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St Albans Bribery Commission Bill

Volume 117: debated on Thursday 5 June 1851

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House in Committee.

thought the House ought not to proceed any farther with this Bill. In his opinion they had gone on with it too far already. They were proceeding on a precedent which did not at all apply to the present case; and if they persevered they would involve themselves in the greatest difficulty, and do that which was in defiance of all precedents and the ordinary rules of justice. The hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Bill (Mr. E. Ellice) was governed by the precedent of the Sudbury case, and therefore it was highly desirable that the House should keep in view the circumstances under which Parliament passed the Act directing that Commissioners should inquire into the proceedings of the election at the borough of Sudbury. It was alleged that gross bribery had been practised at the last election for that borough, that the return of the sitting Member was procured by improper means, and a Committee tried the merits of that allegation. So far the present case and the case of Sudbury were identical; but there all analogy stopped. The Sudbury case was fully and fairly tried upon evidence adduced on both sides, and a clear and distinct judgment was pronounced by the Committee, declaring that the sitting Member was not duly elected, that gross and extensive bribery had prevailed in the borough, and the Committee recommended to Parliament the disfranchisement of the borough. Was such the case in respect to the borough of St. Albans? Had there been a full trial of the question before the Committee in that case? Confessedly not. The House was asked to pass this Bill because there had not been a fair trial. Besides, the Committee in the St. Albans case had come to quite an opposite decision to that of the Committee in the Sudbury case; for the former Committee began by declaring that the sitting Member was duly elected, and then proceeded to make so extraordinary a Report that he protested against its being made the basis of any legislative measure. Having decided that the sitting Member was duly elected, the Committee went on to state that they were in such a condition as to make it impossible for them to dispose of the question, which, nevertheless, they told the House they had already decided: for, how could they justly say that the sitting Member was duly elected if they had no opportunity of examining all the witnesses on both sides? No proper Report could be made in the absence of the necessary evidence. He found that the Report of the Committee stated that Jacob Bell, Esq., was duly elected. That was a clear decision. But he then found it was resolved by the Committee, that

—"notwithstanding successive special adjournments of the Committee, for the purpose of procuring the attendance of persons whose evidence was proved to be most material to the case of the petitioners, such evidence had not been produced, and that, although all diligence had been used to secure the attendance of the parties whose evidence was required, such endeavours had been unsuccessful."
In the absence of such evidence, he would ask the hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Bill upon what ground of common sense or common justice it could be alleged by the Committee that Mr. Bell was duly elected? But the inconsistency did not rest there, for the Committee, after reporting their decision that Mr. Bell was duly elected, went on to say that for want of evidence it was impossible for them to investigate thoroughly the allegations contained in the petition referred to them. How could that declaration be reconciled with the decision that Mr. Bell was duly elected? After such a declaration it was quite clear that the Committee were utterly unable to pronounce any decision upon the subject. But the Committee proceeded to say that the evidence had led them to believe that a system of gross corruption prevailed at the last election. How was that fact consistent with the declaration that Mr. Bell was duly elected? It was a flat contradiction. No one doubted the purity of the motives of every Member on the Committee; but still, consistently with an intention faithfully to discharge their duty, there might be on their part a complete failure in doing justice. The Committee were appointed to try the merits of the complaint of the petitioners; they said in their Report that they had not been able to try those merits for want of evidence; and yet they decided against the petitioners, the merits of whose complaint they were appointed to try. It was not just that that complaint should be so disposed of; nay, any thing more palpably unjust could hardly be imagined. In the case of Great Yarmouth the Committee had heard the complaint and the defence—they made a full Report, unseating the Member, and declaring that a gross system of bribery existed among the freemen of the borough, and recommended that Parliament should disfranchise those freemen. Parliament acted upon that recommendation. In all this the proceedings were consistent. So, in the case of Sudbury, the Committee found a case of general corruption, and recommended Parliament to disfranchise the borough. The first Bill introduced for that purpose was passed through that House, but was lost in the House of Lords; but in the next Session a Commission of Inquiry was sent forth, a second Bill of disfranchisement being then pending before Parliament; and for what purpose? In order that where there were two parties litigant, as it were, due evidence should be obtained. There were parties in that case, the one complaining (viz., Parliament), and the other defending (viz., the burgesses), and the issuing of a Commission was no more than observing the course of proceeding adopted in all our courts of law—the principle being, that if difficulties were interposed to the obtaining of evidence in the usual manner, means should be provided for procuring that evidence, so that justice might not be defeated. But what question was now pending on which Parliament had to give its decision? There was no question at all. There was no Bill before Parliament to disfranchise St. Albans; there was no recommendation of the Committee to that effect; but the proposal was to do in the case of St. Albans what was attempted to be done in the case of Horsham, in 1848, but which Parliament refused to do. In the case of Horsham, Parliament refused to issue a commission, although it was a much stronger case than that of St. Albans. In fact, what was now proposed to be done was to send to St. Albans a body of grand inquisitors, who would have no question to try, no complaint to investigate, and who would pro- ceed ex parte, without any contending parties before them. He would ask the hon. Gentleman (Mr. E. Ellice) who the contending parties were, and whether this was not a Bill for the appointment of an inquisitorial body who should proceed as they pleased, compel persons to attend as they pleased, and oblige them to make such disclosures as they pleased? He appealed to the Solicitor General, as a constitutional lawyer, whether he could adduce any instance of Parliament (except one great precedent to which he would advert presently) appointing an inquisition without any complaint pending, not to decide anything as a matter of justice, but going forth armed with full power to call before them whom they pleased (there being no complainants and no defendants), and to proceed arbitrarily on the dictates of their own notions of duty? The Solicitor General well knew there was no precedent of the kind except at one period of our history to which the hon. and learned Gentleman would be very loth to resort. During the years that elapsed between 1645 and 1660 they had ample precedents for inquiries of this kind. There were inquiries then instituted into the proceedings of scandalous ministers. Individuals were appointed, armed with the authority of Parliament, to call before them ministers of the Gospel to account for their mode of life, and to punish them accordingly. Did the hon. Gentleman propose to deal in the same way with the electors of St. Albans? The proposition was to send Commissioners to the borough, who were to prosecute an inquiry into what the mode of proceeding had been in the election of Members of Parliament for that borough. That was a highly unconstitutional and unprecedented mode of proceeding. The House never had sanctioned—he hoped it never would sanction, and he was sure it never ought to sanction —any Bill for the appointment of Commissioners to exercise any such arbitrary powers as were proposed to be conferred by the present measure. That was his objection to the Bill on principle; but there were other considerations. He would invite the attention of the hon. Chairman of the St. Albans Committee to what might ensue if such a commission as this were issued. Would the Commissioners have power to examine Mr. Bell, the sitting Member? Did the hon. Gentleman propose that if the Commissioners, in the exercise of their duty, should say that they wished to ex- amine him, they would be at liberty to do so? No; certainly not. [Mr. AGLIONBY: Why not?] He (Mr. Stuart) would ask why not, too? But was it a fit thing to leave it to the discretion of those Commissioners to decide whether they should examine Mr. Bell or not? In his judgment it was highly unfitting. Supposing Mr. Bell were examined, and the question were put to him—"What is meant by some of the witnesses talking of 'bell metal'?" and the the witness in answer should say, "I believe 'bell metal' means my metal; the money of mine which under that facetious name has passed into some of their pockets." Suppose that disclosure were made as the result of this inquiry, what was the next proceeding which the hon. Gentleman proposed to take? There must be something ultimately done. Would the hon. Gentleman proceed to disfranchise the borough, and leave the Member in his seat? Would he punish the electors, and lot the elected go free? Would he wreak his vengeance on the corrupted only, and allow the corrupter to go free? But the sitting Member had also a right to complain of the way in which he was treated by the Committee. The House had heard that certain sums of money had been distributed at St. Albans, which had been known by the name of "bell metal." So far there was an imputation on the sitting Member. Why not hear his evidence, and allow him to explain the phrase? He (Mr. Bell) was voting night after night with the Government, and the Committee censured him, and threw out those imputations on his election. Then, again, at this moment there was a gentleman in Newgate of the name of Henry Edwards, who was incarcerated there in consequence of the Report of the Committee. Who was Mr. Edwards? He had presented to the House a petition ill which he described himself as a grievously injured individual. Now the House had the account of the Committee as to who he was, and it appeared that he was imprisoned because he had been accessory to preventing the production of evidence before the Committee, which they considered ought to be produced, in order to enable them to come to a proper decision; and he was described as a gentleman in the interest of Mr. Jacob Bell, the sitting Member. Now this was another palpable inconsistency, totally incompatible with justice or common sense. For here they had it recorded that the person who had baffled the Committee, and who was in prison, was in the interest of the sitting Member, whilst the sitting Member himself was declared to have been duly elected. The truth was, the hon. Gentleman who had charge of the Bill, was proceeding as if Mr. Bell were an innocent man, and Mr. Edwards and the electors of St. Albans the only guilty parties. He (Mr. Stuart) could not consent to act upon any such principle. He was for punishing bribery and corruption wherever it occurred, and whether it was the man who gave, or the man who received the bribe; but he would not sanction the appointment of a set of Commissioners to go prowling about a borough for the purpose of hunting up evidence, and he should therefore move, as an Amendment, that the Chairman do now leave the chair.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Chairman do leave the Chair."

rose to entreat the hon. Gentleman who had the charge of the Bill (Mr. Edward Ellice) not to give an answer to the arguments which had just been urged, but that he would permit the Committee to show its sense of the mode and character of the opposition which was brought to bear against this Bill. If this course were pursued of taking advantage of every form which the constitution of the House placed at the disposal of hon. Members, it would soon be impossible to conduct the public business of the country. A practice had arisen of late years—he should rather say, within the last few months—by which the public business was retarded in a most disgraceful way. At every stage, and upon every clause, a Member got up and dragged the House into a discussion, not upon the particular points at issue, but upon the general merits of the Bill. They had now been two hours discussing the principle of the Bill, when this discussion, according to the general usage of the House, ought to have been taken at a far earlier period. On the 6th of May leave was given to bring in this Bill without a division, and from that time until the present the Bill had passed through its various stages without a division. If the practice of which he complained were persevered in, it would not only bring discredit upon themselves, but would very seriously protract and injure the business of the country.

begged to explain that his right to take the course he had adopted arose from an understanding with the promoters of the Bill. He had not previously had an opportunity for the expression of his sentiments upon it, and as it passed through its various stages heretofore at two o'clock in the morning, and he being unavoidably absent, by consent he had taken the present opportunity to express his sentiments. Being opposed to the Bill altogether, he did not move that progress be reported, but that the Chair be vacated.

was willing to admit the right of the hon. and learned Member for Newark (Mr. J. Stuart) to state his objections to the measure, which undoubtedly was one of considerable importance. He thought, however, the hon. and learned Gentleman had dealt hardly with the Committee, who had taken the only course they could take under the circumstances. The Committee had been appointed to try the validity of the return, and on that subject they were bound to make a report; but they were not bound to make a report on any thing else. On the evidence, as it stood before the Committee, there was nothing which touched the return. They could, therefore, do no other than report that the sitting Member (Mr. Jacob Bell) had been duly returned. That was all they had done under the Act of Parliament, and that, under the Act, was all they were bound to do. But having so reported, and their functions, as a legislative body, having with that report ceased, they thought it their duty to make a special report, stating that the evidence adduced before them exhibited an extensive system of bribery and corruption as existing in the borough of St. Albans at the late election. But, as the parties by whom that bribery had been committed were not proved to be the agents of the sitting Member, but merely partisans in his cause, the sitting Member could not, injustice or law, be made responsible for their acts. The Committee having made this report, thought it right—and to this extent going beyond their functions, perhaps—to recommend the issuing of a Commission to inquire into the bribery of which evidence had been produced; and, undoubtedly, they had proceeded to a certain extent on the precedent of the Sudbury case. But he denied that any precedent was necessary in this instance. He contended that when a Committee thought it right to report that extensive and systematic bribery exised in any borough, they had a right, if they thought fit, to recommend a particular course. It would be for the House to deal with that recommendation as they pleased. He wished not to press the Bill against the wish of the House; but the Committee had felt it their duty, having made the recommendation alluded to, to embody that recommendation in a Bill, which, of course, the House would object or assent to, as it might think fit. The hon. and learned Member (Mr. J. Stuart) had described the proposed Commission as an inquisitorial body. The Commissioners would take evidence from all parties who could give it; but the inquiry would be no more inquisitorial than it had been in the Sudbury case. He believed further investigation to he necessary. The hon. and learned Member had asked who were the parties in the case? The parties were the House of Commons and the burgesses of the borough of St. Albans. He believed further inquiry to be necessary, both in justice to the House of Commons and to the borough; and that the most effective mode of carrying out such an inquiry was in the way proposed, by a Commission appointed under an Act of Parliament. That was his opinion, and that was the object of the Bill, which he now left in the hands of the Committee to deal with as they pleased.

said, that all he wanted was a fair investigation, and to enable the accused to defend themselves. That House could not be both jury and plaintiffs. The complaint of the petitioners had not been legitimately disposed of, and he certainly would take the sense of the Committee on the proposition he had made, by way of Amendment, unless there was a distinct understanding that the principle he contended for would be adopted hereafter.

said, that House had not a case before them sufficient to justify them in supposing the other House would sanction any measure for the inquiry, and he proposed they should institute such an inquiry as might enable them to issue a Commission with effect. So far as the Bill was applicable to that view, he was prepared to adopt it, because if they waited for a new measure in the present state of the Session, there would be a considerable loss of time. The Amendment he would suggest was, that the five Members of the St. Albans Election Committee should be the Commissioners to prosecute, to its full extent, from day to day, an inquiry which had been interrupted by acts very derogatory to the power and jurisdic- tion of that House. He should be glad to see such a plan carried out, and that the Gentlemen who had composed the St. Albans Election Committee would themselves consent to conduct the inquiry, or, rather to continue it beyond the point at which their labours had been interrupted. He regretted they had not done so before, and did not think it would have been any very great hardship for the sitting Member to have had to wait a little longer before he took his seat. The case of the petitioner himself, in the St. Albans matter, had never yet been hoard. For his own part, he thought that, after the House had long determined to keep these matters of election inquiry in their own hands, it would be a very poor conclusion if the investigation now proposed was to take place away in the country, and out of the control and authority of the House. A somewhat different course was taken in the Sudbury case. There the sitting Member was unseated, and declared guilty of bribery by himself and his agents, and punishment fell alike on the corrupter and corrupted. In the present case, the corrupted only would be visited with punishment. It was proposed to disfranchise them, while the Member who corrupted them was to enjoy his seat with impunity. It was very unlikely that the House of Lords, acting in its judicial capacity, would sanction such a one-sided proceeding. The acts of the Election Committee were very unsatisfactory. It appeared from the last report of the proceedings before that tribunal that the counsel and agents for the petitioners pressed earnestly for an adjournment, alleging that the witnesses who had absconded could prove acts of bribery that must inevitably cause the Committee to unseat the sitting Member; and he was utterly at a loss to account for the pertinacious refusal of the Committee to comply with this reasonable request, except from a circumstance which did not appear on the face of the report. It was understood the Committee were influenced by doubts they entertained as to the regularity of their own proceedings. The Committee, likewise, avoided taking another course which was brought prominently under their consideration. They had the power of proceeding under what was called Lord John Russell's Act—the 5th and 6th Victoria, cap. 102—but that they had refused to do. It might, however, have been urged that to have resorted to that Act, would not have affected the seat of the Member. Now, with respect to the sitting Member, it should be borne in mind that he was not yet beyond the reach of punishment, for there had been such things as Orders of that House directing the Attorney General to prosecute a sitting Member proved guilty of bribery under circumstances which did not affect his seat. If the House were sincerely desirous of putting down bribery and corruption, it should punish all parties concerned in those practices—rich as well as poor—the briber as well as the bribed. His Amendments were framed as nearly as possible in accordance with Lord John Russell's Act, and contained more stringent provisions than had ever been applied in a similar case. He was not afraid to intrust Members of that House with the execution of those provisions; but he would not delegate that power to persons with whose qualifications he was unacquainted, and who would conduct their proceedings in comparative secrecy. His Amendments would give the tribunal to be appointed power to examine the sitting Member and all his agents; and the latter would not be allowed to plead professional privilege in bar of disclosing every particular within their knowledge. In the Sudbury case James Coppock pleaded professional privilege as solicitor to Mr. Dyce Sombre; but the Commissioners overruled his objection, and then he availed himself of the protection afforded by the Act of Parliament to witnesses who might be called on to give evidence which would criminate themselves. His Amendments, if adopted, would prevent the defeat of justice by such evasions. The authority of the House, which had been so insolently set at nought, must be vindicated. By the last report made to the House by the messenger who had been despatched in pursuit of the absconded witnesses, it appeared that the greater number of them were at Boulogne, while two of them had gone a little further on their travels, namely, to Paris. Those gentlemen were beginning to complain of the want of funds. The most copious fountains would sometimes cease flowing; and if the source from which the persons who had exchanged the monotony of St. Albans for the gaieties of Paris and Boulogne, had hitherto been supplied with ways and means, should become dry, some hope might be entertained of their returning to this country. Understanding that the Bill must be recommitted, he thought it would be more convenient to take the sense of the House at that stage of the Bill than at the present time; and, if the House should again go into Committee on the measure, he would then move his Amendments. He must, however, be allowed to express a hope that the hon. Member who had charge of the Bill (Mr. E. Ellice) would propose its recommittal neither after midnight nor at a morning-sitting, when no one ever expected any business of importance to be transacted. Looking to the unoccupied benches, it was evidently absurd to take a division then, because the result could furnish no indication of the real feeling of the House towards the Bill.

said, that he concluded that, in any case, the future discussions would be confined to the question of the nature of the Commission, namely, whether it should be composed of Members of that House, and acting under it, or not?

said, he must decline to agree to the terms to which the hon. Member for St. Andrews (Mr. E. Ellice) wished to restrain the future discussion of the Bill; he should take the sense of the Committee on his Amendment at once.

Question put, "That the Chairman do leave the Chair."

The Committee divided:—Ayes 10; Noes 54: Majority 44.

House resumed; Bill reported; to be printed as amended.