HC Deb 13 February 1854 vol 130 cc531-45

rose for the purpose of nominating the Committee of Privileges agreed to on Tuesday last, "to whom is referred the Complaint of the paragraph contained in the Times newspaper of Monday last; to move that the said Committee shall consist of twenty Members." The hon. and learned Member, after giving a list of the Members whom he proposed to place on the Committee, proceeded to say that two of the Gentlemen whose names were proposed had refused to serve. He proposed, however, to retain the number of twenty Members, in conformity with the precedent that had been set in 1834. He should not object to the appointment of more than twenty Members upon the Committee; but he would state the reason why he had proposed twenty as the number. It would be in the recollection of the House that when he proposed the appointment of the Committee, he referred to a precedent in the year 1834, the only precedent which he could find to justify the proceedings he asked the House to adopt; and, in a matter of this nature, and involving such important considerations, he thought it infinitely better that as far as possible the precedent of 1834 should be adhered to in the Resolutions he now proposed. He had copied the Resolutions passed in 1834 word for word, and, on referring to the Journals of the House, he found that the former Committee was composed of twenty Members, some of them—among others Sir Robert Peel—being among the most distinguished Members of that House. He believed himself justified, therefore, in assuming that the authority of Sir Robert Peel was given to the course pursued in 1834 in the nomination of twenty Members upon the Committee. He should now, in the first instance, move that the Committee to be appointed by the House consist of twenty Members.


said, there was a rule of the House that no Committee should consist of more than fifteen Members, unless there were some special public reason for appointing a larger number. He thought that no such reason existed in the present case, and he should certainly object to so numerous a Committee as that which was now proposed. He had rather that the number should be limited to five.


agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Montrose. A great change had taken place in the practice of the House since the precedent to which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Youghal had referred. At that time there was no limit as to number; and the practice of appointing small Committees in the nature of judicial Committees had not then been adopted. He thought it improper, in a case of this kind, to appoint even so large a number as fifteen. The charges which had been made were such as ought to be judicially and carefully inquired into. If they had a large Committee they must have a quorum, and they would have some Gentlemen coming in one day, and some another—some hearing one part of the evidence, and some another—and at last a decision would be come to by those who had been present at parts of the inquiry only, instead of having heard and given their attention to the whole case. In all recent cases the practice had been to appoint an impartial Committee, consisting of a small number of Members, and to require that every Member of that Committee should be present throughout the inquiry. If ever a case required a Committee of that character, it was the case which was now before the House. He was sure that the only wish of the hon. Gentleman opposite was to have a thorough investigation; but he had not been long in the House, and had not had an opportunity of watching, as other hon. Members had, the changes which had taken place in its practice. It was for this reason that he now called his attention to the fact, that what was in accordance with precedent in the year 1834, would be contrary to all recent precedent if it were adopted now.


did not claim to have such experience of the House as to entitle him to oppose the opinion of the right hon. Baronet; but he wished the House to consider the position in which this question was placed, and they would see that the mere appointment of a Committee was not a step capable of carrying out the object in view. The House had decided that it was necessary to the vindication of its honour—that was the expression used by the noble Lord the Member for London—that the complaints which had been made should be subjected to a full and searching investigation. The House was then to consider what those complaints were. The charge was not confined to the specific facts brought forward by Dr. Gray and Mr. Kelly, but a general charge had been made against 100 Members of the House by the Times newspaper. The paragraph in the Times was read at the table, and complaint was made that it contained accusations against the general body of the Irish representatives; and a Committee was appointed to investigate that complaint. What was the nature of the charge into which the Committee had to inquire? If the charge was true, it referred to one of those offences which in their nature being secret, caused great difficulty in their investigation; and what was the course which after long experience it was found necessary to pursue in dealing with those secret offences? If it was decided to get at the bottom of bribery in a borough—as in the case of St. Albans—what was done? He did not allude to the issuing of a Commission alone, but to the accompanying of such a Commission by a Bill of Indemnity to witnesses, so as to induce them to give evidence. If you wanted to get to the bottom of the complaints brought forward by the hon. Member for Youghal, there was no other course but to pass a Bill of Indemnity, so that the witnesses might be in a condition to give their evidence without risk to themselves. He had no desire to say that any one in the House was desirous of cloaking the affair, but it was clearly an analogous case to those in which Bills of Indemnity were passed to secure witnesses from the effect of any disclosures they might make, and unless that was done, there was no chance of getting them to speak out. He would appeal to the House, not simply to appoint a Committee of Inquiry, but also to pass a Bill of Indemnity to witnesses. He had additional reasons for pressing this, from something which had come to his knowledge since this matter had been brought forward. On looking over the Times newspaper, be found facts with regard to the sale of offices of which he had heard before, but which having looked into with reference to the discussion, had caused him the greatest amazement. He found from the columns of the Times, in which the accusation had been made against Irish Members, that there were offices under Government legally saleable—that the Times itself was a party to negotiating the sale of Government offices, which in its columns were described as legally saleable. He would lay before the House some advertisements which he had copied from the Times. He had looked over the file since first this question was brought forward, and he was anxious to see if there was any difference in the number of advertisements of this kind when Parliament was sitting and during the recess. He would first read one or two advertisements, and he would direct the attention of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) to the first, because he wished to put a question to him with regard to it. He found in the Times of the 11th of January, the following:— Douceur.—200l. will be paid at once to any lady or gentleman who will legally procure for advertiser, a young man of business habits and who writes well, a permanent Government situation worth 200l. per annum. The strictest secrecy will be observed in the matter. Address L. S.D., Post Office, Cork. Among others, he found, on the 28th of January, the following:— Douceur of 100l. for five years will be given for a Government or other situation, legally saleable, of not less than 300l. per annum, by a gentleman, aged forty-eight, who withdraws from one of the liberal professions. Strictest secrecy may be relied on, and security, if required, on leasehold property. Address J. M., 121, Edgeware-road, Paddington. In order to bear out his (Mr. Lucas's) statement that 9l. had been offered in Dublin for a situation as porter in the Customs, he would read an advertisement which matched it exactly. It appeared in the Times of February 4th, and was as follows:— Douceur.—10l. or more will be given by the advertiser, a young married man, aged twenty-nine, of excellent character, who is about leaving his present situation, to any person legally obtaining for him a situation in any of the Government or public offices as messenger, light porter, or gatekeeper. Unexceptional reference. Strictest secrecy may be relied on. Address to A.B., South Lambeth Post Office, London. In one advertisement the address was to "Cyrus," Office of the Civil Service Gazette. He was not certain whether the office required was a Government office, but he had an advertisement in the Civil Service Gazette itself of the 28th of January, as follows:— Bonus of 500l. cash.—This sum will be given to any person procuring for a gentleman, highly educated and qualified, a permanent public appointment at a yearly salary of 250l. to 300l. per annum. Address Zeta, Post Office, Hampstead. He was curious to see if there were any advertisements of a contrary character—namely, from persons wishing to sell places. The only one he could find was doubtfully expressed:— Appointment of 100l. per annum will be procured by the advertiser in a very old-established business, duties ten till three, for any gentleman competent, who will lend the advertiser 250l., at 5 per cent, for three years, payable annually, and the appointment certain for the whole term. Apply by letter to G. S., 48, Lamb's Conduitstreet. Now, any Gentleman acquainted with the business of this country would think that there was no old-established business in this country, except that so admirably managed by the right hon. Member for Wells, where the office hours of clerks were limited from ten to three. There was the fact of a number of advertisements offering offices for sale. With regard to whether there was any difference in the number of such advertisements in the recess and during the sitting of Parliament, his researches from 1st January to 8th February, had produced a curious result. There were twelve of such advertisements in the month of January; but on the 31st the Queen's Speech was delivered, which announced a reform in the civil service, and the day after the Speech the number of advertisements in the Times began to increase, and from the 2nd of February to the 8th there were no less than fifteen, so that it appeared that the number was increased after the meeting of Parliament. This was not so light a matter as some Gentlemen might think when they heard the provisions of 49 Geo. III. He would call the attention of the House, and of the proprietors of the Times, and the Civil Service Gazette, to the provisions of that Act. He had in his hand Russell on Crimes, and in chapter 15 he found it laid down that the buying and selling offices was an offence indictable at common law, and that persons conspiring to obtain from the Lords of the Treasury any office in the Customs were indictable for misdemeanour. By 49 Geo. III., any person paying money for the soliciting of an office, or assisting in any negotiation for the purpose (and this concerned the Times) was guilty of a misdemeanour. The 5th and 6th sections were important to newspaper proprietors, for it was enacted "that if any one should keep a house for the purpose of negotiating, or if any person advertised, or printed any advertisement containing any proposal for the sale of an office," was guilty of a misdemeanour, and liable to a penalty of 50l. The Times, therefore, by printing such advertisements, brought itself within the spirit of that clause. He was not anxious to press for pecuniary penalties on any one, but he wished to press on the House that the act of advertising such sales was illegal, and that such advertisements offered clear evidence of the existence of such transactions as the Committee in this case proposed to inquire into. No one after reading those advertisements could deny that negotiations for the sale of offices did take place. These advertisements were put forward in the most glaring and offensive form, and that they were of an illegal and disgraceful character was vouched for by the fact that every one of them was to be private, and that some disgusting secrecy was to be preserved. They were kept in perfect secrecy because they were known to be so disgraceful that no respectable man would wish to be a party to them. The facts ought to be inquired into, if they desired to preserve the House pure; and they ought to give an indemnity to every one who came forward in the matter. In cases of bribery they knew that they would get no evidence of the facts unless they gave an indemnity to the witnesses; and this matter was analogous to a case of bribery. He, therefore, called on the noble Lord to inform the House whether he would, in order to facilitate the inquiry, and to make it effective, consent to the passing of a Bill of Indemnity to indemnify the witnesses who came forward to throw light on this matter?


said, that the argument of the hon. and learned Gentleman had no reference whatever to the question before the House. Every one knew that the sale of offices was an offence at common law; but the question now before the House was whether the House, having agreed to appoint a Committee for a stated purpose—that purpose being to inquire into charges made against individual Members of the House—that Committee was to consist of one certain number of Members or another? Since 1834 the practice of the House had been to appoint a very reduced number of Members; and this being so, he thought that a question affecting the honour of Members should not be left to a varying quorum, but that every one who was appointed should be appointed under the solemn obligation of listening to all the evidence that might from day to day be brought before it. When the hon. and learned Gentleman asked for a Bill of Indemnity, it was evident that he had but little knowledge of the power or practice of the House, because the House possessed ample power to indemnify any witness against the consequences which his evidence might entail upon him. He hoped the House, therefore, would not be turned from proceeding to what was necessary for the honour of its Members under the idea that it had not power to protect the witnesses who gave evidence.


thought, that the right hon. Gentleman in the chair might enable the House to settle this question without further debate. No doubt the charges brought forward involved the honour of the House and the character of some who were believed to be now sitting in it as Members. It was, therefore, imperatively necessary that the case should be investigated with the utmost care and impartiality. In order that any Committee on this subject should act as a Judicial Committee, it was most essential that a Committee should not be formed of a large number of Members, and that there should be no quorum, every Member of the Committee being called upon to attend the sittings. But the House must feel that so large a number as a Committee of twenty would be attended with considerable inconvenience. In a somewhat analogous case, relative to the Carlow election, in which the late Mr. O'Connell was concerned, the Committee was, he believed, composed of eleven Members. In 1845, a Committee of fifteen was appointed to examine into matters affecting the character of Members of that House. He was aware that if the right hon. Gentleman in the chair would say that, in his judgment, a smaller number of Members would be consistent with recent precedents, the judgment of the House would be in favour of the smaller number.


had been a Member of a Committee of Privileges which sat some years ago, and, from the experience he had then had, he could not recommend the House to nominate a similar Committee. A certain number of Members was specially nominated, but as it was a Committee of Privileges, every Member for a county, every merchant, and every gentleman of the long robe, might attend it. Members, therefore, voted who had only heard a portion of the evidence. Any Committee of varying number would be most injurious to the ends of justice in the present case.


In answer to the question put to me by the right hon. Gentleman (Sir John Pakington), I beg to state that I should not venture to give an opinion as to the number of which the Committee ought to consist. But the practice of this House has been to refer matters affecting its privileges to a Committee of this House called the Committee of Privileges, which is a standing Committee, appointed every Session. A certain number of Members are named to serve upon this Committee; but county Members and gentlemen of the long robe may attend it, and it consists, indeed, of nearly as many Members as the House itself. But matters are very often referred not exclusively to this Committee, but to a Select Committee of the House appointed like other Committees. In 1834 the practice was to appoint Committees of twenty Members; but since that period the number of Members is very much curtailed, and there is now a standing order that, without special leave of the House, the number of Members upon a Select Committee shall not exceed fifteen. At a later period still all those Committees which were in their nature Judicial Committees were composed of a small number of Members, and the House insisted upon all the Members being present every day. The practice has been to appoint Committees of from five to ten Members without a quorum, whereby every Member is obliged to attend every day. That is now the ordinary practice, and as this Committee is merely a Select Committee, and not a Committee of Privileges, it comes within the ordinary practice, and may have the smaller number of Members.


thought that, after what had been said by the right hon. Gentleman, the House would no longer consider it necessary to appoint a large Committee. On a former occasion the right hon. Gentleman had reduced the number to eleven, for which he said he had a precedent. If they followed the precedents of the House down more nearly to the present time, they would find that number had been diminished by about half, and that in Election Committees the change to five had been very advantageously adopted. If he might take the liberty of making a suggestion to the hon. Gentleman opposite, he would say, if he (Mr. I. Butt) were disposed to depart from the original number of twenty, he should not go back to a practice which had been advantageously discontinued, but should constitute this Committee one of five, to be chosen by the Committee of Elections. It was a question for the House to determine in what manner a Committee, having constitutional functions to perform, should be chosen so as to perform them to the best advantage and to give general satisfaction. During the last Session he had the honour to act as one of the Committee of Selection. They had this Session been so good as to relieve him from that obligation; but, without reference personally to himself, he now undertook to suggest to the House that no other course, in appointing a Committee of this sort, could be taken with such advantage as that of referring it to the Chairman and Committee of Selection. There had been a question between a Committee of Selection and the Committee of Elections; but he thought that those matters, not of a party character, should be referred to that Committee the duties of which were more immediately confined to the business of the House, and one from which all party feeling should be excluded; but the other was a different tribunal, to arrange matters in which party balances were taken into account.


said, notwithstanding his reluctance to differ from so high an authority, he could not refrain from expressing his entire dissent from the doctrine laid down by his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Goulburn). In answer to a suggestion of the hon. Member for Meath (Mr. Lucas), his right hon. Friend had stated that the hon. Member for Meath was in perfect ignorance if he thought the House could not indemnify a witness. He (Mr. Hildyard) trusted that House never could and never would indemnify a witness who had violated the law of the land. Suppose the first witness were asked this question—"Have you been guilty of trafficking in offices?" Would not that witness be justified in saying, "I decline to answer that question, because it may subject me to punishment?" Not only would he be justified, but probably would do it, and the House could not treat that witness as a witness in contempt, because he would only have availed himself of a privilege that already existed. He only rose to make this statement in consequence of what had fallen from so high an authority as the right hon. Member for Cambridge, land he (Mr. Hildyard) thought it right the country should know that the House had no such privilege.


conceived that the number of the Committee was a matter of very slight importance indeed; the House ought rather to have regard to its ability and intelligence. He, for one, approved of the suggestion thrown out by the hon. Member for Meath (Mr. Lucas), and considered they ought to issue a commission. This was the only course to be adopted if the House would show itself properly watchful of its own character, which had been attacked through the Irish Members. This was the only course for the Government to follow if they would avoid the accusation that they had stepped in to shield Members of Parliament, of whose guilt they had cognisance, from the ignominy to which their conduct had exposed them. He hoped, therefore, that his hon. and learned Friend would keep the matter in his own hands, and on the Committee deciding that a primâ facie case for inquiry had been made out, that a commission should be appointed with the fullest powers to examine witnesses compatible with the utmost limits of the law. In that way alone could the indiscriminate charges of the Times newspaper be satisfactorily disproved; and on the part of the Irish Members he dared them to the fullest inquiry, and he trusted that from that inquiry there would be no shrinking back.


said, he had waited for some time in the hope that a distinct proposition, by way of amendment to his Motion, would emanate from some hon. Gentleman; but as none such had been delivered, he considered himself now as about to speak in reply. Well, then, if any subsequent Amendment was moved, he should still consider he had an opportunity for reply. He confessed, however, that he felt himself in rather an awkward position, because, though pressed by the great weight of authority brought against him, his own judgment remained uninfluenced. Two proposals had been made: the one that the numbers of the Committee should be reduced; the other that the appointment of the Committee should be referred to the Committee of Selection. Nevertheless, the two proposals were perfectly the same. He wished to deal with both. For himself, he had no other desire but that the inquiry should be as full and as severe as it could possibly be; unless, indeed, this further important one, that the public, both in England and Ireland, should feel the most unreserved confidence in the Committee. For unless the names of the five Gentlemen to be appointed, according to the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. E. Denison), were received with the most entire satisfaction, the public could only conclude that they had been nominated to screen the guilty from punishment. As for the numbers of the Committee, he would not himself wish to see them reduced certainly below eleven, though he much preferred they should be fifteen, and more so twenty. No one, however, but himself had a practical cognisance of the difficulty of flaming a Committee; for, he might observe that there were accusers present on that (the Opposition) side of the House—there was a section on that side of the House—who, though in opposition to the Government, in some degree held similar political opinions with them. A party among the Members from Ireland had made accusations against another party; and would they exclude the accusers from the Committee? And if they did, did they think they would be satisfying the people of Ireland, who placed credence in these accusations? And, then, would they leave the accused entirely undefended, or would they run the risk of allowing the public of both countries to conclude that something had been kept back? For these reasons he preferred the precedent of twenty Members. The case, as the House should remember, was not one of a judicial Committee sitting to inquire into charges against a particular individual; their functions would be infinitely more of a grand-jury character—namely, an inquiry as to whether certain offences had been committed. Undoubtedly in an individual case the course to be pursued was entirely different; but in the present one, if the House appointed a Committee of limited numbers, it would be laying itself open to the charge that it had been so limited in order to exclude Gentlemen who might have established the truth of the allegations. For himself he was obliged to confess that the House would be abdicating its highest functions if it referred the nomination of the Committee to the Committee of Selection. However, be that as it might, there was one point at least on which he had made up his mind—namely, that if the Committee was not to be nominated by the House, the proceeding which had been brought before the House was one of which he could take no further notice. And he must tell the House plainly, though respectfully, that if the Committee were nominated by any any other body than the House itself, that the report of any such Committee would be only regarded as a stifling of the investigation. However, he was perfectly willing to give way as to the numbers of the Committee; but as a matter of principle, if its nomination were to rest anywhere else than with the House itself, he should decline all further responsibility.


was understood to suggest that the Standing Orders should decide the question.


said, he was not aware that any Irish Member on that side of the House had an objection to the inquiry in any form, or to any extent. He believed he spoke for others, and certainly for himself, when he said, all he desired was, that whatever might be the readiest and most searching mode of coming to the truth, in Heaven's name adopt it at once. This was not a light and trivial matter, especially at the present juncture of affairs, when every Member should be free from the slightest shadow of suspicion floating over him, no matter how undefined. If there were any obstruction in the forms of the House to this inquiry, away with them. He most heartily and earnestly seconded the Motion of the hon. Member for the county Meath. Let them have the truth, and the whole truth. Let them pass a short Bill of Indemnity if the forms of the House offered the slightest obstacle to the most thorough inquiry. He hoped, however, the hon. Member for Meath would not confine himself to the accusation he had made in the House the other night. He (Mr. J. O'Connell) had been in the House seventeen or eighteen years, and he had never heard such a speech as that made by the hon. Member. He meant such a speech as that attributed to the hon. Gentleman which had been reported in the Times and other newspapers, in which he deliberately charged the side of the House on which he (Mr. J. O'Connell) sat—charged the whole of them together with gross corruption. In the report he had read of the speech, the hon. Member declared there was no doubt whatever—because he had no doubt, therefore there could be no doubt whatever—that the grossest and most corrupt practices had prevailed among Irish Members. The hon. Member finished with a singular de- claration for a Member of the House of Commons—that he would not prove it. What was the reason? Why, because he could not. Let the Committee be appointed to enable him to do so. They invited him to do it. It was astonishing that he should not only attack living Members, but drag the name of the dead before them: one of their most illustrious men—one on whose lips senators had hung, and to whom, many a time, the House had listened with delight—and yet his name had been dragged from the grave and through a newspaper report; and an hon. Member had done all he could to vilify the character of that hon. Gentleman. He alluded to the late Right Hon. Mr. Sheil. It was a matter of justice to the Irish Gentleman accused that this inquiry should be made, and that no forms of the House should intervene to prevent it. The hon. Gentleman who had brought this matter before the House had put his (Mr. O'Connell's) name on the Committee, but he hoped that he might be excused; there was so much unpleasantness connected with the matter, and he was rather apt to push an inquiry on somewhat too hotly; he had, too, been engaged in personal conflict—though in public matters—with some of the Gentlemen who would have to be examined before the Committee. With that single exception he was prepared to give every facility to the fullest and most searching investigation.


said, he would remind the House that the notice that had been given by his hon. and learned Friend referred to the libels in the Times newspaper, and to those alone. Those libels made two charges of corruption against Irish Members, which applied to the whole body. His hon. and learned Friend had very wisely taken little notice of the Times newspaper, but had confined himself to the two assertions reported to have been made in Ireland. The Irish Members had for a series of years been accustomed to the libels of that paper, and he never recollected any great change in Ireland that was not preceded, speaking in a professional phrase, by a skirmishing fire of libels before the measure was brought forward. Those libels might be written by Members on the Treasury bench, or they might not; but whether they were or not, the charge was a judicial one, and ought to be met by a judicial tribunal; and he quite agreed with the hon. Member for Roscommon, that a Committee of the House was not so good as a Commission, where they could examine on oath, and give that indemnity which was given in the most petty case of bribery. Corruption could not exist without two parties were cognisant, and the Government were bound to afford the means of the most stringent inquiry. He hoped that they would have the assistance of Members of the Government, for, though he was satisfied the result would be a contradiction of the charges, he hoped the Government would give them a tribunal more impartial than a Committee of the House. He would have appealed to the noble Lord at the head of the Government to grant a Commission, but that he saw he was not in the House.


said, that the noble Lord, in consequence of suffering from physical debility after his exertions in the early part of the evening, had left the House, leaving it with him to state anything that might be necessary on the part of the Government. As regarded the question of indemnity, he believed it would be admitted by all parties acquainted with the law that the House had in itself ample power to protect witnesses who appeared before its Committees. That was the case undoubtedly, and a Bill of Indemnity was perfectly needless in the present instance. With regard to the second point, the whole question was as to the number of the Committee. There was no question as to whether the nomination of the Committee should be in the House, or should be referred to the Committee of Selection, or the General Committee of Elections. The question was, whether this Committee should consist of twenty or a smaller number. Without giving any opinion on the part of the Government, he would refer them to the very high authorities who had already spoken, and to the fact that the House had been gradually reducing the number of Members on Committees with very great advantage. He was, therefore, of opinion that the proposition for the larger number ought not to be entertained.


said, he could not hear the declaration just made without expressing his dissent altogether. He thought the right hon. Gentleman was quite incorrect with respect to the power of the House to grant an indemnity. In the case of Sir Robert Walpole, the prosecution was dropped in consequence of the rejection of a Bill of Indemnity, and some of the finest speeches ever made in the House of Lords were made upon that occasion.


I did not say this House had power to grant a Bill of Indemnity, but I said the House had within itself ample power to protect the witnesses examined before its Committees. There is a remarkable difference between the two things. One does, and the other does not, raise the question of privilege which was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Hildyard).


But, suppose a witness makes a confession of corrupt practices before a Committee, can the house shroud him? I should believe, from all my experience in matters connected with the law, this House would not and should not endeavour to do so. If a man were to make a confession, and I indict him, he having confessed he was guilty of an act contrary to law, this House could not interfere.


said, if the House would permit him, he would withdraw the Motion for twenty, and substitute fifteen.


said, it would not be necessary to resolve that fifteen should be the number, as the usual constitution of such a Committee was that number. It was only necessary to withdraw the Resolution.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at half after Nine o'clock.