HL Deb 31 May 1870 vol 201 cc1691-4

House in Committee (according to Order).

Clause 1 (Disfranchisement of certain Voters of the City of Norwich).

Clause 2 (Persons against whom proceedings have been instituted not disqualified until adjudged guilty of bribery).


said, he had to propose an Amendment to provide for a case so very peculiar that he thought their Lordships would admit that it justified exceptional treatment. The Commissioners appointed by the Crown to inquire into corrupt practices at the last Norwich Election entered at length in their Report into a transaction in which Mr. Edward Stracey, son of one of the candidates, and a Mr. Allen were concerned. According to the Report, a consultation occurred on the polling day between Stracey and Allen respecting the expenditure of £200 in bribery, Mr. Arthur Bignold being also present, and the Commissioners on account of this transaction scheduled the last-named gentleman as a briber. According to Allen's evidence, however, Mr. Bignold, though he knew of the arrangement, took no active part in it, remarking that it was not a bad idea, but was a dangerous one. The Commissioners inserted Mr. Bignold's name in Schedule A on that evidence. It naturally became the duty of the Attorney General, on the Report being issued, to consider whether he should not prosecute the persons therein scheduled as guilty of bribery; and the hon. and learned Gentleman, in a speech on the Beverley and Bridgwater Disfranchisement Bill, remarked that the duty was a very painful one, but that he had no choice but to prosecute where there seemed a proper case for a jury. The Attorney General accordingly filed a criminal information against Mr. Stracey, the entire case against him resting on this same transaction, and Allen was again examined as a witness; but, as often happened, a witness who, under the manipulations of somewhat eager Commissioners, told a very lucid story, before a Judge and under the examination of counsel adopted a different course. The result was that Stracey was acquitted; and as the present clause provided that no person against whom any criminal proceedings had been instituted by the Attorney General should be disqualified under the Act until he had been adjudged guilty of such bribery, he would be exempted from the operation of the measure. As to Mr. Bignold, the Attorney General came to the conclusion that there was no case to go to a jury, and no prosecution was instituted against him. Now he had received from a Member of the House of Commons and also of the Bar a communication, which he understood he was at liberty to use, and which was in these terms— I have seen the Attorney General, and he acquiesces in being quoted as saying that the only matter in which Bignold was implicated was that on which the charge against Stracey rested, and that the evidence connecting him with the offence charged was less than that upon which Stracey was acquitted. From this it was quite absurd to suppose that any criminal charge could have been substantiated against Mr. Bignold. Moreover, before the issue of the Commission, the election inquiry now provided had been held before Mr. Baron Martin, and in the course of the inquiry the name of Mr. Bignold was not mentioned; and Mr. Bignold, therefore, did not think it necessary to present himself before the Commission for examination, not supposing that any charge would be brought against him. He admitted that, as a rule, the Reports of the Commissioners should be accepted, and that Parliament was not to sit as a Court of Appeal to revise their decisions. The Commissioners, however, apparently attributed the absence from the country both of Stracey and Bignold at the time of their inquiry, to a desire to avoid giving evidence which would criminate themselves; but the latter had informed one of the witnesses before the Commission issued that he was going abroad as usual for the benefit of his health; but exceptions necessarily arose, and in the Beverley and Bridgwater Bill a person who had been included in the Schedule of the Commissioners' Report was excluded from the operation of the Bill; and what he proposed was that similarly Mr. Bignold's name should be made an exception in this case. The case against Bignold was so weak and unsatisfactory that proceedings against him would inevitably have resulted in an acquittal, and it was, therefore, obviously just that he should be put in the same category as those who were referred to in the 2nd clause.

Amendment moved, to leave out ("No") and insert "Neither Arthur Bignold, mentioned in Schedule A. annexed to the said Report, nor."—(The Lord Cairns.)


said, he quite agreed with his noble and learned Friend that as a rule it was undesirable to try over again questions which had been tried by Commissioners in whom confidence must naturally be placed. Their Report was, of course, sifted like any other judgment or public document; but it was impossible to enter into minute distinctions as to particular cases, and there was no further opportunity of sifting the matter and coming to a more correct conclusion. A strong representation had been made to him with reference to another person the case against whom was not very strong, but who happened to be in England at the time of the inquiry; whereas Mr. Bignold had apparently the good fortune of not being in England. Looking at the evidence he was bound to say that the case against the latter was not brought up to conviction. It was one of very grave suspicion; but the Commissioners were not entitled, on account of his absence, whatever the cause of it might be, to draw a conclusion in a matter requiring proof. There was no doubt that £200 was obtained by a publican named Webster, and was employed for the purpose of bribery, the arrangement being discussed by Allen and Stracey in the presence of Bignold; and Allen in his evidence made every attempt to excuse Bignold, afterwards seeing him and telling him it was all right. That, of course, was not sufficient to convict Bignold of bribery, and he thought the Commissioners had erred in that respect. He should, however, have been loth to enter into the case were it not for the fact that Stracey had been tried for the same transaction and acquitted. He did not suppose the Attorney General would think of prosecuting every person in a list of 150 names against whom the offence seemed proved—he would naturally prosecute those who most deserved prosecution, and Stracey was obviously such a person. On the ground of his acquittal, and not on the mere ground that Bignold had not been prosecuted, he acceded to the Amendment.

On Question, agreed to; Amendment made: The Report thereof to be received on Monday the 13th of June next; and Bill to be printed, as amended. (No. 128.)