HL Deb 29 July 1836 vol 35 cc650-7
The Marquess of Clanricarde

rose to renew the motion which he had formerly made—namely, that the Stafford Borough Disfranchisement Bill be now read a second time. The evidence that had been submitted to their Lordships, with respect to the corrupt state of this borough, had been so fully confirmed by the witnesses lately examined at the bar, that a doubt as to the propriety of passing the measure then on their Lordships' table could no longer be entertained. His noble and learned Friend opposite had been very severe on the evidence formerly given, and had said, that he could not act on the belief of that evidence; but that which had been adduced in the present instance was so full and clear—the evidence laid before the Committee of the House of Commons was so decisive—that no doubt of its truth could enter the mind of any reasonable man. It ought particularly to be observed, that all the witnesses brought forward, with scarcely one exception, were hostile witnesses—nay, one or two of them narrowly escaped severe censure, if not punishment, in consequence of the manner in which they gave their evidence; and that they had so escaped was owing rather to the leniency of their Lordships' House, than to the discretion or fairness of the witnesses themselves in giving their answers. Their Lordships had thought proper to begin the examination with reference to the election of 1835. The Bill, however, was not founded on any thing that had occurred on that occasion, and therefore the examination was so far irrelevant. The Bill then before their Lordships' House had reference to former delinquencies; and if at the latter period, that of 1835, the constituency sought to retrieve their character in some degree, that circumstance ought not to prevent their Lordships from legislating on preceding transactions of a culpable nature. Their Lordships then went back to 1826, and it was proved that the successful candidates at that election paid, the one 9,000l., and the other 6,500l., forming a gross sum of 15,500l. In 1830 the two successful candidates paid, the one 2,300l., and the other 2,500l. The unsuccessful candidate paid 1,000l., and had only one-half the number of votes that were given to the other candidates. In 1831, one of the gentlemen who had been elected in 1830, having got a better knowledge of the borough, and his agent being an acute observed, deemed it far cheaper to bribe than to treat, and was returned by a considerable majority. In 1832, a petition was presented against the two successful candidates. That petition was referred to a Select Committee (a more fair or impartial Committee could not have been appointed) and in the Report of that Committee, the present Bill originated. As to the subsequent election of 1835, there was no necessity for their Lordships to inquire into it at all. This, however, he would say, that the election of 1835, so far from relieving the constituency of Stafford from the charges brought against it, actually stamped that constituency, looking to all the circumstances, with the character of corruption. It was proved that 186 persons had been directly bribed by one of the candidates, while a system of unlimited treating was encouraged by the rest. A sum of 5,500l. was expended, and the gentleman whose liberality was best known was elected. It appeared that, in the course of five elections, which occurred in ten years, not less than 36,582l. were expended amongst a constituency now stated to amount to 1,270, but of whom not more than 1,100 were in the habit of voting. Thus nearly 4,000l. a year was poured into Stafford during these ten years merely for the purchase of votes. A number of persons had petitioned against this Bill. They expressed the utmost indignation at the charge of corruption which had been brought against the borough generally, and they besought their Lordships not to suffer them to be involved in the consequences of the guilt of others. Now, in 1832, a petition was presented against the sitting Members, and the petitioners called upon the Legislature either to pass a Bill for regulating the future elections, so as to prevent bribery, or to extend the franchise to the occupiers of houses of 10l. a year. Now, he found that that petition was signed by 126 of the persons who had also signed the present petition. In the latter instance the number of petitioners was 407, of whom forty-five were non-resident. The petition was therefore really signed by 352 electors; and of that 352 no less than 220 were proved to have been directly bribed. In the address of one of the defeated candidates at a recent election, that gentleman actually spoke of the electors as corrupt; and one of the witnesses before the Commons' Committee declared that there was more virtue in the old constituency than in the new. It appeared, indeed, throughout the evidence that money, and money alone, was considered by the electors in returning Members to Parliament. Treating had been practised to an enormous extent. He knew that treating was different from bribery, but it was not therefore a less offence. In a moral point of view, it might be considered worse. Treating had a more baneful effect in a town than bribery. Bribery affected only individuals, but treating filled the whole town with dissipation and debauchery. He contended, that almost the whole constituency of Stafford were involved in this charge, some he allowed in a greater, and some in a less degree; but, in his opinion, their general conduct had been such as rendered them unfit to return Members to Parliament. On these grounds, he called on their Lordships to read the Bill a second time.

Lord Ashburton

admitted that something ought to be done in this case, that some remedy ought to be provided for the evil complained of; and the question simply was, whether the most proper course for them to take was to pass this Bill. He had paid considerable attention to the evidence as given at the bar, and he had read it over again, to satisfy his mind on the subject. He would not occupy their Lordships' time by recapitulating the evidence in detail, but he would state what appeared to him to have been proved. They had two points to consider—namely, what had been proved, what were the real facts of the case; and then what was the remedy to be applied to the evil. He admitted, in the first place, that there had been some degree of corruption, but it was chiefly confined to treating, to ordinary treating, such as existed in many other places. While he said this, he begged to be understood as not defending the system of treating, which, on the contrary, he thought could not be justified. But while he considered that the charge of treating was a proper one to be considered by the House of Commons, he could not bring himself to think that it was a fit ground on which to pass an act for disfranchising the borough. So much for treating. As to bribery, it had been proved to a certain extent, but not to such an extent as would justify this measure. With respect to the election of 1826, when Vincent and Ironmonger were returned, there was no proof of bribery. Credible witnesses, witnesses who gave their evidence very fairly, had deposed at the bar that there was no bribery on that occasion. In the contest between Beaumont and Spooner there appeared to have been considerable bribery. That certainly was the heaviest case of bribery that had been stated. Mr. Spooner was the popular candidate, but Mr. Beaumont came down with the writ, scattered money abundantly amongst the electors, and defeated the object of his opponent. In 1830, however, Mr. Gisborne got 656 votes without any payment at all. In the subsequent election of 1831, the candidates were the present Attorney-General, Mr. Gisborne, and Mr. Hawkes. There was then bribery on the part of those who acted for the Attorney-General and Mr. Gisborne, but no bribery was imputed to Mr. Hawkes. The Attorney-General, more cunning than the other candidate, stipulated to pay something down, and the rest when he was elected; but Mr. Hawkes, who made no bargain, polled 476 votes. Then came the election of 1832, when Blunt, Chetwynd, and Gronow, were candidates. On that occasion he believed that head money was almost universal. This brought them down to the last election, that of 1835. His noble Friend had said, that the number of votes at the Stafford election was always in proportion to the amount of payment. But, in this instance, it appeared that the person who resorted to bribery lost his election, and that those who received money had been scouted by the other voters. The two other candidates, Mr. Goodricke and Captain Chetwynd, who had not resorted to bribery, were successful, while Captain Gronow was defeated by a large majority. It was a remarkable feature in the election of 1835, that the poor voters, many of them shoemakers, resisted bribery, while those who were in better circumstances were seduced by it. As to the parties who were now, as at all times, most clamorous for purity of election, and most anxious to promote the passing of such Bills as that, he could not help observing that they belonged precisely to that class who, it appeared, were the prominent parties in the acts of bribery proved in the Stafford inquiry. He wished, then, that their Lordships would direct their attention to the exact situation of the facts of the case as they stood, with a view to adopt that course in their legislation which might appear best for the place intended to be made the subject of the act, and on the whole best for the country at large. The question now brought under the consideration of their Lordships was one of much moment. It was really no trifle to disfranchise a county town with such a population as Stafford, and looking at the present state of the House of Commons, he felt himself fully justified in saying that it was any thing but desirable to diminish the number of moderate-sized towns sending Representatives to Parliament. He did not desire to see the House of Commons mainly composed of Members from agricultural counties, and from large manufacturing towns; on the contrary, he rather desired to preserve the power of returning Members to those which were more or less connected with both, and which contained that amount of population that prevented their partaking exclusively of the character of either. He, of course, was perfectly ready to admit, that in the case of Stafford something decisive must be done. They might adopt a Bill, the express purpose of which was complete and entire disfranchisement, treating the case of Stafford as one allowing of no remedy—that was one course open to the House; another was, to deal with distinct classes of the electors. Now, neither of these courses was free from difficulty; to one of them he must positively object, namely, the proposition for total disfranchisement. He did not feel favourable either to a disfranchisement of the freemen; they might be in some instances necessitous; in many cases he feared that they were so, but, at the same time Parliament ought not to overlook the fact, that the new constituency called into existence under the Reform. Bill, the householders could not be considered as altogether free from the accusation of poverty, or at least the sort of suspicion to which the absence of independent circumstances must render them liable; and therefore, so far as Stafford was concerned, the freemen and the householders stood in pretty nearly the same situation, and so far at least there was not much to choose between them. To total disfranchisement, then, as well as to a partial disfranchisement of the freemen, he professed himself averse; and instead of either of these courses, his feeling would be favourable to taking up the electors convicted before the Committee in 1835, and adopting the precedent created in 1771 with respect to Shoreham—namely, to disfranchise the guilty individuals by name. Time having been given them to reflect—having allowed them a locus penitentiœ of which they might have availed them-selves, he gave it as his decided opinion that the best course would be to disfran- chise them by name, and in giving to the world a list, it would afford him great satisfaction to add the names of the persons who bribed, for they were the most culpable parties. He was fully aware of the difficulties attending almost any arrangement that could be made. To alter the whole Bill, excepting the word "whereas," with which it commenced, was a course that their Lordships would probably not like to pursue with respect to a measure that had received the sanction of the House of Commons; at the same time, he should be sorry to see a Bill of that sort rejected without having its rejection accompanied by a declaration expressive of the wish of that House to put an end to such practices, as he regretted to say, had prevailed in Stafford. He did not think it right then to trouble the House at any great length, for he wished not at that moment to propose any more decided step till he heard the opinions of noble Lords of greater experience and judgment than himself.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that by the Bill it was proposed totally to disfranchise the borough of Stafford, and to take out of the present House of Commons that number of Members which Stafford at present returned to Parliament. It might be true, as had been stated, that some of the respectable inhabitants of that borough had thought proper to express very strongly the feeling which late elections in Stafford raised in their minds; that, beyond all question, was to be received as a strong evidence of their increasing purity; but it was somewhat worthy of observation that the display of that purity appeared to keep pace pretty accurately with the progress of Reform in the Legislature, and the extension of liberal principles throughout the country; and he saw in that, nothing, certainly that entitled the constituency of the town to a continued enjoyment of the rights of electors, especially the lower orders of the electors, who were, in his opinion, the parties chiefly to blame, though less on the last than on former occasions. Considering, however, the great increase in the constituency of the town effected by the Reform Act, and looking at the result of the evidence, it did appear to him that a sufficient case had not been made out for the passing of the Bill, by which, as he had already stated, there would be a complete disfranchisement of the borough. At the same time it was impossible to go through the evidence without seeing that a strong measure was necessary, yet still not to the extent proposed by the Bill. One mode of dealing with the question which had been proposed was to disfranchise distinct classes, the other mode was to disfranchise individuals To the latter there was this obvious objection, that the proof of the criminality of individuals came out incidentally—that it was not a subject of direct, formal, and regular inquiry, and therefore such information as might so have transpired on the subject ought not to be admitted as just ground for legislative enactment. They had only gone into evidence to show the practice of notorious bribery. The establishment of that fact being the point to which the inquiry was directed, and the evidence influenced in its character by the pursuit of that object, he confessed he did not see how they could with any propriety, entertain the proposition for disfranchising individuals by name. The Bill then before their Lordships raised this question—whether or not the whole town should be disfranchised? and to that he was prepared to give a negative. What more mitigated course they might hereafter think proper to pursue it was not for him then to suggest, but he felt clear in the opinion that they ought not to agree to the second reading of that Bill.

The Marquess of Clanricarde

briefly replied, observing, it had been said that the persons professing liberal principles were the principal delinquents, while they were the most clamorous for purity of election. Be that as it might, one thing was clear, that if the House did not adopt the present Bill, they would declare themselves favourable to the practice of bribery.

The Duke of Wellington

thought the Bill ought to be read a second time, and at a future stage they might take into consideration what modification appeared to be most expedient.

The Lord Chancellor

was afraid that they could not make such an alteration in Committee (with propriety, at least) as would satisfy the views of either party.

Lord Ashburton

under these circumstances would move that the Bill be read a second time that day three months.

Viscount Melbourne

would not vote for the second reading, but in making that declaration, he wished to guard against its being supposed that he was unwilling to do all that circumstances could warrant for the purpose of correcting the malpractices against which the Bill was directed. No one wished more earnestly than he did to put an end to such practices.

The House divided: Contents 4; Not-contents 55—Majority 51.

Bill put off for six months.

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