HL Deb 14 March 1853 vol 125 cc143-8

House in Committee (according to order); Bill reported.


said, that as he should not be present at the future stages of the Bill, he must take this opportunity of thanking his noble Friend for a measure which he thought must be a considerable improvement in the election procedure. It must, among other advantages, have that of preventing in some, though only an inconsiderable, degree the corruption so generally and so greatly complained of, no small part of the bribery at elections taking place after the first day's poll. In once more adverting to this painful subject, he must express his dissent from many whom he greatly respected, whose disposition to extirpate that grievous evil he believed to be most sincere, regarding the means which they held to be effectual, and which he felt confident must entirely fail. An extension of the suffrage was one. Now no one could be more friendly than he was to all safe and fit extension—to all measures which would give the franchise to the classes who ought to be entrusted with it—not, Heaven forbid! by universal suf- frage, but by enabling all those to vote whose condition and whose intelligence gave them a title to exercise that important public trust. But his desire to see the constituent body thus extended, and even greatly extended, did not arise from any expectation that the increase of numbers would extirpate bribery. There was the same risk of bribery in a great as in a small body of electors. When parties were equally, or nearly balanced, then it was that bribery was committed. In a borough of 1,000 voters, if 900 or 950 were one way, and the rest another, no man would be silly enough to attempt purchasing a majority; but it was when four or five hundred were one way and the rest the other way, that it was worth while to gain over enough to turn the balance. This held just as true of places where there were 10,000 or 12,000 voters. When 4,000 or 5,000 were one way, and 6,000 or 7,000 the other, be it in a provincial town or a great city—he, of course, could not be supposed to speak of that on the river which washed these walls—then it was that bribery became practicable, and that men were tempted to commit it. The great bulk of the electors were respectable persons, and were long found to vote on either side. A few hundreds of another kind held back, and were sought by the agents of corruption as open to bribery and as able to turn the election. The total number of the voters had nothing to do with the question. The other favourite expedient was, the method of secret voting. He had always been unable to perceive how this could check bribery, after the best attention he could give the arguments in its favour. He spoke not of its affording a protection against influence and intimidation, though on that he conceived the argument also failed. But he was now speaking of its alleged operation in preventing bribery; and with all his respect for the many persons of importance in such controversies, and all the attention he could bestow upon their reasonings, he professed his utter inability to discern how the plan could in any the least degree prevent bribery. It would, no doubt, prevent, and most effectually prevent, all punishment of the offence—all prosecutions for it would be impossible—because no detection of it could take place. But how an offence was to be prevented by giving impunity to the commission of it, he was at a loss to imagine. The only result would be, that the course of the offence might be charged. Those who wished to purchase votes would make the payment of the price depend upon the event of the contest—they would engage to give the voters so much if Mr. So-and-So was returned. The confidential agent would make this bargain with the voters, and would thus convert each one into an active coadjutor, by making it his interest both to vote himself, and get others to vote with him. His hopes of extinguishing bribery rested on other grounds, and he earnestly besought his noble friends of the Government to bestow their best attention on this important amendment of the law. His noble Friend at the head of the Government had that evening gladdened him by the affirmative answer he had given on the important subject of the Commission on the assimilation of the Mercantile Law. He trusted he would now further declare the disposition of the Government to take effectual steps for improving the Bribery Law—whether by providing the means of effectually prosecuting the offence, or by increasing the punishment of it, or by requiring such a declaration as he (Lord Brougham) had once and again strongly recommended, or by all of these means.


said, he could assure his noble and learned Friend that he himself could not be more desirous or anxious to check the present amount of bribery and corruption than were Her Majesty's Government. This being the case, of course the subject occupied their most serious attention, and he trusted that something might be done. His noble Friend the Member for the City of London (Lord John Russell), if he had not actually given notice of a measure in the other House of Parliament, had stated that his attention was directed to the subject, with the view and hope of meeting the evil to which the noble and learned Lord had referred, and which, if it continued as it existed at present, would go far to bring our whole representative system into contempt. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) was not prepared to say that at that moment any measure was ready for introduction into that or the other House of Parliament; but that something would be attempted he thought he might confidently say, and he hoped their Lordships would give their active co-operation in promoting a measure which had really become a matter of necessity.


hoped that not only their Lordships, but the other House of Parliament, would show that they were resolved in good earnest to endeavour to put down this evil.


considered that it was incumbent upon Parliament to do all in its power to repress the practices which had been lately exposed by the Committees of the other House; and he had not the slightest doubt that they would give their ready and willing co-operation and assistance to any measures calculated to attain that end. He must say, however, that he thought, in justice to the country, they ought not to lay too much stress upon the exposures which were now made. He did not mean to mitigate or to attempt to explain away the nature of the transactions which had been disclosed before Committees of the other House; but he had heard it said repeatedly that there was obviously a greater and grosser amount of corruption at the last general election than had ever prevailed before, and that the crime of bribery and corruption was on the increase—and he wished to say that, for his own part, he greatly doubted the truth of that statement. He did not think it desirable that the idea should go forth, not only to this country but to the world at large, that the whole Parliamentary constituencies of the country were in a gradual course of progressive corruption. It must be remembered that a great change had taken place in the course of investigation applied to these cases. A short time since it was indispensable not only to allege cases of bribery and treating, and to prove the acts themselves, but to connect them with the candidate—the person principally interested in the result of the election. That practice, as their Lordships were aware, was now entirely altered, and in the case of any contested election it was only necessary to prove one single case of an offence of this description, though wholly unknown to the candidate, in order to invalidate the election, and displace the person returned. He believed, from his own experience, he might venture to say that there was scarcely a Member of the other House who had gone through a contested election, who, if all the transactions of his election were investigated, would not be exposed to the greatest risk of being unseated. No man who had passed through a contested election could be ignorant that when men were engaged in a struggle of that kind, many persons placed themselves in the position of friends of the candidate, with whom the candidates had no reason to refuse to act, and that when such persons became excited during the conflict, they might be induced to commit these acts without expecting the responsibility to attach to any one but themselves. If, however, such acts were now proved before Election Committees, they were enough to invalidate the returns. Under these circumstances he thought that, because at the last election a great many offences of this description were proved to have taken place, it was not just and fair to the constituencies of this country to conclude that they were now far more corrupt than they were formerly. His belief was, that the operation of public opinion, and the gradual discouragements applied by legislation of late years, had tended materially to diminish practices of this kind; and while he considered it the duty of both Houses of Parliament to apply their best energies to their repression, he thought they should not hastily jump to the conclusion that the corruption was grosser and more extensive than on any former occasion.


fully concurred in the spirit of the remarks which had just fallen from his noble Friend, whose experience in the matter of elections had been somewhat analogous to and concurrent with his own. And yielding, as he did to no man in his wish to check and prevent bribery and corruption, he still thought it would not be for the benefit, even of virtue itself, to make the pursuit and running down of what was vicious, go on with so much want of discrimination as to include in it what the general sense of mankind would never regard as wholly and equally reprehensible. For instance, the act of a man who gave a glass of beer to a voter who had made a long journey to support a candidate, ought not to be looked on in the same light as a person committing direct and downright acts of bribery. He trusted the Bill now under consideration would be found serviceable, because it had been found from experience that the second day's poll not only imposed considerable additional expense on the candidate, but had a tendency to lead parties to have recourse to bribery and other discreditable acts, which he was glad to observe the Legislature showing a strong disposition to discourage.

Bill to be read 3a on Thursday next.