HC Deb 05 August 1845 vol 82 cc1432-8
Mr. B. Denison

presented a petition from the London and York Railway Company, denying the statements contained in the petition of the Chairman of the Cambridge and Lincoln Company, presented by the hon. Member for Lambeth on Monday. They stated that in consequence of the discussion last night, they had given directions to ascertain to what extent the allegations contained in the petition were true, and although only a few hours had elapsed since the investigation had commenced, he had the satisfaction to state that, of the first class, which contained thirty-five names, they had seen twenty-three during the day, six more within the last two hours, and three they were unable to find. Of the other class, containing twenty names, who were stated to be in indigent circumstances and unable to pay their subscription, several had already offered to do so. They also stated that the petitioner was vice chairman of a company competing with the London and York Railway. He moved that the petition be printed with the Votes.

Mr. Astell

defended the course taken by the directors of the London and York Company, who had spared no expense or labour in their endeavours to ascertain the bonâ fide character of the parties to whom shares were allotted.

Mr. Hawes

said, that after this petition the House was imperiously called upon to institute some inquiry, and no man was more ready than himself to enter into it. If an attempt had been made to make use of him to interfere with the progress of an important public work, he would not let the matter rest; but he had the personal assurance of the gentleman whose petition he presented, that the allegations were true in the main, and that he was able to substantiate them. It was clear that inquiry during the present Session was out of the question, but next Session he would gladly promote an inquiry into this subscription list and into the allegations against it.

Mr. Warburton

said, that the House ought to consider in what manner it would proceed on an allegation of this kind aiming against the Bill in this stage of it. When a similar petition was brought to him respecting another Railway Bill, he said there were two ways of inquiring into the truth of the allegations—viz., by a Select Committee, or a Committee on the Bill; and he had said that he would not move for a Select Committee when the truth of the allegations could be inquired into by a Committee on the Bill. The parties were aware of all the circumstances which they now represented to the House when they were before the Committee. That was the proper tribunal to prosecute the inquiry, and, to inform itself upon the manner in which the subscription lists of all railways were made up. He trusted the House would not entertain the petition.

Mr. Wakley

said, the petition presented by the hon. Member for Lambeth yesterday was allowed to be printed with the Votes, upon a distinct understanding that a Motion was to be founded upon it then; yet nothing appeared to be further from the thoughts of the hon. Member than to proceed with the petition. The Gentlemen opposite and those named in the petition considered themselves calumniated, and he thought they were right. The calumnies were printed with the Votes of the House, which were openly and publicly sold. He would warn the House that it was a dangerous practice they were beginning upon, and might lead them into much trouble. The hon. Member for Lambeth ought to name the party upon whose faith and information he undertook to present the petition. Yesterday the House was led to believe that the hon. Member had everything prepared to substantiate. [Mr. Hawes: I have. I am now prepared to go on.] There was no Notice on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member upon the subject. If the allegation of the petition were false, the hon. Member had incurred a very great responsibility; and he thought the House ought to know the name of the party upon whom the hon. Member relied, so that he might not be allowed to escape with impunity, if it should turn out that he had been deceiving the House for his own purposes. He would ask, how were the parties who had been misrepresented in so gross a manner as they now alleged, to obtain redress? It was a most serious thing to allege against any gentleman, but more particularly against one in business, that he was not able to meet the engagements he had entered into; and if there were the most remote probability of entering upon an inquiry and concluding it before the Session closed, it ought to be begun to-morrow, and prosecuted, even if the Committee sat from eight in the morning till eight in the evening.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

suggested the propriety of the House acting with great caution upon that occasion. The Committee on the Bill was the proper tribunal for entering into all such inquiries. But the parties there entered into a compromise, one party contracting not to bring one matter under the notice of the Committee, and the other party giving an equivalent. That being the case, was it fair or just that the party who had a perfect cognizance of all the facts he now alleged, when before the Committee, should come in upon the third reading of the Bill, and ask for a full inquiry into the facts at the public expense? As one petition had been printed with the Votes, let the House order the counter petition to be made public through the same channel, and some degree of justice would be done.

Mr. Brotherton

The whole mischief arose from a fraudulent compact entered into between the parties before the Standing Orders' Committee, in order to keep them in the dark. It was only when the parties quarrelled that the House became acquainted with the facts of the case.

Mr. T. Dumcombe

The right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer had not stated the facts of the case fairly. The prayer of the petition before the House went further than asking for an immediate inquiry. The petitioners prayed for leave to bring actions against their slanderer; they asked the leave of the House to bring actions for defamation. He thought that as to time, there was quite sufficient to enable a Committee to inquire so as to enable the parties, who said that they were aggrieved, to prosecute Mr. Bruce, if the allegations made by him were false; and it would appear from the counter statement made, that there was no truth in these allegations. The House was bound to afford the means of immediate redress, if possible, and should not delay the matter till next Session. The petitioners wanted to be allowed to take the petition presented yesterday to a court of law, and to be enabled there to prove the falsity of its allegations, and that the parties who presented that petition were guilty of defamation. The opportunity should be afforded without delay, to those who considered themselves maligned to come forward and prove that they were substantial persons, and not indigent paupers, as some of them were alleged to be.

Mr. B. Denison

said, that the parties presenting the petition of yesterday were guilty of making an attempt to impose upon the House in the discharge of its duties. The petition was presented for the purpose of staying the progress of a Bill before the House, and it was for the House to consider whether it would take up the matter, and determine whether it would submit to what appeared to him in the light of a serious breach of privilege. He had given notice of a Motion on Friday next, which he hoped the House would accede to, to enable the parties aggrieved to proceed in a legal way to vindicate their character from the aspersions cast upon them by the petition presented last night. He thought that it would be a scandalous proceeding if persons were to be permitted to make such allegations to the House as were contained in that petition, and the House were to refuse the parties aggrieved the means of redress.

Mr. Hawes

wished to explain the position in which he stood with respect to the Select Committee which it was last night his intention to have moved for that day. After he had stated that he would move for such a Committee, the noble Lord the Member for Nottinghamshire (the Earl of Lincoln) stated that he would oppose the Motion. He thought, therefore, with the Government opposed to it, that it would be a perfect farce to move for such a Committee. He was now ready, however, relying on the assurances which had been given him, faithfully and diligently to prosecute the inquiry, notwithstanding all the asseverations which had been made by hon. Gentlemen on either side of the House.

The Earl of Lincoln

rose to correct a mis-statement, or rather a mistake, into which the hon. Member had fallen. What he had stated, was, that he would support the hon. Gentleman's Motion for the printing of the petition, reserving to himself, until that day, to consider whether he would support the Motion, which it was understood was to follow it, for appointing a Select Committee, stating at the same time that his reason for so reserving himself was, that although it might be perfectly proper to appoint such a Committee under other circumstances, it was questionable whether at this period of the Session an inquiry should be commenced which might not be completed until the following Session. The greatest progress which such a Committee might be able to make this Session might be the obtaining an ex parte statement of the case; and it would be unfair, he thought, to close the proceedings at that stage, without giving the other parties an opportunity of rebutting it.

Mr. Hawes

was ready to move for the Committee now, if the Government would support him.

The Motion that the petition be printed with the Votes was then agreed to.

Mr. Hawes

then moved that the petition presented to the House by the Deputy Chairman of the Cambridge and Lincoln Railway be referred to a Select Committee. He hoped the House would agree to the Motion, and that they would permit the Members of the Committee to be named at once, so that the inquiry might be immediately commenced.

Mr. Warburton

had seen cause, during the progress of the discussion, to alter somewhat the opinion which he entertained at the early part of it. He agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that if the House granted Committees of this nature, for the purpose of inquiring into fraudulent subscription lists, and if these inquiries were to be conducted at the public expense, the presenting of petitions of this kind, and the conducting of proceedings thereupon at the public expense, would become the uniform course adopted as the most effectual, by parties opposing Private Bills. If the inquiry now sought were to go on, the parties seeking it should pay the expense, and not the public. He regarded this as a mode of action adopted by the opponents of the Bill to stop its further progress.

Sir R. Peel

doubted whether the remedy sought for by the petitioners really existed. He also doubted the policy of the House giving permission to parties to prosecute persons presenting petitions to the House; or whether, by giving such permission, the House could constitute the making false allegations in a petition a legal offence. He believed that it had been ruled by competent tribunals, that parties presenting petitions to the House were privileged so to do, without being liable to the consequences now sought to be visited upon the petitioners. His right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that, if they took the course proposed, they would constitute a precedent which would be constantly appealed to in the case of Private Bills; and he was disposed to concur, to a certain extent, in that opinion. At the same time, they must remember that they were now dealing with an offence against the public. There was an allegation made by a party, that if he had a little time he should discover numerous other instances of similar frauds, in addition to those specifically alleged. A party came forward and alleged as a reason why they should not read a certain Bill a third time, that several instances of fraud existed in the subscription list; and that he was prepared to establish that allegation, urging it as a reason why the Bill should not be read a third time. If he could substantiate his allegation, he was perfectly warranted in presenting his petition; but if he could not, and if he had not good reason to believe that what he was urging was true, he had in that case committed a great offence against that House, because the statements which he made might have influenced them in the performance of their legislative functions. It was too much, perhaps, to hold that they were precluded from entering into this inquiry on the score of inconvenience. In the present instance, they had not permitted the allegations made to constitute an impediment to the performance of their legislative duties. They had read the Bill a third time, and so far the parties interested in it were not aggrieved; and the House were now dealing with the question merely as a Parliamentary question. If, therefore, they did not permit the rights of private parties to be affected, but now determined to investigate the matter fully, as a Parliamentary question, such a course could not be an inconvenient one. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Wakley), whenever he found himself in a difficulty, always said that he would leave the matter with him (Sir R. Peel); and he could not see what great public evil could result from instituting the inquiry demanded, particularly if they could get hon. Gentlemen who were ready, like the hon. Member for Lambeth, who would probably be the chairman of the Committee, to sit for forty-eight consecutive hours over their labours. He was quite convinced that the hon. Gentleman did not make the offer of his services under the impression that it would not be accepted. If the Committee were appointed, it might sit to-morrow; and if the inquiry were not immediately completed, it would have the opportunity of reporting to the House that it had made a certain progress, and of recommending that the investigation should be resumed next Session. Not seeing any great evil that was likely to flow from such a course, as a precedent, he for one was disposed to vote for the appointment of a Committee.

Mr. Wakley

was glad that he had referred the case pointedly to the right hon. Gentleman, as it turned out that he had made a good selection. The question now was, to what extent the inquiry was to proceed, and what was to be its precise nature.

Lord John Russell

agreed with the course recommended by the right hon. Gentleman. He thought the inquiry sought for should be made; and, guarding himself against the presumption that he would in future vote for a similar Motion, unless under similar circumstances, he would support the Motion for the appointment of a Committee.

Sir R. H. Inglis

thought that the course proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, and adopted by the noble Lord, might probably be the wise one, but it was not the course for which the petitioners in the present case prayed.

Committee appointed to examine the allegations of the petitioners.

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