HC Deb 13 March 1834 vol 22 cc181-90
Mr. Tancred

rose to move for the discharge of the order appointing a Committee to investigate an imputed breach of privilege in the affixing of false signatures to a petition from Leamington Spa, praying for the extension of the elective franchise to that town. He did so on the ground that there had been no petition complaining of injury presented. When the Motion was made by the hon. and learned member for Dover for the Committee, the noble Paymaster of the Forces had objected to it, on the ground, that there was no petition of complaint before the House; upon which the hon. and learned Member had said there was, and the opposition of the noble Lord was at once withdrawn, and the Committee agreed to. Now, upon examination, it appeared that there was no petition as stated by the hon. and learned Member. Of course the hon. and learned Member had been mistaken, and had conceived a petition presented by a noble Lord (Eastnor) to be one of complaint; whereas its only prayer was, that the franchise should not be extended to Leamington. Such being the case, he trusted that his Motion would not be opposed; and if it were, he should feel himself bound to persevere in the Motion which he had submitted yesterday, and which was, that the petitioners signing the petition complained of, and who had petitioned to be heard before the Committee by their agents or Counsel, might be so heard. He moved to discharge the order for appointing a Committee on the Leamington Spa petition.

Mr. Hughes Hughes

seconded the Motion. He did so chiefly on account of the great and useless expense the Committee would occasion should it be continued. He must remark, that the Leamington petitioners appeared to be very unfortunate. The noble Lord, the member for Reigate, had presented a petition the other evening purporting to come from above 500 of the householders rated at above 10l. in the town of Leamington. Now, that was the third petition which had been presented; and he was informed that one-half of the signatures attached to it were not those of 10l. householders, that fifty were the signatures of females, that forty were names signed twice over, a few names were signed three times, and one four times. He thought that the hon. and learned member for Dover, seeing the error he had been led into in stating there was a petition of complaint when there was none, would not offer any opposition to the Motion.

Mr. Halcombe

felt confident, he could satisfy the House, that there were no grounds for the Motion of the hon. member for Banbury. A petition had been presented to the House, signed by 757 out of 850, time total number of the 10l. householders of Leamington Spa, praying that that place might not be included in the boundaries of the borough of Warwick. Some time after the Warwick borough Committee published a report, in which they stated, that the petition to which he had just alluded had been referred to them as well as another petition numerously and respectably signed by inhabitants of Leamington in favour of the extension of the franchise to that town. When this report was known at Leamington, it excited time utmost astonishment amongst the inhabitants, because, as he had before said, out of the 850 10l. householders in Leamington, 757 had signed the petition against the proposed junction of the two places. The petition to which the Committee referred in their report in favour of the extension of the franchise to Leamington was cunningly worded, for though at the commencement it was described as the petition "of the undersigned inhabitants of Leamington," it concluded by praying "that the boundaries of Warwick might be extended to Leamington, in order that your petitioners may vote at all future elections for members for that borough." This was intended to convey the impression, that the persons signing the petition were 10l. householders, because no other description of persons would be entitled to vote in the event of the Warwick franchise being extended to Leamington; 418 signatures were affixed to this petition, of which he would undertake to prove, on the authority of most respectable persons, no less than 281 were fictitious. The most diligent inquiries had been made in order to ascertain whether the 281 signatures attached to the pe- tition were those of inhabitants of Leamington, and the result was, that only seventeen were found to be so, but all the seventeen whom those names represented had signed the petition against the extension of the franchise to Leamington. The house might form some idea of the manner in which the petition had been got up from the circumstance which he was about to mention. One of the witnesses examined before the Committee which had been appointed upon his Motion stated, that he and his father-in-law were sitting in a public-house in Leamington, when two mechanics entered with the petition, and asked them to sign it. They refused, stating, that they had signed the counter-petition. The mechanics, however, in defiance of their objection, signed their names to the petition. The Committee would have ended its labours ere this, had it not been for a mistake on the part of the hon. member for Banbury. The hon. Member entered the Committee on the last day of its sitting, and introduced Mr. Joseph Parkes as agent for some persons who had petitioned the House, praying that they might be heard by their counsel or agents in support of the genuineness of the petition which was complained of as being spurious. He asked the hon. member for Banbury whether the House had ordered the petitioners to be heard by their agents, and the hon. Member answered in the affirmative; but it turned out that the House had made no such order, but merely referred the petition to the Committee. In consequence of this interruption, the labours of the Committee had been suspended, and the witnesses detained in town. The hon. member for Banbury now appeared to think, that it was improper that the Committee should proceed with the inquiry, because no petition had been presented from any of the persons whose names were alleged to be signed to the spurious petition; but he thought, that this argument was untenable. Could it be maintained, that a Member acquainted with a breach of privilege was not at liberty to institute an inquiry into the subject? Was he to stand in a worse situation, in this respect, than a person out of doors, who might present a petition? It was said, that he was not the party aggrieved; but the House was the party aggrieved, and was bound to vindicate its own honour. The course which he had pursued was not without precedent. In the Journals of the House, vol. 84, page 187, (anno 1829), was the following entry:—"Complaint was made to the House, that one of the names annexed to the petition from certain Protestant inhabitants of Kilrea, against the Catholic claims, was a forgery.—Ordered, that a Committee be appointed to inquire into the facts of the case, and to report the same, with their observations thereon, to the House." The Committee was accordingly appointed, with powers to send for persons, papers, and records: and the petition to which the fraudulent signature was affixed was referred to it. The transaction was thus described in Hansard's Debates:

Mr. Dawson

read a letter which he had received from the Rev. Mr. Waddy, of Kilrea, who stated, that having seen in the newspapers a report, setting forth the presentation by Sir George Hill of a petition from that parish against the Catholic claims, to which his name was said to be subscribed, he felt it his duty to notify, that the signature of his name must be a forgery, as he never signed, or authorised the signing of, his name to such a petition. It was singular enough, too, that this very petition dwelt with particular force upon the gross artifices which were imputed to the Catholics to create perjury and immorality. He meant not to proceed further than to expose the grossness of this forgery.

The Speaker

I hope that the House, when circumstances so strongly affecting a most valuable right of the subject, and so deeply affecting the dignity and character of this House, are stated to them, will not fail to do their duty. If they do not, I will venture to say this is the first time when such a proceeding was passed over. If the hon. member should decline to proceed, some hon. Member will, I am sure, take the matter up.

Sir George Hill

said, that as he had presented the petition in question, the House would naturally expect some explanation from him. All he could say was, that the petition was enclosed to him by Mr. Digby, a Magistrate of the neighbourhod, who apprised him that it was most respectably signed. Mr. Digby and Mr. Waddy were both most respectable gentlemen; and it surprised him that the latter did not at once require from the former some explanation of the matter. It puzzled him altogether, and he knew not what to make of the business. He should not, of course, oppose any investigation.

Mr. Hume

said, he would make a Motion upon the subject if no other Member gave notice of one.

Mr. Dawson

said, that having been the person who brought the matter forward, he should not shrink from prosecuting the inquiry, and would therefore move for a Committee to inquire into the facts of the case.

A Committee was accordingly appointed.* * Hansard (new series) xxi. p. 22. In that case only one signature was forged, but in the present case 281 were alleged to be so. He held in his hand a petition from some of the parties, who were prepared to prove that their names had been signed to the petition without their knowledge and against their wish; but he had not presented it, because he wished the case to stand as it was.

Mr. Tancred:

What is the date of that petition?

Mr. Halcombe:

A petition has no date.

Mr. Tancred:

When did the hon. Member receive it?

Mr. Halcombe

would answer the hon. Member presently. The hon. Member's present Motion could have no other object than to stifle inquiry. The whole of the seventeen persons whose names had been falsely affixed to the spurious petition would have signed the petition which he held in his hand, had it not been for a notion which prevailed that if they did so they would be precluded from giving evidence before the Committee, and, therefore, in order to be on sure ground, he recommended that no more than two persons should sign it. He had put his name down to present the petition two days ago, but on reflection he thought it better to leave the case as it stood. When he first stirred in the matter, he stated that he acted on his own responsibility, and by that declaration he was prepared to abide. He had undoubtedly made a misrepresentation, but the hon. member for Banbury was good enough to do him the justice to say he was convinced the misrepresentation must have been unintentional. He had made this statement upon the authority, or rather he should say upon the supposed authority, of the noble Lord on his right, who presented the petition. When he moved for the Committee, it was opposed by the noble Lord, the Paymaster of the Forces. He was annoyed at the moment, that the measure before the House should be thus hindered from going on, and the noble Lord said there was no petition. He asserted that there was a petition. He believed so at the time; he had received a communication from the parties, who stated, that their desire was, to address the House, and he afterwards received a letter adding, that the petition was to be intrusted either to him or to the noble Lord, and this without delay. Several days elapsed; he looked to the precedent he had already quoted; and he thought it better to state what he had to submit to the House upon his own authority as the ground for a future Motion. He heard that the noble Lord on his right had presented a petition from the inhabitants of Leamington, referring to the former petition, and this petition he at once believed to be the petition which was expected, and which had been on the road directed to him or to the noble Lord. In conclusion, he protested against their now stopping short in the inquiry, for the purpose of screening somebody. The Committee had called on the hon. member for Banbury to declare from whom he had received the petition. The hon. Member declined to do so,—a course which he should not have felt himself justified in pursuing. The hon. Member had, by this refusal, thrown all manner of difficulties and inconveniences in his way.

Mr. Hughes Hughes

observed, that a regular hoax had been practised on the hon. member for Dover. Seventeen men with similar names to those inscribed on the petition had very truly sworn that they had not authorised the signatures, or themselves affixed them; but the fact was, the seventeen men who had actually signed were ready to come forward and swear that they had done so.

Lord Eastnor

said, that in presenting the petition to which the hon. member for Dover alluded, he had stated, that it referred to the petition of last year. He was extremely sorry that there had been any misunderstanding on the subject. He could not vouch, of course, for the correctness of each and every signature to the petition; but he had spared no pains to ascertain their authenticity; and he had been assured by a man on whose veracity be placed the fullest reliance, and who had collected the greater number of the signatures, that they were perfectly genuine. He begged to say, that he should be inclined to dissuade the hon. member for Dover from pressing for an inquiry to prove a negative with respect to all the names, on account of the inconvenience and expense which it must necessarily occasion. He would prefer having the inquiry limited to those who described themselves as 10l. householders.

Mr. Abercromby

said, that as he meant to concur in the Motion of the hon. member for Banbury, he wished to state the grounds upon which he did so. He certainly did not support the Motion with a view, either directly or indirectly, to suppress inquiry. He begged utterly to dis- claim any such feeling. He conceived that the question which the House had to decide was, whether it was fit and proper to appoint such a Committee as that which had been granted, simply upon the assertion of an individual, without any petition for inquiry. The case which the hon. member for Dover had quoted, proved any thing but a case in favour of the position which he sought to establish, because, in that instance, the statement made was supported by the letter of an individual addressed to an hon. Member, and that hon. Member read that letter in his place in the House. That authority was equivalent to any other authority which the House would demand. The hon. Gentleman had adverted, in terms not the most courteous, to the name of Mr. Joseph Parkes. He had the authority of that Gentleman to state, that he was as ignorant of the petition to which the hon. Member had referred, until it was submitted to the House, as either the hon. and learned Gentleman or himself could be. He begged to state this upon the authority of Mr. Parkes himself, a gentleman who was as incapable of misleading him or any man as any hon. Member in that House could be; and therefore upon his authority be spoke with perfect confidence as to the accuracy of his information.

Lord Granville Somerset

As a member of that Committee which the hon. and learned member for Banbury had designated as one from which justice could not be obtained, he now called upon him to consider the nature of the imputation he had cast upon the Committee, and he asked him to come forward and declare what act of the Committee, or of any member of it, had given fair ground for such an imputation. The only mistake made by the Committee arose from a mis-statement of the hon. and learned Gentleman himself. That hon. and learned Gentleman assured the Committee, that the House had come to a vote to which it had not come; and in consequence the Committee was thrown into difficulty as to obeying the orders of the House, and at the same time conducting the inquiry with justice and impartiality. He did not accuse the hon. and learned Gentleman of wilful mis-statement; but when he was so prompt and eager to make charges against others, it was well for him to be reminded, that even so learned a Member as himself was sometimes liable to act incorrectly. He trusted that the hon. and learned Gentleman would now see reason to withdraw the charge he had made, when it was thus put to him. Now, as to the reasons upon which he would ground his vote. If the hon. Member had used the same arguments on the question that a Committee be granted, that he had urged that night, they might have been valid, and made the House pause before they granted an inquiry; but it was now too late, after a Committee had been appointed, witnesses brought forward, and expense incurred. There was, if not great doubt respecting the signatures to the petition, at least great irregularity concerning it; and he considered, that at the present stage, the inquiry should be suffered to proceed, which perhaps the House would originally have been justified in refusing. It was his opinion, that if the inquiry went on, the accused parties would have an ample opportunity of exculpating themselves, if they possessed the evidence necessary for that purpose, which he was far from saying they did not. Of one thing there had been the strongest assertion, and it was therefore well worth inquiring into further—namely, that many of the signatures had been most improperly obtained; and he confessed, for that, as well as for other reasons, that he did not see how the Committee could be stopped in its present stage; for if he were the most eager partisan of the persons accused, he should still think a continuance of the inquiry would be for their advantage. Surely nothing could be more unfair to their characters than to stop the inquiry after five or six witnesses had been heard. The only apprehension he had arising from the possibility of the proceedings being abruptly stopped was that he felt a strong anxiety to deliver, as it were, a just verdict; and that, of course, he could not do on imperfect testimony. It would now be inconsistent with the most obvious principles of justice to arrest the progress of the inquiry. At the commencement of all inquiries, it might be very necessary for the House to be extremely cautious how they set anything of the sort on foot, but the case was widely different when they came to deal with proceedings not only entered on but considerably advanced. It might be said, that the continuance of the inquiry would cost a certain number of pounds, and that, upon economical grounds, it ought not any further to be pursued. To that he had only to reply, that he hoped the House, however attentive to economy, would pay some regard to justice.

Lord John Russell

wished, that the House could have the advantage of hearing from the Chair what the usual practice in such cases had been.

The Speaker

said, that, as well as his experience and recollection prompted, the usual practice was, that the Committee was appointed on the complaint, and at the instance of some person or persons interested, made in some shape or other, but generally in the form of a petition. A case had been referred to, which had been brought before the House not in that form. It was true there was such a precedent; but then the complaint was made in a written letter, which gave it some sort of formality, and was read by the hon. Member to the House, which thereupon granted the Committee. In adopting this course, he (the Speaker), believed the House was influenced by the consideration that a letter had in some sort the effect of a petition, and inferred a responsibility. The House would, in this instance, exercise its own discretion, but the practice was, to take care that the grievance complained of should be substantiated by the assurance and responsibility of some party aggrieved, and therefore to require something more than a mere statement. On this practice, and believing that some person aggrieved was accessory to the complaint, the House granted the Committee. Many hon. Members and he were of opinion that a petition existed, which afterwards turned out not to be the case, as no petition had been forwarded. The Committee had been appointed, and had made some progress in their inquiry, when this was discovered to be the case, and under these circumstances the noble Lord put the question whether it would be more regular to proceed with the inquiry, or to discharge the Committee. He did not think it would be irregular to discharge the Committee. The House vas at liberty to reconsider its vote upon the matter, and if it believed it more conducive to the ends of justice to discharge the Committee, the House certainly had it in its power to do so. But if the matter had already proceeded so fir that there would be a difficulty in retracing its steps, and if by the inquiry, as hitherto proceeded in, matters appeared greatly involved, the House should then be guided by circumstances, and resolve accordingly.

Lord John Russell

observed, that when a statement was made, not in the form of a petition, but in that of a statement through an hon. Member, the details ought, in his opinion, to be brought minutely and distinctly before the House. Having heard from authority the practice of the House in such cases, and bearing in mind the obvious inference to be derived from it, they ought, in his opinion, to be governed by that.

The House divided—Ayes 55; Noes 9—Majority 46.

The Order for the Attendance of the Committee was accordingly discharged.

List of the NOES.
Eastnor, Lord Stormont, Lord
Inglis, Sir R. H. Willoughby, Sir H.
O'Dwyer, A. C. Vyvyan, Sir R.
Pringle, R. TELLER.
Shaw, F. Halcombe, J.
Skipwith, Sir G.