HC Deb 27 June 1862 vol 167 cc1138-50

asked the First Commissioner of Works, When he intended to proceed with the Committee on the Thames Embankment Bill?


said, it was his intention to proceed with the Bill on Monday next, for which day it now stood on the paper.


said, that in accordance with the opinions of several hon. Members of standing and influence in that House, he was about to take a course which he was aware was unusual, and for which he must ask the indulgence of the House. To put himself in order, he intended to conclude with a Motion. This Bill, which was to be brought on upon Monday next, and directly after the debate on Fortifications was concluded, involved matters of the greatest and gravest consequence. The evidence which had been taken before the Embankment Committee, which filled a thick folio volume, had been placed in the hands of Members only the day before; the Bill, which contained 80 clauses, had been sent round to Members only that morning; and yet they were expected to go into Committee upon it on Monday, after the debate upon Fortifications. There was another matter connected with the subject which he wished to bring before the House. The Thames Embankment Committee wag appointed a long time ago, and it had sat for twenty-five full days; for a month and a half they had been occupied in taking evidence. They were considered competent to receive evidence and to pronounce a judgment upon it; and yet after they had performed this enormous amount of labour, after they had deliberated and come to a decision, an hon. Member who had only just entered that House, who had never yet sat upon a Committee, and had not heard a word of the evidence in this case, the lion. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Doulton), gave notice, before the evidence was laid on the table, of a Motion declaring that the judgment of the Committee was fallacious and wrong. He gave that notice before the evidence had been laid on the table, and therefore before he had any means of knowing what that evidence was. Out of doors the public had been prejudiced on this question by a journal of such power and influence that it created opinion not only for this country, but also in other countries. He was not blaming the conductors of that journal for the course which they had taken. They, of course, obtained information from any source from which they could get it, and wrote articles upon that information. If they considered that a Committee had acted wrongly, it was their bounden duty to show up that Committee and to protect the public against its acts. He might, perhaps, be allowed to make a few observations on a mistake which had been made by that journal, its conductors having no means of obtaining evidence—because it was a point of honour with every member of a Committee not to furnish evidence to any one; and the papers which were given to members were given to them, not that they might give information to other persons, but that they might look them over and get up the subject. Those papers were delivered, in the strictest confidence, to members of the Committee alone, and it was understood that no one else should be made acquainted with their contents. The Committee had been charged by the journal to which he referred with subserviency; and it had been alleged that they were afraid of the name of a Duke, that they had betrayed the interests of the public, and that when a great work was proposed, they refused to carry it out, from fear of injuring a Duke, or in any way going counter to his wishes. He must protest against that allegation. He hoped that no Member of that House would be so base or so mean as to be actuated by any such motives, and certainly he could answer that no Member of the Committee would be. The convenience of the Duke of Buccleuch was never once considered. It was on public grounds that the Committee determined to recommend that the embankment should commence below the Whitehall Stairs. ["Order, order!"]


I must remind the noble Lord that it is an order of this House that a matter standing for discussion on a future day should not be made the subject of discussion, especially in the manner which the noble Lord is now adopting.


said, he would not allude further to that matter. He would merely say that there had been a great misapprehension with regard to it. But there was a story current in the House, which had reached every member of the Embankment Committee, and he thought it only fair and just to the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Commissioner of Works to relate the story to the House, in order that he might have the opportunity of explaining it, and, he trusted, of denying its accuracy. He had already given the proper notice to the right hon. Gentleman in private, in order that he might come down prepared with an answer. It appeared that a letter was written by the right hon. Gentleman, directed to a Mr. Higgins, containing minutes of evidence and information of what occurred in the Committee, that gentleman's attention being attracted to special passages thus— I wish you particularly to look at this part of the evidence; I wish you particularly to look at such a question asked by such a member." It sometimes happened, as they all knew, that the post did not always deliver letters with accuracy, and accordingly this letter, directed to one Mr. Higgins, went to another Mr. Higgins, a relation of the late Lord Chancellor, This Mr. Higgins read the letter, and, not knowing why he should be pestered with the proceedings of the Thames Embankment Committee, handed it to a member of that Committee, who told him to send it back to the right hon. Gentleman, stating that there must have been some mistake, and that he had sent the letter to the wrong Mr. Higgins. He did so, and the right hon. Gentleman accepted the letter. Full leave had been given by Mr. Higgins to every one to mention this story, and to make any use of it they thought proper. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would be able to give a satisfactory explanation. The Thames Embankment Committee, therefore, placed themselves in the hands of the House, and asked whether it was fair towards them, after they had spent twenty-five days upon a most stupid subject, in investigating very intricate questions, that they should be insulted out of the House, and have articles written against them upon information supplied by some member of the Committee. He asked the House to support the honour of that Committee, and to determine whether their labour was to be ignored, and their decisions spurned and laughed at. ["Question!"] The noble Lord concluded by moving that the House do now adjourn.


said, he certainly was acquainted with a Mr. Higgins, and until the other day he was not aware that there was a second Mr. Higgins; and from what had occurred he did not feel the least desire to increase his acquaintance with the second Mr. Higgins. He would state in a few words what had given rise to this question. Happening to observe Mr. Higgins in the Thames Embankment committee-room, on meeting him subsequently he naturally asked his opinion on what had occurred before the Committee. He then found that Mr. Higgins was very imperfectly acquainted with the evidence which had been given before the Committee. That evidence, the House would hear in mind, was given in public, was taken down by short-hand writers, and was daily published in the newspapers, though of course very imperfectly, because very concisely. He was sure every member of the Committee must desire that correct views of the evidence should go forth, and; that any mistaken notions should be corrected as soon as possible. Knowing that Mr. Higgins was a person of some influence in many circles, and was taking an interest in this question, he (Mr. Cowper) felt desirous that he should not be led away by any erroneous views of the testimony given before the Committee, and thereupon recommended him to get correct impressions by reading the evidence as soon as he could get it. That gentleman naturally expressed a wish for such information. He (Mr. Cowper) might have been considered to have acted improperly, and in breach: of the understanding in respect of the pro- ceedings in Committees, if he had given any of the evidence taken before the Committee during the time that it continued to sit. But after the Committee concluded their Report, and after the proceedings were closed, he did not suppose, and he did not now believe there was any reason why information relating to that evidence should be withheld. Therefore after the proceedings were all concluded, he picked up two or three papers of evidence which were lying in the committee-room, and sent them to Mr. Higgins, thinking it would he advantageous that he should have correct notions of what had been said. [Several hon. MEMBERS: Why?] He did not refer merely to Mr. Higgins, but to anybody. He should have been equally delighted to give similar opportunities to any other person taking an interest in the proceedings of the Committee, of knowing what the evidence really was that had been given publicly. The noble Lord (Lord R. Montagu) seemed to assume that he had written a letter containing something or other relating to the proceedings of the Committee. Now, he could assure the noble Lord that he had not written anything that could be properly described as a letter. He just put with the papers some references to the evidence, thinking they might enable Mr. Higgins shortly to get the information he wanted. He did not believe that he had done anything wrong —he was under the impression, that when a Committee finally concluded their labours and made their Report, there was no longer an objection to any member of the Committee using those printed papers which at the time were in the hands of the printer, the counsel, and the solicitors—which were lying about the committee-room, and which any reporter of any newspaper might have obtained—nor in making the use he did of them did he think he had violated any confidence whatever.


said, he did not think the subject on which the right hon. Gentleman had just spoken was one which either he or the House ought to treat with levity. The right hon. Gentleman said he communicated information to Mr. Higgins as one of the public. He asked him now to answer, in the face of the public, whether or not he communicated information to Mr. Higgins because he was a writer in The Times, and because he wished that information to be communicated to The Times? He would ask the right hon. Gentleman a second question. Did he communicate correct information to Mr. Higgins, and were the statements made by Mr. Higgins, on the authority of the right hon. Gentleman, true statements? As a party interested, he wished to know if this was the statement which the right hon. Gentleman made to Mr. Higgins— The real reason put forward by counsel before the Committee was that the Duke of Buccleuch and one or two other noblemen and gentlemen who live between Whitehall Stairs and Westminster-bridge, wish to enjoy all the advantages afforded to them by a profuse expenditure of the public money in purifying The Times (great. laughter) —in purifying the Thames, and in constructing this embankment, without being exposed to certain imaginary disadvantages which they conceive may be inflicted on them by the proposed new thoroughfare along the banks of the Thames. He hoped that statement was not made on the authority of the right hon. Gentleman, because, from beginning to end, it was utterly void of truth, as the right hon. Gentleman must have known, though Mr. Higgins might not. [Mr. COWPER: Where is that from?] It was from the letter of a "West Londoner," taken from The Times of the 23rd of June. The second statement was to this effect— It appears that these noblemen and gentlemen hold Crown leases of the ground on which their houses are built. It is not pretended that these leases would prevent the construction of the proposed public quay; but it is pretended that a certain honourable understanding existed when the said leases were granted or renewed, which ought to protect their holders from such an innovation. Was that communicated to Mr. Higgins? He hoped not; but he was sure Mr. Higgins never would have made that statement if he had known that from beginning to end it was utterly void of truth. He would not press the matter further at present, because it was not one which could be permitted to drop; but he must express his surprise that the right hon. Gentleman, an old Member of the House, should feel himself at liberty to get up and say that he, the Chairman of a Committee nominated by himself, before the evidence taken by that Committee was in possession of the House, had put himself in communication with a writer in an influential public journal, for the purpose of having statements put forward which had poisoned the public mind to such an extent that the right hon. Gentleman himself must now be made responsible for the misstatements lie had so propagated. No Member of the House could help feeling the degrading and humiliating position in which the Committee were placed on finding their own Chairman directing public opinion against them, furnishing the materials for charges against them of meanness and subserviency, and calling on the public to step in and control the action of the Committee, who, in subservience to the noble Duke, were sacrificing the interests of the public. The point, however, of most immediate importance to the House was the announcement which the right lion. Gentleman had made of his intention to bring on this Bill on Monday evening. This was plainly impossible. Till now the right hon. Gentleman and his friends, having the evidence before them, had matters all their own way. But now that it was published, time to consider it must be given to the House. The right hon. Gentleman had put the Committee and the Crown lessees upon their trial; they intended now to return the compliment, and to put the right hon. Gentleman upon his. What were the facts? The evidence was hardly yet in a complete shape, and the Bill had only been delivered that morning. There was no time to go through the measure in detail and to give notice of Amendments before Monday next. He therefore recommended that the Government should postpone it to a more distant day. There were still other matters which it was his duty to lay before the House. During last Session two plans were submitted to the Cabinet—one by the Chief Commissioner of Woods, and the other by the Chief Commissioner of Works, and it was the desire of the Government that these two should be laid before the Committee and the public in order that both might be discussed. But the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works set that intention at nought, and only one plan was laid before them. The Committee was appointed, and the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Kinnaird) moved for the correspondence between the Treasury and the Chief Commissioner of Works, and between the Treasury and the Chief Commissioner of Woods. The right hon. Gentleman, having taken a day to consider, told the Committee that the correspondence was too voluminous. It was again asked for, the Committee being anxious to peruse it, especially the letters of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works then gave a different answer to the Committee. In reply to their demand for the correspondence, he said he had perused it, and that it was not relevant to the inquiry. However, when the Committee had come to the close of their inquiry, and came to consider their decision, it appeared to them that the correspondence was not only important hut was at the bottom of the whole question, and he thought that nineteen out of twenty Members who had looked at it, would agree that it was relevant. Instead of the Duke of Buccleuch and the lessees putting themselves in opposition to a particular plan, they only gave the preference to one of two plans— to a plan which the Committee thought right to adopt, and which he ventured to think would be approved by the House when all the facts were before them. But there was something further in the correspondence. He believed the right hon. Gentleman had incurred, and rightly, the remonstrance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the ground that while there was a conveyancer in his office, at a salary of £1,500 a year, he put this matter in the hands of Messrs. Baxter and Rose; and not only that, but in addition to that firm, he employed as agent a solicitor at Hertford, so that two parties, the Hertford solicitor and Rose and Baxter, were both employed in a matter for which the country were paying a conveyancer attached to the Board at the rate of £1,500 a year. Under these circumstances the House ought to have all the Correspondence before them, and they ought to hear how the Chancellor of the Exchequer had discharged his duties in connection with this matter. The hon. Baronet the Member for Westminster (Sir J. Shelley) had given notice to move on Monday for all the Correspondence, and therefore he hoped that the further proceedings on the Bill would be postponed to Thursday next, and that in the mean time the right hon. Gentleman would present the Correspondence, so that no further delay might take place. He believed the House would feel it to be necessary that all the Correspondence should be before them. This was not a question now between the lessees of the Crown and the Committee, but a question between the Government and Mr. Pennethorne's plan and the Correspondence relating to it; and it was also a question whether the Committee had discharged their duty in regard to the public interests in a matter where a large sum of public money was involved. He hoped there would be no attempt to proceed further with the Bill until Thursday next.


hoped the House would permit him to say a word of explanation in reply to a question put to him by the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken. The right hon. Gentleman said he would put him on his defence. The right hon. Gentleman, being personally interested in this question, as occupier of one of the houses in the locality, might have reasons for attacking him (Mr. Cowper) and making him a defendant; when, according to the rules of the House, he was unable to answer the right hon. Gentleman's charge fully, but he should be prepared to meet it on the proper occasion. In answer, however, to the question addressed to him, he could assure the right hon. Gentleman that the letter which had given rise to the noble Lord's question never reached the Mr. Higgins for whom it was intended, but was intercepted by the other Mr. Higgins, and therefore could have had no influence on the gentleman to whom it was addressed, in respect of anything which he had said or written, An extract had been read from some comments on the proceedings of the Committee that appeared on the 23rd of June; but he could assure the right hon. Gentleman, that as his letter to Mr. Higgins was written subsequently to that date, it could not have influenced him in anything he did before the 23rd of June.


remarked that he had not received a satisfactory answer to his question as to when the right hon. Gentleman meant to bring forward the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman said he would bring it on after the Fortifications Bill on Monday; but as that discussion would occupy a long time, he hoped, now that the noble Lord at the head of the Government was present, that assent would be given to the postponement of the discussion till Thursday, when it could commence at half-past four.


said, that as a member of the Committee, he must express his opinion that the fact of the right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Committee, having corresponded with a gentleman who was well known to he a correspondent of The Times, was another instance of the way in which the Committee had been treated by the right hon. Gentleman. The truth was, that from first to last the matter had not been placed before the Committee in a fair, open, and impartial manner. The truth was, they had before them only one scheme, and— he said advisedly—there was an intention to place the Committee in an unfair position; and he defied any one to read the blue-book and come to a different conclusion. The whole question had been one of dispute between the heads of two departments—the head of the Office of Woods, and the head of the Office of Works. The Treasury was the department which had the control over both these, and it was the duty of the House to see that the Treasury had exercised its power in this matter. Even on the information the House had, it was clear that the Treasury intended that both schemes should be placed before the Committee. Only one was brought before it, and the alternative plan of Mr. Pennethorne was never before it at all. The Committee also intended that the whole of the correspondence should appear; but when the appendix came out, it appeared that the whole of the evidence had not been produced. He proposed, on Monday next, unless the Government assured the House of their intention to give the correspondence, to move that the same should be laid upon the table of the House. It was right he should tell the House, and, although it did not appear in the evidence, it was a fact that would be corroborated, that the Committee unanimously, with the exception of the right hon. Gentleman, insisted upon the whole of the correspondence appearing. The House could not come to a fair and just conclusion without the whole of this correspondence before it. This was a matter of too much importance to be decided in an off-hand way by any Government; the House ought to have the subject brought fully before them. He therefore protested against any attempt to force on this Bill after the House should have been fatigued by a long discussion about the national defences. As regarded the correspondence with Mr. Higgins, he should like to know why Mr. Higgins was to be informed more than anybody else—why he could not wait until the evidence was printed and in the hands of the Members? If he had waited patiently until the Members had the Report, he could have then sifted the evidence and made any comments he thought proper. If the right hon. Gentleman decided to go on with the Bill on Monday, it would be another instance of his unfairness towards the Committee.


observed that there was no greater waste of time than to discuss what they were going to do on a future day. But as the Report of the Committee, with the evidence, had only been circulated that morning, he thought it not unfair to ask that the discussion on the Bill should be taken on a later day than Monday. He should therefore suggest to his right hon. Friend to fix it for Thursday.


hoped the right hon. Gentleman would have a plan showing Mr. Pennethorne's diversion of the road at Whitehall Stairs, prepared before Thursday, and that he would also lay upon the table a sketch of the works submitted to the Select Committee.


said, that when this Bill was being referred to a Select Committee he took the liberty of suggesting, that in order to secure impartiality, the Committee should be selected in the same way that Committees on private Bills were selected. He got no support for that suggestion; but he thought what they had just heard was sufficient to show that it would have been well had it been adopted. He would only say that the sooner the House changed its practice in appointing Committees on hybrid Bills the better.


cordially assented to the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman, that these Committees ought to be chosen in some different manner. As an old Member of that House, he had had frequent occasions to serve on Committees, but he had never suffered so much pain as from the mode in which the business before them was conducted. A long discussion must take place when this question came on, and as the noble Lord at the head of the Government had assented to postpone the matter until Thursday, a debate at the present moment was unnecessary. He thought, however, he had heard the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cowper) contradict an hon. Member on the Opposition benches as to some proceedings before the Committee with regard to a portion of the correspondence which had not been laid before the House. The decision of the Committee was solemnly taken, and was unanimous that this correspondence should appear in the form of an appendix, and that the alternative plan which the Treasury correspondence contemplated would be laid before Parliament. That correspondence had been promised, but did not appear in the Report; and he trusted that before Thursday all the correspondence referring to this alternative plan would be fully before the Committee.


said, that if the right hon. Gentleman would look at the bluebook, he would see it staled that the plan would be delivered as soon as it was ready. It was in the printer's hands, and it was not his fault if there had been any delay. All the correspondence referred to in the decision of the Committee had been produced:—at least, he was not aware of any further correspondence; but if there were such he should be ready to produce it.


rose to address the House, but was stopped by cries of "Spoke, spoke."


said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the fact that all the rows this Session had been English rows. ["Oh! "] If the House did not interrupt him, he would not detain them long, for he had no wish to spoil sport, though he should be glad when it was all settled. He had read the evidence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud (Mr. Horsman), and the Duke of Buccleuch, and he observed that the right hon. Member for Stroud disclaimed all private interest. The Duke of Buccleuch's evidence was to the same effect, except that he said he would stand on his rights. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cowper) had insinuated that a private and confidential matter had been communicated by him in a letter to Mr. Higgins, the information contained in which had been made use of by the person into whose hands it fell for the purpose of attacking the Committee. The Mr. Higgins into whose hands the letter fell was not, however, the Mr. Higgins for whom the letter was intended. Now, it had happened to himself occasionally that letters not intended for him had fallen into his hands. He had considered that in such cases it was his business to forget everything that he had read in those letters, and to send them either to the person who wrote them or the person to whom they were addressed. He could not, therefore, understand how this letter could be made use of in the House of Commons.


said, it had been stated that the Committee had deliberated on a Resolution which was not reported in the proceedings among the Resolutions considered by the Committee. He wished to ask the Speaker who was responsible for the non-appearance of the Resolution in the proceedings, and what steps the House ought to take to possess itself of this Resolution. The House had a right to know what became of the Resolution put by the Chairman of the Committee from the chair, and whether it ought not to have been recorded and reported. The House was entitled to have this Resolution before it, because it might materially bear upon the question before the House. -He trusted that the right hon. Gentleman in the chair would inform the House how it might deal with this very serious question; because if the House lost confidence in the solemn records of the proceedings of its Committees there would be, until this matter were cleared up, an end to all respect for their Resolutions.


The Committee clerk attending the Committee is responsible for taking down everything that occurs in a Committee.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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