HC Deb 07 August 1833 vol 20 cc404-8
Mr. Cobbett

presented a Petition from the National Political Union of Newcastle-on-Tyne, against the system of Police adopted in the Metropolis. The Petition staled the abhorrence of the Petitioners at the conduct of Popay, who was a member of that novel and unconstitutional force called the New Police, the members of which were employed as spies, as instigators of mischief, ensnaring, betraying, and coercing the people. In those opinions, and in that description, he most cordially concurred, and the whole of it had been proved to be correct, by the evidence taken before the Committee, whose report was presented last night. He did not approve of that report, and so he told the rest of the Committee, and he told them also that he would say so in the House; it fell so far short of what he approved of, and of what he felt due to the petitioners, to the House, and the country, that he could never give his consent to it. He knew, when he first presented the petition, that not a Member of the House could have believed the facts stated in it were true. The petition divided itself into eighteen different allegations, every one of which had been distinctly substantiated. If the petitioners had gone further, if they had multiplied their allegations tenfold, they would not have exceeded the truth. The witnesses, without exception, proved themselves to be men of good character; and after the indulgence of a fortnight given to Government and the Commissioners, nothing could be brought forward to impeach their character or testimony. They had before them the most infamous spy ever employed by any government in the world, and he was proved to be guilty of the grossest prevarication and barefaced falsehood. The superintendent also had been found guilty of equal prevarication, which must be taken notice of by the House. They had traced the money into the hands of the spy, from the Secretary of State himself, and the only comfort they received was, that it had not come out of the parish funds, but from the Home-office, out of that secret service money which that House voted every year. They had fixed the same prevarication, though not to the same extent, on the Commissioners themselves; and he did not see how the House could refuse calling them to the bar. Government had been clearly convicted of encouraging and supporting a notorious system of espionage. The word was unknown to our language; happy would it be if the thing itself were unknown to our Government. He did not ascribe to his Majesty's Ministers any wish to establish such a system. He never had ascribed it to them. But something must be done. The House must either say, that the spy system was proper, and that Government could not go on without it, or they must put a stop to it at once and for ever. It might be supposed that he was prejudiced against the police. But could any prejudice do away with the effect of the evidence taken before the Committee? When hon. Members read that evidence, they would be satisfied, either that the system must be put an end to, or that Government must become the detestation of the people. The whole of the allegations in the original petition had been proved, mainly by the confessions of the person principally implicated, and that of the superintendents; as well as by the acknowledgments of the Commissioners. It was at first declared that it was only the working classes whose proceedings spies were sent to observe. It was denied that they were sent to such assemblies as the Political Union at Saville House, or to any such meeting as one at which Mr. Hume would preside. But on the second examination reports were produced from spies who had attended at parochial meetings; and also at a meeting at which Mr. Hume had presided; and a statement was given of what had been said by that hon. Gentleman in the chair. The openness of this spy system was extraordinary. At the funeral of Mr. Hardy, the spy walked arm in arm in the procession with a member of the Political Union of the working classes. Arrived in the churchyard, he perched himself on a tomb-stone (fit place for such an occupant), while Mr. Thelwall pronounced the funeral oration. He then reported what he had witnessed to his employers. By accident this report was mixed up with the report of another spy; and in the latter this curious expression was attributed to Mr. Thelwall:—"Now Reform is come; where are your tyrants now? Where are your spies now?" Little did that gentleman know that there were at that moment at his elbow two spies; prepared to curry to the Secretary of State everything that fell from his lips. He (Mr. Cobbett) did not believe that the noble Lord was at all desirous of subjecting the people of England to such a system. He believed that what had occurred had not proceeded from any settled design. But it was for that House to take care that the system should be put an end to. He had, on a former occasion, observed to the Solicitor-General, that if the peace-officers carried swords, the people would carry knives. If the system was not put an end to. Government would become irretrievably the detestation of the people. The hon. Member then presented another petition from the town of Nottingham, to the same effect, declaring, that the petitioners saw with detestation and disgust, that the odious system of spies had recommenced. He was persuaded that the noble Lord would do what justice, humanity, and a wish to preserve the peace of the country required; but he should certainly be glad to receive Some pledge on the subject.

Lord william Lennox

thought the hon. member for Oldham had not acted fairly towards the House in making garbled and exaggerated statements of the evidence given on the Committee. With every respect for the hon. Member's talents, he could not think he could in five minutes give the pith of the evidence which it had taken the Committee a month to obtain. When the evidence was before the House, the House would judge of the conduct of the police. In the mean time, he would only say, that he disbelieved the statements of the hon. Gentleman, and that he had in another Committee, heard testimony to the good conduct of the police.

Mr. Stewart Mackenzie

said, that a more exaggerated statement than that which had been made by the hon. member for Oldham he had never heard. What could the hon. Member mean, or expect, by thus prejudging the case? It was a most unfair attempt on his part to create an unfair impression within those walls, and a popular clamour out of doors. He hoped, however, that at least the House would not be carried away by any such misrepresentation.

Mr. Thomas Kennedy

said, that at the time this report was agreed upon, some conversation took place respecting the propriety of raising a discussion upon its being brought up to the House; and he knew it was the decided opinion of the Committee that it would be most unfair and improper—not to say unusual—that when a Report was presented to the House, accompanied by voluminous evidence, any individual Member of the Committee should endeavour to impress on the minds of the House, and of the public, any opinion on the subject. The hon. member for Oldham certainly did not scruple to let the Committee know that he thought differently; but that hon. Gentleman stood alone. It appeared to him that the discussion of the subject at present was inconvenient, and might be productive of mischief. The best course would be to say nothing more about it. Before sitting down, however, he would observe, that the hon. member for Oldham had most irregularly taken away the police Reports which had been furnished to the Government, and by the Government to the Committee, without having any right so to do, and of which Reports he had kept possession for at least two days.

Mr. Cobbett

observed, with respect to the Reports to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, that when it was found that the police spies had written reports, it was of course the duty of the Committee to require their production. Having been produced, they became evidence; and he was for laying them before the House. The Committee, however, determined otherwise. The day after they had been laid before the Committee, he inquired of the hon. Alderman who filled the Chair, (and who had exhibited the utmost diligence in his office), what had become of them? Who replied that they were at his house, and that he had read through a great part of them during the previous night. He (Mr. Cobbett) then said to the hon. Alderman, "Well, Wood, suppose I sit up, and read a good part of them to night." He got them, and did read a good part of them that night. On bringing them back to the Committee, he intended, if possible, to read them through, and remained in the room after the Committee had all dispersed, perusing those reports. Mr. Witham, the Clerk, probably preferring his (Mr. Cobbett's) room to his company, told him they would not be wanted again till Monday, and that he had better take them home with him, where he could read them more conveniently. He did so, and brought them back to the Committee on the Monday, having in the interim, the House might be sure, read every syllable, and having indexed them, and numbered them throughout. If the other Members of the Committee had not read them as attentively as he had, that was their fault.

Sir Oswald Mosley

rose to order, and submitted that these observations could not be considered to fall within the hon. Gentleman's reply.

The Speaker

What the hon. member for Oldham is saying, does fall within the orders of the House. But even if it did not do so, the statements of the hon. Member are of very great importance. After the very candid avowal which the hoa. member for Oldham has made, with reference both to himself and to another hon. Member, it is clear that he and that other hon. Member have been acting under the purest, although under the grossest misapprehension. No Member of a Select Committee has the slightest right to carry away any of the public documents which may have been furnished that Committee. The hon. member for Oldham says, that the Clerk of the Committee told him that he might take home the papers in question. If the hon. Member had applied to me, I should have told him that I had no power to authorise him to do so; and that I could never give my sanction to such a proceeding. When a Select Committee of this House is engaged in the investigation of any public question, and sends for information on the subject to any public officer, that public officer may frequently think it the best way to give entire the documents in which the required information is to be found. But if, when the entire documents are so committed into the hands of hon. Gentlemen, they are to be taken away to their houses, to be looked through, and sifted, and commented upon, one of two things must be the result—either that the public officers will in future stingily confine themselves to the production of the precise papers required by a Committee, or that, if they give the entire documents, it must be with the understanding that no Member of that Committee will use them for any purpose except that for which the Committee was appointed. After the candid avowal of the hon. member for Oldham, it is evident that both he and the hon. member for the city of London, to whom he has alluded, have proceeded on an entire misunderstanding in this matter; but such having been the case, the House will not perhaps think it inconvenient, on so important a subject, that I have taken the opportunity to make these remarks.

Petition laid on the Table.