HC Deb 10 April 1851 vol 115 cc1357-64

Order read, for Consideration of Petition of Henry Edwards.


wished to call the attention of the House to the petition of Henry Edwards, who had been taken into custody, under the Order of the House, by the Serjeant-at-Arms, for a breach of the Privileges of that House in preventing the attendance of George Seeley Waggett, or giving him money to induce him to abstain from giving evidence before the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the St. Albans Election Petition. Edwards alleged in his petition that the charge against him was totally false and untrue, that Waggett had never been under his control, and that no warrant of Mr. Speaker, or notice of any such warrant, requiring Waggett to appear, had ever been served upon him; and the petitioner prayed the House to refer to the evidence taken by the Committee, before which he alleged no such charge as that made against him had ever been substantiated. Edwards strongly declared his own innocence; and being now in custody without ever having been heard, he (Mr. Aglionby) felt he had hardly had justice done to him, and he was sure that if the House inadvertently had done the petitioner injustice, it would cheerfully grant him redress. But there were two points of law and of practice that arose in this case. The point of law was raised underthe 73rd clause of the 11th and 12th of Victoria, c. 98, by virtue of which statute, and which statute alone, Election Committees derived all their authority to sit and act. The question was, whether the St. Albans Election Committee, at the time they reported to the House, and gave rise to the petitioner being taken into custody, retained all their powers intact, and were competent to report. If therefore the Committee had no power to sit on the 7th of April, when they reported, of course the whole of their proceedings fell to the ground. The 73rd clause of the Act required Election Committees to sit from day to day, excepting during the holidays, and never to adjourn for a longer time than twenty-four hours without leave being first obtained from the House on Motion, and special cause being assigned. Now, he understood the Committee found, some time antecedent to the 7th instant, that it would be necessary to adjourn for a period exceeding twenty four hours, from the absence of certain witnesses. They applied to the House for leave to adjourn from Monday to Thursday, and had obtained such leave; but he understood the Committee, after obtaining leave, had never met again to go through the form of adjourning according to the leave that was granted, but merely acted upon the leave that was given, without meeting for the purpose of adjourning. He admitted this was a nice technicality, but it was a question whether it was not fatal to the proceedings of the Committee; and he would raise the point at once, by moving that the adjournment of the Select Committee not having been warranted, the Committee had no power to report, nor the House to act upon their report, and therefore Henry Edwards must be discharged from custody.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That Henry Edwards be discharged out of the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms attending this House, without payment of his fees.


thought the House ought to have more evidence of the adjournment of the Committee.


hoped the House would support the Committee, which was placed in a position of great difficulty. He would, with the permission of the House, explain the case. The first adjournment took place on the Saturday, and there being no House on that day, the Committee adjourned to Monday, the 31st of March. On that day a Report was made to the House, and leave was asked to adjourn the Committee to the following Thursday. The Committee had previously adjourned to Tuesday, with the proviso that, in case the House should grant the leave to be asked, the adjournment should be held to be to Thursday. The Committee did not, in point of fact, return to the Committee-room, although that did not appear on the Minutes. He (Mr. Ellice) had some doubt on this point; but he was told that it was not necessary for the Committee to meet again after having obtained the leave of the House. On Wednesday last the same thing occurred. During the sitting of the House the Committee applied for leave to adjourn to Monday next, and the Committee adjourned, pro formâ, for twenty-four hours, with the proviso that, on leave having been obtained from the House, the adjournment should stand for Monday next, and in point of fact, the Committee had not met that day (yesterday). The entry on the Minutes was somewhat different in the second case from that in the first. These were the facts; and it remained for the House to declare whether the Committee had acted correctly or not.


said, the point of law raised by the hon. Member for Cockermouth was one of very considerable nicety indeed, and it had taken the House by surprise. It required mature deliberation. It had taken the Solicitor General and himself by surprise, and he thought the better course would be to have the Minutes of the Committee printed, and to discuss the matter on a subsequent day. No one would dispute that the Committee had not acted in strict compliance with the letter of the statute; but the question was, whether the words were to be taken as obligatory, or merely as directive. He would move as an Amendment to the hon. Gentleman's Motion, that the Minutes of the Committee relating to the matter be printed.


thought, if the proceedings of the Committee were informal, the petitioner ought not to be kept any longer in prison.


considered it necessary that the Minutes of the Committee should be laid on the table; but it struck him that there might be some inconvenience in calling for the Minutes of a Committee still sitting.


said, when a Motion was made for the release of the petitioner, on the ground that the proceedings were not sanctioned by law, the House could not come to a proper decision without having the record of the Committee's proceedings before it.

Ordered— That there be laid before this House so much of the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Select Committee on the St. Albans Election Petition as relates to the adjournments on Monday the 31st day of March last, and Wednesday the 9th day of this instant April.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


said, he should now go into the other points raised by Edwards's petition. He submitted that the commitment of Edwards was clearly informal and illegal, because the 83rd clause of the statute only authorised two cases in which an Election Committee could report during the progress of its proceedings, namely—first, when any person summoned by the Committee or by the warrant of Mr. Speaker disobeyed such summons; and, second, when a witness refused to give evidence, or gave false or prevaricating evidence; and in either of these cases the Committee might call upon the House to interpose its authority as the case required. But he submitted that the case of Henry Edwards did not fall within either of these categories. In his case there was no refusal to appear, no refusal to give evidence, and no prevarication; but the ground of committal was that Edwards had been a party in persuading somebody else to abscond for the purpose of evading the summons of the Committee. Edwards himself was summoned before the Committee; he appeared, and was ready to give evidence, and in his petition he stated that he was prepared to hold himself in readiness to appear before the Committee to give evidence whenever he might be called upon to do so. Therefore the Committee had not committed him under that section of the Act. He (Mr. Aglionby) contended, that supposing this section was merely directory, and that the Committee might go a great deal further, that still what had been done had been done at the wrong time. The 83rd clause of the Act empowered the Select Committee to report to the House their determination with respect to the validity of the return, and upon that question their decision was to be final; and by the 87th clause they were empowered, together with their decision upon the validity of the return, to report for the opinion of the House any other resolution to which they might have come. He contended, therefore, that the Committee had reported matters pending the investigation which should have been withheld until their final report. It was true that the Committee might have committed a person for contempt; but absence without summons was not contempt. He found that in 1819 the Select Committee in the case of the Camelford election reported that a man who had been called as a witness had given false evidence, and he was, therefore, committed to the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms. In the Grantham case, Mr. Speaker issued his warrant to procure the attendance of certain witnesses, one of whom absconded to evade the warrant, and on his surrendering the House ordered him to be committed to Newgate. In the Penryn case, a witness absconded to evade the summons of the Committee, and when he was taken into custody he also was committed to Newgate. In the last two cases, however, it appeared that the persons summoned had not appeared before the Committees; but in the present case the petitioner did appear. With respect to Edwards, he maintained that they should have postponed their judgment until they made their final report, and then the House might have taken the evidence into consideration, and have punished him as they thought fit. He thought it was utterly inconsistent with the principles of justice that any person accused of having committed an offence should be punished for that offence without being told, "Here is the evidence against you; is it true or not? Have you anything to say in reply?" In this case the evidence against Edwards was taken in his absence, and the House of Commons were called upon to act on the opinion of the Committee that there was a primâ facie case against him. He was scarcely prepared to blame the Committee for this, or to say that they could have pursued this collateral inquiry any further than they had done; but he was strongly of opinion that the House should have done so—they had no right to have committed a man upon ex parte evidence. He thought that as he had never been heard, he should be discharged. If the House thought he should be punished, he might be taken into custody again when the Committee gave their final report upon the validity of the return; or, if the House did not take either of these courses, he should be heard at the Bar in support of the allegations contained in his petition, and in answer to the evidence of the witnesses against him.

Motion made, and Question put— That Henry Edwards, on the seventh day of April instant, was declared to have been guilty of a breach of the Privileges of this House, and was ordered for his said offence to be taken into the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms attending this House, and, in pursuance of such Order, now remains in the custody of the said Serjeant-at-Arms; and the said Henry Edwards having presented his humble Petition to the House, denying the truth of the Evidence taken before the Committee upon the Saint Albans Election Petition, upon which Evidence the Report of the said Committee, that the said Henry Edwards had conducted himself in the manner which this House declared to be a breach of its Privileges was founded, and praying that he might be set at liberty upon his undertaking to appear when and as this House should order, and to obey the direc- tions of this House in all things, this House doth order, that Henry Edwards be discharged from the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms attending this House, without payment of fees.


said, that after the best consideration he could give to the proceedings of this St. Albans Election Committee, he thought they had been perfectly correct and proper. No one who had read the printed Minutes of evidence relating to the petitioner Edwards, could entertain a shadow of doubt that a strong primâ facie case—open, of course, to alteration on the part of Edwards—was made out against him, of having tampered with a person whom it was sought to bring before the Committee as a witness on the part of the petitioners. The Committee, having this evidence before them, were called upon, as a matter of duty, to report it to the House. They could not enter into the matter with the view of determining the question, because they had no jurisdiction to try that collateral issue, when it came before them incidentally as a matter of evidence upon the application made by the petitioners to adjourn the inquiry, because they were unable to procure the necessary witnesses. Under these circumstances, the Committee had felt it their duty—and he conceived they were perfectly right—to make a report to the House of the matter thus brought before them. The hon. Member for Cockermouth said, they were wrong in doing so, and that they ought to have waited till they made their final report, and have included in it this charge against Edwards. He could not agree with the hon. Gentleman in that view. The 86th and 87th clauses which had been quoted, stated, that where the Committee came to a determination on the merits of the petition as to the party who was entitled to sit there, their determination was to he final and binding; but in respect to other matters which were to he included in their report, hut under separate heads, with those the House might either agree or disagree, or take such steps as they thought proper. But this did not relate to matters arising incidentally in the course of the proceedings, with respect to which it might be most important that a report should be made to the House immediately, either for the sake of protecting the Committee in their proceedings, or of ensuring the due administration of justice. The Sessional Orders declared, that to tamper with any witness, and prevent his being examined, was a high crime and misdemeanour, to be visited with the utmost severity. It was said the end might be obtained by punishing the delinquent after the proceedings were brought to a close. This would not only give facilities for his escape, but might entirely frustrate the administration of justice. Suppose the case of a person who from day to day continued to tamper with witnesses and withdraw them from the Committee; it was clear the interposition of the House would be necessary, and would at once put an end to such an attempt by placing the offender in a position where he could no longer do so. It was obvious that, in such a case, the Committee, whose powers were limited and insufficient, ought to have the opportunity of coming at once to the House and representing the case; otherwise, it was clear the administration of justice might be defeated in numerous instances. In this very case, this petitioner, Edwards, if the case alleged against him were true, might go on tampering with witness after witness; and was it enough to say, when the Committee had made their report, and had perhaps decided the wrong way, because the petitioners could not get up their witnesses, that then the party who had been tampering with the witnesses should be punished? That was not such a state of things as that House ought to sanction. The hon. Member for Cockermouth had said, that the House ought to have summoned Edwards to the bar, to have heard any statement he wished to make, and then to have committed him to custody, if they thought it right. It might he possibly desirable that that should be the course pursued by the House, but it was not the practice they had hitherto adopted. It was said the Committee had no power to report; but there was a direct precedent for it. There was a precedent in the case of the Ipswich Election Committee. [Mr. AGLIONBY: That was a final report.] He was aware of that. It was the case of a person named Pilgrim, who had been withdrawn from the Committee, and had absconded to avoid giving evidence; he afterwards presented himself, and stated that he had been induced to abscond by six persons, whom he named. To rebut that evidence, the counsel for the sitting Member produced three of the persons so charged, who denied the fact. The Committee, however, being of opinion that Pilgrim's evidence was true, and such as they ought to commit upon, reported that all the six parties whom Pilgrim implicated had been guilty of a breach of privilege. What did the House do? They did not adopt the course of summoning the parties to the bar, but they at once directed Mr. Speaker to issue his warrant to the Serjeant at Arms to take them into custody, and they were taken into custody. They petitioned the House, but were ultimately committed to Newgate. It was true this was done on a final report of the Committee; but it was inherent in the very nature of the functions of a Committee that in every case of urgent necessity they should not defer those proceedings till they made their final report, but should be at liberty to come to the House at any time for such powers and authority as they required. It seemed to him that the conduct of the St. Albans Committee had been perfectly correct, and that the conduct of the House was in conformity with the precedent of a precisely analogous case. As Edwards had not been heard at the bar of the House, if he should desire it, there could be no objection to that.

Motion put, and negatived.

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