HC Deb 29 June 1842 vol 64 cc770-80

Mr. Roebuck moved That Alexander Bailie Cochrane, Esq., one of the Members for Bridport, do attend before the select committee on Election Proceedings, and give evidence, on Monday next.

Mr. Bailie Cochrane

regretted exceedingly that he should be again called on to address the House relative to the borough he represented; at the same time he could not apologize for trespassing on the time of the House, as the necessity did not arise from any fault of his. If the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, and if the Government generally had not sanctioned the proceedings of the hon. Member for Bath—if they bad not allowed this committee to be appointed, and be thought it to be the feeling of the House that it had been roost improperly appointed—he should not now be compelled to occupy the attention of the House. In the first instance, the questions which the hon. Member for Bath had asked in that House ought never to have been put, and he appealed to the Speaker to say whether they ought to have been answered? He repeated, that the position he was now obliged to occupy in that House, in replying to the motion of the hon. Member for Bath, arose not from any fault of his Own, butt from the fault of the House in originally granting this committee. He would remind the House of the circumstances of the case as related to himself. A petition had been presented to the House from Mr. Warburton, containing charges against him. He then made at the time a full statement of facts, and he took advantage of the present opportunity of declaring, that notwithstanding some contradictions which had appeared in the newspapers, every particular he then stated was perfectly true. He had answered all the charges against him, but at the same time he expressed a wish that the matter should be referred to this committee; not that he expected that he should ever be called before it. His reason for desiring the affair to be referred to the committee was, because he feared the special pleading of the hon. Member for Worcester would not be sufficient to clear Mr. Warburton, and therefore he was willing that Mr. Warburton should have an opportunity of appearing before the committee, and of refuting any charge which he might think was falsely made against him. He repeated, that he had not expected to be examined. He had no wish, like Mr. Warburton, to become common informer with respect to the borough he represented. He did not think he was justified in laying before the House or the committee any circumstances of which he had cognizance respecting that borough; but there was a particular reason why he had not acceded to the request of the hon. Member for Bath to appear before the committee, and one which the House, when they were informed of it, would certainly pay attention to, and deem reasonable. It was one personally relating to himself. There had been indictments pending against him in Dorsetshire ever since he had taken his seat for the borough he now represented. It was not certain on what day these indictments would be brought forward; but he believed, that they would not be proceeded with. Now, he asked, how could he, situated as he was, appear before the committee to make statements which might by possibility inculpate himself, every Member of the committee having the power to send a written account of those statements down to Dorsetshire? He asked, was it just to compel him to make statements of this kind? He could not agree in thinking, that the bon. Member for Bath was conducting the proceedings of the committee in a very impartial manner. He now asked the hon. Member for Bath whether be had examined Mr. Warburton and his agent? No; the hon, Member kept these back to the last; so that be would have no opportunity of refuting- any charge made against him. He bad been ordered to attend to-day, and again asked whether it was not true that Mr. Warburton was not ordered to attend? Was it not the bon, Member's intention to examine him and his bon. Colleague previous to examining Mr. Warburton? [Mr. Roebuck: It was.] He again informed the House, that the particular ground on which he objected to appear before the committee, was, that there were indictments pending against him, and he thought the House would admit, that that was a just ground of objection. It might be possible, that in consequence of his statements before the committee being made known, the indictments would be pressed against him, and was it fair that the House should place him in such a situation. But, if this objection was not thought sufficient, there were other objections of a public character. There were circumstances of a most un- paralleled nature connected with this committee. In the first place, it was not sworn, in the second, it was secret; in the third, the parties charged were not confronted with their accusers; and in the fourth, the accused had no opportunity of challenging the jury. These were circumstances unheard of in the annals of England. He was surprised, that the noble Lord, the Member for London, should join in these proceedings; for, on referring to a work written by that noble Lord a long time ago, he found a passage on civil liberty, of which he should take the liberty of reminding the noble Lord. The noble Lord enumerated several of the advantages enjoyed in England, and mentioned as a great security, more valuable perhaps than any other, that the trials took place in public, and the accused was brought face to face with his accuser before the country. If he were to go before the committee, how should he know what Mr. Warburton had already stated or might state hereafter? How should he know that he was not criminating himself in every word? He had now stated the reasons why he objected to attend before the committee, and having done so, he should leave the matter in the hands of the House. If the House decided that he was to attend this committee, he should bow to the decision of the House; not but that he was perfectly aware that, by not attending the committee, he should be advocating what he considered a right and great principle; but because he thought that, if he refused to obey the decisions of the House, he should be sacrificing a still greater principle—his duty to the House. Still, he would say this openly in the face of the House, and in spite of any consequences that might result to himself from the determination to which he had come, that he should firmly, but respectfully, decline to produce any documents, or to answer any single question which might in any shadow of a degree compromise, or tend to cast a slur on the character of any one person in the borough which he had the honour to represent. He would bow to the authority of the House in attending the committee, but he considered no command superior to a point of honour in a man's own breast, and no human authority could sanction the violation of the confidence which had been reposed in him.

Mr. Roebuck

understood the hon. Mem- ber to object to the course proposed to be taken in the investigation of the case of the borough he represented. The committee desired, as far as possible, to consult the convenience of Members of that House, and with this view had generally asked them to attend first; but as the hon. Member objected to this mode of proceeding, he might venture to undertake that Mr. Warburton should be examined, not only previous to him, but before his very face.

Mr. Mitchell

was understood to protest against the principle on which the inquiry was conducted. There were persons charged before the committee who were not Members of that House, and who had no opportunity of rebutting the allegations made against them. The first time they would hear of the serious charges against them would be only when the hon. Member for Bath brought up the report of the committee, and then they would have no opportunity of clearing themselves. For himself, he should be most happy, in obedience to the Order of the House, to state fully all that related to himself; but he would say nothing which might affect, either criminally or morally, another party.

Mr. Liddell

said, that after the statement made by the hon. Member for Bridport, that there were certain indictments pending against him which might compromise his character and pocket, and that possibly the evidence he should be called on to give before the committee might have a tendency to criminate him, he did not think that the hon. Member ought in fairness to be called on to give evidence before the committee so long as those indictments were pending. Let them either be tried or abandoned, and then the hon. Member's evidence might be proceeded with before the committee. As an independent Member of the House he was anxious to see justice done to all parties, and he could not consent that any Member in the position of the hon. Member for Bridport should he called on to give evidence which might tend to criminate himself, and thereby induce parties to follow up the indictments. He should suggest that the hon. Member's attendance be dispensed with while the indictments were pending.

Sir R. Peel

said, he certainly must have misunderstood the speech of the hon. Member for Bridport on a former occasion, for he had been of opinion that the hon. Member had expressed his anxiety that he should have a full opportunity of repelling the reflection cast on him, and his hope that the case of Bridport would be referred to the committee. Of course, on being referred to the committee it became subject to the same principles as those by which the whole inquiry was conducted; and he could not help thinking, considering the very natural and honourable wish entertained by gentlemen conscious of their innocence, that the House should grant the committee of inquiry, that if he had opposed any obstacle, he should have been told that he allowed charges to be made and when inquiry was challenged he was the person who prevented it. The hon. Member for Bridport had desired that the case of that borough should be referred, like the cases of other boroughs, to the committee, and he did not understand that Mr. Warburton was to be examined and that the hon. Member was not to be examined. With respect to the position in which the hon. Gentleman stated he was placed, he thought that his objection to be examined on account of pending suits should be stated before the committee, for the House had decided, in. the case of Mr. Fleming, that that was the proper tribunal to take cognizance of the objection. But there was an important point to which he thought he ought to call the attention of the House, because it was exceedingly inconvenient to establish any new precedent without mature consideration. The point had not been alluded to by any other hon. Member, but on looking at the journals he was not aware that there was an instance of the House compelling the attendance of a Member before a committee to give evidence. There were instances of applications to the House, on the part of committees, in order that Members might be compelled to attend before them; but it seemed doubtful whether these applications had been complied with. As this then was an important constitutional question, it would be unwise in the House to make any peremptory Order without consideration; and he appealed to the high authority of the Chair to know what the Speaker considered to be the usage of the House of Commons with respect to Members attending committees.

The Speaker

said, that he had searched the Journals within the last two or three days, and had not as yet discovered any instance where an order had been made on a Member of the House to give evidence before a select committee. He had found a case, where a committee of grievances reported that a Member had refused to attend them, and the House then resolved, that in all cases where Members refuse to attend select committees when required to do so, the committee should report the name of the Member to the House; but no further proceedings were taken in that case. In 1790, a case occurred which he thought it right to mention. A committee was about to be appointed on the slave-trade, and it was intimated to the House that one of its Members, Major-general Rooke, could give important information on that subject, and the House thereupon ordered, that it be an instruction to the said committee, that they should take the examination of Major-general Rooke if he should think fit to be so examined. In 1782 another case occurred. A Member of the House (Mr. Barwell) was examined before a committee appointed on the administration of justice in Bengal, but refused to give satisfactory answers to certain questions which the committee had put to him. The committee reported the facts to the House, and informed the House, that the committee were under the necessity to examine Mr. Barwell; and Mr. Barwell being in his place, got up and consented to attend the committee, and be examined, but in no case could he find that the House had made a peremptory order on a Member of the House to give evidence before a committee against his own determination.

Sir R. Peel

thought, under these circumstances it would be desirable, before coming to a decision, for the House to take a little time to search into the precedents. Perhaps the hon. Member himself would relieve the House, by assenting to attend before the committee, from the necessity of making the immediate inquiry on this point, which might last as long as the investigation of the committee before whom he was summoned to attend.

Lord J. Manners

said, from what had now fallen from the Chair, he thought very grave doubts must arise in the minds of every hon. Member present as to whether the motion of the hon. and learned Member ought, with regard to the precedents, to be followed. The case of Sir G. Rooke appeared to be a case in point. The House then decided that they had no power to compel Sir G. Rooke to be examined to anything he might object to. If, then, the hon. and learned Member had worded his motion with regard to that precedent, he apprehended that there would have been no objection to it. But as he merly moved that the hon. Member for Bridport attend this committee and give evidence without the qualifying clause he thought there would be no difficulty in the House to coming to a negative decision upon it.

Mr. O'Connell

said, if he understood rightly, there was no precedent of the House sanctioning the refusal of a Member to attend a committee, and there was no precedent of the House compelling any Member to attend; but there was on the other hand, no precedent which should make them negative this motion. Some course, therefore, ought to be taken to leave this question at large without prejudice.

Mr. Smythe

said, that the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, said there was no precedent for sanctioning and affirming the refusal of a Member to attend; but in one of the cases mentioned by the Chair, Mr. Barwell was summoned to attend the committee in relation to Indian affairs, and he had been connected with the rule of India during the Government of Mr. Warren Hastings there, and if upon such an occasion as that the House did not consider it sufficiently important to decide, he thought that on an occasion of so little importance as the Bridport election, which the. noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies said was not to be followed up by pains and penalties, they would not sanction this motion.

Lord J. Russell

said, that if the House negatived this motion, it would imply that they had not the power to order the attendance of one of its Members. The precedents he had no doubt, were as had been stated by the Chair; but as there might be a doubt as to the power of the House if they thought fit to exercise it, if there was no precedent to make the order, he thought the House ought not to take any course without grave and serious consideration. He therefore should propose that if the hon. Gentleman was not ready to relieve the House of the difficulty by saying he was ready to be examined, the debate should be adjourned.

Lord Pollington

said, that if the committee wished to summon before them a Peer of the other House, a special application must be made to that House, and that Peer would be ordered to attend if he thought fit. Now, he saw no reason why a Member of the House of Commons should be placed in a worse position than a Peer of Parliament.

Mr. Darby

should not vote against the motion if it were pressed; but thought it better that the hon. and learned Member for Bath should withdraw his motion, and a committee be appointed to inquire into precedents. With respect to the proceedings of the committee, he certainly must object to the evidence being printed when their proceedings closed, for that evidence might effect the characters of persons who would have had no opportunity of examining or cross-examining witnesses to rebut the charges against them. Such persons would be placed in a position in which no one was ever placed in a court of justice. If that committee proceeded in a manner against which public feeling existed, instead of doing that which that House was determined to do—viz., expose bribery, they would have that feeling combined against them, and would be in a worse situation than they were in before.

Mr. R. Yorke

was perfectly satisfied that the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just spoken had misunderstood the question as between the committee and the House, it appeared to him, that in the speech of every hon. Member who had addressed the House the question had assumed a personal character as against the hon. and learned Member for Bath. That was his impression, and he thought that that was the impression that would go forth to the public with respect to this debate. He was glad to hear that such was not the case, but he rose to say that he fully identified himself with the part the hon. and learned Gentleman had taken in these proceedings, and he would state further with great humility to the hon. and learned Gentleman, that in all the proceedings he had ever witnessed he never saw a person more fully alive to the delicacy of the situation he had brought upon himself by moving for this committee, and more consistent and delicate towards every person connected with it, than the hon. and learned Member for Bath.

Debate adjourned to the following Monday.

On the motion of Sir R. Peel a select committee was appointed to search the journals for precedents in respect to any Member of the House being compelled by an order of the House to give evidence before the House on any committee appointed by the House.