible, that the Reformed House of Commons can retreat from any measure which it deems essential to the purification of its own body. Its honour, its character, and its reputation are at stake. It has pledged itself to inquire into and remove all abuses in its own constitution. There has been no denial of justice, nor anything like a denial of justice, in the other House of Parliament; and yet, on this measure of purification, your Lordships are called upon to meet that House with a distinct and positive denial. The noble and learned Lord has told you that this House must not allow itself to sink in public estimation. Now, if I were an enemy to your Lordships' house, I should say, that the downward road for your Lordships was the course now proposed by the noble and learned Lord—namely, that of placing yourselves in opposition to this Bill." If the opinion of the House were against him (the noble Lord concluded) he would not press his Motion; but he must certainly move, that this Bill be now read a second time. If he did not succeed in carrying it, he would certainly do his best to make the inquiry at their Lordships' bar effectual.

The Earl of Winchilsea

would never consent to pass any act that affected the privileges of any body of Englishmen without hearing evidence to justify it at their Lordships' bar. There was an essential difference in the evidence taken by the two Houses of Parliament. Evidence taken before their Lordships was on Oath; that taken before the other House of Par- liament was not; but whether the evidence were taken upon oath or not, he would not pass any act, merely because it came to them with the recommendation of the other House of Parliament. The noble Earl who had just addressed them, had told their Lordships of the dangers which would arise from a collision with the other House of Parliament. He begged leave, in reply, to tell the noble Earl, that their Lordships had a public duty to perform, which they were prepared to perform at every hazard. Their Lordships, in acceding to the Motion of his noble and learned friend, did not say, that they would not entertain this measure; all that they said was, that they would have evidence given at their own bar to justify it. He implored their Lordships to consider how much their character would suffer with the country, if they did not examine evidence as to the commission of the offence before they proceeded to punish individuals for having been guilty of it.

The Marquess of Clanricarde

supported the second Reading of the Bill. As the House had already adopted the Reform Bill, it ought to act upon its spirit; and if the House did so, it must adopt this measure, which was intended to obtain a pure constituency.

The Marquess of Salisbury

begged leave to inform the noble Earl, that he disapproved entirely of the precedents which the noble Earl had quoted in support of this Bill. He had opposed the Reform Bill, and he had opposed the disfranchisement of the 40s. freeholders, because he considered both of them to be acts of injustice. He considered it too bad to bring precedents of this kind to justify a local act, in which no public interests whatever were involved. It would not, in his opinion, be right to inflict penalties on individuals without first ascertaining that they had deserved them.

The question was put, and Lord Wynford's Amendment was carried, and Counsel were ordered to attend their Lordships on a future day.