HC Deb 03 April 1838 vol 42 cc374-82
Mr. M. J. O'Connell rose

, to call the attention of the House to the petition of the electors of Belfast, relating to the system of taxing witnesses' expenses in election cases; and as that was a subject of some importance, he trusted it fully justified him in bringing it under the notice of the House. The case was so new, that he had hunted in vain for authorities. The petition, which must be fresh in the memory of the House, related to the claims of two gentlemen who were witnesses before a Select Committee of the House, and the very Committee which had seated them. The petitioners, who were agents to the Earl of Belfast and Mr. Gibson, the sitting Members for Belfast, until very lately, objected, among many other things, to the qualification, in respect to property, of Mr. Tennent, whom he did not then see in his place, and to the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Dunbar) opposite; warrants were issued requiring those hon. Gentlemen to produce the necessary documents in proof of their qualification. Mr. Tennent, in behalf of himself, applied to Mr. Alexander Montgomery, the agent of the petitioners, for money to defray his travelling expenses to London, giving notice, at the same time, that unless his demand was complied with, he would not produce the papers. In consequence of this application, in order to secure his object, the agent gave a personal undertaking for such expenses as should be awarded to him. After the decision of the Committee, favourable as it was both to Mr. Tennent and to Mr. Dunbar, Mr. Tennent made a demand upon the agent for, in addition to the usual charge of one guinea a-day, the amount of 10l. for travelling expenses home to Belfast, although he still remained in London. The demand made by Mr. Dunbar was for 42l. 1s.,—namely, for travelling expenses to London, 10l.; for twenty-one days' expenses from the 13th of February to the 6th of March, 22l. 1s,; and for travelling expenses home, 10l. This demand was accompanied by a note to the following effect:—"The above are the particulars of my expenses, and I request you will appoint a time for the taxation thereof, and I will give you notice, that until the amount thereof be paid I will remain in London at your expense. GEORGE DUNBAR." Mr. John Bates, the law agent of the present Members, had also furnished a demand for 123l. 19s. although he came to London solely on their business, and his personal attendance was required throughout the proceedings. The expenses so claimed had been awarded, and the petitioners therefore complained of the present system of taxation of the expenses of witnesses in election petition cases, and prayed for an alteration. Unusual as the case was, he had found one precedent bearing on it. He referred to the Hertford case, reported by Perry and Knapp, in which it was held that a witness could only demand ex- penses for bringing him up to attend on the Committee, but that all subsequent expenses were subject to taxation. In this case the parties had gone before Mr. Rose, whose decision had been much impugned in the public newspapers and otherwise, and therefore it would be an act of justice to that Gentleman to have the matter investigated. It was his intention to move for a Select Committee to institute an investigation. Having stated the leading features of the case, he would ask, did not the House think it was one which called for some notice? Was it fair to say, that even if parties could make out no case against the qualification of a candidate, they were to be debarred from the proofs of it, or to be allowed to have them only under the penalty of paying such heavy expenses? He thought it due to the character of the House and to common justice, that there should be some expression of opinion against claims of this kind, or some inquiry into the state of the law which justified such claims. He should, therefore, move for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the laws which regulate the taxation of witnesses' expenses examined before Committees appointed for the trial of controverted elections.

Mr. Dunbar

did not rise for the purpose of opposing the motion of the hon. Member for Kerry, but as his name had been introduced into the petition he was sure that the House would pardon him for addressing a few observations with respect to it. It had been truly stated in the petition, that a demand had been made on his part for his expenses, and he thought no doubt could be entertained of his right to make that demand, as the officers appointed by the House had awarded expenses in similar circumstances to his colleague. This was not, however, the reason why he had made a claim for expenses. His reason was, that Lord Belfast's agent had made a demand, amounting to 15l., and when he (Mr. Dunbar) was made aware of this, he informed his solicitor, that if he chose he might apply for the amount of the expenses to which he (Mr. Dunbar) was legally entitled. But whilst he said this to his solicitor, he told him at the same time, that they should not be accepted by him (Mr. Dunbar), but that they should be divided amongst the poorer class of witnesses, who suffered considerably in consequence of being detained from their various pursuits and occupations of business in London, waiting to be examined. As it might be supposed by the party opposite, that he had been put to no expense, he wished to avail himself of the present opportunity of stating, that it was not the fact. He had been served with a notice to produce a certain deed, in order to afford to the sitting Members the fullest opportunity of questioning his qualification and of searching into it. He was advised to be prepared with the witness to that deed, lest some cause of complaint or objection might be raised if that witness was not present. Accordingly, he had been placed under the necessity of bringing the witness he alluded to at great expense from the north of Ireland, and that witness being a professional man, and having been detained for upwards of three weeks, he felt bound to allow him three guineas a-day and his expenses back again, and this witness alone had cost him (Mr. Dunbar) upwards of one hundred pounds. Now, after he had been subjected to all this expense, would it be believed, that that deed never had been asked for? But that was not the only expense to which he had been subjected with respect to his qualification. He had been questioned respecting another deed, and after that deed had been produced, and after the opposite party had considered and perused it, they found that it would not answer their purpose. They accordingly returned the deed, and refused to give it in evidence. Now, he asked the House, was not this a case of hardship—was it not a case of hardship that a Member in this way should be compelled to produce his deeds, and that after they had been searched and inquired into, it should appear that there was no foundation—that there were no grounds whatever for the course that had been taken respecting this transaction? There never was a more frivolous or vexatious attack—never a more groundless and wanton attempt to assail the qualification of any Member—than had been made in his (Mr. Dunbar's) case. He would venture to say in the presence of those who would be able to correct him if he was wrong, that if his qualification was the only question before the Committee they would have been constrained bye the groundlessness of the case in that respect (as we understood the hon. Member) to have found the defence of the petition frivolous and vexatious. Without having had to call a single witness in defence of his qualification before the Committee, they came to an unanimous decision that there were no grounds on which to impeach his qualification. Even more than this—Lord Belfast, his opponent, had stated to him, that in his opinion his qualification ought not to be questioned. It would be quite a mistake for any one to suppose that the parties to the petition were the parties whom he sought to obtain his expenses from. Why, no man could be considered in his senses who would think of expecting a single farthing from them. Two of them had been struck off by the Committee as not being qualified to vote as 10l. freeholders. They were mere men of straw. He had a better mark; for whatever obligations the hon. Member for Kerry and his Friends at the other side of the House might be under to the party to whom he alluded, he, at least, was not under any whatsoever. The party to whom he alluded was Mr. Gibson. It was at the instance and request of that individual party that the summonses had been issued, as appeared from the originals in the Secretary's office. As he had stated that he was under no obligations to Mr. Gibson, he felt no hesitation to mention, that the day on which Lord Belfast had made up his mind to give up the defence of his seat, Mr. Gibson came down to the House and voted. The hon. Member for Kerry had told them, that he could not find a precedent for the demand made, and neither could he find any precedent for a man voting after it had been settled that he did not rightfully possess a seat. The instance of a Member's voting on the day on which the tenure of his seat was about to expire, was a case without precedent, and one which he hoped they would never see followed in practice. He wished to make one observation with respect to a gentleman whose name had been mentioned in connexion with this case. He alluded to Mr. Bates, than whom there was no more respectable gentleman in his profession. That gentleman would never have thought of asking for his expenses if Lord Belfast's agent had not made an application for his expenses. To show that Mr. Bates was sincere in that course, he opposed Lord Belfast's agent's claims before the Committee, and so far succeeded as to prevent that party being allowed more than a part of them. That gentleman then, immediately withdrew his own claim, though it was larger in consequence of his having been obliged to go to Ireland, whilst the other party, Lord Belfast's agent, remained in London, being engaged, as he styled himself, in the capacity of a Parliamentary agent. As a matter in which he was so much personally concerned had been brought before the House, he felt bound to make this statement, and thanked the House for the indulgence with which they had heard him.

Mr. Wynn

said, that the conversation which had just ensued showed the extreme inconvenience of entertaining such a motion as the present. This question of costs had already been referred under a particular Act of Parliament to two individuals, who always had been, and ever would be, without any political leaning, against whom there could be no suspicion—viz., a Master in Chancery and one of the clerks at the table. That tribunal had been fixed in order to avoid questions of this kind being brought by way of appeal before the House. It was obvious, that to enter upon such an appeal it would be necessary to go into the whole history of the election—into everything which passed at the trial of the petition, and with a full experience of similar cases, he felt it would be infinitely better for the House to avoid entering into an examination of such questions. As to an examination into the laws, it was unnecessary, for the law under which the claim had been recognised was contained in one short clause of the statute. If better referees in such cases than a Master in Chancery and one of the clerks at the table could be found, it would be easy to make a provision changing the tribunal in the Bill now before the House, or by a separate measure, if necessary. He was however, of opinion a more fair or impartial tribunal could not be found.

Mr. H. Grattan

said, he thought it was most unjust, on the part of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Dunbar), to have attacked the late Member for Belfast (Mr. Gibson). He had read the letter addressed by that Gentleman to his late constituents, and he found nothing to censure in it; and he must add, that he never heard of a more extraordinary decision than that which had said a lease for lives renewable for ever was not a freehold. In Ireland it had always been so considered. Upon that tenure a great part of the property in Ireland was held, and he (Mr. H. Grattan) appealed to any lawyer to say, whether a qualification founded on such property was not sufficient. He maintained that Mr. Gibson had as good a qualification, as good an Irish freehold, nay, much better than the hon. Gentleman who now sat in his place.

Lord J. Russell

would decline entering into any part of the present discussion, concurring, as he did, in the views expressed by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Wynn). He was unwilling to presume that there was any reason to find fault with the officer in the discharge of the duty referred to him, and seeing no such grounds, he was equally unwilling to accede to the present motion.

Motion withdrawn.