§ Order for Committee read.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair.
§ MR. JOHN STUART
said, he had given notice for a Committee of Instruction, which involved a most important principle. After he had given notice of that Motion, however, he understood that Government had determined to bring in a Bill upon the very subject involved, namely, the disposition of four seats—the two for St. Albans and the two for Sudbury. If, therefore, he found the Government intended to bring forward such a measure, he should not ask the House to discuss that Amendment.
§ MR. WALPOLE
said, this was simply a Bill for the disfranchisement of the Borough of St. Albans; and the proposition for filling up the two seats thereby rendered vacant, as well as the two other seats left vacant since the disfranchisement of Sudbury, ought to be embodied in a separate and distinct Bill. The Government certainly intended to propose to the House a Bill giving those four Members to some place or places which they, in their judgment, should think best, so that the next Parliament should meet with the full complement of Members.
§ MR. JACOB BELL
hoped the House would not go into Committee at so late an hour of the evening, but, in justice to the borough of St. Albans, afford its representative an opportunity of explaining some of the peculiar circumstances in this case. Of course he had no wish to avoid explanation, having pledged himself to defend the interests of the borough, and if the House would give him a hearing, he should consider it his duty to proceed with the Amendments of which he had given I notice. He thought, however, it was then too late, being past twelve o'clock, to enter into the question, and he begged to move that the debate be adjourned.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main question put, and agreed to; House in Committee.
§ MR. JACOB BELL
said, he held in his hand a petition from the borough of St. Albans, the substance of which he hoped the Committee would allow him to state. The petitioners asserted they were in a condition to prove that there were upwards 1473 of 200 electors unimplicated in the corruption unfortunately practised in the borough. They recognised the propriety of punishing the guilty parties, but thought it unjust that they should be included in that punishment, and they humbly prayed to be heard at the bar of that House by counsel. Those much injured electors had been goaded to despair by the injury inflicted on them by the corrupt electors, and when they came to that House, naturally expecting redress, they found themselves involved in the same punishment as those who had been so long injuring them. His (Mr. J. Bell's) plea was somewhat different from that of the electors, as he was bound to defend the entire borough, and to urge in favour of the innocent parties their innocence, and in favour of the others the peculiar circumstances of the case. The object of the Bill was the prevention of acts of bribery and corruption at elections; if the Bill were calculated to obtain that object, by taking advantage of the St. Albans' inquiry, and if the disfranchisement of the borough had formed a necessary part of a comprehensive scheme for the purpose, he would not have had a leg to stand upon. But this Bill did not provide for the prevention of bribery throughout the kingdom; it confined its operation solely to that particular borough. Offences were generally punished, not to gratify vindictive feelings, but to serve as examples to prevent the recurrence of such offences in future. Now every individual in the kingdom was impressed with the conviction that St. Albans was doomed, and they had the opportunity of testing the effect that example had produced. But what was the fact? The Blaggs and Edwardses were in a state of activity in every borough in the Kingdom. Instead of stopping the system of corruption, they were rather encouraged by seeing that Government were determined to wreak their vengeance on St. Albans alone; the secrets elicited by the inquiry had put them up to new dodges, and it was generally expected that the coming election would be the most corrupt that had taken place for years. They would find that the opinion of Parliamentary agents and of the press. A large number of boroughs were in the market at various prices. It was not his intention to make any personal remarks. He attacked principles, and not individuals, and was as hostile as any one to a system of corruption. He would beg the 1474 Committee to consider whether the course which had been pursued would increase public respect. The attack on St. Albans was commenced by the late Government, and had been adopted by the new Government, whilst they had abandoned a measure of Parliamentary Reform. When the late Government evaporated by spontaneous decomposition, and left the vacuum to be filled up by the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, those right hon. Gentlemen had joined in the cry—the game having been hunted down by the former Government, their successors had come in to take the brush. The dissolution of Parliament was not to be thought of until St. Albans had been disfranchised. But another element had lately been introduced into the discussion, namely, the apropriation of the spoil. It was usual to withdraw jurors interested in the cause. Could the Government be impartial jurors in this question, when the disposal of two seats turned upon it? He heard nothing of the important Bill for preventing Corrupt Practices at Elections. He supposed that was to be deferred until the corruption had been put in practice. When hon. Gentlemen had settled accounts with their Edwardses and Blaggs, then would be the time to bring in a Bill to put a stop to Corrupt Practices at Elections. Two hon. Members had thanked the present Government for taking up the St. Albans Disfranchisement Bill, taking it as an earnest of future reform. He was surprised that they had not seen through the delusion; he feared it would turn out to be a settlement in full of all demands. He could find no seconder to his Amendment for postponing the second reading. If Vote by Ballot had been adopted on that occasion, he could have been quite sure of a large majority; but at the eve of a general election he could understand the delicacy of hon. Members, and their not wishing to appear to favour bribery and corruption. He sympathised with hon. Members who were in so delicate a position, although he himself was quite as much in need of sympathy. He had been used as a tool by the late Government, and was now being used as a tool by the present Government; but he had no objection to being used as a tool by any Government—provided always, by so being used, he conferred a benefit on the public. By the present Bill he did not consider that any benefit would be conferred on the public. On the contrary, he 1475 believed that the passing of this Bill would be holding up a cloak to screen not only acts which had been committed, but those which were in course of preparation at this moment. On that ground he felt no hesitation in opposing the Bill, although he was prepared to oppose corruption, which this Bill was intended to put a stop to, but which object it would not effect. It was his intention to propose as an Amendment the addition of certain places to the borough of St. Albans, enlarging the constituency to about 2,000.
§ MR. JACOB BELL
said, as the Amendment was out of order, he thought his best course would be to move that the Bill be read this day six months, for the purpose of introducing another.
§ MR. JACOB BELL
had little more to say. They must be convinced, from the facts which had come out during the inquiry, that they had all done that which they ought not to have done, and left undone that which they ought to have done. He considered the Bill unfair and unjust, and had felt it to be his duty to oppose it in every stage. No hon. Member knew how soon it might be his turn to be placed in a similar position.
§ Bill reported; as amended to be considered To-morrow.