HC Deb 15 May 1827 vol 17 cc845-53
Mr. Alderman Waithman ,

on rising to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice, for a Committee of Inquiry respecting the formation and proceedings of the Cornwall and Devon Mining Company, stated that, at that late hour, he would not trespass at any length on the attention of the House. He knew that some hon. members thought there was no necessity for any further investigation of these companies, as the evils attending them, it was supposed, were at an end. But he could assure the House, that this was a great mistake; for, at that moment, hundreds of individuals were suffering severely, on account of their connexion with these associations. One of the directors of the company of which he then spoke, had recently been declared a bankrupt, and another director (Mr. P. Moore), late a member of that House, who had been concerned in many of these projects, was lying in prison on that very account. He had another motive for pressing this inquiry. The character of some members of the House was deeply implicated in it, and he wished to give them an opportunity of vindicating themselves, and their constituents the satisfaction of knowing, that their representatives were free from the foul charges of fraud which had been so strongly preferred against them. The public had an interest in the purity of public men, and they should never shrink from investigation where the accusation was openly made, and with an apparent show of truth. The worthy alderman then went in detail through the facts of the case. He concluded by stating, that if those facts had not, as yet, been brought to light, he should find, in the acknowledgment of the hon. member for Sudbury, sufficient to justify him in calling for the committee. In an action, brought against that hon. member, no less than thirty-one pleas had been pleaded; and, among these, were pleas, one of which stated the Company to be a fraud, and the plan of it to have been fraudulent and illegal; and another actually described it as a public nuisance. He concluded with moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Allegations contained in a Petition, presented to this House, on the 9th of April last, from certain Share and Scrip-holders of the Cornwall and Devonshire Mining, Company; and to report the same, with their opinion thereon, together with any special matter, touching the conduct of any members of this House."

Lord Palmerston

said, he wished it to be distinctly understood, that with regard to himself it was a matter of the most perfect indifference whether the House agreed to the committee or not; and, having said thus much, he should abstain from taking any part whatever in the discussion.

Mr. G. Robinson

thought it would be useless for the House to grant a second committee to investigate into this subject, unless they first received a pledge, that when that committee should have made its report, some further steps would be taken, and the recommendations of the report be acted on.

Mr. Wilks

observed, that in the whole course of his life he had never read any fiction or romance that in ingenuity of invention came up to the statements which had been made concerning the subject now under discussion. The whole matter, in fact, had arisen out of personal pique towards himself; and he asserted that the hon. alderman had availed himself of his situation in that House to vilify his character. It was impossible for him to imagine any circumstance to account for the statements which that hon. member had made, except by supposing, in charity to that hon. member, that he had been imposed on by the misrepresentations of others. The whole of the statements made against him were fictious; and the hon. alderman knew them to be such. The hon. member proceeded to answer the several charges which had been made against him upon this as well as upon several other occasions, relative to these companies, and expressed his regret, that the hon. alderman should, in order to strengthen his case against him, with respect to one company, think it necessary to introduce the names of other companies which had been unsuccessful, and where money had been lost, perhaps by the hon. alderman himself, as well as by others, but with which companies he (Mr. Wilks) had not the slightest connexion. The course he had taken with respect to the companies with which he was connected, he was then, and at all times, ready to defend. He had taken the necessary proceedings; and those proceedings were at that moment pending in the Court of Chancery. He hoped, therefore, that, under these circumstances, the House would not consent to interfere in the concerns of private partnerships, by granting a committee.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

said, the speeches of the hon. member for Sudbury and the hon. alderman, had fully justified the doubt he had ventured to express, of the expediency of the House granting a committee, in the previous debate on the affairs of the Arigna mining company; as not only being out of their competence, but as affording a most inconvenient precedent. No man living could follow those hon. members in their statements of mere matter of account between parties in a private concern. He had no doubt there were practices sufficiently fraudulent. The names of members of the last parliament had appeared in a manner perfectly disgraceful; but it was evidently impossible that the House of Commons could make themselves the auditors of private accounts; and, if the House consented to go into the affairs of the Devon and Cornwall company, it was notorious that there were fifty others that had equal claim on legislative attention. All that the legislature ought to do was, so to revise the law of partnerships, as to obviate the probability of the recurrence of the evil.

Mr. Brougham

thought the House was under a great obligation to the worthy alderman, for bringing a subject under its notice, which he considered fit matter for discussion and inquiry in a committee. At the same time, he apprehended that nothing could be more clear than that, whatever might be the merits or demerits of the individual implicated—a question, on which he begged it to be observed, that he pronounced no opinion—it was not a case in which they were called upon as yet to interfere with the inquisitorial powers of a committee. He would suppose the persons implicated to have been guilty of the most abominable complications of falsehood, fraud, and forgery; crimes, be it observed, which he by no means allowed to be proved against the hon. gentleman, for he had, as yet, no evidence before him upon which he could pronounce an opinion; but, even supposing that he was charged with all these, still he was prepared to contend, that the House could not step out of its way, and erect itself into a court of criminal jurisdiction to try those offences. The hon. member for Sudbury had defended himself with great zeal and ability, and, as far as he at present knew, it might be with great justice; but even if the crimes of which he was accused were a thousand times worse than they really were, still he did not see reason for appointing a committee at that moment, and surceasing all the regular business of the House, in order to prosecute an inquiry which was already a matter of investigation before the regular tribunals of the country. He looked upon the hon. member to be no more to that House at present than John Noakes, or any other person; and he agreed with the hon. member for Colchester, that there might be ground for moving, that a man should, as an attorney, be struck off the rolls; but there were none upon which that House could proceed to enter into the question of expulsion. He was bound at the same time to say, for he knew it from his own professional knowledge, that the assertions of the hon. member for Sudbury, as to there being trials at issue, were perfectly correct. One of them, he believed, had been brought to trial; and he was bound in the same manner to say, that the opposite party had defeated them solely upon a point of form, while the merits of the case had not, in the slightest degree, been touched. There was a case, indeed, in which that House might interfere. If the hon. member made use of his situation as a member to do an injury to another, then it was clear that they had a right to inquire, and to punish; but when a person, not even at the time a member of the House, merely exercised his right of action as an individual in certain commercial transactions, he could not see how the right of inquiry could be established. He would put a case to the House—supposing that certain persons, not directors, as they had here, men boldly putting their names to the thing, and marking themselves out for discovery and accusation; for, of one person of that kind, who had jobbed in shares, there were twenty much worse who had pursued the same system in private—but, he repeated, he would suppose men who had made themselves monstrous active upon committees, in their capacity of members of that House, for the purpose of puffing off those concerns in which they held shares, and thereby abused their station as members of parliament, then he would say they had a case; and, if the individual had forfeited his character as a gentleman and a man of honour, the House had a right to get rid of the contamination of his society. But even then it was right to wait for the proofs of that guilt. They must wait until the courts of law convicted the offender, and when the record could be produced in that House—then, and then only, were they justified in appointing a committee to consider the question or expulsion. There was, to be sure, a case in which individuals might combine for the purpose of screening an offender, and preventing his public trial; but then the House, when such charges were made, and they saw the question might not to be tried, had the power of commanding the Attorney-general to prosecute the offender in the courts below. There was, however, no such fear at present; and were they, on some charges, which, without impugning the assertions or statements of the worthy alderman, were vague, irregular, and might prove unfounded and unjust—were they, without any evidence on oath, to appoint a committee, for the purpose of collecting all the gossip of the town; for all such things were heard before committees? Were they to appoint a tribunal to hear what one man said that another man did, in order to settle a question which was already before the proper tribunal, and the only one where all the points at issue could be fairly tried? A committee of that House was the most rigid and the most unsparing of all methods of inquiry. He would say, God forbid that this method of impeachment—for it was nothing less—should be put in force on such occasions, or that they should be guilty of the strange anomaly of sitting to investigate such matters when they were under inquiry elsewhere! He thought the House had gone much too far in the Arigna business, and he was glad of an opportunity to retrace their steps; for although the question there had been with regard to the fitness of a gentleman to hold an office, and he himself had entreated inquiry, he was doubtful as to the propriety of the course they had adopted, and dreaded any extension of the principle. He was glad the House shewed an abhorrence of such swindling, for it deserved no other name; but they ought to recollect there had been cases of the most notorious violations of faith in private life and of honesty in public, upon the turf and elsewhere, which the House had thought it fit to pass over, rather than lay the precedent of any trial or condemnation before an incompetent tribunal. If they went into one of these things they must go into a thousand, and the labour would be endless. The South-sea case was not at all in point. There the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and members of the government were implicated, in a manner which said verylittle for the honesty of our forefathers; and the ferment was as great as the ruin was extensive. If any member of the present government had been guilty of such things, he would vote for impeachment instantly; but he would not consent to apply this rule to a private individual; and he considered the precedent "more honoured in the breach than in the observance." The learned member concluded by declaring himself totally unacquainted with the circumstances of the case, and willing to remain so, until a court of law had pronounced its decision.

Mr. Brogden,

after the frequent allusions made to him in the course of the debate, hoped the House would permit him to make a few observations. He felt bound to vote against that committee and all others like it; because he thought it unfair and unjust, and only to be likened to the Star-chamber inquisitions, in their effect upon the individuals who unhappily came before them. He had been, for the last three months, placed in a state of despair, which was really scarcely to be endured, by the inquiries entered into before a committee of the same description; and, he repeated, there was nothing in the Star-chamber more base or more oppressive. A tribunal was appointed to inquire into and decide upon the whole of the acts of a man's life, without his having the power to challenge a single individual, no matter how prejudiced, or how partial, or how hostile, he might know that individual to be. He did not mean to say, that any of the members of that committee were men to be objected to, on those grounds. He knew but one individual who was an exception, and he might name him, but he would not; but still there were many whose appointment he ought to have had a right to impugn, if he pleased. There was the hon. member for Surrey, whose return he had opposed; and that might have been a good reason for objecting to his sitting upon such an inquiry. There were two or three members who, knowing nothing of the case but what they had read in the newspapers, were yet known to have expressed opinions hostile to him before their appointment. Were not these, he would ask, grounds of objection to such a mode of inquiry? Could any thing be more inconsistent with all the rules of society or of justice, than to appoint such persons to sit in judgment upon a question purely commercial? Military men were tried by a court martial of military men. Merchants elsewhere abided by the decisions of a jury of merchants; but he was tried—by whom? By country gentlemen and by young officers, some of them cornets, he believed; and he need not say, totally unacquainted with the subject of their inquiry. He had no knowledge even of their proceedings, for, although he was entitled, as a member of that House, to be present at the proceedings of the committee, he was debarred of the power to take any part in the inquiry, or to propose a single question, even the most important, in order to elucidate any thing obscure, or to contradict any thing that was false. Some of the members of the committee, men to whom he could have safely intrusted his case, such as lord Althorp, Mr. George Lamb, Mr. Whitmore, colonel French, never attended the meetings at all; but, if he could have anticipated the rancorous conduct of one individual, he would have had pleasure in throwing him- self at once upon the House, rather than have been subjected to the consequences of his persecution. Not being used to the proceedings of such committees, he wished to make some explanations; but he was told by that person, that he was not to ask or make questions—he must wait and answer on his examination; so that he had the same person as his judge and as the advocate against him, without the power of repelling his attacks. There were three hon. members, Mr. Dickenson, sir R. Vivian, and lord Clive; three individuals by whom he would most willingly have submitted to be tried, who attended the committee regularly until Christmas, after which they went away. There were three other hon. members, Mr. Ward, Mr. Twiss, and Mr. Palmer, who attended sometimes; but not regularly. On one occasion he had addressed an application to the hon. member for Surrey, especially requesting his attendance at the committee on a particular day. The answer was, that he could not attend, for he was going to see a prize-pig at Smithfield. He trusted that those who read the report would also read the evidence. Unless they did so, they could not fairly judge of the merits of the case. The report was a laboured argument. There was one circumstance which, by some unfortunate and cruel mistake, had not been sufficiently adverted to. The committee of proprietors of the Arigna mining company, after a careful examination of the facts, had exonerated him from blame. That judgment had been confirmed at four general meetings of the proprietors; and he had, in consequence, been re-elected to the chair. With respect to the Arigna mining company itself, he denied that it was a bubble. He had never been connected with any bubble; although he had been connected with a number of highly beneficial public undertakings; and among them, with the Provincial bank of Ireland, which had done infinitely more good than all the bubble companies taken together had produced mischief. He apologized for having intruded so long upon the attention of the House; but he was sure that they would feel for his situation and excuse him.

Mr. Robert Grant

observed, that he would not say a single word in answer to what had fallen from the hon. gentleman, but would merely observe, as chairman of the committee which had been appointed to inquire into the transaction, that, as far as he was concerned, he had not the slightest intention of proposing any further proceeding. In reply to some of the observations which had fallen from the learned member for Winchelsea, he begged to remark, that in the examination of witnesses the committee had endeavoured to adhere, as closely as the character of their functions would permit them, to the rules of a court of justice. He was quite of opinion, however, that the appointment of such a committee ought not to take place, except in extreme cases; and, among other much more important reasons, for this very minor one, that it was impossible to conceive any situation more painful than that of one of the members of such a committee. In justice to the worthy alderman opposite, he must say, that he had not shown any undue asperity; and that he had devolved much of that which he would have been authorized in personally doing, into the hands of the committee generally. Upon the whole, he was rather disposed to object to the present motion.

Mr. Ward

denied that he had not attended to the proceedings before the committee, and said that if the hon. member would call upon him, he would show him such voluminous notes upon those proceedings, as would prove that he had not neglected his duty.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

declared, that a more honourable committee had never been appointed, or one which had attended more sedulously to the business before them. Although he still thought that the committee for which he had moved might be advantageously appointed, yet, admitting that there was some reason in the distinction drawn by the learned member for Winchelsea, between those who had entered into such speculations before they became members of that House, and those who, being members of the House, entered into them, with the leave of the House he would withdraw his motion.

The motion was accordingly withdrawn.