HL Deb 28 July 1868 vol 193 cc1889-94

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.


said, that the question dealt with by this Bill was one of such importance that, notwithstanding the late period of the Session at which it had come up to their Lordships, he wished to trespass upon their attention for a few minutes while he expressed his opinion upon it. He thought that the transfer of the jurisdiction of the House of Commons in deciding upon election cases to the Judges was a very serious matter, and ought not to have been done without the gravest consideration. If, indeed, he could believe that the transfer would lead to the repression of bribery at elections, he should be inclined to waive his objections; but, he must say, he did not anticipate that such would be the result. The transfer of jurisdiction he regarded as in itself an evil, and it was certainly a great change in our Constitution; for although the Grenville Act and subsequent Acts had transferred the jurisdiction from the whole body of the House to five Members of it, the power had virtually jested, up to the present moment, with the House of Commons. But it was now, for the first time, to be taken away altogether. It seemed to him a grave constitutional question, whether the House of Commons should part with this tribunal. Another evil of the transfer was that there would not be henceforth the same opportunity for that exercise of business habits which made the House of Commons something more than a mere debating society. If both Election Petitions and Private Bill legislation were taken away from them, the functions of Members of the House of Commons would be materially curtailed. This would not have mattered so much, if the House of Commons had retained ultimate decision over these matters; but their whole powers were transferred to the Judges, and nothing kept back. He did not believe the Bill now under discussion would be a remedy for electoral corruption, for the evil, he feared, was too deep-seated to be removed by this measure. He was sorry, too, to find that a great deficiency of the present system had not been supplied—he referred to the want of motive power. Only electors would be able to initiate proceedings, and the consequence would be that in the very boroughs where there had been the greatest corruption, and where both parties had been engaged in and had profited by it, no Petitions would be presented. It was notorious that the worst cases were those in which, both parties being afraid of the consequences, no Petitions were presented. Now what was wanted was that any persons, whether electors or not, should be competent to bring forward cases, or else that a public prosecutor should be appointed. The matter ought not to be left to the electors, because the most flagrant cases would then he hushed up. The consequence would be that the Bill would altogether fail to put an end to bribery and corruption. Another point deserving of consideration was that legislation was of little use, unless it was supported by public opinion, which was not the fact in the present case. What instance was there of a man engaged in bribery having been on that account discredited in society, or having any moral stigma attached to him? So far from this, he had known cases of men who had been guilty of bribery becoming Cabinet Ministers, and filling the highest offices in the State. Without a healthy public opinion the provisions of this Bill would be of little effect. He believed, indeed, that election agents throughout the country were putting their heads together, and were already coming to the conclusion that corrupt practices would go on much as before, notwithstanding the coming down of a Judge to institute an inquiry on the spot. He was sorry that some provisions which would have been very beneficial had been rejected by the House of Commons. One of these was that election expenses, or at least a moiety of them, should be charged on the rates. That was an excellent proposition, and he regretted that after having been inserted in the Bill it was ultimately struck out. He would say nothing of what passed in the other House on the subject, as he wished to avoid anything offensive, but he much regretted the absence of that clause. He also regretted that an end had not been put to canvassing agents, and, indeed, to canvassing altogether, for if bribery was to be put clown some strong step of this hind must be taken. He approved the clause disqualifying any person who had been guilty of bribery from sitting in Parliament for seven years. He was not so sure, however, that the disqualification should be extended to disqualification for the magistracy, and unless there was to be an Address to the Crown to remove persons guilty of bribery from the commission of the peace he did not see how this provision was to operate. A proposal had been brought forward that Members should make a declaration that they had not been guilty of corrupt practices; but under the circumstances he was glad that it had been rejected. Its operation would probably have been just as nugatory as the property qualification used to be, for it was notorious that Members possessed of some pretended qualification did not scruple to go up to the table of the House of Commons and make the declaration. The declaration against bribery might in the same way have become a mere farce, and he was therefore glad that it had been rejected; but the way in which it was generally recoiled from was a proof that no public opinion existed which would back legislation, and so put an end to bribery. Another question was that of travelling expenses. There was no more frequent form of bribery than the paying voters a larger sum than they had actually disbursed; yet the Bill contained nothing to check this. The municipal Elections were another source of bribery. When the Municipal Reform Act was passed apprehensions were expressed on this point, and it was notorious that bribery prevailed at these elections. This, he feared, would continue to be the case; and indeed bribery might be practised at municipal Elections with a view to influencing Parliamentary Elections. He regretted, therefore, that the Bill did not attempt to deal with the former. There was one remedy for bribery, the ballot; but that was so objectionable in other respects that he, for one, could not support it. At the same time he believed it to be the only effectual check. Again, in this Bill there was a want of definitions. In the 1st clause, indeed, there was a definition of "corrupt practices;" and what were they? They were bribery, treating, and undue influence. In an after-part of the Bill they were told that a Commission was to be issued to inquire into corrupt practices. But was a Commission to be issued to inquire into treating, and, if so, what was the amount of treating to be inquired into? Again, what was undue influence? Would anyone give him a definition of it? He could not conceive anything more difficult. Then there was bribery by custom, as, for instance, if a candidate employed tradesmen in a town—if he employed the butcher, the shoemaker, and the grocer; but, in that case, how could the Bill reach him? And yet bribery in that shape was quite as foul as in any other. He felt that bribery could only be put an end to by creating a public opinion against it; but it might be very much checked in the way he had indicated. He believed that candidates were more in fault than any other persons, and that if they chose really to set their faces against bribery they might do much to put an end to it. He was perfectly willing to admit that it did Her Majesty's Government great credit to have made this attempt to put down bribery, and he had not the slightest intention of opposing the Bill. But he thought that some measure was wanting to bring this offence before the Judges otherwise than through the electors, who were persons very much interested, and who would be under the apprehension of being disfranchised themselves or getting their borough disfranchised. The consequence would be that many cases of bribery most gross and lamentable would never come under the cognizance of the Judges; and in this way the Act would become inoperative.


thought that the conclusion which would naturally be drawn from the noble Lord's speech was that he would vote against the Bill, because he considered that no legislation whatever would be of any use—he seemed to consider that the vices of human nature were so inherent and impossible to correct that all attempts to legislate on the subject would be thrown away. That might be the case; but at all events Her Ma- jesty's Government had thought it their duty to try a new course of legislation with regard to bribery when all other courses had failed. As to the privileges of the House of Commons, there could be no doubt that House had fully considered the matter during the period—some months—while the matter was before them. The noble Lord had said that he had no hope from the proposed tribunal, the highest in this or perhaps in any other country, the most respectable, and the most incorruptible. He differed entirely from the noble Lord. Let their Lordships only consider what was the state of opinion out-of-doors about the Committees of the House of Commons in trying Election Petitions. What was the first question asked when a man had got a Committee to try his Petition? It was this—" How is the Committee formed? Is it a good one or a bad one?" Questions of that kind were debated in the most open manner; and what did all that show? Not that the Members of the House of Commons were not capable of giving the best decision in the case, but that public opinion did not respect the tribunal and used to speak of the Committees in the offensive manner he had described. Assuredly, then, it was time to send Election Petitions to be tried before a tribunal which could not possibly be suspected. The noble Lord had said that more ought to be done with a view to encourage the presentation of Petitions. Now he very much doubted the necessity of such a course. By the new Reform Bill the number of electors would be very much multiplied; and almost every man in a borough—at all events almost every man of respectability—and every householder would be an elector, and everyone would have it in his power, on certain conditions, to challenge the election. He thought it very likely that the beaten party would have among its members plenty of persons with zeal enough to challenge the election when needful without the intervention of a public prosecutor. Then the noble Lord had said something about the ballot—that, though he would not vote for it himself, it would be a security against corruption. He differed altogether from the noble Lord. Their Lordships must have heard how the ballot was managed in other countries, how agents were engaged, how they organized bodies of voters, and told them that if Mr. So-and-So came in they would have so much to be divided among them—the candidate would make a conditional promise to the agent and the agent to the voter. This was only a temporary measure; it was only to be passed practically for four years; their Lordships would have an opportunity of seeing how it would work, and of judging of the results.

House in Committee accordingly.

Clauses 1 to 23, inclusive,agreed to.

Clause 24 (Shorthand Writer to attend Trial of Election Petitions).


said, this clause required that the proceedings of these election trials should be taken down by the Shorthand Writers of the House of Commons. He thought that it had better be left to the shorthand writers who usually attended the Courts; but he would not press the Amendments of which he had given notice.


said, he thought his noble and learned Friend had exercised a wise discretion in withdrawing his Amendment. Admitting the respectability and talent of many of the shorthand writers who had signed the petition, he thought that, even if this were a permanent and not merely a temporary measure, there would be several things to be considered before the House would accede to the prayer of their petition. For instance, on the ground of economy alone, it was certainly a very grave question whether it would be wise to do anything which might have the effect of crippling the existing staff of shorthand writers, under the management of the Messrs. Gurney, who were found to perform the duties satisfactorily. But whether wise or unwise in that point of view—and he (the Lord Chancellor) thought it would be unwise—there could be no doubt that any alteration of this clause would come with a very bad grace from their Lordships. The House of Commons was, by this Bill, giving up its jurisdiction over the trial of Election Petitions—a jurisdiction which it had hitherto clung to with great jealousy—and in doing so it had expressed the wish that the record of the proceedings of the new tribunals should be taken down in shorthand by certain officers, of whose efficient discharge of similar duties it had had experience, and in whom it placed entire confidence. This was, he was sure, not a matter in which their Lordships would for a moment think of interfering with the Bill as it had passed the other House.

Clause agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; Amendments made; and Bill to be read 3a To-morrow.