HC Deb 21 March 1843 vol 67 cc1154-62
Sir Thomas Wilde

said: I rise, Sir, to bring under the notice of this House a subject connected with its privileges. No doubt many hon. Members are aware, from the usual sources of information, that it has been supposed by the Lord Chief Justice of England that reflections were made upon him, in the course of a debate in this House, highly reflecting upon the principles which the person who holds that most dignified and important office ought to possess. Sir, by the public journals that speech, and those reflections, are imputed to me; and I apprehend that it becomes a Member of this House who has any explanation to offer, or any disavowal to make, to choose his place in this House to offer such disavowal or explanation. Every one must feel impressed with the great importance which belongs to the character of the Lord Chief Justice of England; and it becomes every one, therefore, to be extremely cautious of imputing to the person who holds that distinguished office anything inconsistent with the high principles which the public have a right to expect should he entertained and enforced from that station. In the course of the debate on the subject of privilege, I thought it necessary to call attention to the danger which the privileges of this House would incur by being submitted to the jurisdiction of the learned judges of Westminster-hall. I remarked on the great probability, that on many of the great questions upon which Parliament would be called to deliberate and to act, there was not the same opportunity for the judges to form a correct judgment as for Members of Parliament, and I referred to this as likely to lead to a material difference of opinion between this House and those tribunals. It is unnecessary for me to offer any remarks upon the great inconvenience and injury which must result from any conflict between this House and the courts of justice. Neither could it he a matter of discussion, because it was obvious, from what had recently taken place, that serious public inconvenience had actually been felt. The remarks, which the subject appeared to me to call for seem to have given pain to, and to have been thought to reflect on, the learned and dignified person holding that high office. On the other hand, expressions have been used towards this House which I cannot but think both unseemly and uncalled for. In order to illustrate the position in which the officers of this House might be placed by allowing the courts of law to adjudicate on these questions of privilege, I called the attention of the House to the opinion recorded by Lord Chief Justice Denman upon the subject of printed papers, which has been so often under the consideration of this House. It will be in the recollection of the House that an act of Parliament was passed, authorising the Crown to issue a commission to inquire into the condition of the several prisons in this country. In the course of his duty the Inspector visited the prison of Newgate, and thereupon made a report as to what he discovered in relation to the conduct and management of that prison. In the course of that report the Inspector referred to a book which he found in that prison, published by a person named Stockdale. Mr. Stockdale brought an action for libel in consequence of the statement made by the commissioner in that report, which report was made under the authority of a commission from the Crown, had been authorised by an act of Parliament, which had been laid before the Crown, had by the Crown been submitted to both Houses of Parliament, and by order of that House had been printed for the information of the public. A document, therefore, less open to suspicion of malicious or bad motives, or a document coming with higher authority and sanction, I cannot imagine; and a subject of greater importance for inquiry by the Legislature than the management and conduct of prisons in this country there cannot be. When Stockdale brought his action against the printer of the House of Commons for libel, the printer, acting under the direction of the House, stated that he published it in compliance with the orders, and under the authority of the House. When the matter came before the Court of Queen's Bench, the Lord Chief Justice, in discussing the application of the privilege to the subject-matter under discussion, used certain expressions with regard to that book which I will presently read to the House, affirming in effect that the publication of this report was unauthorised, on the ground, among others, that the state- ment relative to the book was wholly irrelevant to the subject of prison discipline, and wholly irrelevant to the subject of legislation upon that discipline. That opinion appeared to me so strikingly at variance with the opinion of Parliament, that I pointed it out as one of the instances in which difference of opinion might exist, where it would least be expected to arise. I will now, Sir, call the attention of the House to the report which contained the statement relative to that book. The commissioner says that he proceeded to Newgate prison. In ward No. 10, We found," are his words, "that the wards-man, a convicted prisoner, owned all the bedding, crockery ware, the knives, forks, kettles, and saucepans, for the use of which each prisoner pays him 2s;. 6d;.a-week. There was a good supply of Bibles and Prayer-books provided by the prison, together with other religious books, the gift of Captain Brown. These books, particularly the Bible, bore little appearance of having been used. On discovering the cupboards of this ward, we found a pack of cards, apparently much used, a cribbage-board and pegs, and two draught boards and men; we also found four tobacco-pipes, in some of which the tobacco still remained, and a box with tobacco in it. These, though forbidden by the prison regulations, were quite exposed on the shelves of the cupboards, and must have been detected on the most superficial inspection of the ward by any officer of the prison. We also found a bundle of newspapers, twelve in all; and, upon inquiry, we found that a daily paper is taken in in this ward. The newsman, who lives next door to the Giltspur-street Computer, and who is also a tobacconist, brings it regularly every day to his customers, the prisoners, to whom he has access, unattended by an officer. One of the principal turnkeys, who accompanied us, said that the daily papers were allowed by the governor, but that no Sunday paper was admitted; such papers he said, were strictly forbidden. This he told us aloud, in the hearing of the prisoners. But we subsequently ascertained that Sunday papers were as publicly brought into the prison on the Sunday morning, as the other papers during the rest of the week; that on Sunday evenings, the turnkey above alluded to regularly borrowed the Sunday paper, the Dispatch, from a prisoner, and returned it to him on the Monday. We found porter in a bottle on the shelf, though none could have been brought into the ward since one o'clock on the day before. The wardsman had a snuff-box, and snuff, which he used continually and openly; there was also another snuff-box in the ward; and each prisoner, if he liked, might have had one. We found two boxes, containing two or three strong files: four had brad awls, several large iron spikes, screws, nails, and knives; all of them instruments calculated to facilitate attempts at breaking out of prison; and capable of becoming most dangerous weapons in the hands of desperate and determined men. I brought before the House the previous statements to show that this was not a single circumstance introduced into the report, but that it was given in the course of a detail of other circumstances connected with the management of the prison. I now come to the particulars which gave rise to the action of libel. We also found," the report continues, "several books; amongst them, 'Guthrie's Grammar,' a song-book, the ' Keepsake Annual, for 1836,' and the—,by—,18 plates, published by Stockdale, 1827. The commissioners add, This last is a book of a most disgusting-nature, and the plates are obscene and indecent in the extreme. It was claimed as his property by a prisoner named—,and was kept in the cupboard without any attempt at concealment. We also met with large bundles of papers, which, on examination, proved to be rough drafts of briefs. For that report, and for a second report, by the same commissioners—sent because the city authorities impugned the correctness of the character of this book, and called it a scientific work—for these two reports the action was brought. Lord Chief Justice Denman, according to the printed report, in commenting on the judgment delivered in that case of Stockdale v. Hansard, expressed himself thus:— It was likewise stated by him (Lord Denman) that the defamatory matter had no bearing on any question in Parliament, or that could arise there. The complaint before the court was, that Mr. Stockdale charged Hansard with printing a libel, and he (Lord Denman), in giving judgment, observed: 'Whether the book found in the possession of a prisoner in Newgate were obscene or decent could have no influence in determining how prisons could best be regulated.' And how could it at all bear upon the question as to the way in which a privilege of the House of Commons was exercised, whether a particular man had in his possession an obscene book or not? Nobody had ever put forth such a monstrous doctrine, nobody had ever maintained such an opinion, or had ever offered resistance to the abuse complained of in the publishing of a libel by order of the House of Commons, under the plea that the publication was of and concerning an obscene book found in the possession of a prisoner in Newgate. He would repeat that the nature of the book had nothing on earth to do with the question as to how prisons could best be regulated. I had reason to suppose that the House did not concur in that opinion. I, therefore, referred to that opinion, and I stated that Lord Denman had said, "What in the world could the book have to do with prison discipline?" I referred to the noble and learned Lord's judgment on no part of the subject, except as to whether the nature of the book admitted into the prison was or was not material to the discussion of, and legislation on, prison discipline. To that point alone my remarks were addressed. It is complained of me that I imputed to Lord Chief Justice Denman not that he said "the question of what books were read by the prisoners was immaterial to the question of prison discipline," but that if "the question was immaterial, whether obscene books were or were not read by the prisoners." Sir, I had not heard, I had not seen, I had not read of any such opinion on the part of the Lord Chief Justice; I never understood that he entertained this opinion, and I never imputed it to him. A great deal was said on the matter of privilege, and the noble and learned Lord did me the honour to say, that he always considered me his friend, and that he thought 1 should be the last to make such an attack, and the first to defend him if such an accusation had proceeded from any other quarter. Sir, the noble and learned Lord did but justice to my feelings. I do entertain for him the most sincere regard and respect. As to defending him, it would never have crossed my mind, for his character and conduct have ever been such, that I should never have thought that he could be the subject of attack; were this, however to occur—which from his known rectitude, and from his eminent qualifications for the high stations which he tills, I deem impossible—I should feel honoured in giving my humble aid to his defence. But consistently with the honour he has conferred upon me, by considering me his Friend, I should have hoped that the noble and learned Lord would not have imputed to me any such expressions as that of which he has complained. If he had found any such expressions bearing such an interpretation, I could have wished he had done me the justice of supposing that there was some inaccuracy in the statement. However, the noble and learned Lord appears to have been hurt by the statement made in my speech. Whether that speech, as reported, really does convey the charge of which the noble and learned Lord complains, I must leave the House to judge. The debate was a very long one. The very early publication of the morning journals, might have prevented those who attended in this House to report, the debates, from taking their notes with that accuracy which the peculiar nature of the subject might more immediately call for. But, Sir, in the present instance, if my entire statement, as it stands, be taken as a whole and together, it really does not seem to me to carry with it the serious imputation which it appears to the noble and learned Lord to ct surprised, however, that my Lord Denman should take notice of this statement, because the slightest term of expression which may even appear to reflect on a person holding his high office is a matter of great importance. At the same time, I think that even if a single paragraph or a few lines might bear an unfavourable interpretation, the whole, taken together, does not differ from Lord Denman's judgment. I am supposed to have said,— Look at some of Lord Denman's opinions —remember that which he expressed, that it mattered little whether or not licentious books might be read by the inmates of a prison, old and young persons, placed there with a view to their reformation and amendment. That precise expression, however, I did not use; but I went on to say, that Lord Denman asked,— What in the world had that to do with the case? From the form of this question it is evident that this prior expression was used in reference to some case. I am next supposed to say, and no doubt I did say in substance, that— If they had got into his own family, he would have seen in a moment what they had to do with domestic government. That any man should be found to say that licentious and profligate writings, and their use by prisoners, had nothing to do with prison discipline, I own has astonished me. Does not what I here say show that by the prior expression I meant that there were other parts which surprised me in that judgment? Looking at the whole speech, is the imputation which Lord Denman considers it as conveying, to be fairly inferred from it? The first paragraph, I admit, if taken separately, would bear the appearance of reflecting on that noble and learned judge, but surely the whole paragraph, when read connectively, does not bear that interpretation? It. was only yesterday, Sir, I had an intimation that my Lord Denman felt hurt at my speech; I had scarcely time to refer to the report, but I at once wrote to say that— The only passage which I believe refers to Lord Denman, relates to that part of his judgment in which he held the publication of the commissioners' report of the state of prisons to be libellous, because the statement that Stockdale's licentious book was in the hands of the prisoners, was unnecessary and irrelevant to the question of prison discipline; in relation to which statement, I believe I said, in substance, that I was surprised that such an opinion as to irrelevancy could be entertained; and that I was sure if such books found their way into the domestic establishment of the noble Lord, he would not fail to perceive how intimately connected the circumstances would be with the discipline of that establishment; and that it seemed to me equally pertinent to the discipline of a prison inhabited by young and old for the purpose of reformation. Since receiving Lord Denman's note, I have, for the first time, referred to the report in the Morning Chronicle, in which I am supposed to have imputed to Lord Denman that he said, it mattered little whether or not licentious books might be read by the inmates of a prison; but 1 am certain that I never imputed to Lord Denman to have said anything but that the censures on Stockdale's book were irrelevant to the subject of the report. Now, Sir, I cannot expect that any expression which falls from me will long dwell on the minds of hon. Members; but still I hope there are some present who will remember that the whole substance of my speech in relation to Lord Denman was whether the character of the book had, or had not, a direct bearing on the question of legislation on prison discipline Such, Sir, was the substance of what I said; whether it can be regarded as conveying the imputation of which the noble and learned Lord complains it is not for me to determine. I feel, however, that if any expression open to an unkindly interpretation had escaped me, I should do no more than justice to the liberality and forbearance by which the noble and learned Lord is distinguished, in hoping that he would make some allowance for expressions used in the warmth of debate. I do not claim any great allowance in this particular, but I am certain that the noble and learned Lord would have done so, if the expressions in his own speech has occurred to him, of "obsequious judges sometimes dealing with privileges"—of a "House of Commons tyrannical and unjust," and that "if these transactions had taken place before a grand jury they would have been treated with contempt." If it were said the House, in discussing whether a learned Lord had miscarried in his duty, "had exceeded its duty," or that if a "petition was presented to the House, it was disgraceful to the Member who presented it, and that it was still more disgraceful to the House to allow it to be printed;" it shows that expressions will sometimes escape the most correct persons, which on deliberate reflection they would perhaps have avoided. But when it is said, that, The Prime Minister of England, all powerful and all able as he might be, could not be justified, from anything that had taken place, in supposing that the judges, from some mean jealousy of the power of the House of Commons, would be found to play a paltry game, in order to defeat the just privileges of that House, I do, Sir, think that an accurate reading of the debate would have prevented such expressions from being used. The Prime Minister referred to the relation of the House of Commons to the courts of justice, to the duty of the House in maintaining its privileges; but nothing fell from the Prime Minister which could impute to the courts of justice a mean jealousy of the power of the House, or that they were playing a paltry game. Sir, I am reported also to have said, It was a judgment which, if it came to be correctly examined, would be found to contain less of accurate law, as well as less of good sense, than any judgment ever pronounced. I am not, Sir, prepared to deny that I used those expressions; but I cau only say that they are ill-words, and ill-chosen, and I most readily express my regret for having applied them. I differed from the law, which I thought to be inaccurate; but that it "showed little good sense "was an expression hastily used, and I am sorry to have used it.

Sir R. H. Inglis

rose, but was met by loud cries of "Order, order," and "Chair, chair."

The Speaker

reminded the House that the proceeding of the hon. Member for Worcester arose from a complaint of a breach of the privileges of the House, of course he had concluded that the hon. Member would have concluded with a motion. The hon. Member had made a speech without bringing forward a motion; it was most irregular to make a long speech, which was not followed by a motion, and could not but be attended with great inconvenience.

Sir T. Wilde

begged pardon of the House, he had been misled by the practice in the other House of Parliament.