HC Deb 22 February 1858 vol 148 cc1855-67

I rise, Sir, to present the Petition of which I gave notice last Friday, and I think it will save the House some trouble if I read the Petition, which consists only of a few lines. The hon. and learned Gentleman then read the Petition. The petitioner (Mr. Edward Lees Coffey, of Sheffield) stated that Isaac Butt, Esq., M.P., in or about the month of July, 1856, entered into a corrupt agreement with the Rajah Ali Moorad Khan, or his agents, the effect of which was that the said Isaac Butt, for a sum of money stipulated to be paid to him, should advocate and prosecute in the House of Commons the claims of his Highness for the recovery of the territory of which he had been deprived by annexation by the East India Company; and that, in pursuance of such corrupt agreement, divers sums of money had been actually paid by the said Ameer Ali Moorad Khan to the said Isaac Butt. The petitioner was advised and believed that if the House should institute an inquiry into the circumstances, it would be found that the said Isaac Butt had been guilty of a breach of privilege of the House, and he therefore prayed that the House would take steps to investigate the allegations in the Petition. The hon. and learned Gentleman then presented the Petition.

Petition of Edward Lees Coffey, stating that Isaac Butt, Esquire, a Member of the House did in 1856 enter into an agreement with His Highness Ameer Ali Moorad Khan or his agents for a sum of money to advocate the claims of His Highness in the House of Commons for the recovery of his territory, and praying for inquiry, offered.

Ordered, That the said Petition be printed, for the use of the Members only.


I give notice that I will on Friday move for a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations of the Petition.


I rise, Sir, to protest against the course suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield. A charge is publicly made against me which I now denounce as false; and, more than this, I say that I am prepared to prove that it is the result of as vile and unprincipled a conspiracy as was ever brought to bear against a Member of this House. I demand, Sir, from the justice of this House an immediate investigation. Let that investigation be conducted in the way that I would prefer—namely, by a public inquiry at the bar of this House—where, Until I vindicate myself, I am content to stand as a criminal, if only the House will permit me to meet my accuser face to face. If the House see an objection to that course (and it is not, of course, for me to choose my tribunal), let a Select Committee now be appointed—because this being a question of privilege, it can take precedence. Let that Select Committee have leave to sit to-morrow, and let it determine the matter. I wish to throw no imputation at all upon the course taken by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield—the simple question which the House has to determine is whether the charge is true or not—I am not here to accuse my accuser; but on Thursday evening I came down to this House intending, if I should have had the good fortune of having an opportunity of doing so, to take part in the debate. I found in the House a letter from the hon. and learned Member enclosing, fairly enough, a copy of this Petition. On Friday morning I wrote to him a letter (of which I did not make a copy, but the hon. and learned Member, I am sure, can say whether I am stating its contents accurately) to the effect that I had received this Petition, that it had taken me by surprise, that I denied the charge, and that I wished that it should be immediately investigated, inasmuch as it was of so grave a nature, that no Member of the House should allow twenty-four hours to pass without contradicting it, if unfounded. But I also told him that, in order to make my statement complete, it would be necessary for me to refer to documents and correspondence which were in Dublin, and which I was afraid no person could find but myself. I therefore asked him to defer presenting the Petition for three or four days to give me an opportunity of going to Dublin to obtain the documents, that I might meet the charge. I went further—I told him that as I was writing to him I might add that such a charge, even if fully refuted, must be deeply painful to any man; and that the discussion of it might compromise the case of the Prince whose name had been referred to. "Therefore," I said, "relying on your honour and sense of justice, if you will permit me, I will lay before you a statement of every transaction in which I have taken part in relation to that Prince, and I ask you to defer presenting the Petition until you have read that statement." I do not wish in the slightest degree to complain of the course taken by the hon. and learned Member. I told him at the same time that I was certain that, whatever course he might take, it would be dictated by his sense of public duty, I received from him a letter stating that if I attended in my place to-day I should have an opportunity of hearing the notice which he would give of his intention to move on Friday evening for a Select Committee to investigate the charge. I have no reason to complain of the tone of that letter. In reply to that letter, I said I was sure he would, on reflection, see there was an objection to that course, and that, under whatever disadvantageous circumstances, I must meet such a charge the first moment it came before the public. I stated that I believed I was ready to meet the charge (I am speaking from memory), but he would feel that to make my defence in a public assembly would be a very different affair from making it before a Select Committee, apart from the danger of inaccurately stating the purport of documents of which I was not then in possession. I proposed to leave for Dublin on the morning after the division on Friday evening. To that letter I received no answer, and I waited until half-past four expecting one; and then upon coming down to the House, I found that the hon. and learned Gentleman had not only given notice of his intention to present this Petition, but—if I am correctly informed—that he had stated that he believed in the truth of the allegations contained in it. Under these circumstances all that I ask from this House is justice. I make no appeal to their sympathy, because I know that in addressing the first assemblage of gentlemen in the world such an appeal would be out of place, but I demand of their justice that not one hour—not one moment longer than the rules of the House render necessary—shall this odious charge be kept hanging over my head. Whether you agree that the investigation shall take place at the bar (where I may meet Mr. Coffey face to face) of this House, or whether you refer to a Select Committee, whatever course you take, let it be taken at once. I do not know whether I should be in order in moving that a Committee be now appointed in order to inquire into the truth of this petition. I have spoken to no one on the subject, nor have I canvassed any Member of this House; but I leave my case in the hands of a friend, who I know will do me justice, and who is in possession of full information as to the circumstances of the case. I shall now, Sir, retire from this House; but I feel confident that whatever course the House may take I shall, after a full investigation into the subject, return to my seat without any stain upon my honour, without any other stain upon my reputation than that blot which an accusation of this kind always leaves behind it made against a man circumstanced as I am, however false the charge may be, or however vile the motives in which it may have originated. All that I ask is that not one day, not one hour longer than is absolutely necessary, shall elapse without this charge against me being investigated.


then withdrew.


It will be in the recollection of the House that when I gave notice of my intention to present this Petition, I intimated that I should move for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into its allegations. On that occasion exception was taken to the course I proposed, and the highest authority in the House suggested the course which I have now pursued; therefore, as far as I am concerned, I am without blame in this respect. Moreover, I stated that I did believe in the allegations of the Petition; for, in bringing such a charge, I was bound to investigate evidence on which the charge was made, and I was bound, as a Member of this House, not to cast an imputation of that description, without having carefully investigated the evidence in which it is founded. I have done so—


I rise to order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is stating a primâ facie case.


The hon. and learned Gentleman is not entitled to address the House a second time, unless for the purpose of explaining a former statement. I have no doubt, if the hon. and learned Member desires to comply with the request of the hon. and learned Member who has retired, the Committee may at once be appointed.


Then, Sir, I move that the Committee of Selection do at once proceed to nominate a Select Committee to inquire into the truth of these allegations.

Motion made and Question proposed, That the Committee of Selection do nominate a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations of the said Petition, and to report their opinion thereupon.


I object to the proposition of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and beg to propose, as an Amendment, that this House proceed to appoint the Committee. I object to the interposition of the Committee of Selection, simply on the ground that one or more days must elapse before the Committee can be appointed. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend, that not a single moment should be allowed to pass when a charge like this is hanging over an honourable man, without the House appointing a Committee forthwith. Let the Committee be composed of the most distinguished Members of the House. I am in possession of facts quite sufficient to say that my hon. and learned Friend will come out of the investigation in a most triumphant manner, and that he will be able to prove to the House that a conspiracy of the vilest character is pursuing him at this moment. Sir, there is another reason why the House should forthwith appoint the Committee—namely, that my hon. and learned Friend, in the discharge of his professional duties, must be in Ireland on Monday next. Of course that alone ought to be a justification of the demand made by him. I have sketched out, since I came to this House, the names of those who I think would constitute a proper Committee for the investigation of this matter; and when I read over the names I think the House will see that the honour of one of its Members cannot be entrusted to better hands. The names I suggest are Mr. HENLEY, Lord JOHN MANNERS, Mr. WALPOLE, Sir JAMES GRAHAM, Mr. SIDNEY HERBERT, Mr. BRIGHT, Mr. Serjeant KINGLAKE, Mr. BOUVERIE, General CQDEINGTON, Mr. WILSON PATTEN, Mr. DEEDES, and Lord GODERICH. I beg to propose that the petition be referred to a Select Committee; that the Committee be appointed forthwith, and meet to-morrow; and that it shall be an instruction to the Committee to inquire into all the circumstances connected with the Petition; and that the Committee shall continue to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House.


So far as I am concerned, I at once accede to the proposition of the hon. Gentleman.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House do forthwith appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations of the said Petition," instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he understood that the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Roebuck) had moved that the Petition be printed, for the purpose of guiding the House in its decision as to whether a Committee ought to be appointed or not. They were now putting the cart before the horse. They had ordered the Petition to be printed, and were now proposing the appointment of a Committee. It was customary to print such Petitions for the use of Members only, in order that the House might not fall into the difficulty which occurred in the case of "Stockdale v. Hansard." If the newspapers published charges which were libellous and made for malicious purposes, they did so on their own responsibility. He did not think it fair that it should be printed with the Votes unless the circulation of it was restricted to Members only, and he did not see the use of printing it at all if they were going to appoint a Committee.


said, he would at once accede to the Motion of the hon. Member, that the Committee should be appointed to-night. An investigation was all that he wanted, As to printing the Petition, it was simply in accordance with the suggestion of the Speaker that he made the proposal, and if the House saw fit to rescind the order, he saw no reason why it should not.


Sir, I cannot help feeling that the House is asked to act with some precipitation, Of course, it must be very painful to any Gentleman to be subject to an accusation of the nature which we have just heard; and it is only fair that such an accusation should meet with as prompt an investigation as possible. But, at the same time, we have certain rules which have been accepted by this House, and which long experience has proved to be very salutary; and I fear that if we were to appoint this Committee on the instant we should be taking a course hardly regular. I think it would be much better to allow it to be appointed by the Committee of Selection. It has been always the custom for the names of those who are nominated to investigate, especially in cases of this nature, to be placed fairly before the House for their consideration and approval; and I should have thought it would be much more agreeable to the hon. Gentleman whose conduct has been impugned that there should not be the appearance of unseemly haste in a matter of this kind. Another point is, the number of Members who should form the Committee. From the hurried manner in which the hon. Gentleman read his Motion, I really do not at this moment know either the number or the names of the Members whom he proposes to appoint. But it appears to me that the tribunal he suggests is inconveniently large, and should be much more limited. It should consist of those Members in whose temper and high character the House, as well as the hon. Gentleman, may have the fullest confidence. Under any circumstances it would, I believe, be better to leave the nomination of this Committee to the Committee of Selection, instead of to an hon. Member who has been indicated to the House as the friend of the hon. Gentleman whose conduct is impugned. I am sure the House will feel it to be the wisest course to follow their usual practice in such cases, and that if the choice of the names are not left to the Committee of Selection, it would be more satisfactory to the hon. Member for Youghal himself that they should at least be placed before the House for due consideration.


This case is brought before the House as a question of privilege; and on that ground alone, I apprehend, no such departure from the ordinary rules of the House can be justified as the nomination of this Committee on the Motion of any independent Member. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) that it is extremely desirable, excepting under very urgent necessity, that our rules should be adhered to; and I am inclined to think with him that in this instance there is no necessity for departing from them. The House can have but one object—namely, that consistently with the thorough investigation of the charges preferred against the hon. Member, he should have the earliest possible opportunity of vindicating himself. With that view the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield has proposed that the Committee of Selection forthwith nominate a Committee to inquire into the allegations of the petition. If that proposition is agreed to, the Committee of Selection will in the course of this evening or to-morrow morning appoint the Committee. And although, perhaps, the Motion of the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Fagan) was suggested by an anticipation that the House would not sit for the next few days, and that therefore some delay would be incurred, yet I apprehend that no such delay need take place, because, if nominated to-night or to-morrow morning by the Committee of Selection, the Committee might meet to-morrow and proceed with their inquiry forthwith. It would be decidedly preferable on every account to leave the nomination in the hands of the Committee of Selection, and the House should express its opinion that the Members should not exceed the usual number.


The course proposed by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli) does not appear to me to be quite consistent with what, if I were in the place of the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Butt), I should think ought to be taken by the House; and the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary has recommended a course which appears to me just as contrary to rule. He proposes that the Committee of Selection should nominate a number of Gentlemen to act on this Committee, and, as I suppose, that they should proceed with their duty although this House does not sit to confirm their nomination. That possibly may not be necessary; but it is at least unusual to dispense with it; and it appears to me to be an unusual course that a number of Gentleman should be appointed as a Committee by a Committee of Selection that was never intended to appoint Committees in cases of this kind; and then that Committee should sit, although it has received no confirmation from the House. Now, if my own name were not included in the list given in by the hon. Member for Cork, I should think the Committee that he has proposed, as far as I heard their names, would be composed of men before whom any Member of this House would be quite satisfied to have his case tried. We have been told that the hon. Member for Youghal, who is concerned most immediately in this matter, is about to leave for Dublin on a professional engagement. Now, I think the House of Commons ought not to allow a moment's delay that might involve him in the unpleasant position that he must go to Ireland on his professional avocations with a charge of this nature hanging over his head. If this House were to meet tomorrow night, and every night this week, it might not matter so much, because to-morrow the whole question might then be settled. But it cannot be settled to-night; and as the case is one of privilege, involving the character and honour of an hon. Member, I would recommend the House not to take the advice of any person, however high his authority, who would interpose one moment's delay between the charge which has been made and that justification which every one of us, I believe, in his heart hopes the hon. and learned Gentleman may establish. As one of those whose names are proposed by the hon. Member for Cork, I would ask of him to excuse me; but, whether I am excused or not, I would certainly urge the House to agree to this Committee, that it may begin to investigate to-morrow and report as soon as possible.


believed that if the House devolved the duty of nomination upon the Committee of Selection it would discharge it with impartiality; but he saw an objection, to the course suggested by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. It would be the first time that the task of appointing a Committee of this kind had fallen upon the Committee of Selection, without their Domination being afterwards submitted to the judgment of the House. The Committee of Selection were bound to report their proceedings to the House, and could not select any Committee, even on a private Bill, without submitting their choice to its confirmation. He would suggest that, instead of this duty being intrusted to the Committee of Selection, it should be intrusted to the Committee of Elections, which consisted of six Members chosen by the Speaker indifferently from both sides of the House, and which would, perhaps, carry with it more of the public confidence.


took it for granted that the feeling of the House was, that justice should be done as soon as possible in this case. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir George Grey) had recommended that the Committee of Selection should appoint this Committee either that night or the following morning; but, as the House would probably adjourn that night for a week or so, many hon. Members would be leaving town immediately, and it would perhaps be very difficult to collect together any Committee which might be thus chosen.


recommended the House to follow the precedent of the Rochdale Election Committee, in which the House appointed the Committee of Inquiry the very same evening that the allegations were made. The present was not an ordinary case, and therefore ought not to be left to the Committee of Selection. Under these circumstances he pressed upon the House the desirability of nominating the Committee which had been proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for Cork.


, who spoke amid loud cries of "Agreed, agreed," recommended that the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire, backed as it was by the authority of the Home Secretary, should be adopted.


thought that the question for the House to consider was which mode of appointing the Committee would be fairest to the hon. Member who was the subject of this charge. They had before them three propositions—firstly, the proposal of certain names by an hon. Member who spoke on behalf of the accused, to which the House might—not quite in accordance with precedent, but without any great violation of it—assent; secondly, that the appointment of the Committee should be referred to the Committee of Selection; and, thirdly, that it should be left to the General Committee of Elections. To both of these two last propositions there was the same objection, that neither Committee could report to the House the names which they had selected, which would, in his opinion, be a greater violation of the ordinary precedents and usages of the House than the immediate nomina- tion of the Committee. Every hon. Member must feel that if they were to strain a point at all it ought to be in order to give to the accused party the earliest opportunity of refuting the charges which were made against him. He therefore thought that they would the least violate precedent, and would do the most substantial justice by acceding to the Motion of the hon. Member for Cork.


asked his hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel W. Patten) whether he proposed to refer the Petition itself, or only the nomination of the Committee, to the General Committee of Elections.


suggested, that if the matter was referred to the Committee of Selection, that Committee might at once retire, nominate the Committee, and report it to the House. [Cries of "No, no!"]


said, he would withdraw his original Motion.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


then put the Question, "That the House forthwith proceed to appoint a Select Committee."


Before the House proceeds to divide upon this Motion, it is desirable that the hon. Member making the Motion should state again to the House the names of the hon. Members whom he proposes to place on the Committee. It is usual to give notice beforehand, and it will be as well that the list should be read in order that there may be a discretion as to each name.


having read the names of the proposed Committee,


said, he had no objection to offer to the names proposed, but it was generally understood that Members, when appointed, should attend de die en diem, and he hoped that hon. Members would consider whether they would be able to do so.


thought that the Committee was open to objection on two grounds. In the first place it was more numerous than was customary; and, in the next place, the number of Members was even, so that it was quite possible that it might come to no decision. He moved that the number be reduced to five.


thought that five would not be sufficient. He objected to too much power being vested in the hands of the Chairman, which would be the case if the Committee consisted of only five. Ha thought that the number should be seven.


assented to the proposition of the hon. Gentleman, and withdrew his Motion.

Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That a Select Committee be forthwith appointed to inquire into the allegations of the said Petition. To consist of seven Members.


thought that before they decided upon the names of the Committee, it would be necessary to suspend one of the standing orders, which said that any Member intending to move the appointment of a Select Committee should give one day's notice of the proposed names of such Committee.

On the Question "that Mr. Henley be one of the Members of the said Committee,"


said, that it was quite possible that some hon. Gentlemen, whose names were proposed might in a few days no longer be Members of that House. He wished to know what would be the result of such an occurrence?


understood that if the name of any hon. Member was agreed to without his objecting to it, he in candour, if not expressly, agreed to serve de die in diem.


said, that in consequence of the proposition having been suddenly brought to his notice, he had not been able to consider whether he was in a position to serve. Had the matter been brought to his notice earlier he might have been in a position to do so.

Motion made, and Question, "That Mr. Henley be one of the Members of the said Committee," put, and negatived.

The next name on the list was that of Lord John Manners.

On his name being put from the Chair,


I say ditto to my right hon. Friend.


thought that the House had now had sufficient proof of the inconvenience of the course which had been adopted, and renewed the suggestion that the nomination of the Committee should be referred to the Committee of Selection.


thought the House had got into a great difficulty. As the House would sit to-morrow to move the new writs, he thought that they had better postpone until then the proceeding with the Committee of Selection.

Motion made, and Question, "That Lord John Manners be one of the Members of the said Committee," put, and negatived.

Mr. Walpole's name was then proposed.


said, he should have been very willing to undertake to serve upon any Committee to which the House thought proper to appoint him, and he would give to it his calm and unfettered judgment. At the same time he felt that since, after the names of the Committee had been mentioned, first one Member and then another had been negatived, he was placed in a difficult position. Not knowing, therefore, the composition of the Committee, he would prefer that the House should hot appoint him as one of the Members.

Motion made, and Question, "That Mr. Walpole be one of the Members of the said Committee," put, and negatived.

Sir JAMES GRAHAM, Mr. SIDNEY HERBERT, Mr. BRIGHT, Mr. Serjeant KINGLAKE, Mr. BOUVERIE, General CODRINGTON, and Colonel WILSON PATTEN nominated Members of the said Committee.

Power to send for persons, papers, and records; Five to be the quorum.

Petition of Edward Lees Coffey referred to the Committee.


I beg the House to notice that all the Gentlemen nominated have been taken from the other side.


The Petition which I have presented is about to be referred to this Select Committee. I suppose there must be somebody to take charge of it. Now, I am not very anxious to undertake so disagreeable a task, but, having presented the Petition, I feel bound to present myself to the House.


said, that in conformity with precedent and the claims of justice Mr. Butt ought to be at liberty to nominate an hon. Member to attend the Committee on his behalf.


said, that the House had on former occasions, as the right hon. Baronet had stated, nominated two Members to serve on the Committee for the purpose of conducting the inquiry on either side, but without having a vote.


, on the part of Mr. Butt, named Mr. Serjeant Deasy.

Ordered,— That Mr. ROEBUCK and Mr. Serjeant DEASY be appointed to serve upon the said Committee, and to take part in its proceedings, but without the power of voting.