HC Deb 16 June 1845 vol 81 cc601-14
Mr. Roebuck

I rise, Sir, to solicit the attention of the House while I state to it a question relating to a breach of its privileges. It will be in the recollection of the House that I addressed to it some observations in the course of the debate which took place on Friday last upon the question of going into a Committee upon the Irish Education Bill. What succeeded is also known to the House. In the afternoon of Saturday a carriage stopped at my door, and the following note was left with my servant, it being marked outside "Private and confidential;" it was dated from the Reform Club, and signed "J. P. Somers:"— Sir—Unfortunately, I was not in the House of Commons last night when you spoke in Committee on the Irish Colleges Bill. If I had been present, the necessity of addressing a Letter like this, which is one of inquiry, could not have arisen. But, having been absent, I am compelled to resort to the Newspaper Reports of the proceedings which took place, and of the language used; and I beg, in the first instance, to ask you, if the following words were spoken by you, or words to the same effect:—'This consideration might have led to what had been witnessed, and those who followed in the train of such a leader deserved little respect either for their position or their intellect?' If you used those words, the insult they convey to me, as a Repealer, is plain. My second question therefore is, are you prepared to 'JUSTIFY' them? The meaning of the word I have underlined I am sure you are too well read in the old history of Chivalry to misinterpret. P.S. I send a copy of the Morning Chronicle herewith; the passage marked. The hon. and learned Gentleman observed, that the word "justify" was twice underscored, and was proceeding to make some further remarks, when he was interrupted by

Sir V. Blake

, who said, I rise to order. Every hon. Gentleman has an undoubted right to deliver his opinion upon any subject that may be submitted for debate in this House; but I say that he has no right to catechise or lecture any particular Member or set of Members, or utter offensive words. ["Order."]

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Baronet is, most unquestionably, out of order.

Mr. Roebuck

continued. On receipt of that note, I immediately wrote an answer, which I delivered myself next morning, to this effect:— Sir—You shall receive the answer which your letter requites, in the House of Commons, on Monday next; and I now give you the following warning for your guidance at the same time. I am determined that the free expression of opinion shall not in my person be coerced or checked; and I shall, therefore, take the most stringent and effective means to punish your present menace, and put down all future violence. I hope you are sufficiently well read in the laws of your country to understand this intimation. I have first to move, Sir, that the letter of the hon. Member for Sligo be read at the Table.

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Member for Sligo in his place?

Mr. J. P. Somers

rose and bowed.

The Clerk at the Table having read the note,

Mr. Roebuck

resumed: Now, Sir, I am exceedingly sorry that it falls to my lot to pursue the course which I am about to pursue. But I feel it a paramount duty, not as regards myself, but as regards this House, to move that— John Patrick Somers, esq., having sent a challenge to a Member of this House for words spoken by that Member in his place in Parliament, is guilty of contempt, and of a breach of the privileges of this House. My reason for adopting this course I shall calmly and briefly state. If I regarded myself in the affair, the law would afford me instant protection; and I am quite prepared to throw myself upon the law in such cases. But in this instance it is not myself I have to consider, it is this House, and the privileges of its Members; amongst the most valuable of which is the fair and free expression of their opinions respecting public men and public policy. I claim a right to the free expression of my opinions; and I think I have a right to assume that, in expressing them on the occasion I have alluded to, I committed no breach of the rules of this House, inasmuch as I was not by you, Sir, or by any hon. Member in the House, called to order. I claim the right to say that I have little regard for the intellect of some public men; but I go further, and say that I entertain little respect for the position which they hold; and one of them comes forward and suggests to me that he should be allowed to shoot at me. Is that a proof of superiority of intellect? Does it support the opposite proposition to that which I endeavoured to establish in this House? But, if it do not, what does it do? It gives to any man having that species of physical courage which shall give him a great chance with a pistol over his antagonist, to assail any man in this House who chooses to do his duty. I think it would be far wiser to adopt the more courageous course of at once meeting a proceeding of this description in the way in which I now meet it. I put aside all other considerations at present, and they are many. I sink them, and stand upon my privilege as a Member of this House, to demand of this House that it should protect me. I throw myself upon it for protection — I use the word advisedly—and when we consider all that is going on around us, when we see the vast calamities which arise out of this barbarous custom, I say that it becomes every man who has a heart that beats with the pulse of courage to take the course which I now take. Assuming, therefore, that the hon. Member will not deny his writing, I move that he is guilty of contempt, and of a breach of the privileges of this House.

Lord Ashley

said: I rise with great satisfaction to second the Motion, and in doing so will take the liberty of tendering to the hon. Member for Bath my sincere and heartfelt thanks for having brought it forward. I offer to him not only my thanks, but I think I may say the thanks of a very large body of Gentlemen in this House; and I know that I speak the sentiments also of a very large proportion of my fellow subjects, when I say that I have viewed with disgust and horror the prevalent notion of what is miscalled honour. In this instance we are doubly indebted to the hon. and learned Member for asserting not only a social question, but a great constitutional question; for I can foresee the time when, if this system be introduced into this House, or into any other deliberative assembly, the liberty of speech will be at an end, and hon. Members will be under the necessity of appealing, as our ancestors did, not to the influence and force of reason, but to violence and the sword. I, therefore, cordially second the Motion, tendering at the same time, in my own name, and in the names also of the gentlemen of England, and of thousands of his fellow subjects, my warm thanks for his manly and courageous and consistent conduct.

Mr. J. P. Somers

then rose and said: Sir, I have no hesitation whatever in withdrawing the letter, which is looked on as an attack upon the hon. and learned Member. It was merely a letter of inquiry. The hon. and learned Member did not condescend to answer those inquiries. I do not call in question his motives for refusing, but I bow with unaffected deference to the decision of this House and of the Chair. I am not one of those who will play with the authority of the House, or attempt a dexterous accommodation of offensive terms. I take the sense of the Speaker and of the House to be paramount upon all occasions, and will not be one to run counter to them. An opposite course might lead to a great waste of time. I deeply regret that I wrote this letter, and that any matter personal to myself should have occupied the attention of the House for a single moment. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is satisfied with that explanation, I trust the House will be also satisfied; for I do not think I can say anything fuller or more explicit. At the same time, I trust the House will bear with me for a moment whilst I call the hon. and learned Member's attention to observations which I am sure he must regret, and to the coarse imputations which are frequently put forth against certain Members of this House. Hon. Members must really give me the liberty of saying, that the hon. and learned Member's observations are not always in accordance with—I must be permitted to say it—truth. No; I will recall the observation, and will say, with what entitles them to public respect. I now resign myself to the hon. and learned Gentleman. Henceforth he may say anything he pleases of me, or of the party to which I belong. I have to apologize to the House for obtruding myself on its attention; and I once more declare, I regret to have been the cause of occupying its attention for one moment.

Sir G. Grey

Nothing, Sir, can be more satisfactory or more ample than the manner in which, during the early part of his observations, the hon. Member for Sligo retracted his letter to the hon. Member for Bath. The casual expression in the latter part dropped from him unawares, and was not intended to qualify that retractation. But as the hon. Member has placed the course he has taken partly on what he conceives to be the general feeling of the House, I should not do justice to my own feelings, if I did not say a few words upon the subject. In common with my noble Friend the Member for Dorsetshire, I think the course pursued this night by the hon. and learned Member for Bath is the proper course which every Member, under such circumstances, should always pursue; and I concur in the opinion that the example now, for the second time, set by the hon. and learned Member, will be followed by any other Member who may receive a hostile message for what may have been spoken in debate. I concur also with my noble Friend in his energetic denunciation of this barbarous and unchristian practice. There is not one word used by him that I do not sanction; and I am as opposed to the practice as any man in this House can be. I must at the same time say, that my entire approval of the conduct of the hon. and learned Gentleman is limited to his conduct in this matter. I cannot extend my unqualified approbation to the course he took on Friday night. I feel strongly, that when called to account by a hostile challenge, it was his duty, as a Member of the House, to bring it before the House, instead of yielding to what might be the feeling out of doors; but I feel also that he ought to have guarded himself in the language he addressed to this House. Far be it from me from taking upon myself the part of censor of the hon. and learned Member for Bath. I am sure he discharges, in whatever speech he may make, and whatever language he may use, what he conceives to be his duty; but, after the feeling of the House had been shown on the general question, I should not do my duty if I did not say, that I think the terms of his statement were calculated to give offence; and the hon. and learned Gentleman must see that this is not necessary to maintain the freedom of speech in this House. I was in the House on Friday night, and I heard the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman with that attention to which all his speeches are justly entitled for their talent and ability; and I thought at the time, that it was calculated needlessly to cause irritation; and I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman will concur with me, that truths may be spoken, and in plain language, and yet that they need not cause irritation beyond the moment.

Sir R. Peel

I think, Sir, that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bath has taken a course which is consistent with true courage, and one which he can take without any imputation remaining on him; and at the same time, I think that the hon. Gentleman has made every retractation it was possible for him to make. He has unequivocally declared that he retracts the letter, he has expressed his deep regret at having written it, and he has apologized to the House; and he has done what a person who has been betrayed into an act of this kind may, with equal credit to himself, do. Under these circumstances, I trust the hon. and learned Gentleman will see he has received such reparation that he himself will withdraw the Motion. I think he has set an example which may be worthily followed; and at the same time, I think that the hon. Member who was in error has also set an example, with perfect credit to himself, by making the most ample and best reparation in his power. I trust, therefore, that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not press his Motion.

Mr. E. B. Roche

did not rise to prolong this unpleasant discussion, on which they must all unwillingly enter; but he trusted he might be allowed to say, that they never would have arrived at this unpleasant state if the House had, as it ought to have done, interfered when the hon. Member for Bath made those observations. What was their present position? It was not the right of any Member of that House to make personal observations; and they could not make imputations without creating unpleasant feelings, and some indignation in the bosoms of those who were treated in this manner. He took it, that it was under these feelings that the hon. Member for Sligo acted in the course he had adopted. He would not express any opinion on the prudence of that course. The course of the hon. and learned Member for Bath might, on the whole, be the prudent and proper course; but he must limit his approval, as the hon. Member for Devonport had done, to the hon. and learned Member's conduct that night. The House, however, had its own character to maintain in preventing such unpleasant scenes from occurring; and they ought to stop all that would raise these feelings, either in the House or out of it. He would not go so far as to say that the Speaker ought to get up and stop such remarks; but the House ought to show by strong intimations its own feelings against such exhibitions, and so stop the occurrence of anything unpleasant.

Mr. Hume

said, that no man was a greater enemy to the practice of duelling than he was; and he was willing to make every allowance for what happened in the heat of debate. He spoke feelingly; for no one, probably, had required more allowances in this respect than he had done; but this case was entirely different. Many hon. Members might have received such a letter as that written to his hon. Friend, in such a way as to lead to the destruction of themselves and their families. The House ought not, therefore, to try his hon. Friend for his speech the other night; and so he thought the right hon. Baronet (Sir G. Grey) had taken an erroneous view of the question. He was for supporting all their privileges; if there was one which was more important than any other, it was the freedom of speech in that House; and if there was any manner in which that freedom could be more seriously attacked than in any other, it was by sending a hostile message. He entirely concurred in the opinion that his hon. Friend had shown true courage; but there were many in that House who might have courage, but who might not be in the situation of his hon. Friend, and be able to come there with perfect security to vindicate not himself, but the privileges of the House. He considered, therefore, the observations of the right hon. Baronet as misapplied. What they had to consider was, whether this letter was a breach of the privileges of the House; and they ought to affirm that it was. When, afterwards, the question should come how they were to deal with the hon. Member who sent it, he would be the first to state that the hon. Member had made every reparation. If it were intended to criminate his hon. and learned Friend for the course he took the other evening, it was a wrong step; they ought not then to try his hon. Friend for imprudence, if they could so call it, in the manner in which he had on a former night expressed his opinions. Let him call their attention to the situation in which his hon. Friend was placed: he had been held up elsewhere in language which few Members would endure; and was he not to be at liberty to express his deep sense of the injury he had received, and was the right hon. Baronet to lay down the rule of how his hon. Friend was to express his opinions? If they were to have freedom of speech, every Member must express his own sense of injury in his own way; and if he were wrong, he might at once be called to order, as acting against the rules of the House. They ought not to try him for an expression of opinion, when the question was, what had been the conduct of another Member towards him. He humbly submitted that the House ought to affirm the Motion, that this was a breach of the privileges of the House; and whatever step might be taken afterwards, no one would be disposed to act more tenderly, or with more liberality, than he was.

Sir R. H. Inglis

rose to thank the hon. Member for Bath for adopting a course which showed the moral as well as the physical courage that ought to belong to Members of the House. He begged also to thank his noble Friend who seconded the Motion, for the truly noble and Christian manner in which he had reprobated the crime of duelling. He rejoiced in the general concurrence of all sides in this view of the subject; but he suggested, that if the Motion were withdrawn, some entry ought to appear upon the Journals of the House as to the reason why it had been withdrawn: that the hon. Member for Sligo had acknowledged his letter, and had expressed his regret at having written it. He hoped that he did not misunderstand the gesture of the hon. Member for Sligo; but the great body of the House collected that he had apologized to it, as well as to the hon. Member for Bath, and had expressed his regret at having written it. Less than this would not satisfy the justice of the case. Freedom of expression for opinion was of the utmost value in Parliament; it was an essential privilege; and if any objection were entertained as to what was said by a Member, it ought to be noticed at the time. In the present feeling of the House, and after what had been said by the hon. Member for Sligo, he hoped that the hon. Member for Bath would not deem it inconsistent with his duty to withdraw his Motion.

Viscount Howick

entirely concurred with the hon. Gentleman, that the Motion ought not to be withdrawn without some entry, at all events, of the ground, and without saying that the apology of the hon. Member for Sligo had been accepted as full satisfaction. But he would go further: he would say they ought first to affirm the Motion of the hon. Member for Bath, and having affirmed that, they should add that a full and ample apology having been tendered in his place by the hon. Member for Sligo, the House would not proceed further in the matter. This was the proper course; for if the Motion were withdrawn, it would appear as if they were not prepared to declare that a challenge sent by one Member of the House to another Member, for words spoken in that House, was a breach of privilege. As he agreed with the noble Lord the Member for Dorsetshire, and with the right hon. Baronet the Member for Devonport, that they were deeply obliged to the hon. and learned Member for Bath for the course he had taken, he for one was not prepared to consent to the Motion being withdrawn.

Viscount Palmerston

I concur very much in the view just stated by my noble Friend. It is inexpedient for the House to allow the present occasion to pass without expressing its opinion on the principle involved in the question; but I submit that if we pass a Resolution pointing at an individual Member, it will necessarily imply blame incurred and censure deserved. It seems to be the opinion of the House that the apology of my hon. Friend the Member for Sligo is sufficient; he did not dispute his letter—that letter is a breach of privilege—and for that letter such an amends has been made as ought to exempt my hon. Friend from any future proceeding. It seems to me that the object of all parties will be attained if, as the right hon. Baronet (Sir Robert Peel) suggested, the personal Resolution be withdrawn, and a general Resolution be substituted, affirming that a breach of privilege has been committed by reason that one hon. Member sent a hostile message to another, in consequence of something that passed in a former debate. I quite agree with those who think that the hon. Member for Bath has well deserved the thanks of the House and country for the course he has pursued: my concurrence could not be expressed in too strong terms. I almost admit that this is not merely a technical breach of privilege; but that if permitted to pass unnoticed, it would, as my noble Friend the Member for Dorsetshire said, strike a fatal blow at the very constitution of the House. It is, therefore, essential to enable the House properly to discharge its duties, that such proceedings should not be repeated. But, on the other hand, it is important that the House should attend to the observations which were made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport; and that every hon. Member should bear in mind, that if he is not to be personally responsible for that which he may feel it his duty to state in debate, he should take especial care that what he does say shall not be calculated to give unnecessary personal offence; and without taking upon myself the task of lecturing the right hon. and learned Member for Bath, I think he himself will feel that the observations which he made, not merely on Friday night, but which he has made on former occasions, upon Members representing Irish constituencies, can scarcely be justified. I do not say whether his censure is proper or not. I may be disposed to concur very much in the general view which he took as to those Members not being justified in absenting themselves from their places in Parliament; but I think he will admit, that the manner as well as the language in which he has alluded to those hon. Members, did overstep the bounds which are necessary to be observed when expressing, with the utmost possible constitutional latitude, any opinion which one Member may entertain of the conduct of others. And, therefore, I trust that while, on the one hand, this House does interpose effectually to prevent hostile proceedings out of doors for language and opinions expressed within this House; on the other hand, every Member will feel that it is on that account more especially his duty, with a view to maintain public respect for our position, in expressing his opinions to abstain from using language which will justify offence, or wound unnecessarily the feelings of others.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps it would assist the House in coming to a conclusion on this subject, if I were to read the entry which will be made on its Journals. The following is the entry:— Whereupon Mr. Somers, in his place, stated That, seeing the sense of the House was so decidedly expressed in condemnation of the course he had pursued, he had no hesitation in expressing, in the most unequivocal manner, his regret that he had written the letter, and his wish to withdraw every offensive expression conveyed therein towards the hon. Member for Bath; that he considered the authority of the House and the Speaker paramount on all occasions. He begged to express his regret, that the attention of the House should have been occupied with a matter personal to himself, but trusted that what he had now said would be satisfactory to the House and the hon. Member.

Sir W. Somerville

thought this was not a time to allude to former debates. He would only say that he had sat in that House a number of years with his hon. Friend the Member for Sligo, and he had never heard him make use of an unkind, harsh, or unparliamentary expression towards any one.

Mr. Roebuck

Sir, at the outset of these proceedings, I stated that I was bringing before the House its privileges, and not my case; and, therefore, when the House says that its privileges are satisfied and defended, far be it from me to let my personal feelings throw any impediment in the way; but I should be unworthy of my position if I admitted in any degree the charge which has been made against me by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport. I had to express an opinion concerning conduct which I did then, and do now, believe to be the most mischievous that could be pursued by any Member of this House. I used language that accurately described my feelings and opinions upon that question. I did no more than I had a right to do. What I said was strictly true, and no fault was found with me at that time. If there had been, an opportunity might then have been given, which I do not now take, of satisfying this House. I do not ask any apology for myself—I want none. The privilege of the House has been vindicated, and that is all I care for.

Mr. Somers

I am unwilling to address the House; but reference has been made to me by the hon. and learned Member for Bath, in language which I declare to be unparliamentary, assigning to me the basest motives.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is referring to a former debate. He should have taken that exception at the time. He is, therefore, out of order.

Mr. Roebuck

rose amidst great confusion, and said, I will go one step further. I have been accused of using language unfit to be heard in this House. The hon. Member has just used such language towards me; and I say, he ought to be called upon to retract it.

Lord John Manners

was understood to say that, as the Speaker had stopped the hon. Member for Sligo, he ought to pursue the same course towards the hon. and learned Member for Bath.

Mr. Somers

The hon. and learned Member for Bath has repeated all the offensive expressions which he used on a former night; and I, therefore, stand in the same position before the country.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. and learned Member for Bath had made use of any improper expression on a former evening, it would have been my duty to have interfered with him. I did not hear him use any unparliamentary expression, nor did it appear to any hon. Member that he had used such an expression. I forbore to interfere on a former night, and I cannot admit that any observation which has been made by the hon. and learned Member for Bath on this occasion will bear the construction which the hon. Member for Sligo has put upon it.

Sir W. H. Barron

said, the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. O'Connell) had once been accused of a similar offence—[Mr. O'Connell at the moment entered the House]—and a Motion was passed, condemnatory of the language which he had used with reference to that House. He recollected that the Members on both sides of the House condemned the conduct of the hon. and learned Member for Cork; and the hon. Baronet the Member for the University of Oxford (Sir R. H. Inglis) told his hon. and learned Friend that he should be exceedingly cautious of the language which he used towards hon. Members, both in that House and out of it, when he sheltered himself under a certain vow. Hon. Members on the other (Ministerial) side of the House did not, however, lecture the hon. and learned Member for Bath as they had done the hon. and learned Member for Cork. He thought, however, that a similar observation would apply to the hon. and learned Member for Bath, when he came down there to shelter himself under the privileges of that House.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot accuse the hon. and learned Member for Bath of using offensive language. Nothing that has fallen from him this evening has in any degree been offensive to anybody.

Sir R. Peel

was sorry that the noble Lord (Lord Howick) had exercised his privilege of opposing the withdrawal of the Motion. The hon. and learned Member was prepared to withdraw it, and he thought the privileges of the House would have been sufficiently vindicated by the adoption of such a course; and he must say, that the hon. Member's readiness to do so was very creditable to him. He begged to remind the noble Lord, that last year the hon. and learned Gentleman had occasion to make a similar complaint; and he then pursued the same course. The letter which had then been written by the hon. Member for Canterbury was of a more decided character than that of the hon. Member for Sligo; but the House was contented to let it pass, without any record upon its Journals that it was a breach of privilege. There was also a case in which Mr. Hope, now the Lord Chief Justice Clerk, sent a hostile letter to another hon. Member; and, after an apology, the House came to a Resolution that they would proceed no further. The word "contempt," in the Resolution of the hon. and learned Member, was objectionable: It was a breach of privilege; and it might, therefore, be sufficient to state that it was so, without using the word "contempt," as in the case of Mr. Hope. If the Resolution of the hon. and learned Member was adopted, it would be necessary that another Resolution should state that the House would proceed no further; but it would be more satisfactory to him if the other course were adopted.

Viscount Sandon

suggested moving the previous question, otherwise they would be compelled to vote "ay" or "no" upon the question of breach of privilege.

Viscount Howick

said, that after the appeal which the right hon. Baronet had made to him, he might be excused for saying that the appeal had given him the strongest reason for persevering. The right hon. Baronet said, that this was not the first time that such a Motion had been withdrawn; it might, therefore, be in consequence of former precedents that a similar transaction had taken place again. As to amending the Motion, he was sure the hon. and learned Member for Bath would not object to do so, by the omission of the word "contempt." He thought, however, that it was rather invidious to appeal to the hon. and learned Member who had made the Motion to withdraw it. Should the Amendment be acceded to, he was prepared to move—"That, in consequence of the full and ample apology offered to the House by the said John Patrick Somers, the House will not proceed any further in this matter."

Sir Valentine Blake

said, the House had sanctioned a fallacious principle; its privileges were not so extensive as they appeared to think. He thought the House should make some allowance for the feelings of the hon. Member for Sligo, and ought to require some assurance from the hon. and learned Member for Bath that he would not in future pursue the habit which he had been so fond of indulging in.

A Motion was then put, "That the words 'contempt' and 'of' stand part of the Question," which was negatived.

The words were accordingly omitted; and the first Resolution, so amended, was agreed to.

Viscount Howick

then moved his Resolution, which was also agreed to.