HC Deb 19 July 1861 vol 164 cc1178-87

Petition of George O'Malley Irwin, praying for inquiry into alleged fraudulent practices committed by John Orrell Lever, Esquire (a Member of this House), and others, in reference to the Royal Atlantic Mail Steam Navigation Company, offered: —


Sir, I rise for the purpose of presenting a petition from Mr. O'Malley Irwin similar to the one which I presented to the House a night or two ago, with this alteration, that the Petitioner seeks for an investigation instead of proposing a prosecution by the Attorney General.

Now, Sir, if I understand rightly the position in which I am placed, I am expected to express an opinion with reference to the petition which I present. [Cries of "No, no."] I believe, Sir, that I am right. I certainly was repeatedly told that a night or two ago—and from what you, Sir, have said, I am led to believe that I am justified in the statement which I have just made. That being the case, I now state why I think I am justified in the statement that there are prima faciegrounds for inquiry. I have no hesitation whatever in stating that I believe so, and, should a discussion arise upon the question, I am fully prepared to state the grounds upon which I entertain that opinion.


Does the hon. Gentleman make any Motion?


Yes, Sir, I now move that the petition be read by the clerk at the Table.

The Clerk read the Petition.


Sir, I now move that this petition do lie on the Table.


Does any hon. Member second the Motion?


Sir, I rise to Order—I understand that the practice is that when a petition of this kind, making charges against an hon. Member (the hon. Member being present), has been read at the Table, the House would be guided in the course it might take by any statement which that hon. Member might think fit to make before any Motion is made with respect to the petition.


I thought, Sir, that a Motion ought to be made first, and that when the Motion is made the hon. Member ought to be heard. I put it to you, Sir, whether some Motion ought not to be made upon a petition of this sort, and whether that Motion ought not to be made before the hon. Member is heard?


The hon. Member for Brighton has moved that the petition do lie on the Table.

The Motion was seconded.


put the Motion.


Mr. Speaker, I must claim the indulgence of the House for a few moments. I beg to state most distinctly and emphatically that there is not the slightest foundation for a single statement contained in the allegations of that petition. I, for one, should conceive that the House would be doing justice not only to me but to its own character if they would grant a Committee of investigation so as to afford me every opportunity of showing that there is not the slightest foundation for these charges. I should only be troubling the House and occupying its time unprofitably if I were to go into the whole details of this case; and it would then be merely a statement of my own. I am wishful, and anxious, and most desirous that this matter should have the fullest investigation. I only regret that I could not bring the question into a court of law as I did before, so that I might have an opportunity of prosecuting the person from whom the petition emanates for the misstatements and misrepresentations that have been publicly paraded throughout the whole country by him. With your permission I will just say this—that some time ago an action was tried which he lost; and that he is now passing through the Insolvent Debtors' Court to pay the expenses of those trials that have taken place. Those expenses, amounting to some hundreds of pounds, came out of my own pocket, he being without a shilling in the world. It is not right that I should be continually annoyed by a man of this description, without character, upon charges without the slightest shadow of foundation.

Under these circumstances, if the House desires it, I am prepared to go into the case. I do not want to weary the House, but if the House desires it, I could refer to certain documents that I have by me which give a complete answer to these charges. I think it would only be fair if a Committee of Inquiry were granted, and I, therefore, beg to move that a Committee of Inquiry be appointed.


then bowed to the Chair, and withdrew from the House.


I rise for the purpose of saying a few words. A statement has been made with respect to Mr. Irwin who has been charged by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield with forgery. The truth or falsehood of that charge is a question which is still under discussion, and against that charge Mr. Irwin has appealed, and is prepared to appeal. I think it necessary to state that fact to the House.


The Motion is that the petition do lie on the Table. If it meets with the sanction of the House, I would propose as an Amendment that the matter be referred to a Select Committee.


—I would ask the House not merely to refer this petition to a Select Committee, but to instruct the Committee to inquire, first, whether the matter is such that the House ought to take cognizance of it. If the accusations of that petition merely referred to the hon. Member for Galway in his private character, this House has nothing in the world to do with it. I say in justification of myself that these accusations come from a man who has been convicted of forgery. Now for the hon. Member for Brighton discussion is to tell me that which is utterly futile and false. The trail took place in 1835, and the petitioner lay nine months in Kilmainham Gaol a convict under that conviction.


I said that he appealed.


We all know what the meaning of that phrase is. The man is a convict; he is a forger. He has brought actions against my hon. Friend the Member for Galway. He has been cast; and he is now going through the Insolvent Debtor's Court, because he is unable to pay the costs. At this present moment the whole of the matter is sub judice, and I say that this House would be most unworthily and improperly interfering if they were to allow this man to throw broadcast imputations in this manner. The hon. Member for Brighton has presented this petition, but he does not say that he is prepared to make a Motion for inquiry.


I moved that the petition do lie on the Table.


But that is just what I complain of. A petition is presented by the hon. Member who does not make a Motion for inquiry, but be merely moves that the petition be laid on the table. Now, I say that it would be most unworthy of this House if they were to send this petition to a Select Committee without first and foremost directing the Committee to inquire whether this matter ought to be inquired into or not.


Sir, I apprehend that the question now before the House is whether this petition should lie on the Table or not.


That has been settled.


That question has been put from Chair—but I have not yet heard you, Sir, put any Amendment. It appears to me that the correct course would be that the petition should in the first place be printed, so that the House may have an opportunity of seeing what the statements contained in it are, and then, on a future occasion, it will be open to the hon. Member for Brighton or the noble Lord (Lord John Manners), or the hon. Member for Galway himself, if they are desirous of inquiry, to move that the petition be referred to a Select Committee. It appears to me that that will be the time for discussing the question which has been raised by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield, whether this a matter into which this House ought to inquire at all. But if we embark hastily and on the spur of the moment in an inquiry of this nature, we may find ourselves engaged in the investigation of matters with which we have no more to do than with the private matters of any hon. Member of this House. We have had petitions in the course of the last few years of a similar character presented to this House. A petition was presented by a noble Friend of mine, the Member for Haddingtonshire, eight or nine years ago, complaining in strong language of the conduct of Mr. George Hudson. That petition was signed by or on behalf of the shareholders of an important Railway Company; it was brought before the House, it was read, and it was laid upon the Table, but the House did not think it right to take any steps with reference to it. They considered that they were not competent to do so, and that it was beyond their province to inquire into the allegations which it contained. It is perfectly true that charges of a similar nature have often been inquired into, but the House will find that these cases have generally had reference to public Officers, or those connected with the public service, and, therefore, responsible to this House for their conduct. What I wish to impress upon the House is that they should not be in a hurry to take the course which has been suggested, namely, that of referring this case to a Select Committee. First, let us decide the question whether this petition is to be laid upon the Table or not—and if we do decide that it be laid upon the Table let us take care another day to consider it, and then determine whether we shall take any further proceedings with respect to it or not.


Sir, I think that course which has been hitherto pursued has been perfectly regular; but I quite agree with my right hon. Friend that the House ought to take with deliberation and caution any future steps in this matter. The hon. Member for Brighton having given notice to the hon. Member accused, has brought regularly before the House this petition, which certainly contains grave charges against a Member of this House. The hon. Member accused immediately challenged inquiry, and denied the allegations. The House, however, will do well to consider, first, whether this is the sort of charge that it ought to inquire into; and, secondly, what precedents there may be in similar cases; so that I do not think that anything ought to be resolved upon to-day; and, further than that, the petition, if printed at all, ought to be printed only for the use of Members of this House. Formerly we were in the habit of printing petitions, which were justly complained of, on the ground that we were thereby circulating libels. Now, Sir, if this is to be a matter of inquiry, hon. Members ought to be in possession of the allegations; and for that purpose I certainly see no objection to our ordering this petition to be printed for the use of Members only. If it is understood that either the hon. Gentleman who presented this petition, or the noble Lord opposite, is ready to make a Motion to this House, they will be of course responsible, each for himself, in recommending that inquiry.


Sir, this House has always been exceedingly jealous of the character of its Members, whether the charges made against them refer to them in their public capacity or their private character. Now, the hon. Member for Sheffield has said that this petition ought not to be received because the petitioner had been convicted of forgery. But to me this objection scarcely seems valid, seeing that the forgery was condoned by the hon. Member having confessedly employed the petitioner afterwards.


Sir, the charges contained in this petition amount to imputations of personal fraud against an hon. Member of this House, and the House should be slow in erecting itself into a tribunal for the trial either of civil or of criminal cases. Now, Sir, suppose the hon. Member for Galway, being a trustee under a will or a settlement, had been guilty of a breach of trust amounting to fraudulent conduct, I would ask, would the House entertain any charge which might be made against him upon that point? Would it not rather say that the courts of Equity were open in which the hon. Member might be proceeded against? In like manner, in the case of a criminal offence, the House would say, "Let the Member who is impugned be charged in a criminal court," and then, upon his conviction, the House would know how to deal with a man so convicted.

Sir, since I have been a Member of this House I have been a party to the expulsion of one Member (Mr. Sadleir), though at the present moment I cannot accurately remember for what offence particularly; but of this, Sir, I am certain, that that hon. Member, either by his own admission or by conviction before a proper tribunal, was shown to have been guilty of conduct derogatory to the character of a gentleman, and that conduct rendered him unworthy to sit in this House.

Now, Sir, if the present petition charging the hon. Member for Galway is to be entertained, let me ask in what capacity is this House to act? The charge contained in the petition is that the hon. Member, being the Director of a Company, has been guilty of fraudulent conduct in the course of his duties as such Director. That is a civil offence which might be made the subject of investigation in a civil court; and if the hon. Member were convicted of that offence I don not think this House would hesitate to adopt the same course as was pursued in the case I mentioned of Mr. Sadleir. I submit respectfully that if the House were to enter into the investigation of a civil offence of this kind it would be going far beyond its jurisdiction, and would be embarking on a course of conduct which would be fraught with the greatest possible inconvenience. Therefore, Sir, in the present state of things, I cannot accede to the Motion that this Petition be referred at once to a Select committee; but I do concur with the noble Lord in thinking that this House should consider what precedents exist on the subject, and that for the presents the House should be satisfied with either receiving or rejecting the petition.


Sir. there was an expression which fell from the hon. Member for Hull, which no doubt that hon. Member on reflection would regret, because in a preliminary discussion like the present nothing should be said to prejudice an hon. Member who declared that he was anxious that his conduct should be investigated., The hon. Member, noticing something which had been said about Mr. Irwin's character, said that the hon. Member for Galway was not in a position to take advantage of that, because the hon. Member for Galway had condoned it by employing him afterwards. Now, Sit, it is not strictly fair to say that, because, according to the evidence which was given before the Select Committee of last year, it would appear that when the hon. Member for Galway became first acquainted with Mr. Irwin, about two or three years ago, he was utterly ignorant of Mr. Irwin's antecedents; and how was the hon. Member to know that this person was some twenty years ago convicted of forgery?


Sir, I rise for the purpose of explaining that I had no wish, in what I said, to way anything unfair towards the hon. Member for Galway.


Sir, I think that the general feeling of this House is that the course which has been suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock is the best and the safest. It can hardly be desirable to refer this matter to a Select Committee until the House has had an opportunity of considering the allegations contained in this petition. Therefore, Sir, after the petition shall have been laid on the table, I will move that it be printed for the use of Members of this House.


Sir, I do not think it right to give any further publicity to the petition which has been presented to this House, and which has already been read by the Clerk at the Table. It is quite clear that charges are made in that petition which it is perfectly competent for the ordinary tribunals to take cognizance of, and I think that the House should be exceedingly cautious how it encourages persons, bankrupt in character and paupers in purse, and who have exhausted the powers of the ordinary tribunals, to come here and throw on the table any charges they please. Under these circumstances, Sir, I am of opinion that this petition should now be rejected.


Sir, I do not see why, this House should depart from its usual course in this case. According to the rules of the House, this petition would go before the Printing Committee, who, if they think proper, will have it printed; and if not, any hon. Member who says that he is about to bring forward a definite Motion in respect to it might move that the petition be printed. Therefore, Sir, if the hon. Member for Brighton, upon his own responsibility, chooses to give notice that he will bring the matter forward, he can move that the petition be printed.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the said Petition do lie upon the Table."

The House divided:—Ayes 99; Noes 78; Majority 21.


I take this opportunity of stating that, although I have voted in favour of the petition lying on the Table I have done so, not because I entertain any good opinion of the case of the petitioner, but because I felt it impossible, considering the general principle on which petitions are received, to afford to Members of the House an Immunity which is not afforded to other persons. I may also add, that I have voted in support of the petition upon the understanding that the hon. Member who presented it was responsible to a certain degree for the allegations contained in it. I have done so upon the understanding which seemed to be general on the last discussion, that before any hon. Member presented a petition he should, to a certain extent, satisfy himself that there were prima facie grounds in that petition for the allegations which it contained, and in the belief that if the hon. Member for Brighton thought that a prima facie case against the hon. Member for Galway existed, he would, as a necessary consequence, be prepared to move that further inquiry into the subject should be instituted. I now, therefore, wish to know whether the hon. Member for Brighton is prepared to follow up his previous Motion by moving for further inquiry?


The hon. Member ought himself to have concluded with a Motion.


It was my full intention to have done so, but I did not wish to take any step in the matter hastily. I thought that this was the first necessary step, but it is my intention to move that the petition be printed and referred to a Select Committee. I, therefore, give that notice now.


As this is a matter of privilege, it is competent for the hon. Member now to move that the petition be printed. The course which has hitherto been pursued in cases analagous to this has been to move, without notice, that the petition be printed, and also that it be printed for the use of the Members of this House only.


Then, Sir, I now beg leave to move that this petition be printed for the use of the Members of this House only.


I do not wish to oppose the reception of the petition, but I take this course on the distinct understanding that the hon. Member is to make a further Motion upon this subject.


Mr. Speaker, I think it necessary that something should be said for those hon. Members who have gone into a division against the hon. Member for Brighton. It has been distinctly stated both here and out of doors that there is a sort of wish to protect Members of this House when charges of this nature are made. I am totally unconnected with the Galway Contract, and I wish to say why it was that I went into the lobby against the reception of this petition. I cannot see why a petition against a Member of this House should be received, which in the case of a private individual would be rejected. In the present case, a man who has been convicted of the crime of forgery has sought to blacken the character of the hon. Member for Galway, with whom, I may state in passing, that I am unacquainted, and I do certainly think that the hon. Member is entitled to the same protection which a person who is not a Member of this House would have a right to expect when accused by a man whose word is held not to be entitled to belief in a court of law. Let the matter go clearly before the country. If it were not the case that it was a petition against the hon. Member for Galway, and in connection with the Galway contract, we should never have had a word of this discussion. It is entirely an attempt on the part of those who are opposed to this contract to bring the subject forward. ["No, no!"] I assert it most distinctly. It is in order to blacken the character of the hon. Member for Galway, and it is on that account that I myself, and many others, have gone into the lobby. I hope that this petition will not be printed.


I beg to say, in reply to the concluding observations of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just sat down, that if he referred to me, I give the statement a most flat denial. I had no concern with, and was in no way personally interested in, the Galway contract. I have brought this matter forward solely on public grounds. The Committee upstairs would not entertain the application to have the matter heard before them, and, therefore, I felt it my duty, as a Member of Parliament, to bring the matter forward; and it is my intention on Monday to move that it be referred to a Select Committee.


I must remark that in the discussions in the Committee upon the Galway contract, the view which I took was favourable to the maintenance of that contract. It was so throughout, and I made Motions in the Committee to that effect. So far from being desirous to uphold the charges of the petitioner, I was of opinion that he had no case at all, and I stated that opinion.

The Speaker put the Motion that the Petition be printed for the use of Members only, and the same was agreed to.

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