HC Deb 23 May 1865 vol 179 cc775-85

said, that in moving for the appointment of a Select Committee on the Leeds Court of Bankruptcy, it was not his intention to make any re marks in support of that Motion, which he understood the Government did not intend to oppose. He could not, how ever, sit down without alluding to a re mark which fell from the Attorney General the other night with reference to Mr. Wilde. Mr. Wilde had long been a member of the Bar; he was a nephew of the late Lord Chancellor Truro, and a relation of Sir James Wilde, the present Judge of the Probate and Divorce Court; he was also related to many gentlemen in the City of London, and had a large circle of friends, all of whom had read with great pain the remarks of the Attorney General. The hon. and learned Gentleman used the words "personal defalcation" in the same sentence in which he mentioned Mr. Wilde's name. He was told by those who had known Mr. Wilde ever since he was a young man that there was not a more honourable or upright gentleman in Eng land, and that even his most intimate friends had never known him to be guilty of any act which was in the slightest de gree tainted with dishonour. They were therefore astounded at the hard expressions, which fell from the lips of the Attorney General, than whom there was not, in or out of this House, a more honourable man, and they were anxious to learn upon what grounds or authority he made use of such expressions. He was sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would in justice to Mr. Wilde, to the House, and to himself, make a satisfactory explanation. In conclusion, the hon. Member moved for a Select Committee to inquire into all the circumstances connected with the resignation of Mr. Henry Sedgwick Wilde as Registrar of the Court of Bankruptcy at Leeds; the granting him a pension; the appointment of Mr. Welch to the said office; and whether he was to resign his appointment in favour of the Hon. Richard Bethell, and receive another appointment in London.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed, "to inquire into all the circumstances connected with the resignation of Mr. Henry Sedgwick Wilde as Registrar of the Court of Bankruptcy at Leeds; the granting him a pension; the appointment of Mr. Welch to the said office; and whether he was to resign his appointment in favour of the Honourable Richard Bethell and receive another appointment in London."—(Mr. Ferrand.)


Sir, nobody can call in question the propriety of the discretion which the hon. Gentleman has exercised in not anticipating by a statement in this House the inquiry which the Lord Chancellor himself has desired should be entered upon. His Lord ship is of opinion that, although explanations have been given by me which he had reason to believe would have been completely satisfactory, the moment there was any appearance that any considerable number of Members of the House of Commons thought that the inquiry which has been moved for by the hon. Member would be in any degree useful or satisfactory it was most desirable that they should be gratified in this respect. I must own, speaking entirely for myself, that I should have been glad if the hon. Gentleman's own feelings had led him to omit from his Motion the words at the end which seemed to imply at the outset a question as to the truth of the answers which were given in this House. However, that is for the hon. Member to determine; he has thought fit to ask for such an inquiry, and that inquiry the Lord Chancellor is anxious should take place. With respect to myself, I can as sure the hon. Gentleman that nothing could possibly have been more surprising to me than to be informed, as I was by Mr. Wilde himself privately, that the words which I used on a former occasion were thought by anybody to convey directly or indirectly the idea of an association of his name with pecuniary defalcations. The words which I used were that complaints had been made in the Report of Mr. Commissioner Ayrton of certain irregularities in the office which was filled by Mr. Wilde, "not extending," I added, "I believe to personal defalcations." My reason for saying that was, that the expression "irregularities" being a vague one, no one could say what might be intended to be coverred by it, and as had no reason whatever to imagine that anything of that serious nature had been imputed to Mr. Wilde, I was anxious to prevent the possibility of such a construction being placed upon he words which I had used. I regret that I did not use a more positive form of expression than "I believe;" but the reason why I expressed myself so was that I had not at that time read all the papers, therefore could only speak according to the information which I had received in my communications with those to whom I resorted for information. I was not led to suppose that the irregularities imputed were of that serious character. I was desirous clearly to exclude such a construction, as far as I was concerned, and it is matter of very great regret to me to find that the use of the words which I employed for that purpose has been painful to Mr. Wilde or his friends. I will not now enter into the question whether the charges against Mr. Wilde were well or ill-founded, but the nature of the allegations were simply this:—He was alleged to have certified certain accounts as having been submitted to the Commissioner of the district and sanctioned by him, when, in fact, they had not been seen by him; he was said to have been in the habit of taxing the bills of messengers without calling for the production of vouchers for the money stated to have been paid; and he was said to have borrowed money from both official assignees and messengers of the court, to the injury of his official efficiency. I do not like to state these charges without mentioning, which I can upon the authority of the Lord Chancellor, that his Lordship was not dissatisfied with the explanation of Mr. Wilde as far as it related to the point of borrowing money. It appeared that he had borrowed only the very small sum of £25 from one of the messengers, and about £100 from the official assignee some time before, which he repaid while the inquiry was going on. I think that the Lord Chancellor will not be displeased at my stating, in the exercise of my own discretion, what I have from him, that he was not dissatisfied with Mr. Wilde's explanation upon that point. As to the other charges, for not taking proper care in checking accounts, which it was his duty to check, and irregularly certifying certain accounts as having been sanctioned by the Commissioners which, to the full extent, did not appear to have received that sanction, I should be sorry if there were anything exaggerated in these charges. I express no opinion as to the extent to which they were warranted, but most assuredly I do not understand that any charge of a pecuniary nature of any sort or kind has been brought against Mr. Wilde.


I think it very un fair that the hon. and learned Gentleman should have entered upon the opinions of the Lord Chancellor on the subject. I forbore to make any ex parte statements, and the hon. and learned Gentleman has not, I think, acted fairly. I may now be allowed to say that Mr. Wilde denies having done anything improper, and declares that he is able to explain away any charge that may be made against him. I have gone fully into the matter with him, and I believe that Mr. Wilde is innocent of every charge brought against him. He is ready to go before any Committee, and all his anxiety has been that a Committee should be appointed in order that he may have an opportunity of clearing his character.


I think my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Ferrand) has acted quite right in not making any statement on this occasion. Whatever that statement might have been, and however accurate, it must have been an ex parte one; and I think it would be a great impropriety to make an ex parte statement when a Committee is to be appointed. I say nothing of the case of Mr. Wilde. I know nothing of the question relating to him; but it is due to an absent man to say, that from the admission of the Attorney General, and from what has transpired, the charges made against him seem of a frivolous character. What the House is interested in, and the country also, let me impress it on the Government, is, that the inquiry should be a real and bonâ fide inquiry. That the inquiry should be, as far as our forms and powers admit of, one of a judicial nature. And what I would suggest to the Government for their consideration is, and I hope that they will adopt it, that it should not be referred to a mere Select Committee, in which both sides of the House are represented. Upon a question of this kind the existence of party ought not to be admitted, and I think we ought to leave it to the Committee of Elections. Let the appointment of a Committee be left to the Committee of Elections. I think it should be composed of not less than seven and not more than nine Members, but this may be left for further consideration. The House, I am sure, will accept the judgment of such Committee with confident trust and satisfaction; and what is of more importance, it would act on the public mind in the same spirit. I trust, therefore, we shall understand that these matters will not be left to the mere routine method and be referred to a Select Committee in the usual manner; but that they will be referred to a Committee appointed by the Committee of Elections—the only course, I am confident, that will give satisfaction to the House or the country.


I should like to know how the Government feel as to what the right hon. Gentleman proposes. I am quite sure this ought to be a judicial inquiry, and that the country will not be satisfied if this is made a party question. I therefore hope that, in order to withdraw this question from party considerations, we shall have some intimation that the Government accept the proposal.


I have no hesitation in saying that the Government entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) that this inquiry ought to be thorough, searching, and impartial, and if the House is of opinion that it will be best conducted by a limited number of Gentlemen nominated by the Committee of Selection the Government will be ready to adopt that course. I apprehend, how ever, that notice should be given by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Ferrand), and if that is done, and the House should concur in the proposal, there will be no opposition on the part of the Government.


I am glad that this inquiry is to be granted by Her Majesty's Government. The present case, however, is not the only one affecting the high legal personage in question. I regret very much to say that there are painful rumours connected with another case of a similar kind, in which a highly respectable gentleman has been attempted to be forced out of his position. That attempt, however, has failed, and that gentleman has successfully resisted an inquiry for which there was no foundation. That inquiry having been instituted without sufficient cause naturally excited much sympathy on the part of friends, and some excitement in the county in which he was a resident. I will not, however, go into that case on the present occasion, and I will only express a hope that the Lord Chancellor will come out of the inquiry unstained. At the same time, it will be perfectly impossible to allow all these rumours, which I trust are unfounded, to circulate without full and searching inquiry.


Sir, as a member of the professsion the head of which is concerned in this inquiry, I must express my hearty concurrence in the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) and my satisfaction that the Government have acceded to it. It is an inquiry in which I and every other Member of the legal profession feel the deepest interest. I have been long on terms of intimacy with the noble and learned Lord in question, for whose great talents I have the deepest admiration, and whose character I most sincerely hope will come clear out of the inquiry. It is not a light matter that such imputations should be cast upon the head of the profession to which I belong. There is nothing in which the country has a greater interest than that the administration of justice should be pure and the head of it above suspicion. I support the inquiry because I act on the belief that these imputations are unfounded; but I agree that such an inquiry ought not to be conducted by a miscellaneous Committee selected in the usual manner from both sides of the House, and which might be open to party considerations. I would even suggest that no Gentleman of the legal profession should be on the Committee, for the inquiry would be one—affecting as it does the character and position of the head of the profession—in which it is impossible that any of us could sit with satisfaction to ourselves or advantage to the country. In the hands of a Committee appointed by the Committee of Selection an impartial inquiry will take place, which will, I hope and believe, re move those suspicions which have so long attached to the noble and learned Lord's name. On the other hand, if it should turn out that there has been a practice of driving out of office persons who are capable of remaining in office and discharging their duties for the purpose of replacing them by the friends and connections of the noble and learned Lord, no man will more decidedly join than myself in condemning practices so discreditable to the head of the profession, and so calculated to bring the administration of justice into reproach.


Sir, I am not going to offer any opposition to the proposal that this matter should be referred to a Committee to be nominated by the Committee of Selection. I do not share in the absolute belief in the impartiality of such a Committee which appears to prevail; but that opinion, I know, is cherished with the fondness of a religious belief, and I should be sorry to disturb it. I shall be glad to see this impartial Committee when it is nominated, and I will indulge in the charitable hope that it will realize all that is expected of it. But I own I am alarmed at the suggestion of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Malins). His proposal to strike out all the lawyers would simply be braining the Committee—it would simply be taking out all its brains. At all events, it would be taking out all the brains that are available for this purpose. What possible idea can we have of a judicial inquiry from which all lawyers are excluded? Who is to cross-examine? Who is to probe the case—who but those whose regular training and talent in the performance of the duties that are necessary to the discovery of the truth, which do not come to a man instinctively, but only after long study and experience? In addition to the five or seven impartial Members I should prefer to have two thoroughly partial lawyers, whose duty it would be to conduct the case on either side. Because I do not see how the case is to be proved at all, or how these charges are to be followed home, if you merely throw them down before the Committee and tell the Members to make the best of them. There is another point which I would also suggest. The Government must be well aware of the truth of what the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Heygate) says, that these are not the only rumours which have been current. Several of these bankruptcy appointments have been subjected to imputations precisely similar. I do not suggest that those imputations are true, because I have, of course, no knowledge on the subject; but there is a strong primâ facie case on their behalf, and I do not think the public will be satisfied unless these charges, especially those which have taken a palpable form, are referred to this Committee. Another reason is that, if the promoters of this case are to be believed, the issue may be whether the Lord Chancellor is to be believed or the Hon. Richard Bethell. That I am told is the issue that will be presented to the Committee. Everybody knows that in issues of this kind you have to look to private character and other corroborative circumstances to judge between the wit nesses whose testimony is opposed to each other. For that purpose it is necessary that the Committee should have the power of examining into the mode in which the Lord Chancellor has made other bank ruptey appointments which have become the subject of public animadversion. Be cause, if it turn out that his general appointments have been pure, it would afford a strong presumption in his favour in the present case; and, on the other hand, if it should turn out that a general system of nepotism bordering on corruption has been going on, there would be a strong presumption that the evidence in this case which bears against the Lord Chancellor is reliable I hope the Government will consent to extend the basis of the inquiry so as to include one or two other prominent cases, and I hope also that the constitution of the Committee will be such as not only to insure an impartial judgment, but a thorough investigation.


Sir, I really think we are going a little too far in the matter at present. As the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Ferrand) had given notice of moving for this Committee, I came down like other Members who were interested in the subject, to hear his statement. I was rather surprised to learn, when I came to the House, that the Government had consented to the Committee, and thought that nothing could be more fair and ready than the statement of the Lord Chancellor that he courted inquiry. The hon. Gentleman opposite very properly abstained from making any statement in moving for the Committee. Then the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bucks (Mr. Disraeli) made a suggestion with which I entirely agree, which was received in a very proper spirit by the Government, the Home Secretary stating that they desired the inquiry should he searching and judicial, and therefore they agreed to the nomination of the Committee by the Committee of Selection. I think it would have been better if the discussion had ended there. But the hon. and learned Member for Wallingford (Mr. Malins), not satisfied with leaving the matter to the Committee of Selection, made a suggestion that there should be no lawyers upon the Committee, whereupon we have the noble Lord the Member for Stamford (Lord Robert Cecil) rising immediately afterwards and declaring that the Committee would be useless with out lawyers, and he hoped that the inquiry would be extended beyond the case referred to in the notice of Motion to other cases which had been spoken of in public. If, as is supposed, we are approaching the end of the Session, it is certain that the inquiry thus extended would not be brought to a close until the very end of the Session. It appears to me that in the first instance this particular case should be submitted to a Committee, which, after a judicial inquiry, will report to the House, and upon that report a discussion will arise upon all points connected with the appointments made by the Lord Chancellor, and it will be competent for any hon. Member to make any other matter the subject of a separate Motion. I do not think we ought to over burden this Committee with a number of cases, which would lead to an inconveniently protracted inquiry.


I am at a loss to understand the crime imputed to the Lord Chancellor. I have always understood that Lord Chancellors are in the habit of exercising great patronage, and that they favour their relations. If anybody believes that they exercise it for the benefit of strangers, or of merit, he must be very innocent indeed. It happens that at the present moment there are three sinecures of £8,000 each which have been enjoyed for half a century, and one indeed for nearly a century. Talk of exercising patronage for the benefit of relatives! Why the practice has been associated with the history of the country since the time of Bacon. I believe that the present attack upon an individual is suggested more by political motives than by justice.


The hon. Gentleman has wasted a vast deal of virtuous indignation, but he does not seem to notice that there is a vast distinction between a Lord Chancellor who simply exercised his patronage in favour of his relatives, which, no doubt, had frequently been done, and a Lord Chancellor who took a course by which offices became vacant in order to fill them up by the appointment of his relatives. It is a slur upon the profession of which the able and learned Lord is the head, and a stigma upon the many eminent men who have preceded him in his high office, to say that such a course as I have described must have been followed by them. I am not going to prejudge the case, nor to refer to rumours that are current, but I would say, cast off all party and personal feelings, let the matter be fully and impartially inquired into, and then the opinion of the country will be that the proper course had been taken to ascertain the truth or falsehood of statements affecting the conduct of a high officer of State.


As the question is to be referred to a Select Committee, I do not think it is desirable that this discussion should be prolonged. The hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Ferrand) in a manner which became him, made no statement in moving for the Committee, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bucks (Mr. Disraeli) also abstained from discussing the subject. I regret that the noble Lord the Member for Stamford (Lord Robert Cecil) should have enlarged the discussion, and I think it would be better now to agree to the Motion at once.


The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud (Mr. Horsman) objects to extending the inquiry, because it would occupy too much time; but that is hardly a view which the House ought to adopt, although it appears to me that there are serious reasons why the Committee should not proceed beyond the question which is immediately before us. I think it would be a dangerous thing if upon vague insinuations unaccompanied by facts, such as we have heard from the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Heygate), the House was immediately to set about inquiring into them. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud says, that if you embark upon an extended inquiry it would not be finished until the end of the Session, but that is not a reason for not extending the inquiry if it be needful. My objection is that the House ought not to be carried away by all sorts of rumours, and that we ought not to recognize any facts to be inquired into until some hon. Member holds himself responsible for their presentation to the House. When any grievance has a solid foundation there is no difficulty in finding some Member to bring it before the House.

Motion agreed to.

And on Tuesday, May 30, Committee nominated as follows:—EDWARD CHRISTOPHER EGERTON, esq., THOMAS WILLIAM EVANS, esq., EDWARD HOWES, esq., Colonel the hon. E. G. DOUGLAS PENNANT, HENRY HUSSEY VIVIAN, esq., and The Lord ADVOCATE and WILLIAM BOVILL, esq., to examine witnesses, but without the power of voting.