HL Deb 08 June 1869 vol 196 cc1391-4

My Lords, I have to ask the concurrence of your Lordships with the House of Commons in Addresses upon the subject of certain elections as to which the Judges who were constituted by the Act of Parliament last year as the proper tribunal for investigating corrupt practices at elections have made their Report. And with regard to five out of the six Reports no question, I believe, can arise, or has been suggested, as fit for discussion. But as regards the sixth case—that of the City of Dublin Election—a question has been raised in the House of Commons which does appear to be a proper one for discussion. As regards Dublin, a discussion arose in the other House as to the effect of the Report of the learned Judge. The Act, on the construction of which the discussion arises, is the 15 & 16 Vict. c. 57—because the Act of last Session simply transferred the jurisdiction formerly given to Election Committees of the House of Commons to the Judges appointed to try these petitions, and made no difference in the language of the former enactment with reference to the point now under consideration. The language of the 15 & 16 Vict. c. 57 as to corrupt practices is that when by the joint Address of both Houses of Parliament it should be represented to Her Majesty that a Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to try any election petition, or to inquire into corrupt practices at any election, had reported "that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, or that there was reason to believe that they had extensively prevailed," in any place where the election was held, and the Houses of Parliament should thereupon pray Her Majesty to cause inquiry to be made under that Act, that then the inquiry should proceed. What, therefore, the Committee was required to report was, "that corrupt practices had, or that there was reason to believe they had," extensively prevailed in the place where the election was held. I will first state what appears to me to be the plain meaning and intent of the Act. The object of the Legislature was to secure an investigation whenever corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, and a great deal, therefore, will turn on the meaning of the word "extensively." I confess I cannot bring my mind to doubt the intent and meaning of that word. The House of Commons, in its connection with this subject-matter, has been in the habit, when a general amount of corruption has prevailed among any portion of the electors, to present an Address to the Crown praying that a special inquiry might be made in order to ascertain whether that extensive corruption prevailed. Unfortunately, it was discovered that in many of these cases a certain class of voters were not those who were least disposed to yield to these temptations—I mean the freemen of the different towns. The word "extensively" I read as contrasted with. "slightly," or some few cases which the zeal of an. agent or the facilities of temptation might occasion. "Extensive corruption," on the other hand, means what is vulgarly called "wholesale corruption" —corruption on a great scale—and I do not conceive it can be held to refer to the numbers of the constituency, or to be relative to those numbers. I take it that if anybody should corrupt 150 persons, and offer to corrupt 200 or 300 more, that would be extensive corruption, whether the borough contains 500, or 5,000, or 25,000 electors. In either case the attempt to corrupt the electors would be "extensive corruption." Extraordinary care was taken in this statute to secure the means of remedying so great and serious an evil as a largely extended course of corruption, because it enacted not merely that where those practices had existed there should be this remedy, but where the Judge reported that there was reason to believe that they had existed. That being so, the question that arises in Dublin is this:—The learned Judge who had cognizance of this matter made his Report, as stated in the Address, that corrupt practices extensively prevailed among the freemen voters at the last election for the city of Dublin, and he added that it had not been shown that corrupt practices extensively prevailed, or that there was reason to believe they had extensively prevailed among any other class of voters—that is to say, there was a large class of men among whom corrupt practices extensively existed, but the rest of the constituency were pure. Is it ever the ease that the whole of a constituency are corrupt? Is there any case that can be named of the kind? I hope and believe not. The freemen are just the class among whom corrupt practices have too often prevailed. There are 2,500 or 2,600 freemen in the city of Dublin, and there was, it appeared, what might be called wholesale and general corruption among that class. They formed about one-fifth of the whole constituency, which numbered 13,000 or 14,000 voters. In the city of Dublin, beyond a doubt, on the Report of the Judge, the construction of the word "extensive" applies. There are several boroughs in which there is a large class of agricultural voters, as well as the urban class, living in the town. Suppose it were reported that corrupt practices extensively prevailed in one of these classes. Now, it would be a very serious thing if your Lordships were to hold that it does not signify how many are corrupted if the Judge who tries the case does not report that the corruption had been extensive throughout the whole community. I have tried to satisfy myself on this subject by supposing that cattle plague had broken out, that your Lordships were dealing with the matter in order to prevent the spread of the disease, that a Bill had been framed just like this, and that if it had been reported that the cattle plague extensively prevailed in a county you would have power to take steps to provide against the spread of the disease. If you obtained a report that it extensively prevailed among all the black cattle, but that it was not shown to exist among all cattle, it would surely be a strange thing to say that the plague did not extensively exist in the county, and that means ought not to be at once taken to prevent the spread of the disease. I think there can be no reasonable doubt that a Commission should issue in the case more particularly under discussion. The noble and learned Lord concluded by moving to fill up the blanks in the several Addresses relating to the Elections for Norwich, Beverley, Sligo, and Cashel, with the words (" Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and"); which Motions, with the formal Orders thereon, were severally put, and agreed to.