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THE NEW BRIBERY ACT AND THE
The famous contest between ships and guns, in which the advantage inclined alternately to each side, and which still remains unsettled, has its parallel in the repeated efforts of Parliament to suppress electoral corruption. At the time of the passing of the last Act, in spite of numerous enactments and the imposition of severe penalties Parliament had failed, and bribery was triumphant. Electioneering ingenuity had baffled all the skill of statesmen, and the reformers were ignominiously worsted.
In the reign of George the Second an Act was passed for the more effectual preventing bribery and corruption, in the election of members to serve in Parliament.' This Act was amended in the reign of George the Third. In the same and in following reigns, various Acts applying to certain specified counties and boroughs were passed with the same object. In 1852 an important Act was passed 'to provide for more effectual inquiry into the existence of corrupt practices at elections. It appoints commissioners to investigate on the spot, and report to Parliament, in all cases where an Election Committee has found that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed. The Commissioners were empowered to call witnesses and papers, to administer the oath, and to punish for contempt all who refused to appear and give evidence. In 1854 the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act' was passed, in which the offences of bribery, treating, and undue influence were extended and defined.
In 1867 “the Representation of the People Act' was passed, by which the payment of travelling expenses for voters in boroughs was made illegal.
In 1868 the Parliamentary Elections Act' took away the jurisdiction of Parliamentary Committees over election petitions, and ordered them to be tried before a puisne judge of one of Her Majesty's Courts of Common Law, the report of a judge as to corrupt practices having the same effect as the report of an election committee.
In 1872 secret voting was established by the Ballot Act, which also made personation a felony, to be punished by imprisonment with hard labour for a term not exceeding two years. The Ballot Act has, to a great extent, disappointed the expectations of its promoters. It was intended to prevent the improper control of voters by bribery on the one hand, and by intimidation on the other. With respect to intimidation it has completely succeeded ; with respect to bribery it has entirely failed. It was argued that as it was impossible to be sure that he had obtained the vote he paid for, no person would be so foolish as to spend his money in bribery. But experience proves that this reliance on the roguery of human nature is yain. There is honour amongst thieves, and also amongst corrupt electors.
Those who take bribes 'care nothing for political principles, and consequently have no preference for one candidate over another, and if they have received money for voting, they will, as a rule, vote for those who have paid them. Doubtless there are some who take bribes from both sides, but the number of such rascals is so few that the fact has not much effect in the discouragement of bribery. And even these do in a manner fulfil the corrupt contract into which they have entered. Probably the ballot papers which are rejected because the name of every candidate has been marked with a X, are the work of electors who have been bribed by both sides, and who thus fulfil the promises they have made.
English electors usually make no secret of their political preferences. Party organisations which are constantly at work seeking to get their friends on the register, and canvassing for municipal eléctions every November, are enabled to a large extent to ascertain on whom they may rely in a parliamentary contest. A considerable, and perhaps an increasing, number resent inquiry, and decline to avow their opinions, but the great majority of doubtfuls, who, in many boroughs, are sufficient to turn the scale, are waiters on providence,' whose support will be given to the highest bidder.
Although under the Ballot Act it is impossible to know how an elector has voted, means are used by which the agents can discover with great accuracy whether or not he has voted at all. Messengers are placed at the entrance of each polling booth, provided with lists on which they enter the number of each elector who passes within. These persons of course have no authority for their action, and some voters, regarding the request as an impertinence, refuse compliance. The majority, however, look upon the system as part of the lawful election machinery, and make no objection. The object is not in all cases to watch venal voters, though it answers this purpose admirably, but the practice has other and more legitimate uses.
By these means it has been found more easy to carry on corrupt and illegal practices under the Ballot Act than before, and as a fact, although such large prices are not paid for votes, bribery has become more widespread and systematic. There is, however, one serious evil which secret voting has suppressed. When the state of the poll was declared every hour, and the numbers were close, excitement ran high,
and zealous partisans were apt to lose their heads. Individual votes became of great value, and extraordinary prices were paid. A class of voters in every constituency waited for such an opportunity, and refused to vote till near the hour of closing. The Ballot Act has spoiled the market of these rogues, for it has been found impossible with any degree of certainty to arrive at the result of an election until the poll is declared.
Parliament has tried to root out electoral corruption by the imposition of severe penalties ; law has followed, like a detective, the dodges and tricks by which it has been evaded, and has endeavoured by elaborate and exhaustive definitions to bring all offenders within its meshes. Either by specific enactments, or the decisions of the judges, a large variety of acts have been declared illegal, and as coming within the definition of bribery. The same remark applies to treating, undue influence, and personation. Not only has a wider extension been given to these offences, but severer penalties have also been imposed, and the receiver as well as the giver of a bribe has been declared guilty of a misdemeanour. This latter provision has undoubtedly rendered bribery more difficult of detection. Formerly the bribed had nothing to lose, and was accustomed to boast openly of what he had got, and from whom he had received it; but now a regard for his own safety renders him as anxious as the briber to conceal the transaction. At the time of the passing of the new Act the following were the penalties for corrupt and illegal practices. Any person who gave or received a bribe was disfranchised for life, and his name was ordered to be printed at the foot of every succeeding register of votes for that place in a distinct list headed : ‘Disqualified for bribery, treating, or undue influence.' He was liable if he gave a bribe to a penalty of 1001., if he received one to a penalty of 101., to any person who might sue for it. He was liable also to an indictment for misdemeanour, punishable by fine and imprisonment. He could not hold any municipal or judicial office, and must be removed from the Commission of the Peace.
Severity of penalty failed, for the same reason that it failed to check horse-stealing and forgery when the punishment for those offences was death. The law was not supported by the conscience of society, the punishment was felt to be excessive, juries refused to convict, and thus was created that uncertainty which is found to be the chief encouragement of crime. The legislature, failing to put an end to bribery by severe enactments, sought to obtain the same end by another and very different method. In 1852 an Act to provide for more effectual enquiry into corrupt practices at elections: abolished in all cases coming before election courts the hitherto recognised principle of English law, that no man is bound to criminate himself. Witnesses before these courts were compelled to tell the truth, and the whole truth, under pain of committal for contempt if they refused, and of prosecution for perjury if they suppressed anything, but with the promise of a certificate of indemnity if they revealed all they knew. This enactment has been found effectual for laying bare the corruption of a constituency, but, in the nature of the case, it can do little to check corrupt practices in the individual. The constituency is very properly disfranchised, but the individual sinners, both bribers and bribed, go free.
It is probable that the shameless avowal in the witness-box of corrupt and degrading acts, which are not only not punished, but around which the shield of the law is thrown, has had a demoralising effect on a large class of electors. It must be remembered too that this provision is only brought into operation at the trial of an election petition or in case of an election inquiry. Such occasions are rare. The political party responsible for a petition is certain to incur great unpopularity. A candidate may be unseated for corrupt practices, but the seat is rarely obtained by his opponent. If the party has nothing to gain by such a course, it will not run the risk of disfranchisement merely for the sake of revenge. In most constituencies where corruption prevails both parties are equally guilty. A tacit agreement is made that the law forbidding corrupt practices shall be quietly ignored. There are boroughs where bribery and corruption have notoriously prevailed ever since elections have been held, and where the law is as much a dead letter as if it had been passed by the legislature of Timbuctoo. Thus, not only by penalty but by its ingenious device of seeking to put down bribery by bribing the offender, has Parliament hitherto failed in its object. Corrupt practices have been on the increase ever since the suffrage was conferred upon householders. That measure enfranchised a large class of needy voters, who have no conception of public duty, and it has been found that the prevalence of such practices tends to corrupt classes hitherto free from the infection. Other causes have contributed to the same result, such as the general increase of wealth and the competition amongst rich men for seats in Parliament. Probably the elections of 1874 and 1880 were more extensively corrupt than any that have taken place during the last fifty years.
With his knowledge of the futility of all former efforts one can imagine the perplexity with which Sir Henry James commenced his study of the best methods to prevent corrupt and illegal practices at parliamentary elections. Let us see what was the outcome of his cogitations, and how he has succeeded so far.
The new Act must of necessity profoundly modify the proceedings at all future contested elections. The principle introduced for the first time in electoral contests, and which gives its character to the act, of imposing a maximum scale of expenditure, will largely diminish the extent of the corruption which has hitherto disgraced representative institutions. The total expenditure allowed, not being personal
expenses of the candidate nor the necessary expenses of the returning officer, is 3501. where the number of registered voters does not exceed 2,000. If that number is exceeded, 3801. is allowed, with an addition of 301. for each 1,000 electors above 2,000. Where there are two or more joint candidates the maximum amount of expenses, other than personal or returning officers' expenses, shall for each of such candidates, if there are two, be reduced by one-fourth, and if more than two joint candidates by one-third. Thus the maximum expenditure for York, where the number on the register is 11,387, amounts to 6501. if there is only one candidate, and 9751. for a joint candidature of two persons. The number of persons who can legally be paid for their services at an election is also strictly limited, and such persons, if electors, are not allowed to vote. The Act only allows one election agent, one polling agent for each polling station, and one clerk, one messenger, and one committee-room for each 500 electors.
At the late election in York,' with a population within the Parliamentary boundary of 58,798, and with 11,387 voters on the register, each candidate was allowed to pay one agent, twenty-six polling agents, twenty-two clerks, twenty-two messengers, and for twenty-two committee-rooms. In addition to these payments the only legal election expenses are, the returning officers' charges, the personal expenses of the candidate, which must not exceed 1001., printing, advertising, and distributing circulars &c., stationery, postages and telegrams, and expenses of holding public meetings.
It is now illegal to engage public-houses as committee-rooms, and the same prohibition applies to eating-houses and refreshment rooms of every kind, whether or not they are licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquors, and also to public school-rooms where the managers are in receipt of the Parliamentary grant. The rooms of a permanent political club may be used as committee-rooms, but any premises where intoxicating liquor is sold or is supplied to members of a club, society, or association other than a permanent political club may not be so used.
The clauses relating to conveyances form an important feature of the new Act. No one is allowed to lend, let, or employ, for the purpose of conveying electors to or from the poll, any public stage or hackney carriage, or any horse or other animal kept or used for drawing the same, or indeed any carriage or animal whatever that is kept or used for the purpose of letting out on hire, and all persons either lending or employing the same will be guilty of the offence of illegal hiring. But the electors at their own individual cost, and several electors at their joint cost, may bire conveyances to take themselves to the poll. It is lawful for persons to lend their private carriages for the same purpose, if it is done without payment or promise of payment.
There is another provision which will certainly tend to abate
1 November, 1883,