HL Deb 30 May 1853 vol 127 cc777-84

The EARL of ABERDEEN moved that the House should agree to the Address to the Crown sent up from the House of Commons, for the appointment of a Commission to inquire into alleged corrupt practices at the borough of Maldon during the last and previous elections. He understood that a noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord St. Leonards) intended to oppose this proposition, but he was unable to conjecture on what ground. These, however, would shortly be explained. In the meantime he could only say, it appeared to him a case in which there could be no difficulty whatever in their Lordships giving their concurrence in the Address. In the Clitheroe case the House had declined to agree to an Address, but that was because the Act of Parliament had not been complied with—an objection which did not hold as regarded Maldon. In the present instance they had the report of the Committee, which stated that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed at the election of Members to serve for this borough, and they had embodied in that report all the proofs which that Committee obtained, and sufficient to support the description given of the practice prevalent in this borough. He believed that the general character of the evidence, and the fact that the reputation of Maldon was one of the worst in England for corruption on former occasions, fully justified his proposition.

Moved—To fill up the blank in the Address of the Commons to Her Majesty with ("Lords Spiritual and Temporal.")


thought the mode in which the noble Earl had dealt with this question very unsatisfactory, the ground of objection to his Motion being the insufficiency of the evidence to support; the finding of the Committee of the House of Commons. It was upon that evidence that they should go, not upon mere general charges, or even a decision by the; Committee of the House of Commons.


had read a part of the evidence, but did not feel himself bound to answer the questions, yea or nay, which the House of Commons Committee had dealt with in their Resolutions. His ground for voting for the Motion was, that he found that the Committee of the House of Commons had inquired, and had come to a unanimous decision. ["No, no!"] He said, "Ay, ay!" for though upon particular cases of bribery the Committee were not unanimous, yet they resolved unanimously that there was reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed at elections for Members to serve in Parliament for the borough of Maldon. Their Lordships, on reading the evidence, would sec that there had been a good deal of bribery; and though he was not going to say that, had any of them been on the Committee, they would have been sure to find that corruption extensively prevailed, he must, on the other hand, remind them that, as it was, they saw only the minutes of the evidence, and had not the inestimable benefit of assisting at the actual examination. They had not seen the questions put, nor observed the demeanour of the witnesses; they had not had before them that vast variety of circumstances which, as his noble and learned Friends could testify, made the difference between evidence reported and evidence heard. It was just these things—the tones of the voice, the appearance of the witnesses, and their demeanour under examination—that gave rise in numbers of cases to the final impression on the mind of the Judge, an impression wholly different from what it would have been if he had only seen the questions put down, with the answers returned to them. He therefore felt himself, not merely entitled, but bound to assume, that the opinion which the Committee had come to they had come to on sufficient grounds. And whilst on this subject he would fain have made a remark or two on the conduct of the Committees with a view to preventing bribery and corruption; but for the present he purposely abstained from going into that. He might say at once though, that it was impossible that a long time could elapse before their attention was called to this most important question, and then he should have the opportunity of asking whether they thought that the best mode of preventing bribery, corruption, or other abuses at elections was by punishing certain individuals (the Members returned) for that which had been clone, without their knowledge, by other individuals (the agents). He wished to get at those "other individuals;" and he hoped the Session would not pass over without such an amendment of the criminal law as would make it dangerous for those "other individuals" to repeat the practices they had hitherto been engaged in.


said, that though his noble and learned Friend had determined, in consequence of the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons, to vote in favour of the present Motion, yet he (Lord St. Leonards), acting judicially in the matter, had felt himself bound to consider the evidence; and he had carefully studied it, both before and since the noble Earl's statement that he intended to bring this Motion on, and both times had arrived at the conclusion that there was nothing on the face of that evidence to support the conclusions at which the Committee had arrived. His noble Friend had said he was satisfied with the finding of the Committee; but it certainly was not the intention of the Act that their Lordships should form their opinion on that ground. The Act of Parliament was framed for the express purpose of calling on their Lordships to form their own opinion on the matter according to the weight of evidence. This was, in effect, a judicial inquiry, and their Lordships were not at liberty to agree to the Motion, unless they were of opinion that the evidence produced showed that there was reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, and at the particular election, as he believed, which had led to the inquiry. The noble Earl at the head of the Government said that this borough had an evil name, and that its corrupt practices were perfectly well known; but he (Lord St. Leonards) was of opinion that they were not at liberty to act on such a statement, which ought not indeed to be made, for they were bound to act only upon evidence given on oath. Their Lordships, therefore, instead of taking for granted statements that Maldon was a corrupt borough, should make themselves masters of the evidence, and decide from it whether they were justified in agreeing to this address. With respect to the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons, he did not conceive that it was worded according to the provisions of the Act of Parliament. The Committee divided upon two questions: first, whether there was bribery by agents; and, secondly, whether particular persons were bribed; and on both points the Report was carried by three to two. Then came the general Resolution, which in his opinion was not worded according to the provisions of the Act. The Resolution was—"That the Committee had reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed at elections of Members to serve in Parliament for the borough of Maldon"—not that at the last and other elections, but at elections corrupt practices prevailed. He apprehended that, according to the right construction of the Act of Parliament, the Committee must find that corrupt practices prevailed at that particular election into which they had been appointed to inquire. This Committee did no such thing. Their report read "at elections," and that might mean two, three, or four elections before the one which was referred to their consideration. [Lord CAMPBELL: Read the words of the Act of Parliament.] Did the noble and learned Lord mean to say he could not state the effect of an Act of Parliament without reading it? [Laughter. The noble and learned Lord then left the Souse apparently in anger at the interruption.]


said, he thought it extremely important that their Lordships should distinctly understand what was the principle which ought to regulate them in concurring or not concurring in addresses to the Crown for commissions of inquiry. He entirely differed from his noble and learned Friend (Lord St. Leonards), if he meant to say that they ought not to concur unless they saw, in reading the evidence, that the Committee must have inevitably arrived at the conclusion which they had reported to the House of Commons. On the contrary, he thought they ought to concur, unless they saw the evidence was directly contrary to the conclusion at which the Committee had arrived. In this instance no one could read the evidence without being perfectly convinced that it had been the practice at Maldon, at each succeeding election, to pay the expenses incurred at the preceding one. That might not have appeared by distinct evidence on the printed minutes; but, nevertheless, the whole evidence, coupled with the demeanour of the witnesses, might reasonably have satisfied the Committee that such was the fact. In this instance, however, three or four different persons had sworn that they had so received payments of their bills; and without knowing the names of the witnesses, to which his noble and learned Friend (Lord Brougham) had alluded, there was sufficient to satisfy the Committee that such was the universal practice in the borough. Under these circumstances, he thought their Lordships would not hesitate to concur in the Address.


said, with great deference to his noble and learned Friend (the Lord Chancellor) he must differ from him as to the duty which devolved on the House, when considering whether they would or would not concur in these addresses. Before the Act of last Session authorising the issue of these commissions passed, it was necessary that in each particular case, where it was intended to apply for the issue of a commission, with a view to ulterior proceedings affecting a borough, and not to individual Members between whom the contest for the seat might have been carried on, that an Act should formally pass through Parliament. That Act constituted an extraordinary judicial tribunal, and vested it with extraordinary powers—powers of investigation beyond the ordinary judicial proceedings of the law, and possessing in every respect exceptional jurisdiction. Such was the state of the law previous to the Act of last Session, and their Lordships would recollect the precision and accuracy with which they examined each case, to ascertain whether there were sufficient grounds for passing the Act with regard to that particular borough. Their Lordships must recollect also that on several occasions when the House of Commons, having heard evidence before a Committee, sent up a Bill for the disfranchisement of a borough, their Lordships not only examined the evidence taken before the Committee of the House of Commons, but admitted the parties to appear themselves and plead at the bar the reasons why the Act should not be carried into effect. In the notorious case of St. Albans—the first in which there was the new proceeding of a commission of inquiry—before their Lordships would consent to the Act to issue that commission of inquiry, and according to ordinary practice, they requested to have laid before them the evidence taken before the Committee of the House of Commons. Considerable time was then given for the consideration of that evidence, and upon the consideration of the evidence it was his duty, in the position he then held, to state the case and the evidence, and to ask their Lordships' assent to the passing the Bill constituting the commission of inquiry. In that case, on a subsequent occasion, application was made by the parties themselves to be heard against the Bill for the disfranchisement of the borough. In order to issue a commission to inquire, it was necessary to have a previous Act of Parliament, and before passing that Act their Lordships required to be satisfied that there were sufficient grounds to authorise the passing of the Act. To simplify the proceedings, a general Act was passed in the course of last Session, on the principle of the General Enclosure Act, to prevent the necessity of a separate Act for each inclosure. The Act ordered that the commission should be issued in the event of both Houses concurring in a joint address; and consequently their Lordships were placed with regard to the address to the Crown precisely on the same footing as previously, in giving their assent to the adoption of each Act. If, therefore, previous to assenting to the adoption of an Act for the issuse of a commission with extraordinary extra-judicial powers, they felt bound to examine and sift the evidence taken before the Committee of the House of Commons, he submitted, with great respect, that the noble and learned Lord on the woolsack was mistaken in his doctrine, when he contended it was not necessary to surround the parties with the same protection in the issue of a commission upon an address as they before thought necessary when a special Act was required. He thought, too, the noble and learned Lord could not sustain his argument—that the onus fell upon this House of proving that the House of Commons had come to a wrong conclusion, and that without such proof the address ought to issue. He considered their Lordships were no more competent or justified in issuing an address, than they were of passing an Act, unless they were satisfied the House of Commons had come to a reasonable and fair conclusion, and that the evidence gave sufficient grounds for the adoption of ulterior proceedings. And now (continued the noble Earl), having stated generally the argument as it occurs to me on this subject, I must deprecate the manner in which it has been brought to an untimely close, and caused my noble and learned Friend (Lord St. Leonards) to abandon the case, and leave the House; for, my Lords, I do think that, whether you look to my noble and learned Friend's great judicial abilities, his great skill, and the deference which ought to be paid to his high position and his age, or whether you look to the circumstances of the case, and the interests involved, this is not an occasion for that levity and offensive and sneering laughter which I regretted to see the noble Earl (the Earl of Aberdeen) permitted on the part of some of his subordinates. I think my noble and learned Friend has acted in the manner due to his own character and position, in refusing to continue to discuss the question under circumstances such as those to which, for the first and I hope for the last time, he has found himself exposed; and I am sure your Lordships cannot blame him for the course which he has chosen in declining to remain where he meets with so much disrespect.


, with considerable warmth: What does the noble Earl mean? Does the noble Earl say that I permitted "my subordinates" to sneer or laugh? Who does he mean by "my subordinates?" And what does he mean by saying that I gave them permission to laugh or sneer? I can only say for myself, that I have the most unfeigned respect for the noble and learned Lord, and that I neither sneered nor entertained the slightest feeling or anything but the greatest respect towards him, and that I listened attentively to his observations. The noble Earl charges me with "permitting" my "subordinates" to do so and so; but I know none in this House who are not perfectly free either to laugh or cry, as they please.


regretted the course which the debate had taken. If there was blame anywhere, he took the blame to himself, for having originated what had ended in a manner that was much to be deplored. His noble and learned Friend (Lord St. Leonards), for whose learning and character he had the most sincere respect, in reasoning upon the question before them, said that the Report did not comply with the terms of the Act of Parliament, because it did not say that those practices had prevailed at the last election. He (Lord Campbell) asked him to refer to the words of the Act of Parliament, that it might be seen that it did not require reference to the last election; for the Act only said, that if there was reason to believe that corrupt practices were extensively carried on in any county or borough, or division of a county or borough "at any election or elections of such Member or Members," &c. He therefore, without meaning the least disrespect, asked him, as was done day by day in courts of justice, to read the Act of Parliament. Something subsequently happened behind which he certainly regretted, but for which he did not take blame to himself, or to any of his noble Friends, and he fully believed that his noble Friends who sat near him, did not mean the slightest disrespect to the noble and learned Lord who had just left the House. With reference to the question before the House, it was, no doubt, their Lordships' duty to see that there was evidence to justify the Committee in the conclusion at which they had arrived. The noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) had confounded the disfranchisement of a borough with proceedings that were merely intended to institute inquiry. This was a proposal, not to disfranchise the borough of Maldon, but to make inquiry—to put the prisoners upon their trial—and to that proposal he was prepared to give his support.

On Question, agreed to.

Then the said Address was agreed to; and a Message sent to the Commons to acquaint them that the Lords had agreed to the Address and had filled up the blank.

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