HL Deb 30 June 1834 vol 24 cc968-78
The Marquess of Lansdowne

rose for the purpose of moving the second reading of a Bill, which had been sent up from the other House of Parliament, having for its object the more effectual prevention of bribery at elections. This Bill could not be strictly called a Government measure, though it had been introduced into the House of Commons by a member of his Majesty's Government; but it had the advantage of having been formed on suggestions proceeding from various quarters, and of receiving the support of men of different parties, who were all equally anxious to give their aid in checking, as far as possible, the practice of bribery and corruption at elections. On the necessity of maintaining the elections of the representatives of the people pure and unpolluted, there could exist no difference of opinion whatever; and while he admitted, that it was difficult to propose any plan by which this desirable object might effectually be attained (as generally, in cases of bribery, no third person was present, and both the person bribed and the person bribing were interested in the concealment of their corruption), yet the Bill, which he trusted their Lordships would be induced to read a second time, would so far amend the existing law as to furnish additional facilities for the detection and punishment of bribery. If the Bill were allowed to go to a Committee, it was his intention to propose an Amendment to that clause which empowered the Committee appointed by the other House to issue a Commission for the purpose of taking evidence. He thought, the more convenient course would be to enact, that the Committee should report to the House on the subject of the appointment of a Commission, and that the whole House should, on the receipt of such report, address the Crown to appoint a Commission. He was of opinion, that the proceeding which he proposed to substitute in the place of that which the Bill, as it stood at present, made necessary, would give more weight and authority to the Commission. This was the only Amendment which he at present thought fit to propose; but if any objection should be made to a particular provision in the Bill, which possessed, in some degree, an ex-post-facto character—he alluded to the clause which directed, that the enactments contained in the present measure should extend to proceedings now pending as to the borough of Carrickfergus—he, for one, not deeming that clause to be connected with the general provisions of the Bill, should not resist any proposition for its removal. The noble Marquess moved, "that the Bill be read a second time."

Lord Farnham

did not mean to offer any opposition to the principle of the measure, and he thought, the machinery which it created well calculated to effect the object in view, as far as the other House of Parliament was concerned; but he was of opinion, that their Lordships would not be acting rightly in agreeing to address the Crown to deprive any borough of the important right of sending representatives to Parliament without having first instituted an inquiry at the bar of their House, or before some tribunal within their own body, as to the general prevalence of bribery and corruption alleged against that borough. He was ready to admit, that some mode ought to be adopted by which their Lordships might be relieved from the trouble and loss of time of going through such a painful investigation at the bar of the House; and, though he could not give his consent to disfranchise any borough on evidence collected by a board of Commissioners, he believed, that all the information required by their Lordships might be satisfactorily obtained by the appointment of Committees up-stairs, acting simultaneously, whenever two or more Bills of disfranchisement happened to be sent up to that House at one time.

The Marquess of Lansdown

observed, that the House of Lords would not be obliged, on the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons, to concur in an address praying the Crown to withhold the issuing of the writ to any borough which it might be proposed to disfranchise; but cases might occur, in which the House of Lords would be satisfied with the evidence collected by the Commission appointed by the Crown, provided the House of Commons was satisfied with it.

Lord Ellenborough

was sure, that their Lordships, if they bore in mind the long period which the proceedings in the Warwick case had already occupied, and if they recollected the time consumed in the examination of witnesses in the East Retford case, must be of opinion, that it was absolutely necessary to consider of some mode of proceeding on Bills of disfranchisement, by which the general business of the House might not be interfered with. This was a subject which he trusted their Lordships, whether they agreed to or rejected, as he hoped they would, this Bill, in its present stage, would appoint a Committee to take into consideration. He admitted, that the Bill did not expressly prohibit their Lordships from entering into such investigation with respect to boroughs which it might hereafter be proposed to disfranchise as they thought fit; but still its whole object was, to give to the inquiries instituted by the House of Commons an exclusive importance, and to pass by the House of Lords, except in so far as its concurrence in an address for disfranchisement was necessary. By one single vote, from which there would be no appeal, they would proceed to denounce a whole borough; but if it should be desired to alter the limits, or increase the number of electors of a borough, it would then be necessary to resort to the usual and constitutional mode of introducing a Bill; but all that would be necessary to deprive a borough entirely of its elective franchise was a joint address of both Houses of Parliament. Thus for a minor case they were to proceed by Bill, and, in the more important case, they were to be content with an address. To that he could not consent; and it was a mode of proceeding which their Lordships, he trusted, would never sanction. If, however, their Lordships should refuse to concur in the proposed address, it would then become necessary to proceed by Bill, which would thus, contrary to all precedent, originate in that House. With respect to the Amendment which the noble Marquess had intimated his intention of proposing to the clause relative to the Commission, he believed, that its only effect would be to give to the Government, instead of the Committee of the House of Commons, the appointment of the three barristers, who were to act as Commissioners. It was provided by the Bill, that parties petitioning the House of Commons against any borough, on the ground of general bribery, must deliver in a list of the persons whom it was intended to charge with the offence of bribery, and give to such persons fourteen days' notice previous to the sitting of the Committee, in order that they might be prepared to defend themselves either in person or by counsel against that charge. But, by a subsequent part of the Bill, power was given to charge other persons not included in the list delivered to the clerk of the House of Commons, who were not to be permitted, without leave of the Committee, to attend either personally, or by counsel, to cross-examine the witnesses produced against them, or call evidence in their own defence. And in what situation were those persons placed? They had no power to appear by themselves or counsel; they had no power to cross-examine witnesses for the petition; to call witnesses on their own part; and to take other means of rebutting the charges against them. It was true the Committee, if they chose, might give them that power, but of what use would it be to them when they were not aware of the precise nature of the charge? If, indeed, a Commission were appointed to investigate the charge in the country, then, indeed, the persons who were not comprehended in the list given in by the petitioners were as competent as the persons comprehended in that list to examine witnesses and rebut the charge. As soon, however, as the report was made by the Commissioners in town, all those equal advantages ceased, and the persons who were not comprehended in the list given in by the petitioners were no longer entitled to the privileges of the persons who were comprehended in that list. But that was not all. The report of the Committee, when made, was at once published, and the names of persons charged with being guilty of bribery and corruption, and who had had no possible opportunity of rebuting that charge, were liable to be posted upon Church doors and in Town-halls, and the parties themselves exposed to all that derision which was the necessary consequence of such an exposure. He could not imagine how it was, that such an enactment had been proposed by the collective wisdom, which, according to the statement of the noble Marquess, assisted in the concoction of the present measure; or how it had contrived to escape the observation of the noble Marquess himself, who now appeared to be reading the provisions of the Bill for the first time. By one part of the measure, provision was made for the payment of the expenses of those who brought a charge of bribery against a borough; but there was no such provision in favour of those who had to defend themselves against that charge, unless the petition should be declared frivolous and vexatious—an event which was likely to occur but seldom. But when proceedings were instituted, in consequence of the special report of the Committee of the other House of Parliament, in that case, however frivolous and vexatious the charge might be, the parties defending themselves would have no relief whatever. This was a matter worthy of their Lordships' serious consideration, because, relating as it did to costs, their Lordships had not the power of making any alteration, and if they resolved to pass the Bill, they would be obliged to pass it with all its imperfections. He had every desire to give the House of Commons power to establish a better tribunal than at present existed for the investigation of cases of bribery and corruption, and he thought it would be advantageous if the witnesses summoned in such cases were always examined on oath; yet he could not give his assent to the plan contained in the present measure. A very important principle was involved in the enactment which empowered the Speaker of the other House of Parliament to select eleven persons out of thirty-three drawn by ballot, for the purpose of investigating charges of bribery and corruption. He had great confidence in the honour and impartiality of the right hon. Gentleman who now filled the chair of the House of Commons; but this was a question not to be determined by personal considerations. It was well known that the Speaker of the House of Commons, being appointed by the majority of that House, in general partook of the predominating political opinions of that House. The Speaker was appointed immediately after the election, and the power which he possessed of reducing the number of Members contemplated by the present Bill, from thirty-three to eleven, gave him the means of disfranchising any borough in the kingdom. It gave him the power of selecting, not merely the Jury, but the Judge and Jury. By adopting the proposition their Lordships would abandon that privilege of challenging a Jury, which was one of the most powerful safeguards of the rights of Englishmen. A valuable principle was sacrificed, and for no beneficial purpose. Under all these circumstances, he was desirous, that the second reading of the Bill might be postponed, and a Select Committee of their Lordships might be appointed to consider of the best mode of proceeding in the measure. He repeated that he was desirous to give the House of Commons additional facilities in the prosecution of cases of bribery and corruption, while at the same time he felt that there was great difficulty as to the way in which those facilities should be furnished. Above all, he was desirous that means of securing the purity of the exercise of the elective franchise should be devised, without exposing innocent persons to the injury, insult, and degradation to which they were exposed under present circumstances.

The Lord Chancellor

fully agreed with the noble Baron who spoke last as to the importance of the Bill, and he was sure that the House generally would agree with him that there was an absolute necessity to pass some such Bill. The present measure, as it stood, he should attempt to support on two grounds, the first of which was one of principle. No man could entertain the slightest doubt that if each inquiry arising out of the alleged delinquency of any place returning Members to Parliament became the subject of a legislative inquiry, they must go fully through all the forms, through every stage of proceeding necessary to a Bill, and witnesses must be examined at the Bar of both Houses. That cumbrous, inconvenient, expensive, and tedious—and because cumbrous, inconvenient, expensive, and tedious, therefore less efficient — remedy, would not by any means be so frequently pursued as the modes of punishment and prevention provided by the Bill. The reluctance to have recourse to the remedy, as it at present existed, would always be in proportion to the inconvenience, expense and delay consequent upon establishing the claim for a remedy. If all those difficulties, then, were experienced — as undoubtedly they would be in any given case—a second accusation, though standing upon similar grounds, would be brought forward, if at all, with still greater reluctance than the first, for the severity of such a lesson could scarcely be thrown away upon parties feeling a disposition to prosecute in any supposable instance. The other ground which he purposed to submit to their Lordships' consideration was one of practice, and was suggested to his mind by the late proceedings with respect to the borough of Warwick. He did not, he assured the House, think of those examinations with any sentiments of revenge, although he certainly had suffered most severely under them. Well, the inquiry was proceeding, and in the fulness of time, they might arrive at a conclusion, and eventually pass the Bill. Upon the merits of that question, toward the elucidation of which that enquiry was directed, he, of course, could not think of pronouncing any opinion, when, as they at present were in the middle of that inquiry, it would be, to say the least of it, indecent in him to give expression to any opinion; but thus much, at least, he might without any impropriety, be permitted to say, that no man who paid the most cursory attention to the progress of the measure could permit himself to entertain the shadow of a doubt that the costs, the annoyance which it had occasioned, would effectually prevent the repetition of similar inquiries; and the necessary consequence of the present state of the law would be, that after the Warwick Borough Bill, no parties would be found to come forward, were the grounds of complaint tenfold stronger. The inevitable result of permitting the law to remain in its present state must be perfect impunity to the corruption of boroughs. He begged their Lordships' attention to the principle of the Bill then before them; it was, that the Crown should, on receiving a joint address from both Houses, issue a Commission to inquire into the accusation made, and the grounds upon which it rested, and to examine witnesses. Did any noble Lord suppose if a Bill were introduced for disfranchising any borough, that it was read a first time, and a second time, and committed, and finally read a third time, that anything contained in the Bill then before their Lordships would preclude either House of Parliament from proceeding with the examination of witnesses at their Bar, if to them such a proceeding appeared to be necessary? But he need scarcely remind their Lordships that long experience had proved that that mode was not, and could not be satisfactory; and that there must exist, under all circumstances, the greatest repugnance to have recourse to it. Under the Bill it was provided, that before the Petition was proceeded with, due notice should be given, that the Crown might issue a Commission which was to report to both Houses. He was not sure that the Report by the Bill was to be made to both Houses, but he thought it ought to be so made, and he was quite sure, that from thence, and from the general operation of the Bill, would arise a system and mode of proceeding in such cases, much more compendious, economical, and satisfactory, than had ever yet been applied to borough corruptions. He should now come to that point upon which he dissented from the noble Baron who spoke last. That noble Baron had said, the remedy proposed under the Bill would supersede the power of Parliament by the creation of a new body to do that which hitherto Parliament alone was considered to be competent to. Surely it took away no power from Parliament; it would still be in the power of either House to originate a Bill for the disfranchisement of any borough. In his apprehension, it would be anything but degrading to the dignity, or injurious to the privileges, of either House, that they should be required to concur in an address to the Crown before a Commission issued. It had long been the practice for the House of Commons to delegate its powers to a Committee for the purpose of inquiring into proceedings connected with one of its most important privileges—namely, who should or who should not sit for any particular place: they were, as he said, in the habit of delegating that power to a Committee which formerly the whole House itself exercised, and a worse tribunal there could not possibly be, unless, indeed the Irish House of Commons. How was that most important matter at present decided? Why a Committee of eleven possessed that power, which nothing less than the House of Commons before exercised. Under this Bill, Commissioners appointed at the instance of both Houses would perform those duties which at present were so imperfectly performed. But would the House of Lords or the House of Commons be bound by the report of the Commissioners? Certainly not.—If their Lordships did not find that Report to be perfectly clear and satisfactory, they might refuse to join in the subsequent proceedings, and thereby put an end to them. But the existence of that power, which the Bill before them asserted and recognized, would strike terror into the minds of evil doers, and a knowledge of the fact that it might, at short notice, be called into full activity would, he felt assured, deter them from the commission of those acts, the prevalence of which had given occasion for the Bill; and he should, without the slightest qualification affirm, that nothing could be further than was that Bill from tending to diminish the power, degrade the dignity, or lower the authority of that House. In the cases of tithes, Church property, or criminal law, they proceeded to legislate upon the Reports of Committees; were they by that in the slightest degree degraded, or did any man for a single moment suppose that reference to a Committee bound the House to abide by the decision of that Committee? In like manner, any noble Lord might, after the inquiry by the Commissioners, declare in his place in Parliament that such Report did not satisfy his mind,—that it did not go direct to the object in view,—that it was scanty or meagre,—or that wrong questions had been put. Such noble Lord might then, if he thought proper, move that the whole matter be referred to a Committee up-stairs; or even, if he saw it necessary, might move according to the old practice, that witnesses be examined at the Bar of the House. In that respect, therefore, their Lordships would be in the same situation after the passing of this Bill, as they were at present. The Bill comprehended, therefore, no infringement of the legislative, or of the inquisitorial functions of the House. As he had already observed, the evil in the present mode of proceeding was not so much in the first or second reading of the Bill, or in the Committee, as in the receiving of evidence—a subject on which, after his late experience, he could hardly speak without yawning. Indeed the House ought to be deterred from a repetition of such an experiment by their physical incapacity to repeat it; for unless they could put eight-and-forty hours into their day instead of four-and-twenty, they could not possibly get through two such Bills in one Session. Let a better mode be shown him of collecting evidence than that proposed in the Bill, and he would gladly adopt it. But he could not see why they might not engraft on that Bill, not the proceeding by address perhaps, (which he allowed was somewhat objectionable), but the grand improvement of avoiding taking evidence at the Bar. The noble Baron complained loudly of the enormity of posting the names of persons charged with bribery and corruption on Church-doors, and Town-halls. What the noble Baron characterised as a hardship was a common occurrence. Suppose any individual chose to present a petition to either House of Parliament, charging fifty persons—or, what was worse, five persons—or, what was worst of all, one person, with bribery and corruption, what was the consequence? That the speech of the Member of Parliament who presented that petition, and who opened the subject in the House, appeared in all the newspapers, obtaining thereby a publicity much more extensive than that of any placards on Church-doors. Nay, more, the petition was printed in the votes; and it had been decided by the Court of King's Bench, after a solemn argument, that those votes might be posted on Church-doors. It was clear, therefore, that any slanderous libel which a petitioner might think proper to introduce into a petition might be pasted on Church-doors with the authority of Parliament. If it were thought necessary, however, some protection against this grievance might be introduced into the Bill under their Lordships' consideration. One objection that had been made to the Bill was, to ask, why not leave the law as it at present stands; and in any particular case, if the House liked to do so, address the Crown to issue a Commission for the purpose of obtaining evidence? The answer was, that in that case the Commission would be only, pro hac vice, a Commission for a particular purpose. But if they adopted a systematic measure, which chalked out the general course of proceeding, that would be to tell the subject that whatever borough was guilty of corruption, Parliament was pledged and bound to investigate the case, with the view of punishing the wrong-doer. For all these reasons, he was certainly favourable to the second reading of the Bill.

The Duke of Wellington

thought, that under the Bill, in its present shape, there could be but one mode of dealing with any borough in which corruption was proved to exist—namely, that of disfranchising it. A Bill to disfranchise a borough might also be founded on an inquiry, originating in the other House of Parliament, over which that House had no control whatever. He should wish before proceeding with such a measure that a Select Committee should investigate it.

The Bill was read a second time, and referred to a Select Committee.