HC Deb 21 July 1853 vol 129 cc544-56

said, that he had a petition to present from a committee of the electors of Peterborough, with reference to the question which he had brought before the House a few nights ago. The petitioners desired to represent to the House the state of political commotion in which their constituency had been kept for a long time past. They said that they had had three contested elections since last July, and it was not impossible that they might have another very shortly. They stated that great injury would be sustained if the inquiry which they prayed for should be postponed; that a postponement to next Session would practically amount to a denial of justice. They did not think the fact that a petition was now pending with respect to one of the Members for Peterborough should interfere with an inquiry into a case of so grave a nature; and they, therefore, prayed that the House would allow a Select Committee to be forthwith appointed. In moving the instruction he now begged to propose, he should not have added a sentence had it not been for what had taken place a few evenings ago, when the hon. Members for Malton and Northampton objected to the course he proposed to take. The offence, however, to which his Motion had reference, was considered by the rules of the House an offence of so grave a nature that he was permitted then, and he was permitted now, to bring forward this subject before the other business, as involving a charge of interference with the privileges of the House, and with the rights of the constituencies by whom hon. Members were sent to that House. Both the hon. Member for Malton (Mr. E. Denison), and the right hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. V. Smith), seemed to think there was some connexion between the petition, praying for the inquiry now proposed, and a petition on behalf of one of the defeated candidates. He (Mr. Bright) did not see the least connexion between the two petitions. The question with respect to Mr. Whalley related to his qualification. The one was a question of law, the other was a great question affecting the rights and franchises of the people of Peterborough as against the domination and influence of a Member of the other House of Parliament. The noble Lord the Member for the City of London referred the other evening to the Durham petition; but he understood that the reason why the House refused to allow the prayer of that petition till the election petition had been disposed of was, that it was believed to have been presented mainly with the object of leading to a withdrawal of the petition against Lord Adolphus Vane—one of those operations which the unfortunate system adopted by that House allowed to be carried on. That case was, however, quite different from the one now before the House; and if there could be a doubt on the subject, be would refer to the circumstances attending the Derby election in December last. A petition was presented from Derby, complaining of the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman who was then Secretary at War. That petition was presented on the 29th of November, and a Select Committee was appointed on the same day. The Committee commenced its sittings on the 1st of December, and reported to the House on the 16th of the same month. The election petition against the return of the Members for Derby was presented on the 22nd of November, seven days earlier than the petition against the Secretary at War; but, nevertheless, the House took up the petition against the Secretary at War first. The Committee was appointed, the case inquired into, and the whole matter disposed of. That was an infinitely stronger case in his favour than anything that could be urged against him on the ground of the Durham case. When the Derby petition was before the House, the noble Lord the Member for the City of London said— If any specific case of bribery could be alleged against a person holding the high office of Privy Councillor, and it was only to be inquired into by an Election Committee, he thought the Grenville Act would be a great evil, as barring the House from the performance of one of the greatest functions it could perform, and which ought not to be set aside."—[3 Hansard, cxxiii. 749.] Now, in the present instance, Earl Fitzwilliam was alleged to have paid certain sums of money to scot and lot voters in Peterborough, and it was further alleged that head-money was paid or withheld just as the electors voted for or against the candidates whom he favoured. The Act of Parliament declared head-money to be bribery; but he did not press this as a case of bribery against Earl Fitzwilliam, but a case of undue interference by a great territorial proprietor and a Member of the House of Lords with the franchise of the electors, and he did not think the House could object to the instruction which he was about to move. The presentation of the petition had only been delayed from delicacy of feeling, as it was not desired to bring it forward till the election petition against Mr. Whalley had been disposed of; and Mr. Whalley himself, with a regard to propriety which he was afraid very few Members, when their seats were in jeopardy, would have shown, was himself opposed to its being presented at that time. It was not, therefore, presented previous to his last election. It must be borne in mind that if this instruction was not passed, and the Committee appointed, it could not be appointed till the next Session of Parliament. The Committee could not be named before the 5th of August. It could not begin its sittings before the 10th, and there was a rumour, which he hoped was well founded, that the House would be up on the 18th of August. If, therefore, the Committee was now denied, it would be tantamount to a denial of justice to the electors of Peterborough, who, if an election occurred in the course of next year, might be again subjected to all the influences and inconveniences of which they complained. There was nothing in this petition that had reference to Mr. Whalley, but they complained generally that they suffered severely in their interests by the influence exerted over them. He asked the House, then, not to delay doing justice to these petitioners.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That it be an Instruction to the General Committee of Elections, to select a Chairman and six other Members to be the Select Committee on the Petitions from the City of Peterborough, and that the Members so selected do constitute the said Committee, and have power to send for persons, papers, and records; and that Five be the quorum of the said Committee.


said, notwithstanding the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, he still entertained very great objections to the course now recommended to the House. It might be desirable that inquiry should some time or other be instituted into the allegations that had been brought forward; but when there was a petition at this moment pending be- fore the House relating to the proceedings that had taken place at the late election for Peterborough, he thought it would be, inexpedient to appoint another Committee to take into consideration the same, or nearly the same, proceedings. The Derby Committee had been referred to by the hon. Member (Mr. Bright); but he had felt strong objections to the appointment of that Committee, and, had he been in the House, would have stated those objections at the time the appointment was made. He had the misfortune to serve on that Committee, and he must say the Committee felt that there was great difficulty in considering the immediate question submitted to them without taking into their consideration other matters from which they wished to abstain—matter which were subsequently submitted to another Committee. He believed he was speaking the sentiments of the Member of that Committee, when he said that they would object to the appointment of any Committee under similar circumstance. There was no particular pressure. This petition had been very properly postponed till after the first election was disposed of. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Whalley) was unseated for Peterborough on the 8th of June, and surely there was ample time between that and the 20th for the presentation of the petition, without prejudicing an interest whatever. He did not see the any great inconvenience could be experienced by delaying this Committee till another Session. He could perfectly under stand that the noble Earl himself felt desirous that the Committee should be appointed at the earliest possible period to investigate the charges brought against him; but it was for the House to consider whether it was fitting or not that such a Committee should be appointed under present circumstances; and he hoped they would come to the decision that such a course would be highly inexpedient.


said, he had been in the first instance intrusted with the presentation of this petition, but had induced the petitioners, after consultation with Mr. Speaker, to consent to its postponement till after the Committee had decided upon the first election. The petition now came after that election had been disposed of and a new election had taken place, and he thought it ought to be entertained by the House. This, in his opinion, was not a petition against Lord Fitzwilliam, but against certain practices in that borough, from which the electors alleged they sustained great injury. Having sat along with Lord Fitzwilliam in that House for many years, and always found him an advocate for reform and the people's rights, he was not disposed to look upon this as a question directed against him, but as one affecting the rights of every constituency in the kingdom. He thought there would not only be no inconvenience in the appointment of a Committee, but that the time had come when inquiry ought, without any delay, to be instituted.


said, he entertained a strong objection to the appointment of the Committee at the present time, and thought the matter might be much more effectually and satisfactorily inquired into in another Session. He was not at all responsible for the precedent which had been referred to, for he protested against the appointment of the Derby Committee, because the appointment of a Committee under the Grenville Act, and the appointment of another Committee at the same time, to make a loose kind of inquiry, was very likely to interfere with the administration of justice. In the Derby case, the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) advocated immediate inquiry, on the ground that there was an accusation against a Minister of the Crown holding a seat in the House of Commons. It had been said that this case was not like the Durham case, in which case the petition was presented for the purpose of stifling an inquiry into the election, He was willing to believe that to be the fact; but if a precedent should now be set, it was impossible to say what might occur in other cases. He thought it better to adhere to the ordinary rule, and not allow anything to interfere with the inquiry under the Grenville Act; and therefore he could not consent to the Motion.


said, that the more he considered the question, the more he felt that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Northampton (Mr. V. Smith) was right in the caution which he gave the House against appointing this Committee while a petition was pending relating to election matters for the same borough. The gravamen of the charge which was made against Earl Fitzwilliam, in connexion with the case before the House, was, that he had exercised an undue degree of interference in the election for the borough of Peterborough, which took place in July, 1852. Now, he asked, was there, or was there not, at that very moment a petition under consideration which complained of the return of one of the Members at that election?—


said, he must beg to interrupt the hon. Baronet. The hon. Baronet seemed to be proceeding upon the assumption that the petition from the electors of Peterborough complained that undue influence had been exercised by Lord Fitzwilliam at the election, with respect to which a petition had just been presented against the hon. Member near him (Mr. Whalley). The hon. Member, however, was wrong in making that supposition.


In point of fact the allegations contained in the petition presented by the hon. Member for Manchester were allegations that might be discussed and decided by an Election Committee, whether the circumstances upon which they were founded had taken place in July, 1852, or in the month of December, 1853. If any person could prove to him that the question with reference to those allegations could not be decided by an Election Committee, then he was ready to admit that his arguments fell to the ground. Believing, however, that that could not be proved, he should resist the Motion of the hon. Member for Manchester.


Sir, the allegations contained in this petition, as I understand them, do not relate to the same matter as those contained in the petition against the return of the hon. Member for Peterborough. I take it for granted that we all agree upon this principle—that when two petitions are presented relating to the same subject-matter, one requiring the appointment of a Select Committee where the evidence will not be taken upon oath, and the other being sent to an ordinary Election Committee, where the evidence will be taken upon oath, the former petition ought not to be allowed to proceed until the second has been disposed of; and, indeed, it is extremely questionable whether it ought to be permitted to proceed at all. Thus far all will admit, and therefore the present question is, do these two petitions relate to the same subject-matter? One—the petition presented by the hon. Member for Manchester—is a petition on the part of certain non-electors of Peterborough, complaining that there has been a breach of the privileges of this House, inasmuch as a Peer of Parliament interfered with the election which took place in De- cember, 1852, with the election which took place in the preceding July, and with former elections. The other—that against the return of the present Member for Peterborough—is a petition not relating to the elections of 1852, in any sense except one. The sense in which it relates to the election of December, 1852, is this. In that election the present sitting Member was alleged to have been guilty of treating and bribing. The matter was referred to an ordinary Election Committee, who reported that Mr. Whalley had been guilty of treating, and who declared the election to be void. A new writ consequently was directed to be issued, and upon the issue of that writ notice was served upon the electors of Peterborough, that, since Mr. Whalley had had his election declared void on the ground that he had been guilty of treating, he was disqualified from standing again for that town, or from taking his seat in time event of his being re-elected. Notwithstanding this, the hon. Gentleman has been returned again, and hence the present petition against him. It appears to me that only two questions can arise upon that petition. The first is, whether in point of law he is capable of sitting for Peterborough, having been found guilty by a Committee of this House of the offence of treating. That is simply and solely a question of law, which cannot require a Committee to go into any question of fact with reference to the last election, still less can it require a Committee to go into any question of fact with reference to the allegation of a Peer of Parliament having infringed the privileges of this House by interfering with the elections of 1852. If the case stands thus, as I apprehend it does, I think there can be no doubt as to the course we should pursue. But there is this further allegation in the petition against the return of the hon. Member for Peterborough—that, inasmuch as he was guilty of bribery at the election in December, 1852, he is disqualified from sitting for Peterborough now, even although the Committee did not find that he had been guilty of bribery, either by himself or by his agents, at that election. Upon that allegation I will not presume to give a positive opinion—that is the duty of the Election Committee; but it certainly would be somewhat startling if, when a Committee has decided upon the merits of an election petition, and has not found that the person whose seat is assailed was guilty of bribery, you should be allowed at any subsequent period to go into allegations of bribery which took place at some prior election. I think, therefore, we may treat the petition against the return of the hon. Member for Peterborough in the other sense—that it is a petition challenging the return of that Gentleman upon a legal point. If that be so, I apprehend the question which arises before the House is not one of conflict between the two petitions. The one is a question of law, the other a question of fact. Two instances have been referred to, one being the case Of the Derby election, the other that of the Durham election. In the Derby case, the ground upon which the Government consented to the appointment of a Committee was principally the fact that certain grave charges were brought against a Minister of the Crown and a Privy Councillor, that Privy Councillor expressing his wish in this House that the petition should be proceeded with. Under these circumstances thought—I still think, that when a grave charge is brought against a Minister of the Crown, it is in the power of this House, independently of the right which it would have under the Statute, to inquire into the manner of an election, without waiting for an Election Committee to be appointed it the usual way. The more I think on the proceedings in the Derby case, the more I am convinced that the House was justified in taking the course it did, although at the same time there were undoubtedly some inconveniences attending it. The Durham case very much resembled the present—more so than the Derby case. In that, case the Select Committee sought for was postponed until the Election Committee had made its Report. That, I think, is the course which ought to be taken whenever questions of fact arise upon two petitions relating to the same subject-matter. But I have already shown that no question of fact can arise upon the petition against the return of the hon. Member for Peter borough which can be brought in conflict with any question of fact upon the petition presented by the hon. Member for Manchester. Now, what has the House done? You have already treated this question a one of privilege—you are now treating it as such—and having done so, and having actually granted the prayer of the petition, the only question we have to deter mine is, whether the Committee ought now to be appointed or not. Consider what would be the consequences of your not appointing the Committee now. Suppose the Election Committee should hold that the hon. Member for Peterborough is dis- qualified from sitting in this House, there must in that case be another election for Peterborough—


The seat is claimed by the defeated candidate.


That is true enough, but the Committee may not grant it, and, therefore, another election must take place. But what I was going to say, was this. We have already treated this as a question of privilege—we have granted the Committee sought for, and it now remains for us to determine whether we shall allow the inquiry to proceed now, upon the ground that the privileges of this House have been infringed. I think I have shown that no harm can result to the sitting Member from this inquiry, and your Sessional Orders declare that cases of privilege are entitled to take precedence of all other matters—I presume, because it is right that such cases should be inquired into without delay. If you do not grant this inquiry, and allow the Committee to be struck, having already agreed that there should be a Committee, you must necessarily postpone the investigation of a question of privilege till a distant period. Under these circumstances, although admitting that there are some difficulties in the case, I think we ought to allow the Committee to be struck in the present instance, and the inquiry to be proceeded with before the end of the present Session.


said, that the General Committee of Elections yesterday proceeded with the appointment of the Members to consider the last return for the borough of Peterborough, and though, undoubtedly, the main point was one of law, the petitioners nevertheless took wider ground, and claimed for themselves, if they did not receive a favourable solution of that point, the power of going into the transactions of the previous election, for the purpose of showing that the hon. Member (Mr. Whalley) was disqualified by the proceedings which then took place, from holding his seat during the present Parliament. He believed the House was agreed on the propriety of maintaining the principle of the Grenville Act, and of keeping questions relating to elections out of the body of that House, so that they might not be decided by the party which happened to have the majority. It appeared to him that these points were not fully considered when this matter was first brought before the House; but, after the course already adopted, considering, too, the late period of the Session, and that the Com- mittee had been already granted, he should say, speaking also as a personal friend of Earl Fitzwilliam, that the sooner the inquiry was made the better, and he, for one should give his vote in favour of the Motion of the hon. Member for Manchester.


I think, Sir the House was perfectly right in agreeing the other night, to appoint a Committee upon this subject. It is my opinion, that when you have a body of electors, or the inhabitants of a borough, complaining of acts of intimidation, and acts of bribery and treating, which prevent freedom of election, it is proper—unless there may be some impropriety in regard to the point of time—that the House should open its doors wide for the purpose of such inquiry I have always maintained that opinion, and have stated it when various Motions were brought before this House at different times. It is, undoubtedly, a very great inconvenience if the appointment of a Committee of this kind is found to interfere with that which is, in fact, the regular administration of justice under an Act of Parliament; and, I am sorry to say, that I cannot but think the House has been placed in the difficulty in which it finds itself upon the present occasion by the conduct of these petitioners. It is quite true, no doubt, that when the former election petition was before the House, it would not have been proper to have brought this petition forward, and to have asked us to appoint a Select Committee upon the subject to which it refers. But that Election Committee came to an end—they unseated the sitting Member—and it was then competent for those who, as I am told, had had the petition for many weeks in their possession, to present it to the House, and it was equally competent for the House some weeks ago to have entered upon this inquiry, and to have appointed the Committee now sought for. Instead of that, I know not whether this petition or the petition against the return of the sitting Member was presented first; at all events, they were presented nearly at the same time and this petition is brought under the consideration of the House at the moment that the election petition is about to be investigated in the due course of law. Undoubtedly, therefore, the petitioners do place this House in a considerable difficulty owing to the course they have pursued. The sitting Member has taken the blame upon himself, but he has given us no reason for his conduct upon that occasion, and I think that the petitioners themselves were bound, if they wanted the petition to be heard, to insist upon its being presented at an earlier period. But, Sir, this House having decided—and, as I think, properly decided—that there should be an inquiry into this subject, the question remains for us to consider, whether there is a greater inconvenience in appointing this Committee now, so that it may sit at the same time as the Election Committee, than if we were to postpone the inquiry till another Session. Now, I mentioned the other evening, that I believed the Election Committee would have only to consider whether the sitting Member was or was not disqualified by the decision of the previous Election Committee. It appears, however, that there is another allegation in the petition, and I certainly cannot go quite so far as the right hon. Gentleman opposite, who says that the Election Committee should be precluded from entering into that inquiry. I think it rests with them to decide whether they should enter into it or not. They may consider it unnecessary to enter into that inquiry, but I assuredly think the House ought not to interfere in the matter—


I distinctly stated that the question should be left to the decision of the Election Committee.


I thought the right hon. Gentleman could not intend to assert that the Election Committee should be precluded from inquiring into all the allegations contained in the petition. However that may be, it is not probable that the Election Committee, having decided the first and main point in the petition, would require to go into the other inquiry; so that we are not likely to have two inquiries into the same subject going on at the same time. The Election Committee will have to consider the question of qualification or disqualification of the sitting Member; but this Committee is to inquire into an entirely different subject. What is the subject upon which this inquiry is asked? I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume) in what he stated to the House; and, although we have certain Resolutions upon our books, I have always stated, that, in my opinion, there is no difference between an interference by a Peer and an interference by a Commoner; but I think that any gross interference with the freedom of election, whether by a Peer or a Commoner, should be made the subject of an inquiry by this House. It is alleged in this petition that several persons, whose names are given, tenants of Earl Fitzwilliam, have received notice to quit solely in consequence of their having exercised their franchise in opposition to the wishes of that nobleman, or abstained from voting for his favourite candidate. I think that is an allegation of a very gross interference with the freedom of election, and I do conceive there would be very great inconvenience if such an allegation against a noble Lord, highly respected by every one, but, at the same time, having considerable property, and, therefore, having the means of exercising such a power as is here alleged, were to be overlooked or postponed till another Session. That would be a great public inconvenience, and I, therefore, agree with the right hon. Gentleman opposite, that upon the whole—notwithstanding the inconvenience to which I have referred—the best course for the House to pursue is to direct an immediate inquiry to take place. At the same time, I hope that future petitioners will bring their cases of this kind at once before the House, and not defer them until the Election Committees have been appointed, because it is desirable that the House should, in ordinary circumstances, avoid the appointment of two Committees upon the same subject.


said, that finding the petition under consideration did not concern the seat of the sitting Member, he no longer saw any reason why the Committee now sought should not pursue its investigations concurrently with those of the Election Committee, whose inquiry was mainly directed to the alleged disqualification of the sitting Member, by reason of treating imputed to him at the election preceding the last. Unquestionably, it was expedient that, unless for some very important reason, the investigation of charge such as those advanced against Earl Fitzwilliam, should not remain in suspense until next Session.


said, he admitted that Earl Fitzwilliam was entitled to ask that these heavy charges should not be left banging over him until next Session; but at the same time he must express the decided opinion that this petition had been designed to prejudice the inquiry before the Election Committee, finding, as he did, from the journals, that Mr. Whalley, having been unseated on the 8th of June, and returned again to the House on the 27th, was petitioned against on the same day; whereas this petition against Earl Fitzwilliam was not presented until three days afterwards on the 30th of June.


said, the petitioners were not to blame for the delay which had taken place in the presentation of the petition. That delay arose, as he understood, from the difficulty of finding a Member of the House willing to undertake the labour and annoyance attending the presentation of the petition, and not from a desire to come in contact with any petition regarding the last election.


said, that he had done all in his power to cause the petition to be presented as soon as the Committee on the former election petition had decided; but he had found great difficulty in getting any Member to present it.

Motion agreed to.