HL Deb 29 July 1839 vol 49 cc915-24

Lord Lyndhurst moved the third reading of the Controverted Elections Bill, intended to regulate the trial of petitions against the validity of elections in the other House of Parliament. It was obvious that it was a measure of great importance, not merely to that House, but to their Lordships. He regretted extremely the necessity for any change of the law upon this subject, but the necessity of that change was admitted on all hands. It was admitted by both parties in the other House of Parliament, and by the general voice of the country; and the question was not, whether any change should take place, but what should be the nature of the change which should render the law efficient and complete. Their Lordships were well aware that previously to the passing of the Grenville Act, the trial of petitions in respect to controverted elections took place generally at the bar of the House of Commons; witnesses attended there, counsel were heard there, and but few Members were present during those proceedings. But the moment it became necessary to give a vote on any point of importance, the Members flowed in from the library and committee-rooms, and the question was decided, not with reference to the evidence and law of the case, but solely on the principles of party, and for party purposes. That was a matter of fact; and so much was it the case, that the immediate cause of the resignation of Sir Robert Walpole was, that he was beaten in the case of the Chippenham election by a single vote. When Mr. Grenville brought in his bill, he stated his reasons for bringing forward such a measure with so much force, that though his bill was opposed, and vigorously opposed, by the Minister of the day, the House of Commons were so satisfied of the necessity of such a bill, that it was ultimately carried by a very large majority in that House, and when it came up to this House it was passed by a large majority here also. When that bill came into operation it was found to effect completely all the advantages that were expected from it; and it was a remarkable fact, that those who had opposed the measure most violently, became at last some of its warmest admirers. Mr. Fox expressed in very strong terms his approbation of the bill. That bill, Sir," said he, in the proceedings on the Westminster scrutiny, "originated in a belief that this House, in the aggregate, was an unfit tribunal to decide upon contested elections. It viewed this House as every popular assembly should be viewed, as a mass of men capable of political dislike and personal aversion; capable of too much attachment and too much animosity; capable of being biassed by weak and by wicked motives; liable to be governed by ministerial influence, by caprice, and by corruption. Mr. Grenville's bill viewed this House as endowed with these capacities, and judging it therefore, incapable of determining upon controverted elections with impartiality, with justice, and with equity, it deprived it of the means of mischief, and formed a judicature as complete and ample, perhaps, as human skill can constitute. That speech was pronounced after the bill had been in operation twelve or fourteen years; and after long experience, therefore, had been obtained of the beneficial effects of the measure; and from that period down to 1831, the celebrated era of the Reform Bill, Mr. Grenville's Act continued to operate in the manner he had described. Now and then there might be a complaint of the decision of a committee; but in general, he might undertake to say, and he himself could bear testimony from his own recollection and experience, the decisions under Mr. Grenville's bill were approved of by the other House and by the country. Since the Reform Act passed, a great change had taken place, not all at once, but by degrees, in these committees. From that period party spirit had diffused itself through the committees; the decisions had been built, in many instances, upon party feeling and party spirit; and the evil had at last risen to such a height, that in the House of Commons, not one party, but both parties, had said it was necessary to apply a remedy for it. It became a matter of curiosity to inquire by what cause this change had been brought about, what had led to the extraordinary alteration that had taken place within so short a time in respect to the operation of Mr. Grenville's Act. It might be ascribed to several causes: one might be the difference in the composition of the House of Commons—the different materials of which it was now composed. But that was a subject too delicate for him to dwell upon; he merely touched it in passing. There was another thing which might have operated to have produced the change to which he had referred—he meant the composition of the House of Commons in another respect. Previously to the passing of the Reform Bill there was in the other House a body of persons independent of the Ministers of the Crown, and not in opposition to them; there was generally a very considerable number of Members generally supporting the Ministers of the Crown, but not ranging themselves as of the Ministerial party. But no such body now existed in that House. Now, mark what had been the operation of the circumstances he had stated. A considerable portion of that class of men would be returned upon the ballot for an election committee, which, in the first instance, consisted of thirty odd Members. The next operation, was, that each party would strike off alternately one, until the whole number was reduced to thirteen or eleven, the number required. But what was the manner in which that privilege was exercised? Each party would strike off the warmest of their opponents, and the individuals therefore who were thus struck off from each side would be party men, What, then, would be the result under the former state of things? Almost the whole number of independent persons first chosen would remain on the committee, to try the merits of the petition; there would be a great body of independent Members on such a committee who would be a security against any act of injustice or unfairness in coming to a decision upon the question raised by the petition. He considered that that was one of the reasons why the Grenville act in the former state of the House had operated beneficially; and why its benefits it had disappeared in the new composition of the House. There was another consideration: parties in the new House of Commons were nearly balanced, and every vote was of the greatest importance. In cases of petitions on controverted elections, therefore, there was a party struggle in the committees, and the desire for a victory was strong, and operated to produce a much greater degree of party spirit than when the loss of one or more votes was a matter of trifling importance. He had adverted to these different points for the purpose of showing how the Reform Bill had operated, why the Grenville Act, which had led to the formation of a tribunal, satisfactory to the House and the country, no longer answered the purpose, and why it was necessary that there should be a change in the present, system. The first question which arose on coming to consider what tribunal should be substituted was, should it consist wholly of Members of the House of Commons? Or should a tribunal be established which would be independent of that House or out of that House? He did not mean to enter into any speculative inquiries on this subject, and for this reason, it was the privilege of the House of Commons, if they thought fit, to confine it to their own Members, They had declared that on this occasion they would do so, and their Lordships had no right to call their privilege in question. Therefore it was a mere speculative inquiry into which he did not think it either necessary or advisable to enter, whether or not a tribunal out of the House of Commons would be more effective and perfect than one in it. And their Lordships had no right to complain of the House of Commons in this respect, for they did the same thing; in doubtful cases respecting peerages, they allowed no other tribunal to interfere with them. Those cases were considered as peculiar to their Lordships' house; they had the right to decide them, and they suffered no other body to interfere with their right. This was an ancient privilege of the House of Commons. In the time of Elizabeth, and afterwards in the time of James, it was attempted to be broken in upon; but they resisted the attempt, and it was stated by one popular historian, and he thought rightly stated, that this was an inherent privilege of an assembly constituted like the House of Commons, and that it was necessary that they should possess and exercise such a power. Having made these preliminary observations, he would, if their Lordships would allow him, point out the provisions of the bill, and he thought they would be satisfied that the tribunal about to be constituted, was likely to be effective for the discharge of the duties for which it was to be appointed. Their Lordships were aware that the bill was originally suggested by a right hon. Baronet in the other House, who had framed and introduced it, and who had distinguished himself on several former occasions by the introduction of laws of a most beneficial character. The Speaker for the time being, at the commencement of the Session, was to select six persons from the Members of the House of Commons, to constitute what was called the general committee of elections. Those six persons were to select, at their discretion, six other persons, from time to time, to try any particular election, the validity of which was questioned. With respect to the principle of this plan, he had heard it objected, that it was doubtful how it would operate, for this cause:—the Speaker was, of necessity, a party man. He was selected by a party—generally by the Ministerial party—and he would therefore feel a tinge of party spirit, which would display itself, at least to a certain degree, in the selection of the first general committee, and that committee being tainted also with party spirit, they would be influenced in the selection which they had to make of those whom they would be called upon to appoint. But when they came to consider the manner in which this plan would operate, he thought they would feel that there was no validity in the objection. It was true the Speaker was selected by a party, and that party generally the Ministerial party, but he must of necessity be a man of respectability and character, or he would not have been placed in that situation. He must also feel and know, that from the moment he was appointed Speaker, it became his first duty to lay aside all party feelings and considerations. He must know also, that his character in the country, and with the Parliament, depended on his impartiality; nay more, that even his character with the very party which placed him in the chair depended on it. This was, therefore, the greatest assurance that the first appointment would be impartial, from the character of the individual by whom it was made, but more so from the nature of the act which was to be performed. It was to be performed in public; it was the most important duty he could be called upon to discharge; and it was almost impossible that the person in that situation, with the eyes of the Parliament and the country upon him, should not discharge that duty faithfully, and, as as far as possible without any party feeling. There was this farther security, if farther security was required, that the return of the six Gentlemen was to be laid before the House, in order that any person might call attention to the subject, and object to the panel, either entirely or in respect to any individual placed upon it. He did not suppose it likely that any such objection would ever be made; but if the Speaker knew that an opportunity was thus given, there was an additional security for the performance of his duty uprightly and honestly, and in a manner to satisfy all parties. The next step in the progress of this machinery was, that the general committee were to divide the House into five panels. This was done for the convenience of Members, the five panels being taken in rotation, so that they would always know, from week to week, when their attendance was required. Having stated all be thought necessary in explanation of the plan, he would call to the recollection of their Lordships, that they had adopted a similar system with respect to the appointment of private committees in their own House. They were aware, that formerly complaints were made, that the business was unsatisfactorily conducted before the private committees. Applications were made to the members of the committees, solicitations were urged, and, indeed, the whole system was such as to give great dissatisfaction to their Lordships, and to the country. They then determined upon an amendment, and adopted a principle similar to that of the bill which he had now proposed. That system had worked exceedingly well, and all the complaints which existed before with respect to the manner in which the business was executed had been entirely removed. He did not say, that the two cases were exactly similar; but in both, solicitation had been got rid of; and it was but fair to conclude, that the same good effects would follow from the adoption of this measure as had resulted from the system which had been adopted in their Lordships' House. There was another point relative to the machinery of the bill which was of the greatest importance. After the Committee was constituted, the next matter for consideration was the appointment of a chairman. Nothing could be more important to the beneficial working of the plan than the character and qualifications of the chairman. It was material that the chairman should be a man of great experience, of great intelligence, and of a high reputation for fairness and impartiality. If the appointment was left to the Committee which had to try the merits of the return, a person might possibly be chosen, who was possessed of none of those highly essential qualifications. It, therefore, had been considered proper that the General Committee of Election should have this power of nominating a certain number of persons to be called the chairman's panel, to be composed of six or ten or twelve members, as might be deemed necessary. That panel, so framed, would, of course, consist of Members the most conspicuous for intelligence, impartiality, and character, and thus ensure a competent person to fill the chair. When the Committee was appointed for trying the merits of the return, then came the consideration of the person to be appointed chairman, and it was provided by the bill that the chairman should be selected from the chairman's panel, and, in consequence of that selection, be placed at the head of the Committee. It, therefore, appeared, that the chairmen were, in the first place, to be taken from the whole House, and the chairman's panel formed, and then that the members of that panel were to have the power of selecting the persons who would have to fill the chair of each election committee. Such was the mode in which the chairman was to be appointed. He had thus detailed the chief provisions of the measure, and let them now compare its probable operation with the operation of the Grenville Act. It the six Members appointed by the Speaker as the General Committee of Elections were, as they undoubtedly would be, men of intelligence and character, they would have a Committee for the trial of the return selected by persons the best qualified for such an office, and a tribunal would be secured the least likely to be affected by party spirit, and the most likely to act with fairness and impartiality; they would have a Committee in which all parties would place confidence. But under the Grenville Act the case was different. The Committee was not selected, but chosen by ballot. When the ballot had taken place, the parties interested retired, and each party had the privilege of reducing the list by one, till the number given by the ballot was reduced to the number constituting the actual Committee. And on what principle was the reduction made? Each party struck out its adversaries, and always those first who were the most able and intelligent, and the least actuated by party spirit, and in consequence of that proceeding the Committee when at last determined, must have consisted of party men. But while a spirit of party was thus infused into the Committee, it so happened that those party men were not the most distinguished by intelligence, nor were they persons the most esteemed, because by the process which was acted upon, and which was called "striking out the brains," all the most eminent Members were got rid of. In the Committees, therefore, appointed under the Grenville Act, party spirit had no restraints, and in consequence the system had not given satisfaction to the parties interested, to Parliament, or to the country. In the other House of Parliament, and while this measure was under consideration, it had been suggested, that it would facilitate the labours of the Committee, and improve the system to be adopted, if assessors were appointed. That suggestion, however, had been strongly opposed, particularly by those who had framed the bill, and it had ultimately been decided not to have assessors, because such appointments would have been contrary to the principles of the bill, which was that election tribunals should be composed exclusively of Members of the House of Commons. Such was the character of the bill for which he now solicited the approbation of their Lordships. It had been approved by the House of Commons and by the Members of the Government, and sent up to their Lordships' House with the general consent of all parties. There were many other points of the measure of great importance indeed, but on which he should not trouble their Lordships at any great length. Great improvements had, for instance, been made in the existing law relating to recognizances, with the view of preventing those preliminary discussions which, under the Grenville Act, had tended in the very outset of the proceedings to create a party spirit. Alterations had also been made in the law relative to costs, with the view of securing justice more effectually to parties concerned in case of vexatious proceedings. The object of these alterations was to indemnify those who acted fairly and honestly, and to mulct those whose proceedings were harassing and vexatious. He thought he had now discharged his duty, and fulfilled the promise which he had given to their Lordships. He had simply pointed out the nature of the measure, and the character of the details; he had shown how the bill would work, the inconveniences of the old system, and the mode in which it was proposed to remedy them, and it only remained for him to move, that the bill be now read a third time.

Lord Wrottesley

much approved of this measure, and should give it every support in his power. The whole country was dissatisfied with the old system, and, in his opinion, justly so. The House of Commons had acted wisely in continuing the jurisdiction in its own Members. If they had not done so, they would have told their constituents, that out of the 658 Members of the House of Commons, it was impossible to form an honest and impartial tribunal. In his opinion the House of Commons had done itself great credit by the preparation of this bill.

Lord Brougham

highly approved of this measure, which did great credit to the sagacity of those who framed it. As the other House had taken one leaf out of their Lordships' book, he trusted they would take another also, and apply the same principle as that on which the present bill was framed to their private legislation.

Bill read a third time and passed.