HC Deb 26 March 1833 vol 16 cc1067-71
Mr. Bannerman,

the Chairman of the Liverpool Election Committee, moved the Order of the Day, that Elizabeth Robin- son, a witness who refused to answer certain questions put to her by that Committee, be ordered to attend at the Bar of the House.

The witness brought in, and questioned.

By the Speaker

What is your name?—Elizabeth Robinson. You were summoned as a witness to give evidence before the Liverpool Election Committee?—Yes. You were asked by that Committee questions which you refused to answer?—Yes. What were your reasons for declining to answer these questions?—I was afraid of my life. You were in apprehension of incurring personal risk?—I was: I feared for my life. Should you have still the same feelings of alarm, if you were called upon now to answer these questions?—I dare not answer that.

By Mr. Robinson.

Have you been threatened by anybody, and what reason have you to suppose that you run personal risk in answering these questions?—I have been threatened by one person. Will you state to the House the name of that person?—I dare not mention his name.

The witness ordered to withdraw.

Mr. Benett

moved that the Order be discharged.

The Motion having been seconded,

Mr. Hume

opposed the Motion. He said, that the present inquiry, instituted by the Committee, related to bribery, and that the public were deeply interested in the matter. This witness declined answering questions which might lead to the discovery of those persons who had practised bribery. She also refused giving the name of the person who had threatened her; who, if he were not guilty, would have no reason to make use of intimidation. If the witness were discharged, and the matter allowed to drop, the object for which the Committee sat would be defeated.

Mr. Benett

thought, that the witness did not object to answering other questions in furtherance of the views of the Committee.

Mr. Nicholl

The questions she had already refused to answer were most material—to find out how certain sums had been disposed of. Particularly a sum of about 50l., and a smaller one of 3l. 16s. which it was supposed she had some knowledge of. If she knew the names of the parties bribing, and refused to mention them, then it would be impossible to get at the truth.

Sir Robert Bateson

contended, that the witness ought not to be discharged, as it was of the greatest consequence that the Committee should be made acquainted with every circumstance that tended to a discovery of the truth. The only question was, whether the laws were sufficient to protect her or not, if she spoke the truth. If they were, she ought not to be discharged.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that the real question at issue was, whether that House was, under any circumstances, to be stopped in investigating any matter it might think fit to make inquiry into; and whether the bare assertion of one intimidated party was sufficient to prevent investigation? He thought that if the House acquiesced in such a denial, it would be departing from the general principles by which it was directed in its proceedings. Were the questions put to this witness by the Committee material and necessary ones? If they were, and it seemed by having the witness called before that House that they were, the House would not be discharging its duty either for the present or for the future, if the witness was allowed to be discharged. By doing so the House would be encouraging every timid or unwilling witness, and frequently witnesses for corrupt purposes would decline giving the evidence required of them. If the House acquiesced in the discharge of the present witness, it would do what no Court of Justice in the land would consent to. The House could not allow the matter to rest as it was, without declaring itself utterly unfit for its high avocations, and might, in such cases, as well at once abdicate all its acknowledged principles.

Sir Robert Peel

agreed with the right, hon. Gentleman. The Committee had pursued the only course that was left open to it; and he, therefore, thought that the House had no other alternative, if the witness still persisted, but the exercise of its power as an ultimate resource.

Mr. Bannerman,

as Chairman of the Committee, bogged to state, that the Committee had offered the witness every protection within its power.

Mr. Hume,

after stating his regret that any female should be so situated as the present witness was, submitted that it was most necessary to have the truth upon the present occasion. She should be brought back to the Bar, and advised as to the way she should proceed.

Lord Althorp

also thought it proper that the witness should be fully informed of the protection that the House could extend to her; and then that the necessary answers should be insisted upon.

Mr. Harvey

said, that he was satisfied that the witness spoke the truth when she said that she had been intimidated; but this was not a sufficient reason for declining to answer the questions of the Committee. Those who intimidated her did so that she should become a cloak for crime; and, though innocent herself, she was to be considered as an instrument in the hands of criminal persons. She should be ordered to appear before the Committee to-morrow, and answer all questions that might be put to her.

Sir Thomas Freemantle

said, that the House could not effectually grant its protection to the witness, unless, as soon as she mentioned the name of the person who menaced her, it issued an order for his immediate arrest.

Mr. Wynn

said, that when the House armed with its own powers the Committee, it might exact obedience to that Committee, in the same manner that it would exact obedience from persons called upon to give evidence at the Bar of the House. The House had always enforced answers to its questions, except in the case of Sir Abraham Bradley King, whose testimony was not considered of any great moment. The question arose out of a riot at Dublin, and it was contended that on account of the trifling nature of the circumstance it was not sufficient to justify the interference of the House. There was also the case of a medical man who was questioned as to something which had been stated to him confidentially in his practice, and he objected from motives of honour to answer, and was exonerated. No one could doubt the power of the House, to enforce answers, but there might be some question as to the propriety of exercising the power. If the members of the Committee, in the present instance, did not think the evidence of this witness material, they need not press to have their questions answered; but, having thought the evidence important, and having caused the witness to be brought before the House, the House had no other option but to enforce its authority by every means in its power. It would perhaps be sufficient if the witness were called in and assured of the protection of the House by the Speaker, and warned of the consequences of not answering.

The Speaker

considered that the right hon. Gentleman had taken a correct view of this question. The House had heard the statements of the witness, and there was not sufficient reason assigned in them for her refusing to answer the proposed questions, when she had been assured that she might do so with safety. As for the motion to have the Order of the Day discharged, there was no Order to discharge, since the only one—that the witness attend the House—was already complied with. He would ask whether it was the pleasure of the House that the witness be recalled?

Mr. Wynn

said, that the witness should be cautioned as to the probable consequences of persisting in her refusal.

The witness recalled.

The Speaker

then addressed the witness to the following effect:—The House has listened to you with attention, and has not seen in your statements any sufficient reason why you should refuse to answer the questions put to you by the Committee before which you were summoned as a witness. The House expects that you will not persist in your refusal, but that you will henceforth answer the questions put to you by the Committee. Whilst the House expects this from you, it assures you at the same time that you may confidently depend on its justice, and on its entire protection. For the present, the House is satisfied with admonishing you, as you are labouring under a mistake. But you must learn, that if you continue to refuse answering the questions of the Committee, it will be at your own risk and peril, as you must in that case be committed to the custody of the Serjeant at Arms, as one guilty of a breach of the privileges of this House. On the one hand, the House points out to you the danger of non-compliance with its orders; and, on the other, it declares to you that you may safely rely on its protection, and it enjoins you therefore to act as an honest and upright witness, in answering fully all the questions that the Committee may think fit to ask of you.

The witness withdrew.

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