HL Deb 22 July 1844 vol 76 cc1151-8

On the Order of the Day for the Second Reading of this Bill,

The Lord Chancellor

said, that he wished to call the attention of the House to the second reading of this Bill. He did not know whether their Lordships had seen the evidence on which this Bill was founded, but he was sure if they had they would come to the conclusion that a more flagrant case of bribery and corruption had never before come under the notice of Parliament. This being the case, it became necessary, as an example to others, and as a punishment to the offenders, that this Bill should pass into a law. He would now shortly call the attention of their Lordships to these transactions as they appeared in the evidence before the House. It appeared that at the last election, in 1841, for the borough of Sudbury, Mr. Villiers and another Gentleman were candidates upon the Liberal side, and Mr. D. Jones and Mr. Taylor were candidates on the Conservative side. The two former Candidates were returned by a small majority, and two petitions were presented against this return; one of these two petitions prayed for a scrutiny, and the other prayed the House of Commons to declare the election void. It appeared that the petition for a scrutiny was unpopular, and none of the petitioners for the new election would join in that petition for a scrutiny, unless the petitioners for a scrutiny would join in a petition for a new election. The petition praying the House to declare the election void on the ground of bribery and corruption was presented and gone into. The House of Commons was satisfied that the case was made out, and declared the election void; and so satisfied were the Committee of the extent of bribery and corruption that had taken place in the borough, that they made a Special Report to that House, and in consequence a Bill was introduced in 1842 for the purpose of disfranchising the borough. That Bill passed through the House of Commons and came up to their Lordships' House late in the Session. The consequence of the Bill coming up at so late a period was, that a noble Marquess made that a ground of opposing the Bill—their Lordships concurred in opinion with him, and the Bill was consequently rejected. In the following Session, a Bill, directed to the same object, came up to their Lordships' House very early in the Session—he believed that it came up before Easter; counsel was heard at the Bar, and the Bill went through the usual course. In the interval, however, between the election, the declaration of the Committee of the House of Commons that the election was void, and since the appearance of that Bill in their Lordships' House, a great change had taken place in the borough of Sudbury. He had already stated, that one party had supported a petition for a scrutiny, and the other a petition for declaring the election void; but, when it came to be a question of the disfranchisement of the borough, both parties united and determined to support what they called their "rights;" namely, their right of receiving bribes. When the case came to be heard at their Lordships' Bar, scarcely a witness would give evidence with respect to the case so clearly made out before the Committee of the House of Commons. All acted on the principle which had been put forward, that they were not bound to criminate themselves. The consequence of this course of proceeding was, that no evidence could be obtained, and the Bill was withdrawn from a Second Reading. When, after some inquiry, both Houses of Parliament were satisfied of the grossness of the case that had been made out before the Election Committee, a Bill was introduced for the purpose of appointing a Commission to go to the spot and examine evidence as to the existence of bribery at the last election. That Bill having passed the House of Commons, was introduced to their Lordships' House, and passed without any objection, and became the law of the land. In consequence of that Bill having passed, Her Majesty appointed certain Commissioners, who went down to the borough to make inquiry as to the actual state of things. Those Commissioners made their Report, which contained a considerable body of evidence. He was sure that if their Lordships would look to that Report, and to the evidence, they would be satisfied that this was such a case as he had described. He was sure that their Lordships would be satisfied that it was a case of flagrant corruption, not merely of the freemen alone, but extending, as he (the Lord Chancellor) thought, to the great majority of the electors of the borough. When the Commissioners went down to the borough, they found great difficulty in accomplishing the objects for which they had been sent. They found every obstruction thrown in their way, and every possible difficulty opposed to their inquiry. They found on their arrival, that in one of the shop-windows of the borough the following placard was pasted; "Advice to Freemen;" and that advice was as follows:—"By a Clause in the Act of Parliament, no individual is bound to answer any question tending to criminate himself." In consequence of this knowledge of the immunity they possessed, when the Commissioners came down, the first gentleman they examined, an attorney by profession, refused to answer the questions put to him, on the ground that his answers would tend to criminate himself. He (the Lord Chancellor) was, however, bound to admit, that on a subsequent occasion, the gentleman gave very full and very clear evidence so for as it went; but unfortunately, the example he set on the first occasion in refusing to answer questions, was followed by the inhabitants of the borough, and the Commissioners found the greatest difficulty in obtaining evidence from them. It happened, however, that persons no longer resident in the borough, and no longer influenced by the feelings that prevailed there, were found to come forward to give evidence. The Commissioners stated with great truth and propriety, that many of the persons who had been brought forward for the purpose of contradicting the charge of bribery, in the course of their evidence contradicted themselves, and stated stories so improbable, as to render their evidence doubtful. It appeared that an old man of upwards of eighty years of age, who was listening to the evidence, was called forward to be examined. He asked, was it a solemn oath he was about to take? He was told that it was; and if the evidence which he gave was not true, he would be liable to a prosecution. In reply to a question, this old man stated that he had been listening to the account given by the witnesses of these transactions, and he must say that (such was the expression he used) "many of the witnesses had swallowed sweet morsels." This witness then went into a statement of his own experience of the bribery which had prevailed. The Bill under which the Commissioners were appointed to inquire, only related to the proceedings of the last election; as it was thought that it would lead to too much expense and delay to embrace the proceedings of former elections. However, the circumstances arising out of the inquiry with respect to the last election satisfied everybody that what had occurred then was only a repetition of what had occurred at every former election. The noble and learned Lord proceeded to detail circumstances of flagrant corruption and bribery which occurred in the borough of Sudbury at the last election, by which it appeared that the one side spent 1,600l., and the other 3,000l.; and that the party who spent the least lost. He now came to the evidence. The Commissioners stated that on the Liberal side 200 votes were purchased at an expense of 1,400l.; and it appeared that the other side also expended a sum of 1,400l., so that they must have obtained a similar number of votes. With respect to the balance of the 3,000l., there could be no doubt that it was applied the same way; for it was clear that there had been immense treating. The instant Massey went down the public-houses were opened, and not only were no legal expences paid, but the public house expences remained unliquidated. There was no doubt, therefore, that the balance of the 3,000l. was spent for improper and corrupt purposes. The proof of bribery did not extend beyond the 10l. householders; and he neither said nor suggested that the respectable portion of the population of the borough received bribes. It was, however, a material fact, that the respectable portion of the constituency did know all that was going on, and even sanctioned it; and this was undeniable, as the lists were handed in to Mr. Francis Goodday: they were consequently, responsible for all that had occurred, and quite as much so as the parties who had actually received the bribes; and, having a guilty knowledge, they ought to be made responsible, and had no right whatever to complain, if they were made to bear the consequences of the corruption which they had sanctioned. As honourable and upright men they were bound, instead of countenancing corruption, to have prevented and exposed it; but this they did not do; and the extraordinary thing was, that when asked questions, they sheltered themselves under the Act of Parliament, and excused themselves from answering the questions put them, by saying that they were not bound to criminate themselves. He, therefore, asserted before their Lordships, that a case was made out against all parties; and that in the course of the inquiry circumstances crept out which went to show, that in this borough there was an Inveterate habit of bribery and corruption—the very fact that names were given to particular classes, proved that. Those who were designated "party men," had long been in the habit of going round among the constituency to procure votes, and the "rats," who belonged to the other side, did exactly the same for their party. There was another name known in the borough of Sudbury, viz. "fixtures;" and he would explain to their Lordships what this term meant. The instant a contest was expected, the public-houses were thrown open, and when the candidate got sick of the result, he went away, leaving the public-houses expences unpaid; and when a new candidate presented himself he was told, "we cannot support you unless you discharge the debts due to the fixtures." Now, this showed that in this borough there was an old and inveterate system of bribery and corruption. He thought he had stated enough to justify him in asking their Lordships to read this Bill a second time; and although he had only given an outline, he was satisfied that those of their Lordships who had read the evidence, and were acquainted with the details, would admit that he had not overstated the case. That this Bill was one of disfranchisement they were all agreed, but the difficulty was as to the two seats, and how they were to be disposed of. On this subject there were a variety of suggestions—some saying that they should enlarge the sphere by giving the borough to the county; while others thought that it should be joined with some other large and populous town. There were various objections to the Bill, on the ground of the seats; but he agreed with what Lord John Russell said in the East Retford case—and he regarded the noble Lord as an authority on that point—that their Lordships' best course was to disfranchise the borough now, and in the next Session consider how the seats should be disposed of. If their Lordships adopted that course, he thought the example would prevent the recurrence of such practices, and it was on this ground that he should now move that the Bill should be read a second time.

Lord Brougham

said, no one could have heard the very luminous statement of his noble and learned Friend without quite going along with him; and often as he had had occasion to admire his noble and learned Friend, he had never admired him more than in the delivery of that perfect model of a clear and perspicuous, and, at the same time, convincing statement of facts. He entirely agreed with his noble and learned Friend in the conclusion at which he had arrived. He wished, however, merely to remark, by way of protest sgainst this being rashly and inconsiderately drawn into a precedent—that it was without example to legislate as the other House had done on a great constitutional question—the question of the disfranchisement of a borough — upon evidence taken, not by themselves, but by a Commission appointed for the purpose. He believed this was the first instance in which such a course had been taken. At the same time, as this was not a Commission appointed by the Crown, that made a material difference as to the constitutional view. He could never recommend their Lordships to legislate upon a Commission appointed by the Crown, but this was a Commission appointed by both Houses of Parliament, with the Royal Assent, and consequently these were Parliamentary Commissioners to whom were delegated, for convenience sake, the powers of Parliament. It was on that ground that he did not take a preliminary objection. On the evidence he should make no comment, but his noble and learned Friend was abundantly borne out in the statement he had made, but he wished only to state that this was a gross and lamentable case, mixed up, no doubt, with circumstances which it was impossible not to feel were of a ludicrous character; but the melancholy part of the case was as mournful to contemplate as if there were no tinge of ridicule cast over the surface, and blended with all the transactions. There were some scores, perhaps hundreds, of our fellow-subjects, who had all incurred the guilt of bribery, or by giving, or countenancing the gift of sums of money, to swerve for the lucre of gain, from sordid, base, and venal motives—to swerve from the discharge of a duty—to forfeit a trust—to violate a responsibility which the Constitution of their country—of their free country—invested in the hands of the voter—and to make a mere means of traffic that which ought to be an exercise of conscience—to sell that conscience, and to make it liable to the dictates of fear in some instances, and of corruption in others. But this was not all. The parties bribed, and the parties bribers, and those who were cognizant of and countenancing these acts of bribery, incurred the guilt of perjury as well as bribery. What though the bribery oath were not administered in each case to those venal wretches, they were ready to have taken it if it had been administered. He had frequently taken occasion to express his opinion on this important subject, because the course of public feeling was not in the right direction upon it—the matter was too lightly treated, and men did not reflect sufficiently upon the evil which they were causing and enticing and seducing others to commit. If these things were kept before the minds of men, candidates as well as electors, his belief was that we should gradually reclaim and improve the practice, and lay the foundation of wholesome practices at elections. He knew that Sudbury was far from being the only case of the kind, and he regretted that other cases had not been brought forward which had occurred in various other parts of the Kingdom, where equally corrupt proceedings had taken place. He agreed with his noble and learned Friend in thinking that they ought to proceed with the disfranchisement now, and they could hereafter consider any other measure it might be necessary to adopt.

Bill read a second time.