HC Deb 09 May 1865 vol 179 cc51-60

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed to Question [8th May], That George Morris Mitchell, having fabricated signatures to several Petitions presented to this House, and having knowingly procured other fabricated signatures to such Petitions, has been guilty of a breach of the privileges of this House."—(Mr. Charles Forster.)

And which Amendment was, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Report of the Committee be re-committed to the said Committee,"—(Lord Robert Cecil,) —instead thereof.

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

Debate resumed.


, in moving the Order of the Day for the resumption of the adjourned debate, said, that he wished to state to the House what he considered the wisest and safest mode of proceeding. Since the discussion of the previous evening he had endeavoured to make himself master of all the facts connected with the Report of the Committee, with a view to tender his advice to the House as to the course which they should pursue. The question was whether a resolution should be adopted with a view to commit to prison a person who was said to have been guilty of a gross breach of the privileges of the House, and he had no hesitation in saying that having regard to the gravity of the offence the Motion of the Chairman of the Committee was a right and proper one. The question under consideration was whether the resolution proposed by the Chairman of the Committee should be adopted, or the Amendment of the noble Lord the Member for Stamford (Lord Robert Cecil) who desired to have the matter referred back to the Committee. The Motion was made under peculiar circumstances, and the case had been somewhat altered by the presentation of a petition from Mitchell complaining that the Committee had not afforded him a sufficient opportunity of defending himself—that the evidence of Mr. Netherclift was unfounded, and that he was prepared to refute it on oath and by witnesses, but that he had had no op- portunity of doing so. The House ought not to entertain too easily petitions from inculpated parties impugning the decisions of Committees, and in this case, having read with great care the proceedings of the Committee, he felt quite certain that they intended to do complete justice to Mitchell. The Report contained two statements, first, that a gross and audacious breach of privilege had been committed by the forgery of various names, and amongst others the names of officers of the House; that the petitions passed through the hands of Mitchell, were got up by him and by persons employed by him, and that neither he nor they had given any satisfactory account of the matter. To that extent the finding of the Committee was fully warranted by the evidence which Mitchell had the most complete opportunity of meeting, but which he deliberately abstained from meeting. If the case had rested there there was no reason whatever why the House should hesitate. But the Committee went on to find secondly, that Mitchell had been guilty of the offence of fabricating many of the signatures to those petitions, and that two other persons acting in concert with him had been guilty of the like offence. This was a most important addition to the finding, and if the House thought it more satisfactory to give Mitchell an opportunity of producing further evidence on that subject, his impression was that the House would not like to proceed to extremities without doing so. One of the witnesses, Mr. Graham, proved that his name was forged, and Mitchell admitted that he had written his name. Mr. Graham said he had given Mitchell no authority to do so. Mitchell said that he had received Mr. Graham's authority to do so. Mitchell was not in the room when Mr. Graham gave his evidence, and was consequently not then in a position to contradict his evidence, but Mitchell was informed of the fact, and on being asked by the hon. Member for the King's County (Mr. Hennessy) if he should like to be confronted with Mr. Graham said that he should: but he had not of his own accord taken any steps for that purpose. Mr. Netherclift an expert pointed out several signatures which he said were in Mitchell's handwriting, which Mitchell denied. Evidence was given by Mitchell and his two accomplices to show that Mr. Netherclift had mistaken his handwriting. The Committee had a right to form their own judgment upon the evidence; but as there was just a possibility of doubt, perhaps the House would wish to grant an opportunity for further proof. The lion. Member for the King's County had desired Mr. Netherclift to make a list of the names which he believed to have been written by Mitchell, and the lion. Member then asked Mitchell whether be would like to see that list, and call the persons whose names were mentioned in it to which an affirmative reply was given. The Committee, however, did not think themselves bound, under the circumstances as they then stood, to act upon that, believing as they did, judging from his conduct throughout, that Mitchell was really playing with them. Mitchell knew perfectly well before the inquiry commenced the nature of the charge which would be brought against him. He did not appear, and the Committee ordered him to be summoned, but he could not be found at the address he had given. He was, however, at last met and served with the notice, but he did not attend that day. When Mitchell did attend he had the opportunity of cross-examining witnesses, but be played with them in the cross-examination in a manner certainly not calculated to produce the impression that he was bona fide defending himself from the charges brought against him and when, answering the question put into his mouth by a member of the Committee, he expressed a desire to call witnesses, the Committee were led to the belief that he was trifling with them, as he had been before. Besides the evidence of Mr. Netherclift and Mr. Graham, the Committee had also the evidence of their own eyes, and if the question now were merely whether their Report was one that the House might accept on matters of fact, he did not know whether any further inquiry would he necessary. He mentioned this to vindicate the Committee, who did not believe that Mitchell had any more evidence or wanted to give any; but it had become now a question of personal liberty. He should therefore propose, and he hoped it would meet with the approval of the House and receive the acquiescence of the Committee, to adopt the Amendment of the noble Lord the Member for Stamford, to refer the matter back to the Committee; adding, however, to the Order of Reference the petition of Mitchell presented to the House.


said, he believed that the Committee would be perfectly ready to adopt the suggestion, as it was desirable in a case of this kind, involving penal consequences, to avoid even the least pretext for alleging that injustice had been done. But any one who read the minutes of evidence would see that Mitchell's attention was repeatedly called to the portions of the evidence which bore against him; that he was repeatedly told that the Committee were anxious to bear any explanation he might have to make, and that he did, in fact, cross-examine Mr. Nertherclift and Mr. Strutt very closely. When he was present he was confronted with the witnesses, and when he was absent he was supplied with minutes of the evidence.


said, he was glad that the suggestion of the noble Lord had been accepted, but regretted that the Attorney General should have thought it necessary, as the Committee were now to re-consider the case, to dwell so strongly on all the points which he thought told against Mitchell. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that twelve or thirteen persons came before the Committee, and stated that their signatures to the petitions were forgeries, and he led the House to believe that these forgeries were committed by Mitchell. [The ATTORNEY GENERAL: Some of them But the fact was that the expert, Mr. Netherclift, when pressed with regard to the signature of Charles Eales, a clerk of the House, declined to say positively that the writing was Mitchell's, and as to Walmesley, Smith, and the Rev. Mr. Jennings, he said the signatures were not in Mitchell's handwriting. Netherclift was then asked to write down a list of the names which he thought were in Mitchell's handwriting; and not one of those persons whose names he put down as forgeries had been examined before the Committee.


The hon. and learned Gentleman is confouning the London and Westminster petitions.


Notwithstanding he was on his trial for forgery, leading questions were put to the witnesses in Mitchell's absence, and not only when he was absent, but even when he had absolutely been ordered to withdraw. The only means Netherclift had of knowing the handwriting of Mitchell was by having certain receipts placed in his hand, for he had never seen Mitchell write, and from them he pointed out the characteristics of Mitchell's handwriting. He himself with several other Members noticed the signa- ture to a particular document, in which Mr. Netherclift had pointed out the characteristics of Mitchell's writing as somewhat different to those on the other documents signed with Mitchell's name. Mitchell was called in, and while admitting his signature to those other papers, he said that it was not on that particular document; and he added that, having injured his hand about a month before, he had authorized his clerk to sign his name for him. The clerk was produced, and said that the signature "G. M. Mitchell" to the document was in his handwriting. In that he was corroborated by another witness. After such testimony, if the case was under trial in a court of justice, Mr. Netherclift's evidence would be regarded as gone. That gentleman had contradicted himself, and had broken down on the comparison of handwriting; but be must say that he could perfectly understand an expert having so failed under the circumstances, for the inquiry was hurried, and Mr. Netherclift had not had much opportunity of comparing the writing. With regard to the statement of the Attorney General on the previous evening that Mitchell had evaded service of the summons and attendance on the Committee, it was to be observed that on the Hackney petition Mitchell gave his residence as "28, Weaver Terrace, Hackney, and on the London petition his town direction was "78, Cannon Street, West, City." But the porter of the House, to whom service of the summons had been committed, stated before the Committee that he had inquired for Mitchell in the neighbourhood of Cannon Row, Westminster, in which he could find no such number as 78, as there were but twenty houses in it. It was true Mitchell had obtained information that he was to be in some way implicated; but, so far from running away, he waited upon the Chairman of the Petitions Committee, and said he wished to offer every explanation. The hon. and learned Member for Suffolk, it was said, told the accused "the substance of the evidence," but that would not do in a court of justice. The testimony in support of so serious a charge against a man ought to be sworn testimony, and, though he had the greatest respect for the Petitions Committee, and thought they were quite right in following up the charge, he submitted that ten prosecutors were too many to be on a jury of thirteen. On the Committee of Inquiry in this case ten out of the thirteen members were members of the Petitions Committee also. But the Petitions Committee were conducting this case against Mitchell on behalf of the House. The inquiry which would be most satisfactory to the public in a matter of this nature would be an inquiry conducted by a Committee of five members chosen by the Committee of Selection, and upon sworn testimony. He thought it an omission in their Report that the Committee had not condemned, as a breach of the privileges of the House, the practice of paying agents to procure signatures. He hoped that this discussion would not close without a Resolution declaring it to be a breach of privilege of Parliament to employ agents—no less than forty had been employed in the case—to procure signatures to petitions at a penny for each name.


said, he did not think the House would do any good by going into the evidence in detail, as the case was to go again before the Committee. He had read it all very carefully, and the conclusion he had drawn from it was that the Committee were warranted in the judgment they had come to, so far as Mitchell was concerned; but, looking to the course the matter had taken, he thought it right that further inquiry should be made, so as to give the accused every opportunity of defence that he would have before a court of justice. It was a serious charge against Mr. Mitchell, and the House ought to be very tender in respect of any course which they took on this occasion. But there was, in his judgment, a far more important question which the Committee would yet have to consider. The Report was not an exhaustive one as regarded another person named in the case, and, no doubt, the first application which Mr. Mitchell would make, when the Committee re-assembled, would be for liberty to cross-examine Mr. Strutt. The moment the Committee met again the conduct of Strutt must be re-considered. It was the last request of Mitchell that he should be allowed to re-cross-examine Strutt. Who was Strutt? He was fons et origo mali. He employed agents to get signatures at a penny each to petitions intended to influence the House in its decision upon a matter which had reference to private claims and public rights. The Committee in their Report blamed his conduct, hut he greatly doubted whether, upon further inquiry, they might not feel bound to visit the conduct of Strutt with something more than mere censure. It was Strutt who held out the temptation, and if Mitchell should be able to establish that these petitions had been altered by him with a guilty knowledge of their character on the part of Strutt, there could be no doubt (however that might affect Mitchell) that Strutt would have been guilty of a still more serious infringement of the privileges of the House. Mitchell, it was perfectly clear, seemed most anxious to have it out with Strutt; he endeavoured to throw upon Strutt all the blame; and his defence (which was not, he must say, a good defence) was that he acted under the instructions of Strutt, a person already censured by Parliament. The Committee, therefore, would be bound to inquire into that allegation. The issue was not solely whether Mitchell was guilty of a breach of privilege, but who were the persons implicated, whether as principals or as accessories. There was much in the evidence to throw suspicion on the conduct of Strutt. The latter, in reply to a question put by the lion, and learned Member for East Suffolk stated that throughout all the earlier portion of the proceedings he had not the slightest reason to suppose that the signatures had been improperly obtained. He stated that he began to suspect the authenticity of the signatures in March, a day or two before the petitions were presented, but that want of time had prevented him from ascertaining whether or not they were genuine. But lie wrote a letter to Mitchell on the 31st of January, in which he used the following words:— You must be very careful about the petitions, as the gentleman who has seen them makes some very candid remarks, and I am inclined, from what he says, not to require any more signatures, What did this mean? Did he, when he afterwards handed those petitions to Mitchell, suspect the signatures to be false, or did he not? It appeared that Strutt, with all this suspicion on his mind, was acting as Mitchell's superior in the matter. It was the language of a man who suspected that the manner in which the signatures had been affixed to the petitions would not bear investigation. Under these circumstances, he (Mr. Denman) hoped that when the matter was referred back to the Committee, they would not consider themselves precluded from investigating the whole case, and that they would inquire into the conduct of Strutt, and that the House would not shrink from punishing him also, if they should think that good ground existed for believing that he was implicated in these fraudulent proceedings. The House must not rest content with crushing the poor fly Mitchell upon the wheel, but should inquire closely into the conduct of Strutt, who, as a solicitor in a good position, ought to be far above the tricks and arts resorted to by poor wretches who obtained signatures at a penny each; and, therefore, if guilty, would be by far the worse delinquent of the two. With respect to Mitchell, he (Mr. Denman) thought that the case against him was very strong, and he appeared, in fact, to endeavour to escape by raising a false issue, and by causing it I to be inferred that none of the charges against him should be credited because they had not all been substantiated. But he (Mr. Denman) gladly left the case again in the hands of the Committee, hoping, as he did, that they would inquire into it from beginning to end.


said, he was a Member of that Committee, and lie wished briefly to defend them from the charges of the lion, and learned Member for the King's County. He was glad that the conduct of the Committee, of which he had been a Member somewhat reluctantly, had been justified by such lion, and learned Gentlemen as the Attorney General and the lion. Member for Tiverton who had just sat down. The letter to Mr. Cole, one of the officers of that House, was identified as being in Mitchell's handwriting by one of Mitchell's own clerks. The Committee throughout the proceedings had been influenced solely by a desire to render impartial justice. Mitchell had endeavoured to evade the Committee by giving an address where he was not known. Unwelcome as the duty would be, he was ready to enter with them again into an investigation of the case, but he hoped that when their labours were concluded they would not again be treated with the same unfairness they had experienced from the lion, and learned Member for Sheffield who, before the evidence could have been known to the House, had compared their conduct to that of the Committee of Public Safety at the time of the French Revolution.


said, that it was, in his opinion, most important that the Members of Committees which had to conduct judicial inquiries such as that now under discussion should attend regularly, and, as far as possible, from hour to hour, and he himself was not absent for five minutes from this Committee. The Committee did not refuse to hear Mitchell, or to allow him every opportunity of defending himself. It had been stated that a great deal of the evidence was not submitted to the person who ultimately fell under the reprobation of the Committee, but it should be remembered that all the earlier proceedings of the inquiry were in the dark. The whole Committee was unanimous about one thing—namely, that forged signatures were attached to certain forms which had been furnished to Mitchell. The evidence of their own eyes was enough to satisfy them that frauds had been committed by several persons, and that Mitchell was one of those who had been concerned in them, and that evidence was confirmed by the testimony of the most distinguished expert who was commonly examined with reference to signatures. He did not think that the hon. Member for the King's County was as good a judge of the evidence as were other Members of the Committee who attended regularly from day to day, and who thus became acquainted with the manner and conduct both of all the witnesses and of the accused. Mitchell had himself been I employed as a messenger in the Petitions Office, where it was his duty to inform his superiors of any signatures which appeared to be forged, and he was therefore well aware that it was contrary to the rules of the House that any name should be signed to a petition by any one except the person to whom it belonged. The evidence before the House fully justified the finding of the Committee, and therefore there was no necessity for them to inquire into any other of the nineteen petitions.


said, he hoped the discussion would not be longer continued, as he did not see what good end could be obtained by such a course. He trusted that the matter would be speedily disposed of, and that the House would not again be troubled with it.


said, he had no desire to prolong the debate, but he did hope that the House would show every possible indulgence to the Committee in order to enable them to come to a satisfactory conclusion upon the subject.


said, that as one of the Committee who dissented from the opinion of the majority, he was glad to see his own opinion upon the subject ratified by the House.


said, he believed it would be more satisfactory if a Committee of five were named by the Committee of Selection for the purpose of deciding upon this case. After the expression of opinion which some of the Members of the Committee had made in that House he was afraid that but little weight would attach to their votes upon the subject.


said, he was sorry to hear the remarks which the noble Lord had made with reference to the Members of the Committee.


said, he had no intention of casting any imputation upon the Members of the Committee. He had referred particularly to the two hon. Gentlemen who had spoken at length on adverse sides of the question.


said, he must state to the House that he should respectfully decline again to serve on the Committee.

Amendment, and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That the Report on the Committee on Azeem Jah (Signatures to Petitions) be re-committed to the said Committee.—(Mr. Attorney General.)

Petition of George Morris Mitchell presented 8th May] referred to the Committee.