§ Order for consideration of Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee, read.
§ MR. AGLIONBY
said, that it seemed to be taken for granted, in consequence of the accidental circumstance of his having presented a petition from a person who had been taken into custody for an alleged breach of privilege, in connexion with the proceedings of the St. Albans Election Committee, that he had some connexion with the whole question. He begged to say that such was not the case, and as the matter was now in the hands of the House, he wished to ask what course it was intended to pursue with regard to the petition of Henry Edwards?
§ SIR G. GREY
rather expected, after what had passed yesterday, that the hon. Member would have now renewed his Motion for the discharge of Henry Edwards from custody; but as he had not done so, he (Sir G. Grey) considered that there was no question before the House.
§ MR. AGLIONBY
, in order to bring the subject under the notice of the House, would here move—that Henry Edwards be now discharged from the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms. It was his decided opinion that the Committee, having adjourned for a period longer than twenty-four hours, had contravened the provisions of the Act 11 and 12 Vict., c. 98, c. 73, and that their subsequent proceedings, including the commitment of Henry Edwards, had been thereby vitiated and rendered void.
Motion made, and Question proposed—
That Henry Edwards be discharged from the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms without payment of fees.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
was quite willing to admit that a very serious objection had been raised to the authority of the Committee; but he thought that the House ought not to pronounce any decision upon the subject on that occasion. It was quite clear that at the next sitting of the Committee, counsel would raise an objection founded on the construction of the Act of Parliament which had been alluded to, and the Committee would then have to determine as judges upon the validity of their proceedings. That being the case, he thought it would be highly inconvenient for the House to interfere in the matter at present. At the same time, if the petitioner, Henry Edwards, desired to be heard at the bar of the House on the facts stated in the Minutes of evidence, 23 of course the House would think it right to hear him; but he must say, that if the Motion was to be based entirely on the assumption of the invalidity of the course taken by the Committee, he did not think that the House was in a position to decide that point.
§ MR. BANKES
desired to be informed whether the hon. Member for Cockermouth (Mr. Aglionby) made the application at the instance of the petitioner Edwards? If so, it was a question whether the House of Commons had the right to keep this man in custody till Monday. Should it turn out that the constitution of the Committee was informal, Edwards would be erroneously in custody. It was important for the House to know whether the hon. Member had Edwards' authority for making the Motion he had submitted to the House.
§ SIR F. THESIGER
thought it was quite clear, from, the facts of the case, that a breach of privilege had been committed. A report had been made by the Committee of certain misconduct on the part of a witness, by which it was supposed that the course of justice would be defeated. Now, it was quite competent for any particular Member of the House to make such a report, and for the House to act upon it, and commit the party for such misconduct; and, therefore, there was nothing in the objection that that report was made by a Committee whose proceedings were said to be void, which would render the report itself invalid. They had nothing to do with the question as to whether the Committee continued to be legitimately constituted or not, for the conduct of the House, so far as it was concerned, was unobjectionable. But they were called on to discharge the petitioner Edwards from custody upon no grounds, and there was nothing directly before the House to enable it to decide whether the Committee existed legitimately or not. It was, therefore, not right to entertain the Motion submitted by the hon. Member for Cockermouth.
§ MR. WALPOLE
was of opinion, that if the statements of Henry Edwards in his petition were founded on fact, they had no right to detain him in custody one hour. His petition denied the charge imputed to him, and though he (Mr. Walpole) did not think it expedient to raise the question of the validity now, he yet thought it would he decidedly unjust to detain Henry Edwards in custody without at once questioning him upon the matters brought against him. He should therefore move as an 24 Amendment, that Henry Edwards be called to the bar of the House, and questioned by Mr. Speaker upon the truth of the allegations contained in his petition.
To leave out from the word 'be' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'now brought to the bar of this House to be heard on the prayer of his petition,' instead thereof.
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out, stand part of the Question."
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
seconded the Amendment. He should have made such a Motion on Thursday, but he understood the hon. Member for Cockermouth (Mr. Aglionby) to have then given notice that he would move, on this day, that Henry Edwards be heard at the bar of the House.
§ MR. AGLIONBY
did not think the course proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Midhurst advisable. The petitioner Edwards ought to have been called to the bar of the House before he was committed; and to give the petitioner a hearing now would not atone for the wrong which had been done him. The question was not whether the allegations against Edwards were right or wrong, but whether in point of law the Committee had authority to report as they had done, and whether the House had authority so to act. He thought the most convenient course would be to adjourn the question until after the next sitting of the Committee, and until after their Report.
THE SOLICITOR GENERAL
said, that, had it not been for the technical objection raised by the hon. Member for Cockermouth, the petitioner, Edwards, would long since have been called to the bar, and questioned about the truth of his allegations. He felt the inconvenience of keeping that person in custody until Monday; but still, if the hon. Member for Cockermouth were authorised by Edwards to sanction that course to raise the point of law, why, there was an end of the difficulty. With respect to the merits of the case, it was quite clear that he had been regularly committed by the House; and it would be for their consideration whether they would permit a Committee of their own body to be treated with contempt, even though it might be questionable whether that Committee had been legally constituted. The practice of the courts was that where there was an order de facto, the parties were not allowed to trifle with it; but 25 a person might be committed for a contempt of an order, even though the order itself might he declared the next day to have been void ab initio. He thought the right course to pursue, and the most agreeable to precedent, was to call the prisoner to the bar of the House, and to read to him the Minutes of evidence, and then if he could clear himself of that evidence, he had no doubt that the House would order his discharge.
§ MR. AGLIONBY
said, he had had no communication with Henry Edwards, but he had just spoken to the gentleman who had intrusted to him that person's petition, and they agreed in opinion that as the injury had already been done, it was not material if the matter stood over until Monday, Edwards in the meantime continuing in custody. He (Mr. Aglionby) was so perfectly satisfied that Edwards would he discharged on Monday, without payment of fees, on the legal point, that he was quite willing to assent to the adjournment. He should therefore beg to move that the debate be adjourned to Monday.
§ SIR R. H. INGLIS
would remind the House that Edwards had been committed upon evidence given under the obligation of an oath, and upon the judgment of five Members of that House, acting also under the obligation of an oath. If then, he were brought to the bar, would the House be prepared to release him upon his mere declaration that he had been unjustly committed, against the evidence, on oath, of the witnesses who had inculpated him?
§ MR. C. ANSTEY
said, it had been assumed by some hon. Members, that Edwards had been committed for the purpose of compelling him to do something to further the proceedings before the Committee; but that was not the case: he had been found guilty by the Committee of a successful attempt of tampering with the evidence of important witnesses, who, thanks to his exertions, had absconded, and were now perhaps beyond the jurisdiction of the House. He thought the petition of the prisoner considerably aggravated the contempt of which he had been guilty, and his denial of the charge was anything but satisfactory.
§ SIR F. THESIGER
said, that as no one was authorised on the part of Edwards to request that he might be called to the bar, and as Edwards did not make such a request in his petition, he thought it was useless to lose time in discussing the question to-day, and he hoped the House would 26 consent to postpone the debate until Monday.
§ Debate adjourned till Monday next, at Five o'clock.