HC Deb 05 May 1879 vol 245 cc1724-9

Special Report read, and considered.


I now beg to move the following Resolution:— That, having heard the Special Report of the Committee, the House is of opinion that a breach of privilege has been committed, and that the parties by whom the Petition in question was prepared are liable to be dealt with by the House in respect thereof, but that under the circumstances it is not necessary to proceed further in the matter. I will not occupy the time of the House very long while I propose the Motion of which I have given Notice. Although the conclusion contained in the Resolution may seem a somewhat lame conclusion at which to arrive after the reading of the Report which has been presented to the House, I think it is a proper one. The facts of the case are very simple. The Committee over which I had the honour to preside had, amongst other matters, to deal with the Petitions which had been presented to them. In the course of the case it appeared that certain Petitions had been presented in opposition to the Bill, and had received a number of what were called forged signatures. It was stated that a considerable number of signatures—amounting to over 100—were not in the handwriting of the persons bearing the names, and it was also stated that a great many of the signatures appeared without the consent of the persons supposed to have signed the Petition. Now, I confess, as Chairman of that Committee, that I was not aware that it was the duty of the Committee to investigate the circumstances attending any Petition presented to it. Certain allegations were made respecting the Petitions presented to us, and as there was no machinery existing in the Court of Referees to inquire into them, it plainly became the duty of the Committee to institute such inquiry. We consequently examined a number of witnesses on both sides; and in the course of their examination it became perfectly clear that the facts were as alleged; that a considerable number of signatures attached to the Petition were not those of the individuals they were professed to be; and, moreover, it was also seen equally clearly that a great number of the signatures were in one person's handwriting. We called before us, amongst others, one witness who admitted that he had written a number of the signatures, and who likewise admitted that he believed that he had obtained the authority of either the person whose name he had affixed, or, in other cases, the authority of either the wife or some representative to do so. Well, there was no doubt that this proceeding was a violation of Rule 316 of the Rules and Orders which govern Public Petitions, and also a violation of Standing Order 129, which says that no Petition shall be allowed which, is not in strict conformity with the Rules and Orders of the House. Besides such a violation, it was plain that, according to the technical Rules of the House, a breach of Privilege had been committed. But, after the most minute inquiry that to the Members of the Committee that we could make, it appeared to me and there had been no intention to commit a fraud; that the witness by whom these names were signed had nothing to gain by it; that he was not paid by the number of signatures he obtained, but paid by the day; and that his instructions were to obtain as many signatures as he could. I think the whole thing arose very much more from ignorance of the Rules of the House than otherwise; indeed, it appeared from the evidence that the Memorial from the inhabitants of Glasgow was got up in pretty much the same way, but corrected before it reached the Committee. There had been a want of discrimination on both sides. It became quite clear, so far as the promoters and agents in the case were concerned, although some blame may be attributed to them for the haste with which they got up the Petition, that there was no evidence of any intention on their part to deceive the Committee; in fact, the evidence was entirely the other way. Under those circumstances, the Committee considered what we ought to report to the House, and the Report which I brought up on Friday was the result of our deliberations. We thought. Sir, on the whole, that although the offence apparently in the first instance was a somewhat serious one, yet it was committed in ignorance of the Rules of the House, and that it was possible that any punishment we inflicted might, perhaps, be greater than the fault deserved. Taking all things into consideration, it appeared to us that, by the Resolution which I have the honour to move to-day, the power of the House might be sufficiently demonstrated and its dignity sufficiently vindicated. I therefore beg to move the Resolution of which I have given Notice.


As a Member of the Committee on this Bill, I beg to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, having hoard the Special Report of the Committee, the House is of opinion that a breach of privilege has been committed, and that the parties by whom the Petition in question was prepared are liable to be dealt with by the House in respect thereof, but that under the circumstances it is not necessary to proceed further in the matter."—(Admiral Egerton.)


Before the Resolution is put to the House, I should like to say one word. I have no wish to ask the House to deal more severely with these parties than the gallant Admiral proposes; yet, at the same time, I think it would be an unpardonable thing to allow it to go abroad that this mode of dealing with the House—this mode of falsifying Petitions—is really a trivial matter. The signing of an ordinary Petition to the House is often done in a very perfunctory way; and while I am not prepared to say that the signing of a Petition to a Private Bill Committee should be placed on any dif- ferent footing to a Petition to the House, I think the House will see on consideration that it has a very different bearing in reality. A Petition to a Private Bill Committee is a Petition to gain a locus standi before the Committee to oppose a Bill; it is a Petition to gain a certain special and immediate advantage. A Petition is presented to this House to ask for certain enactments or amendments of laws, and so forth, and it is ordered to lie on the Table, and does not materially influence any large section of hon. Members; but a Private Bill Committee, consisting of four or five individuals, and having a Petition laid before it for special consideration, is very apt to be influenced by every Petition which comes before it in that way. Therefore, the effect of a Petition presented to a Committee is greater than that of an ordinary Petition presented to the House. Now, Sir, the facts connected with the getting up of this Petition were very questionable indeed. The counties around Glasgow had always very persistently opposed any attempt to bring within the boundary of the City certain outlying districts; and, in this instance, the clerk to the Commissioners of Supply of the County of Renfrew set about getting up all the opposition he could. He was not able to get the signatures to the Petition himself, so he employed a Mr. Russell. Mr. Russell, also, was unable to get the signatures, so he employed a Mr. Henrietta, who employed a fourth, a Mr. Henderson, and this Mr. Henderson went about the district collecting signatures, and where he could not get signatures he simply wrote down the names himself. Now, the statement that he got the authority of the wife or some other representative of the alleged signators proves to be very shadowy indeed. The man, in his great desire to show his zeal to his employer, where he could not get the names, simply wrote them himself, and 75 names were thus written to a Petition which was to influence a Private Bill Committee. Fortunately, the thing was found out, the Committee was not influenced, and no harm has been done. I understand that the Committee entirely rejected that Petition, and that there is no intention that it should be rehabilitated before the Committee. That being so, I shall abstain from moving any counter Resolution. Had there been any attempt to rehabilitate the Petition, I should have felt bound to oppose it.


After the statement of the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson), I think it would be very much to be regretted if the House were to measure out the blame to these persons without our having the evidence before them on which the Report was made.


I feel a difficulty in supporting the Motion of the gallant Admiral, because it states "After having heard the special Report of the Committee, the House is of opinion." For my part, I have not heard the special Report of the Committee, and I doubt whether any hon. Member has heard that Report. I am not aware that the Report has been read by the Clerk at the Table. I think it ought to have been printed and circulated. [An hon. MEMBER: It has been.] That being the case, I, unfortunately, have not seen the Report. But I must agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) that in cases of this kind, where a witness has admitted that he has forged a certain number of signatures, the House ought not merely, as it were, to pass to the Order of the Day and take no further notice of such a proceeding as that laid before the House. I think it would be desirable, at all events, that the House should, through the Chairman of the Committee, in a marked manner, reprimand the witness for having committed such a forgery. It should be shown that the House takes notice of Petitions, whether they are presented to Select Committees or presented to the House itself.


Although, doubtless, this is a matter which touches all Committees of the House, and although the House would certainly do wrong in showing any indifference as to the manner in which Petitions are presented to the House or to its Committees, still, having heard the Report which has been presented by the Committee, and seeing the recommendation which the Chairman of the Committee has thought fit to make, after viewing all the circumstances, I think the House may be satisfied that, by passing the Resolution the hon. and gallant Gentleman proposes, it will be doing all that is required. There is no question whatever as to the breach of privilege that has been made, and as to the liability of the parties to any proceeding which the House may think fit to take; but, under the circumstances, as I gather them from the statement of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the House may, I think, extend its mercy, so to speak, to those who have been guilty of this offence. I think it would be unnecessary that we should proceed further, and that we may be satisfied with the Resolution.

Resolution agreed to.