HC Deb 29 April 1805 vol 4 cc497-507
Mr. Spencer Stanhope

rose, and said that he felt it necessary to have the matter of charge contained in the tenth report of the commissioners of naval enquiry put in a course of investigation. The charges which it made were very serious, and should be proceeded on with decision and dispatch. Though he was convinced that lord Melville was not guilty of participating the gains of malversation of public money, yet he should not attempt to screen the noble lord, or throw dust in the eyes of the public on the present occasion, but he thought it improper to have condemned the noble lord before he was heard; in saying so, however, he did not mean to question the decision of parliament, which found the noble lord guilty of having violated the law; but he could not refrain from saying, that he abhorred the barbarous mode of first cutting off a man's head, and trying afterwards whether he was guilty. He was of opinion that the most eligible mode of proceeding would be, to have a civil process instituted against the noble lord and Mr. Trotter in the court of exchequer, in order to have restitution made to toe public. Should it turn out, in the course of the proceeding, that the noble viscount was in a corrupt league with Trotter, he trusted, then, that the house would proceed by impeachment; but he again repeated his conviction that this was not the case. He concluded with moving, "that the attorney general he directed to take such measures as may appear most effectual in ascertaining and securing, by a due course of law, such sums as may be due to the public by lord Melville and Mr. Trotter, in respect to the profits araising from money applicable to the service of the navy, which came into their hands subsequent to the 1st of January, 1786."

Sir Robert Buxton

seconded the motion, and said, that illness prevented him from being in the house on the first night of discussing the subject of the tenth report; had he been able to attend, he should certainly have voted in the majority, on the ground of the noble lord's having violated an act of parliament.

Mr. Bankes

regretted that the motion was brought forward this night, because he did not think that it would satisfy the public, or answer the ends of public justice. No man had a higher respect for the courts of law than he entertained, and he hoped that the matter might some time or other come before one of those ancient tribunals, where no prejudice existed, and from which, consequently, a fair and just decision should be anticipated; but lit wished the house to consider at present, before it parted with the business, or send it to the court of exchequer, what would be the result. This might be easily inferred, considering that the person or persons to be examined might demur, and thus defeat the end of substantial justice: besides, the intricacy and mixture of the different accounts, and the diffculty of distinguishing the items of each, threw difficulties almost insurmountable in the way of accomplishing the object to be attained. He was decidedly in favour of a committee with enlarged powers; but as this did not seem likely to be attained, he thought that the magnitude of the subject, and the satisfaction of the public, made it necessary to move generally, that the attorney-general be directed to prosecute the noble lord and Mr. Trotter. He should therefore propose as an amendment, that all the words after "lord Melville and Mr. Trotter" be left out, and these. words be inserted, "and that the attorney-general be directed to prosecute the said lord Melville and Mr. Trotter for the said offences."—On the question being put,

Mr. Windham

considered it perfectly clear, that the best way of proceeding would have been to have referred the whole matter to a select committee, who could have taken the opinion of the law officers in what manner the suit ought to be brought with the best chance of succeeding in its object. They would have been able to ascertain whether there existed evidence sufficient either to support a civil action, or a criminal prosecution. Since that course was not taken, and the alternative lay merely between the civil action and the criminal prosecution, he should give his vote for the latter.

The Master of the Rolls

observed, that every thing on which a civil suit could proceed had been already settled by the vote of the house. What were the reasons urged by gentlemen on the other side of the house for the adoption of the resolutions of the 8th instant, in opposition to the wish of his right hon. friend, that the whole business should be referred to a committee? Because they asserted nothing could be done in the committee. It was impossible to change their opinion of the transaction, as it was impossible to do away the effects of lord Melville's confession of an infringement of the law, and the proofs of Mr. Trotter's. speculating with the public money. If so, if this were true; how could a committee find out better grounds for Prosecution than what existed? If parts of the subject were referred to a court of law, it would be highly improper that the same topics at the same time should be under the consideration of a committee of the house. It would be better to postpone a reference to law without abandoning it altogether. An hon. gent. had proposed an amendment to the original motion for a civil suit, in which he had moved for a criminal prosecution! and that to ascertain whether or not lord Melville received any profits from the use of the public money. If he did, they ought to be the object of a civil suit. Besides there was no better chance of obtaining that information in a criminal court than in a civil one Evidence must he produced in both, and evidence would prove it in either. The resolutions of the house, contained a censure on lord Melville's conduct. His resignation which was in consequence of those resolutions, was in fact a substantial punishment inflicted by the house. After these grave resolutions, it would be hazardous to send the affair into a court of law. The conviction could not be answered for, nor the sentence on conviction. It would be impossible, he believed, to prove any actual participation in pecuniary advantages, and the legal punishment might not accord exactly with the idea the houses entertained of the heinousness of the offence.

Dr. Laurence

contended, that the resolutions of the house only went to one branch of the charge, namely, the violation of the law, which had been admitted, and would not preclude an enquiry into the participation in the peculation, which was punishable, both us a civil and criminal point of view.

Sir J. Newport

expressed his preference of a committee with extensive powers, to committee with limited powers, and contended that such a committee should make general enquiry and refer certain points for prosecution. As however this was not to be done, he certainly preferred a criminal prosecution to a civil one. In his estimation, the satisfaction of public justice was of infinitely more consequence than the regaining of a paltry sum of money.

Mr. Pytches

said he thought that if the shameful conduct of this great delinquent were screened, men would, soon become ashamed of speaking against corruption. He severely censured the conduct of then last administration of the right hon. gent. opposite, and spoke with much warmth in favour of a criminal proceeding.

Mr. Fox

said, he had but a word or two to offer on the present question. Gentlemen had alluded to several modes of proceeding, in order to meet the intentions of the house, and the expectations of the country. Some, it appeared, were fora civil, others, for a criminal prosecution: others again, would prefer the mode of impeachment. His object was, to see lord Melville prosecuted and punished one way or the other. As the case now stood, the noble lord was not punished in any degree at all. If the present question, or the amendment moved upon it, or an impeachment, went nearer the accomplishment of their object, he should vote for it. He had no other anxiety, than to see adopted the speediest mode of obtaining redress for his constituents.

Mr. S. Stanhope

in explanation, said, that lord Melville had already been sufficiently punished, unless he was convicted of wilful participation in the illicit profits.

Mr. T. Grenville

felt no very strong motives of preference for a criminal rather than a civil prosecution. Be feared that either would be found inadequate for the discovery of a corrupt participation on the part of lord Melville. But as he now had no other choice, he should vote for the amendment, as it seemed somewhat more closely to follow up the spirit and intention of the resolutions which the house had already adopted. This was more his object than a vain attempt to recover the money. Should the house adopt no other measures than those now proposed in furtherance of their resolutions, they would but ill answer the expectations which the country had conceived from the resolutions. By these the house had pronounced that lord Melville had been guilty of a flagrant breach of the law, and of an evident dereliction of duty; and was no legal punishment to follow such a proved and acknowledged offence? As to an impeachment, little could be expected from it. The public justice of the country might be better satisfied, perhaps, by a criminal prosecution, and in that view of it, he should vote for that mode of proceeding.

Mr. Sheridan

said, there were two modes proposed; one for a civil suit, and the other for a criminal process. The gent. who proposed the former said, he did not think lord Melville had participated in the slightest degree in the emoluments of Mr. Trotter. He would ask, why then did he move that a civil action should be instituted against him? Surely, every person must see that such a motion was absolutely useless, that it must be worse than useless in the opinion of the gentleman who made the motion; as, though he was convinced lord Melville did not participate in the profits of Mr. Trotter, he made this motion, it is to be supposed, to prevent those on the other side from instituting more effectual proceedings. The house was how driven to make a choice of the two measures, and, something like a grand jury who had not found a bill, they were about to proceed for the recovery of the money, assuming every thing which ought first to be precisely ascertained. The house were turning their backs upon that of which they had proof, namely, the violation of the law, and they were sending the participation, of which they had no proof, before a jury.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, that the hon. gent. who had made the present motion, did not seem to have attended to the circumstances of the case. For that hon. gent. he entertained the highest respect, but he could not think that his motion was calculated to produce any good effect. The subject of the motion was one, on which there was no proof, and in the success of which, their own professional men did not hold out to them any very flattering hopes. What man could seriously listen to the recommendation, who would not I most smile at the right hon. and learned gent. in contending that a civil prosecution was the only remedy, and yet at the same time confessing that they would not answer foe the success of it. He sincerely regretted that the powers of the committee had been restricted. On the investigations there to he made, the public might have relied for success. Any other mode must be open to disappointments, inconvenience, and delay. The attention of the public was fixed on the proceedings of the house, and of the courts of judicature, to which they should resort for justice and punishment of the offenders. He was averse from allowing the possibility of the ends of justice being defeated, or that any disappointment should flow from such a quarter; that the public should find that they were so short-sighted, ignorant, and improvident as to the decision which must follow. It was their duty; they were called on to preserve the good opinion of the public in the course of law of the kingdom; and, so far as in them lay, not to allow the public mind to relax in any share of that love, confidence, and affection in their proceedings which we knew at present existed. Here a great public delinquent had been proclaimed to the country. His offence had even been in part acknowledged: but when parliament carried him into a court of law, nothing could be made of him! He approved of the observation of the hon. bart. (sir John Newport). It was not money which that house and the country sought for in this instance; it was for the adoption of that proceeding which should best consult the dignity and honour of parliament, and of the nation. His hon. friend (Mr. Bankes) had said, that the adopting of the one mode of proceeding in the criminal court, would not preclude them from their civil suit. In this he agreed with his hon. friend. He had not contended, as the hon. and learned gent. (the master of the rolls) seemed to imagine, that they would avail themselves of both proceedings. That he understood not to be the meaning of his hon. friend; but only that if one failed they might then recur to the other. If in the criminal action they felt embarrassed, they might be entitled in the civil action to attempt something like compelling restoration. It was of the utmost importance for parliament to take care that they did not go to demand the opinion of a court of judicature in that part of their rate in which there was a chance of failure. He was a great friend to judicial proceeding and he wished the people in general to be so. He confessed he had had no doubts, although the spirit of the law was unquestionably with them, whether it was equally clear that the letter of the law was so too.— None of those gentlemen, however, who were better qualified than he pretended to be to judge on that subject, having started any doubt on the subject, he should hope there was on that point no risk of failure. Failure was at this moment greatly to be deprecated. It was not against the courts of law alone that the obloquy would attach. Parliament would also come in for its share. He was not anxious for popularity, he was solely solicitous to preserve unbroken, those bonds of esteem, affection, and confidence, which he hoped would always continue to subsist between the people of this country and parliament. He therefore, as the best measure which now remained to be adopted, gave the amendment his cordial support.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer.

—I think I am warranted in saying that the mode proposed by the hon. gent. (Mr. S. Stanhope), is that which was approved by a great majority of the house. The question then is, whether we shall wave it, and substitute one which the gentlemen themselves, who have brought it forward, say is liable to some objection? The observation made respecting the powers of the committee does not appear to me to he founded in fact. The question of enlarging its powers did not affect the particular case of lord Melville. The doubt arising upon that subject was whether the powers of the committee were sufficiently wide, and embraced every other proper object of enquiry, exclusive of the particular case referred to a court of law? That, however, is not the question now. The question now is which of the two modes is preferable? and I contend that the civil bill is better calculated to obtain the object than the criminal process. After having inflicted so heavy a wound upon lord Melville, as that which his lordship had already suffered, he did not understand that the house wished to follow it up in a penal way, unless satisfied of his lordship's participation in the profits. With a consciousness to that effect, I thought the house would be content with au assurance that his lordship was not to return to his majesty's councils. I think, then, that the house ought not to go those lengths which they declined at first without a further aggravation of his lordship's offence. With this feeling, therefore, I shall vote for the original motion.

Mr. Whitbread.

—The right hon. gent., who has just sat down, argues as if the house had decided that they would proceed by civil suit. That, however, is not the case. He has indulged in much sarcasm against me on account of the course of my proceedings. Sir, I say, that in what I have done, I have proceeded with deliberation, and I am not sorry for any step I have taken. I wish to proceed in both ways. I mean after the house had declared itself upon that part of the charge which is indisputable, I wished for a committee to ascertain every thing else connected with the subject. The house has decided upon the violation of the law, but not upon the participation of viscount Melville in the profits. Now what says the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt)? He advises us to try a civil suit for the participation, while the law officers of the crown admitted it had little chance of success. I therefore wish for a mode by which effectual justice may be done, and that is a committee of the whole house. That a great wound has been inflicted upon my lord Melville by the discovery, I admit; but is that a punishment? When a grand jury finds a bill, is that a punishment for the offence charged, and is the case not to be sent for trial to a petty jury? I admit that the vote of the house compelled the resignation of lord Melville; but there is a great deal of difference between that resignation and his dismissal. The people should have seen and known that he was dismissed. The effect ought to have been plain and palpable to the understanding of every man. If a civil suit were to discover that the money was picked out of the pocket of the public, would that be punishment, unless followed by restitution? I admit I might have the-committee, and the right hon. gent. said he would not oppose it; but to obtain his concurrence, I must have abandoned the particular case in question, and acquiesced in an attempt to cloak and screen lord Melville, and that I did not choose to do. The criminal proceeding is, I am sure, the best calculated to obtain the ends of justice, and I shall accordingly vote for it.

The Attorney-General

wished to offer a word or two in explanation of the opinion imputed to him. He never asserted that the mode now proposed would wholly or necessarily fail of effect; he only said that great difficulties might arise to obstruct the end it attempted to accomplish. If it was the object of the mover to obtain pecuniary redress for the public, the court of King's Bench might not be able to grant that redress. It could not grant it unless evidence was adduced of the distinct amount of lord Melville's participation in the illegal profits. Otherwise an enormous fine might be attempted to be imposed upon him, which the court would not be able to make out. Better hopes of the recovery of the money for the public might be entertained, therefore, from a civil than a criminal prosecution, and from that persuasion he should vote for the adoption of the former.

Mr. Tierney.

—I cannot agree in the scanty and restricted powers which some honourable and learned gentlemen will only allow to this house. I always thought, that by the spirit of the constitution it possessed stronger inquisitorial powers than any other tribunal in the country. .The right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt) would have it understood, that the house does not wish to proceed to any more punishment against lord Melville; but I contend, on the contrary, that the house has not shewn any disposition to stop here. We have voted that lord Melville has violated the law, for private emolument. What then is the next question? Why give us the money back again, and we have done with you? But how are we to get the money? The attorney-general gives very little hope of the mode proposed; and therefore I approve of a committee of the whole house as the best mode of getting at the crime, the punishment, and pecuniary redress. I feel it an unpleasant task to rise for the purpose of defending the dignity of the house. The house may not waste its time upon persons of inferior note; but I contend that there is no precedent of a minister, high in the king's councils for many years, breaking the and suspected of a corrupt motive in doing so, being handed over to the attorney-general. I am confident there is no case nor precedent of the kind. I disclaim a vindictive spirit towards viscount Melville, and assert, that my conduct yields to no influence, except a sincere regard for the honour of the house of commons. I think, therefore, that the house cannot stop here, but, that it must call for some punishment: The plain question is, whether the house thinks that enough has been done? If they think enough has been done, they will vote for a civil process, in concert with the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt). If they think the public expect that punishment should follow guilt, they will adopt the, criminal proceeding. With regard to the questions referred to the committee, namely, how far the right hon. gent., as first lord of the treasury, may be concerned, and two or three others, they are only so many episodes, while the main story out of which they arise, is not to be touched. I lament that we are driven to this course; but I think our character and our duty to the public require that we should send viscount Melville to that tribunal where justice may inflict punishment wherever convicted guilt deserves it.

Mr. Serjeant Best

challenged any law officer of the crown to state, that any good was likely to result from the mode they supported. The books and papers of third parties could not be called for. All that was wanted could be got by criminal prosecution. If a man was not pronounced guilty who refused to answer a question, still no jury would be found to declare him innocent who was a self-convicted violator of the law. The wound inflicted was not much in point of fortune, considering the places the noble lord still retained. It must then be sought in his character. But if it was there, it was strange indeed that, with such a wounded character he should remain a private counsellor of his sovereign. The house then divided on the question, "that the words proposed to be left out stand part of this question," Ayes 223, Noes 128, majority 95. The amendment was of course rejected, and the original motion carried.

Mr. Fox

then moved, "that the house do now adjourn;" and on this question there was another Ayes 98, Noes 240, majority 142.—While strangers were excluded, the report of the committee appointed to examine the lists given in en the ballot for the select committee was brought up. On reading the report, it appeared that the names of the members chosen for the committee corresponded exactly with those in the list read on Friday by Mr. Whitbread.

Mr. Whitbread

then stated, that it was his intention to move that some of the names on this list should be expunged; but as that motion would probably occa- sion some debate, the proposed that its consideration should be adjourned until the next meeting of the house.—Adjourned.