HC Deb 31 July 1835 vol 29 cc1279-88
Lord Francis Egerton

moved that William Prentice be called to the Bar.

Prentice having been placed at the Bar,

The Speaker

said: You have been examined as a witness before the Committee of this House to which the Petitions complaining of bribery at the Great Yarmouth and York elections were referred. Prentice Yes, Sir. Before that Com- mittee you were asked this question, "Will you state from whom you received that sum of one or two hundred pounds of which you had been speaking, and do not answer away from the question, because the Committee will make up their minds shortly;"—I was, Sir. You declined to answer it?—I did, Sir. Upon what grounds?—I was accused of various things, and as I was not acquainted with the consequences that might happen, a sort of timidity affected me. I could not tell of what I was accused. Notice was given to me that I had been charged with bribery. I could not tell what the feelings of the Committee might be, so I declined to answer the question. Do you still decline answering that question?—I must still decline; but I can assure you I had not the remotest idea of being guilty of contempt towards the House. I did it merely for self-preservation. I had not a fair chance. I could not tell of what I was accused.

Mr. Williams Wynn

Were you of opinion that the question might tend to criminate youself?—I was of that opinion. Are you still of that opinion?—Yes. Had you received any notice stating that you were charged, by the parties preferring these petitions, with bribery?—I had.

Mr. Wason

Have you had any conversation with any person respecting these words, "Hold in your oath?"—I have not, Sir.

Mr. Benett

Did you decline to answer the question in consequence of the advice of the friend you consulted?—I did. Who was that friend?—Am I to answer that question? My question is who was that friend?—I ask the Speaker whether I must answer that question? [cries of "Withdraw!"]

Mr. Prentice was ordered to withdraw.

A discussion took place, as to the propriety of requiring the witness to answer the question, and it was agreed that the witness should be required to do so.

Mr. Prentice was called in and told by the Speaker that the decision of the House was, that he must answer the question put to him.

The question was again put, Who was that friend?—Mr. Pritt.

Mr. Benett

Did any other person give you advice?—No, Sir. Did any person give you any advice as to your conduct before the Committee?—No, Sir.

Mr. Hawes

Has anybody given you advice subsequently?—I cannot say I have not been spoken to upon the subject, but my determination was made before. By whom have yon been spoken to since? [Cries of "No, no." "Withdraw, withdraw."]

The witness was ordered to withdraw.

Lord Francis Egerton was of opinion that the question ought not to be put. He thought it was not a matter of consideration with the House, whether the witness received any other advice or not. He, as Chairman of the Committee, had advised the witness not to answer any question that might criminate himself. There was considerable difference of opinion in the Committee as to whether the course he had adopted was right or not. He thought the point a delicate one; and it was a relief to him that the decision of the Committee had been now approved of by the House.

Mr. Hawes

said, there were two points to be attended to—the first related to the fact of the witness having received a sum of money; and the second respected the party from whom that money was received. The witness admitted he had received money, but he refused to say from whom he received it; and then came the question—who advised the witness to refuse to answer that question. He had told the House who advised him, before he refused answering. The question now was—with whom had he consulted since.

Mr. Williams Wynn

thought the House had better proceed to consider, whether the question put by the Committee ought to be answered. It was a question of great nicety.

Mr. O'Connell

rose to order. The question before the House was, whether the question that had been put by the hon. Member for Lambeth should be answered or not. That question was, whether anybody else had spoken to the witness upon the subject of his evidence, since he was before the Committee? His answer to that question could not possibly criminate himself with bribery. There was, therefore, not the least objection to the question being put.

Mr. Praed

objected to the question being put. It was totally useless and irrelevant. It could not be put for the purpose of deciding as to the conduct of the witness before the Committee. His offence (if any) was complete, when he refused to answer the question put by the Committee. Was it necessary, then, to put the question of the hon. Member for Lambeth, in order to proceed against other parties? How could the House proceed against other parties? The Chairman of the Committee told the witness that he was not bound to answer any questions that might criminate himself. The witness then consulted with other parties, who, assuming the Chairman was correct in the caution given by him, advised the witness not to answer the question, because it would tend lo criminate him. Was it possible for that person, giving such advice, to be punished for so doing? It was impossible. Though answering the question, therefore, might not do any harm, it could do no good, and was wasting time. It was assuming a most inquisitorial character.

Mr. O'Connell

denied, that it was a waste of time. The hon. Gentleman had used the word inquisitorial, and not improperly so; for what was the House doing? Endeavouring to trace to the source the worst species of crime that could possibly be committed—bribery. It was the duty of the House to sift the whole matter to the bottom. Suppose those who adduced Prentice as a witness should prove to be the parties who advised him not to give his evidence; or suppose those who gave Prentice the money were the parties advising him to refuse giving evidence. Surely in either case the fact would be most material.

Mr. R. Wason

considered the question to be a most material one, as it would ultimately affect the decision of the House. The witness had said that Mr. Pritt had advised him not to answer the question. Suppose it should turn out that the agent and the parties opposing the petition should have since advised him not to answer the question. The next question which the hon. Member for Lambeth would put would naturally be, "Had you any communication with those parties previous to your going before the Committee."

Mr. Hardy

observed, that the only question which the House had to deal with was, whether the witness did wrong in refusing to answer the question put to him by the Committee. With his subsequent conduct the House had nothing whatever to do.

Mr. Williams Wynn

The question as to whether the person who advised the witness had committed a breach of the privileges of the House or not, was matter for subsequent consideration. It was not at all material to know with whom the witness consulted until the House had determined whether he was privileged fro in giving an answer or not.

Mr. Scarlett

would put it to the honour of every Gentleman, whether the House ought to be a party to oblige a witness lo do what no Gentleman under similar circumstances would consent to do?

Mr. O'Connell

Why should not the witness tell who gave him the advice? Was it because the advice itself was felt to be bad.

Lord John Russell

was of opinion that the House was not to investigate the charge of bribery. That was a question for the Committee to consider. He, however, understood that the House had decided that the witness ought to answer the question put to him by the Committee. If that was not the case, they had better decide that point first.

Mr. Hawes

would, in order to facilitate that decision, withdraw his question for the present.

Lord John Russell

then moved, that it was the opinion of this House that the witness ought to answer the question put to him by the Committee.

Mr. Williams Wynn

concurred in the Motion, inasmuch as he could not conceive how the witness could criminate himself by answering the question. If indeed the question had been put as to the application of the money, he then should have supported the witness in declining to answer such a question.

Mr. Hardy

considered it a mockery to tell a witness that he was not bound to answer any question that would tend to criminate himself, and then immediately to determine that the witness was bound to answer a certain question that was put to him. Who was to be the judge of the tendency of the answer? The witness was the only person who could say whether or not the effect of the answer would be to criminal him. Suppose the witness said hereceived the money from the agent, the next question would be, how did you dispose of it. Suppose the witness could not say what hi did with the money, would not the inference be that it remained with himself, and that he received it as a bribe?

Mr. O'Connell

said, that the witness had already admitted receiving the money to say, therefore, from whom he received it could not criminate himself, however it might affect the party who gave it to him.

Dr. Nicholl

had referred to the authorities on this subject since he last gave his opinion upon it, and had been induced to change that opinion. He referred to the case of Blackstone v. Davis, in 16 Vesey's Reports, before Lord Ellenborough; and to another case before Lord Mansfield, in both of which it was laid down, that a particular question could not be selected from a series of questions, in order to be put to a witness, if that particular question had reference to a fact which would form a link in the chain of evidence that might criminate the party.

The House divided on the Motion: Ayes 119; Noes 49.—Majority 70.

Prentice was again called to the bar and addressed by

The Speaker

to the following effect:—I have now to inform you that it is the opinion of the House that you ought to answer the question put to you by the Committee—from whom you received the sum of 100l. to 200l.; and that the House has decided that that question was a proper and correct one to be put to you. Having acquainted you with this decision of the House, I have further to add, that this House does now expect that when you are next called before the Committee you will be ready to answer that question, on the assurance that this House is desirous that you should be protected in giving your evidence, and that you should not answer any question which will criminate yourself. I wish now to know whether you are prepared to go before the Committee, and, concurring in the determination of this House, to answer the question when it shall be again repeated to you by that Committee?

Prentice: May I have time to consider that question, Sir? [After a short pause] I still adhere to my former determination. You still adhere to your former determination?—Yes. I wish to state distinctly to your hon. House, that I do not do so from any feeling of contempt for that Committee. I shall ever be grateful for the indulgence I have received from it. It is more than I expected, more than I anticipated, and more than I could have asked. It is entirely from motives of self-preservation that I do this; and I throw myself upon the mercy of your hon. House.

The witness ordered to withdraw.

Lord John Russell

said: After the an- swer the witness has just given, Sir, it becomes necessary for me to move "That the witness, in refusing to answer the question put by the Committee, is guilty of a breach of the privileges of this House."

Sir Henry Hardinge

begged to ask whether an individual, who was assured that he would be protected by the Committee and by that House, in giving his evidence, and that he was not desired to criminate himself, ought to be made the subject of such a motion? Were they—first giving him the option, and assuring him of their protection, he being of course the best judge of what would commit himself—in the first place to offer him protection, and then to punish him? It did appear to him—with all respect for the opinion of the House, when it was expressed by the majority; and with all respect for the noble Lord—to be so great an absurdity, that he really could not understand it. It did appear to him—the individual who had just been called in having been told by the Chairman of the Committee, and afterwards on the high authority of the Speaker, that he was not expected to answer any question which might criminate himself—that this was a barbarous proceeding. To give him the option, and then to punish him for forming his own determination, was, he repeated, extraordinary and absurd.

Mr. O'Connell

It would be much more extraordinary, and abundantly more absurd, if the House, having decided that the question is not one which would criminate the witness, there were to be an appeal from the decision of the House, to the judgment of the witness. It would be an excellent scheme of protecting—not the witness, but somebody else. It was not the witness that required protection; somebody else was the person to be protected; not the witness. The House having decided that the witness was bound to answer the question, he thought it was not easily to be conceded that the witness, after that decision, should presume to insist on his refusal.

Mr. Goulburn

felt bound to admit that the House had no alternative but to accede to the Motion, as the witness still refused to answer the question. He had expressed his opinion in the Committee that the witness was justified in refusing to answer the question, but he was bound to defer to the decision of the House.

Mr. Wodehouse

was of opinion that no one could view a case of this kind without: being strongly impressed with the necessity of some better tribunal than at present existed for dealing with such questions. There was rapidly spreading throughout the country a feeling of dissatisfaction and tenor at the proceedings of that House. He was fully persuaded that it would be considered a court of tyranny and menace, bound by no rule of law, and actuated by no feelings of mercy.

Mr. Harvey

entirely differed from the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. So far from the impression being produced throughout the country, that the House was acting with any tyrannical feeling, he thought the impression would be, that it was offering a premium to bribery, and a protection to those who committed it. For, after all, what did the present case amount to? A man crafty and subtile, as the present witness undoubtedly was, admirably well selected for the purpose of the concealed and deeper villanies of the proceeding,—this man was told, through the organs of daily communication, that the extremest punishment to which he could possibly be exposed, was to be sent to Newgate for the short remaining period of the Session. The crime of which he was presumed to be guilty—the crime he protected by his silence—was a direct attack on the dearest interests of the people. In what way was it possible for men of feeble fortunes, but of sincere and honest intentions, to stand up as advocates of the people and their rights, if they were to be assailed by a large and concealed fund, supplied from the overgrown wealth of the bloated creatures, who dreaded that in the crumbling of corruption they would be buried beneath its ruins. It appeared to him that one question more ought to have been put to the witness as a test of his sincerity. It was this:—"If you are assured of the protection of the House by the exercise of that power which, as the Supreme Court of Legislature, it possesses—if the protection of the law be thrown around your pure and honest conduct—are you prepared to act an honest part, and state by whom you have been employed, from whom you received the money in question, and for what purpose you applied it?" If the witness stated in reply that he was anxious to do his duty, hut that he dreaded the consequences of the penalties to which he would be liable, when those who were the foremost to urge him forward in his career of crime were the first to desert him—if he stated that he was ready, as a citizen of this country, to tell the whole tale of the wrongs complained of, but was deterred by this apprehension, then would be the time to appeal to the consideration of that House; and he (Mr. Harvey) was quite certain that such an appeal would not be unavailing.

Mr. Williams Wynn

contended that the House had no power to put such a question to the witness. The House could indemnify witnesses by sending up a Bill to the other House for that purpose; but beyond this they could grant him no further indemnity than protecting him in giving his evidence.

Mr. Pringle

repudiated, in the most decided manner, the motives which the hon. and learned Member for Dublin, and the hon. and learned Member for South-wark, had imputed to those who were left in the minority in the division which had just taken place—he meant a disposition to uphold bribery.

Mr. Warburton

thought a very fit occasion had arisen for making some communication to the House of Lords to consult the Journals of that House, with the view of ascertaining in what state the Bill for the indemnity of witnesses, which had been sent up to their Lordships, now was. He thought the present would be a very fit case for exercising the power contemplated by that measure. He believed they were all agreed that a breach of privilege had been committed.

Mr. Hume

observed that the House had on former occasions interfered to stay actions of a much more important nature against individuals. As he thought it very advisable that the witness should be called in, and asked the question proposed by his hon. Friend, the Member for Southwark, he hoped the noble Lord would cones[...]n to withdraw his Motion for the present.

Mr. Ord

begged to state, with reference to the Witnesses' Indemnity Bill, that on inquiry he learned that it had been ordered to be printed by the House of Lords a month or six weeks ago, since which it had slept, and made no further progress whatever.

Mr. Hardy

said, that the House having decided that the witness ought to reply to the question, he was bound to abide by its decision, and to answer the question whatever the consequences might be; at the same time he was persuaded that the noble Chairman of the Committee, and he believed he might add every Member of it, would support him in stating that, with the single exception of refusing to answer this question, the conduct of the witness had been unexceptionable.

Question carried.

Lord John Russell

I have now to move that the witness be taken into the custody of the Sergeant-at-arms, in order that he may be examined from time to time before the Committee.

Motion agreed to.