HC Deb 25 May 1860 vol 158 cc1762-6

said, he rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to press the Census Bill in its present form as regards the mode of ascertaining the Religious Profession of the Population, or whether they propose to alter the said Bill in that respect; and, if so, in what manner?


Before I advert to the question just put to me, I may be permitted to say that I have remarked on previous occasions the great discordance of opinion in these cases with respect to the policy of acting on the Reports of Commissions issued to inquire into corrupt practices at elections; and certainly the debate this evening has not served to remove that impression; for there have been very conflicting opinions expressed with regard to the policy of acting, and those opinions have been in direct conflict with those expressed on former occasions. According to my recollection of the last debate in the case of Berwick, the charge against the Government was that they were supine in instituting proceedings founded on the Reports of these Commissions; that through their supineness these Commissions became nugatory, and that it was incumbent on the House and the Executive Government to take active steps in consequence of the information disclosed by the Commissioners' Reports. On that occasion I remember severe reproaches were directed against the Government for not having previously founded prosecutions upon the Reports of the Gloucester and Wakefield Commissions, but particularly upon that of Wakefield, in which it was pointed out, and with considerable commendation, that certificates had not been granted to all the witnesses. In consequence of what passed on that occasion my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, having had the matter previously under consideration, decided on instituting prosecutions. The House has heard the explanations which my hon. and learned Friend has afforded, and nothing can be more embarrassing than debates such as that which has taken place with regard to the conduct of the Executive Government and of my hon. and learned Friend who is charged with the management of criminal prosecutions. We are first urged to conduct such prosecutions, and when the first steps are taken for that purpose a debate is raised in this House, founded on no distinct Resolution, prejudices are created, and insinuations are made. [Mr. BRIGHT: No, no!] Well, I will not say insinuations. Prejudices, however, are raised, and admonitions are indirectly conveyed to my hon. and learned Friend; but no positive fact is laid before the House by which the conduct of the Government can be guided. I wish to state my own opinion, that it is utterly impossible for the Executive Government to regard any of these Commissions otherwise than in a judicial point of view. These Commissioners are appointed under a special Act of Parliament; and if the Government were to interfere by calling on them to explain their proceedings or to be the organ of conveying charges against them, undoubtedly such conduct would meet with the reprehension of this House. It would be said that these being Parliamentary Commissions, issued under an Address to the Crown, and the Commissioners being named in the Address, any interference on the part of the Executive Government, whether the Commissioners were actually sitting, or, having presented their Report, were functi officio, would be a violation of their duty to this House. A memorial was presented to me by Mr. Leatham, containing the allegation, which has been repeated by more than one Member this evening, that the Chief Commissioner was of opinion that he was entitled to his certificate. I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Leatham had sufficient grounds for making that statement; but the only official use I could make of his memorial was to refer it to my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, in order that he might have official knowledge of it. It was not competent for me to call on the Commissioners to give any explanation of their conduct. I must say, however, what cannot but be obvious to all, that speeches made in this House while legal proceedings are pending are calculated to embarrass the course of justice. The fairest course towards the Executive Government would be for some hon. Member to bring forward a distinct Motion in this House either to stop the prosecution or to recommend that it should go forward, as in either case there would be a distinct ground on which the Executive Government could act. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge University, did not, I think, sufficiently distinguish between two different clauses of the Act. It is true, that when a certificate is given, the person receiving it is held harmless against criminal proceedings, but it is likewise true that where no such certificate is given his evidence will not be used against him in any criminal proceeding. If the House will refer to the provisions of the 8th section they will see that no question can arise on that point; for it says that no answer to any question, except in the case of perjury, shall be admissible against the person giving evidence in any proceedings, civil or criminal. [Sir H. CAIRNS: That is part of the indemnity.] It seems to me to be distinct from the indemnity, and to bear the construction which I have put upon it; nor was I aware that any persons competent to give an opinion had a different view of it till now. Now a few words as to the question of the hon. Member for Finsbury. The charges to which the Government are exposed with respect to the execution of the Act come from different quarters. Some hon. Members impute to the Government an unnecessary degree of lenity in their treatment of these two boroughs of Gloucester and Wakefield. The hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Duncombe) thinks the suspension of the writs during the present Parliament an unnecessarily severe measure, and he asks why the writs should not he issued immediately. Other hon. Members, on the other hand, say that the suspension of the writs during this Parliament is a weak and insufficient course, and that the boroughs ought to be disfranchised for a longer time. The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Griffiths) said that the course taken by the Government in recommending a suspension of the writs for this Parliament only was a proof of their insincerity, because the course taken falls far short of the justice of the case. Now, nobody can dispute that the suspension of the writs during the present Parliament is a considerable deprivation, and a penal measure of some magnitude. The issue of these writs is in the power of the House; but if any hon. Member thinks that a longer time of deprivation is required, it is competent for him, to bring in a Bill for that purpose. If the period of suspension is to exceed the length of the present Parliament, that can only he done by means of a Bill, because as soon as a dissolution takes place the issue of the writs is out of the hand of the House. The Government have not thought it desirable to take that course, because with a Bill under the consideration of the House for a reform of the representation of the people, which will add considerably to the constituencies of Gloucester and Wakefield, it was not thought expedient to suspend the writs for a longer period than during the present Parliament. Now, with regard to the question put on the subject of the census by the hon. Member (Mr. Dillwyn), I do not think it a convenient course in general to anticipate the debate on a Bill which is in progress through the House. I hope, therefore, I shall not he considered as acting disrespectfully towards the House if I decline to enter into a discussion of that question. I will only say that the proposal with reference to the religious returns to be obtained at the census was deliberately made, and that I do not see any practical difficulty in the way of its being carried out; but if the House should be of opinion that it would be an infraction of religious liberty to impose a penalty on the refusal to answer the questions with regard to the religious denomination of individuals, and if it should be wished to make a distinction between that particular and the other particulars to be collected at the census, I should not be unwilling to make that distinction.


said, he wished to disclaim having made an unqualified charge of insincerity against the Government.


said, that with reference to the subject of the bribery prosecutions, be thought the question before the House was whether they would or would not treat bribery as an offence. If the matter were to be passed over in the way recommended by some legal gentlemen, the country would never afterwards believe for a single moment in the attempts of the House of Commons to put down bribery, nor would anybody think it worth while to take notice of any amount of bribery that might be committed. The Act of Parliament expressly provided that every witness who gave satisfaction to the Commissioners should receive a certificate, and it was a proof that those who did not obtain a certificate were not entitled to the privilege.