HC Deb 01 February 1837 vol 36 cc70-8
Mr. Hume

, in moving that a Select Committee be appointed for the purpose of selecting, arranging, and regulating the printing all Parliamentary documents, said, he was quite aware that a great many questions respecting the distribution of these papers to the public had been brought before the Committee of last Session. An arrangement had been, in consequence, effected, which had given much satisfaction to the public, and conduced to the general convenience of all the parties concerned. He had no hesitation in further observing, that it would be difficult to discover a better mode than that which the Committee had adopted for giving facilities to the public in procuring important documents. His object in bringing forward his present motion, was to enable the Committee to be further prepared to yield the desired accommodation. Although a number of the Parliamentary papers of last Session had circulated widely, there still were many individuals who knew not how those documents were to be obtained. He would propose to follow up the motion which he would now lay on the Table with one for a return of the names and descriptions of all Parliamentary papers which it was proposed to supply, together with a list of the prices; the return to circulate with the "notices of motion," which issued each morning. He had stated what appeared to him (and he trusted hon. Members would give him a bearing) a most favourable opportunity for making generally known to the public the names and prices of all Parliamentary documents. The mode which he suggested, was to circulate such a return together with the printed list of "notices." Of these notices, there was printed and circulated daily a very considerable number; and he would suggest, that annexed to each printed notice should be the prices of the various Parliamentary documents, and the several places at which they were to be procured. A few extra lines would be sufficient for his purpose; and the desired information would be thus rendered accessible to the public in every Committee-room. He could assure hon. Members, that by consenting to the proposed arrangement, they would save themselves a vast deal of trouble. He had well considered the modes of affording facilities in this respect, and the plan which he suggested was the result of mature reflection. After formally moving the appointment of the Committee, the hon. Member expressed a hope that an arrangement would also be made, by which the public might be enabled to gain possession of all accessible documents relating to Select Committees, with the facility of procuring them as in the case of papers of the House of Commons, He described this arrangement as tending materially to promote the objects for which such Committees are appointed.

Sir Robert Peel

could not help thinking that great advantages would result from the adoption of some general rule as to the discretion allowed to witnesses examined orally before Committees, in the subsequent alteration of their evidence. This was, he conceived, a point of the utmost importance. The witnesses were uniformly permitted to revise their evidence, and he knew, from what had occurred in his own case, with reference to the examination of a witness before a Committee, that the most improper liberties were sometimes taken with the shorthand-writer's copy of the evidence, under the pretext of legitimate correction. In reading over the printed evidence of the individual to whom he referred, he met with an answer, of the precise terms of which, as spoken by the witness, he retained a perfect recollection; but so completely altered by the witness was its meaning, that had the answer as he found it in the printed report been given before the Committee in seeking for a further explanation, he should have undoubtedly asked some, and probably several questions. Between the addition of valuable details, and the variation of an answer, by which its meaning and substance were altered, there was a clear distinction. If a witness should fall into an unintentional error, it was quite right that he should be afforded an opportunity of correcting it. To mere verbal alterations he had no objection, so long as the meaning remained the same. But it indisputably tended to shake the confidence of the public in the fidelity with which proceedings before Committees were publicly recorded, and, by a necessary inference, in the mode of conducting those proceedings, when witnesses were known to enjoy the privilege of altering' their testimony at pleasure, and when a private party attending at a Committee was deprived of the opportunity of asking questions, which in justice to himself or others he would have been compelled to ask, if the answer, as printed, had been delivered within his hearing before the Committee. If hon. Members would take the trouble of looking over the printed evidence in a limited number of instances, they would find that in many cases the answer did not correspond with the question, and that the person examining, if he were disposed to discharge his duty properly, would indisputably have sought further explanation, and asked additional questions. It appeared to him to be of the utmost importance that a distinct un- derstanding should be arrived at with regard to the extent to which alteration of his evidence is permissible to a witness. The difference between a personal examination and prepared and written evidence was obvious to every understanding. The undoubted superiority of parol over written evidence in eliciting: the truth was destroyed by the system of deliberate alteration, and the spirit of a witness's verbal testimony, when thus retouched and reconcocted, could be traced no longer.

The Speaker

The subject to which the right hon. Baronet has now alluded, had engaged much of my attention; and, if he had not now brought it forward, I should have felt it to be my duty, on the first appointment of a Select Committee, to have stated to the House the evils arising from the indulgence given to witnesses in correcting their evidence. I have stated this, in order that the House may not suppose that I had been indifferent to so important a matter. The practice of allowing witnesses to revise their evidence leads to a great delay in printing, and, consequently, in the circulation of reports and evidence. This delay has led to many and just complaints, and during the two Sessions in which I have had the honour to sit in this chair, I have done all that was in my power, by communication with the Chairmen of Committees, to point out the necessity of reverting to a more correct practice. The extent to which witnesses have carried the alterations which they have made upon receiving their evidence, are such as appear to me to be quite indefensible. I shall refer to one case, in which a witness not only altered the answers he had given before the Committee, but he actually inserted questions to elicit answers illustrative of his own views. I have been assured that the statement which I now make is correct. In another case a witness lost the copy of his evidence, which had been sent to him for revision, and the report has now been printed, omitting altogether the evidence which he had given before the Committee. It must be obvious, that when alterations to so great and almost unlimited an extent are made in the evidence of witnesses, and without being brought under the consideration of the Committee, the opportunity of requiring and receiving explanations, by means of examination as to the new matter in- troduced, is wholly taken away from the Committee. The remedy for the evil is probably to be found in a vigilant control exercised by the Chairmen of Committees. If only very slight, or perhaps only verbal, alterations were permitted to be made, then they might be submitted to the Chairman, who might decide whether they ought to be sanctioned, or whether they are to be rejected as varying the effect of the evidence given before the Committee. If this control is not effectually exercised by Chairmen of Committees, it will then be necessary that recourse should be had to some stronger measures; but it is not desirable to pass resolutions in the House, when the end can be otherwise obtained. It appears to be so essential to sustain the accuracy and authenticity of the evidence given before Committees of this House, that I hope I shall be excused for having said so much on the subject.

Mr. Charles Buller

still retained the opinion which he had expressed during the last Session—that the most effectual plan for the abatement of this nuisance would be to prevent altogether the correction of evidence. The only ground, as he understood, upon which the practice of permitting witnesses to revise their testimony could be for a moment justified, was the propriety of affording to persons examined before Committees the opportunity of correcting sentences hastily and unguardedly uttered. The plan which he would propose was to withhold altogether from witnesses the opportunity of making these corrections; and whenever an unguarded word was let fall, allowance would be made for the imperfection of unstudied style. If a different rule were adopted from that which he had the honour to propose, the Chairmen of Committees would of necessity be placed in circumstances of great difficulty. During the past Session it was determined by a Committee, of which he was a member, that no witness should be permitted to revise his evidence before it had been printed. The evidence was accordingly printed and sent to the witnesses for the purpose of revision. One witness, in performing this task, so far from confining himself to matters of style, altered almost every sentence, a process by which the meaning was in many instances materially changed. He (Mr. Buller) was consequently obliged to read from beginning to end of the witness's testimony, for the purpose of ascer- taining where the alterations might be suffered to continue. The task was sufficiently troublesome, for the evidence extended over 30 or 40 folio pages. The best mode, in his opinion, of remedying this abuse, would be found in withholding from witnesses the privilege of correcting their evidence at all; or, if at all, they should be made to perform the task in the Committee-room, on the day of their examination. If the witness should be subsequently desirous to give any additional testimony, he would have only to come before the Committee and give it. But the system at present pursued, with regard to the correction of evidence, was in every respect preposterous.

An hon. Member said, that a Committee, on which he had sat for a considerable portion of the last Session, did not send in their report, with the corrected evidence annexed, until the month of October, although the Committee had ceased to sit before the prorogation of Parliament in August.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

deprecated the very improper use which had been repeatedly made by witnesses, of the privilege which was generally extended to them, of correcting their evidence. While, however, he fully concurred with the hon. Gentlemen who preceded him in reprobating these unjustifiable practices, he thought that the safest and most efficacious remedy would be found in the exercise of a vigilant control by the Chairmen of Committees. No hon. Gentleman could have had more numerous occasions of witnessing these improprieties than himself. Mistakes sometimes crept into the short-hand writer's notes; and in that case a correction was necessary; but this by no means implied the legitimacy of the extent to which witnesses frequently carried their alterations. The evil might be satisfactorily remedied by a little vigilance on the part of Chairmen. For his part, he had suffered from the inconvenience of evidence being thus altered at will; and had occasion, in one instance, to report to the House where the witness answered a question originally in the affirmative, and subsequently in the negative. Correction was in some instances undoubtedly necessary; but the Clerk of the Minutes, in submitting them to the consideration of the Chairman, should be bound to call the Chairman's attention to every correction introduced by the witness. The fact of the minutes of evidence being taken home by the witness out of the jurisdiction of the House of Commons was the foundation of all that was erroneous in the system. If the witness were assured of the fact that he would be compelled to submit every alteration to the Chairman's judgment, the evil would soon find its remedy; and no change would be introduced but such as common sense and sound judgment sanctioned. He remembered a case which had called forth his marked animadversion at the period of its occurrence. He alluded to the report of a Committee of which his hon. Friend (the Attorney-General) had been Chairman, in which the evidence as originally given, and as afterwards altered by the witness, was printed in parallel columns. He would not say that his recollection of the circumstance was perfectly accurate; but, at all events, if the exposure was made in the mode which he had stated, the proceeding was quite justifiable.

Mr. Williams Wynn

entirely concurred with hon. Members in reprobating the latitude in which witnesses sometimes indulged, under pretext of correcting their evidence. He did not see how it was possible to preserve the purity of evidence, so long as these sweeping alterations were permitted. At the same time, he contended that it would be quite unfair to deprive the witness of the opportunity of rectifying errors for which he was by no means himself accountable. The evidence was taken in short-hand, and afterwards transcribed. It was impossible that during this process errors should not creep in. Mistakes had been frequently made, and the witness of course misrepresented. For these the witness could not be held responsible, and an occasional sinking of the voice on his part would of necessity create ellipses in the shorthand-writer's notes. The privilege of correction should be therefore afforded to the witness; but in the exercise of that privilege he should be restricted by a salutary control. He would instance the case of an election petition, where the evidence is taken in shorthand, and no opening is afforded for correction. He had no doubt, however, that if a witness stated to the Committee that he feared the Clerk might have committed an error of importance in taking some portion of his evidence, the Committee would direct the minutes to be altered accordingly. A similar procedure might be adopted by every other species of Committee.

Mr. O'Connell remarked

, that hon. Gentlemen seemed to have overlooked a very important view of the question. It was in evidence before several Committees of the House that property and character might be alike assailed, as in his own case, by witnesses examined before Committees, while, as it at present stood, the law afforded no remedy whatever to the injured party. The witness enjoyed the utmost impunity; and the vilest character might be imputed to a man, and the falsest representations of him made; yet there existed no legal punishment for what was an undoubted crime. The course pursued in Committees of the House of Lords was very different. There the depositions were taken on oath; and an obvious remedy was thus afforded, for which in that House there existed no remedy at all. A power should be granted to proceed in such cases for misdemeanour against the party who wilfully and corruptly mis-stated facts; and the remedy which the criminal law permits should not be excluded from proceedings before a Committee of the House of Commons.

Mr. Williams Wynn

apprehended that any prevarication or false testimony might be punished satisfactorily by the House in the event of its being proved to have been committed by a witness. It would be the bounden duty of the House, in such an event, to visit the guilty party with condign punishment.

Mr. O'Connell

.—You are provided with the means of contradicting what the witness states. But take the case where witnesses contradict each other, or have come from distant parts of the country, and returned to their respective homes. In such a case, what remedy do you possess? I shall make the experiment of attempting to discover one, now that I have spoken of the subject.

Sir Robert Peel

.—A great deal might be urged in favour of the position of hon. Members, who hold that no alteration whatever should be suffered in the minutes. In a criminal case you would not attach so much weight to evidence altered subsequently to its delivery as to evidence remaining in its original state. The effect of such a system would be to make the witnesses much more clear and careful in the formation of their answers. Their grammar, I have no doubt, would be much better attended to, and much of the laxity which now prevails among witnesses in giving their evidence, would possibly be removed for the future.

Sir Robert Inglis

observed, with reference to a previous remark of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he knew of only one case in which a witness had been permitted to carry the copy of his evidence home.

Mr. Hume

was of opinion, that if the evidence were printed exactly in the form in which it was taken down, the Chairman of the Committee would be able to judge in a moment whether the alterations introduced by the witness were merely verbal. It had fallen to his lot to find question and answer both so altered, as to involve a complete change of meaning.

Mr. Ewart

remarked, that no alteration was ever permitted to be introduced into the notes of evidence taken in the courts of law; and that, as Committees of the House exerted a similar capacity to that of the courts of law, they should follow in this respect the example of the latter.

Dr. Bowring

instanced a case of gross ignorance on the part of a shorthand-writer employed to take the evidence at a Committee upon East-India affairs. A witness speaking of the silk worm mentioned it by the scientific name "bombyx;" and when the evidence had been printed, the shorthand-writer was found to have described it as "all bombast." He thought that the witnesses should be allowed to read and correct their testimony under the surveillance of the Chairman.

Mr. Hume

would propose, that every Member of the House of Commons should, on the next morning after the examination of a witness, receive a copy of the evidence, literally as it had been given. Each individual member would thus be a check on the Chairman, and this proposition (if acceded to) would have the effect of obviating the great mistakes which the shorthand-writers were in the habit of committing.

Sir Robert Inglis

remarked, that if every member were thus furnished with an incorrect copy of the evidence, the errors which each copy contained would become immortalized.

The motion carried, and Committee appointed.