HC Deb 09 May 1884 vol 287 cc1876-84

Order for Committee read, and discharged.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be referred to the Standing Committee on Law, and Courts of Justice, and Legal Procedure."—(Mr. Attorney General.)


said, he regretted that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General had not given some reason for sending this Bill to the Standing Committee. It was not a Bill of any great length; it contained very few clauses; but it made a change in the Law of Evidence which was of the greatest im- portance. Hitherto the House had been dealing with a Bill of a technical character, containing a considerable number of clauses relating to a subject which, so far as Parliamentary elections were concerned, had been dealt with by Parliament at a recent date. No doubt, there was something to be said in favour of sending the measure dealing with corrupt practices at municipal elections to the Standing Committee. He did not believe that the reference would be successful, because it was clear that questions of great importance would be raised after that Bill had left the Standing Committee and come back to the House. He feared, therefore, the time of the Standing Committee on that measure would be wasted, as it had been wasted last year. But if the Attorney General wished this Bill to become law, he would put it to the hon. and learned Gentleman whether, instead of placing it behind the Municipal Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Bill, in its reference to the Committee, he had not better give some reasonable opportunity for the discussion of such a Bill in the House itself, by passing it through Committee there? He thought the hon. and learned Gentleman was not really consulting either the interests of this measure, or the fair discussion of the great principle which was involved, by referring such a measure to the Standing Committee.


said, he had no objection to see this Bill referred to the Standing Committee; but he thought the House had not had a fair opportunity of discussing the principle of the Bill in the House itself. The change proposed by the Bill—whether right or wrong he did not say—was of the greatest importance, and involved considerations of a serious nature. He hoped the Attorney General would give the House an opportunity, at a subsequent stage, to discuss the principle of the Bill. He had not given Notice of opposition to the second reading, because he took it for granted that an opportunity would be given for discussion of the advisability of the proposed change; but no such opportunity had been given.


asked the House to consider the position in which it had been placed by the conduct of the Government. The Government had deprived the House of any opportunity whatever of expressing fully its opinion on a subject which was fraught with revolution to the Law of Evidence. On a question of change amounting to a revolution in the law, he did think that the Attorney General might have had some appreciation of its immense importance, and might have condescended to explain the object of the Bill to the House. In that belief he had refrained from putting down a Notice of opposition to the second reading of the Bill. The way in which the Government treated the House was extraordinary. He used the word "extraordinary" advisedly, because the Attorney General, in bringing forward this Bill for second reading had done so by merely raising his hat at 2 o'clock in the morning, and now, again, that evening, by a single phrase; and this, too, in connection with a measure which made a greater change in the Law of Evidence than had taken place for five centuries.


I must request the hon. and learned Member to confine his remarks to the Question before the House.


said, that the manner in which the House had been treated by the Government, and the "conspiracy of silence," which prevailed on the Treasury Bench with regard to this as well as other matters——


I have already requested the hon. and learned Member to confine himself to the Motion of the Attorney General, which is that the Bill should be referred to the Standing Committee on Law. The hon. and learned Member does not appear to have paid any attention to my ruling.


said, in justification of his conduct in not confining his observations strictly to the subject under discussion, that he had lost his temper at the manner in which the House had been treated. It was perfectly scandalous that the House had had no opportunity of discussing the principle of the Bill, because, unless it was explained, the House was unable to form a judgment upon it. It would be useless for the Attorney General to attempt to counteract "blocking" by crushing discussion.


wished to say a word as a matter of justice to the Attorney General, because he himself was responsible to some extent for the authorship of the Bill. The obloquy which had been cast on his hon. and learned Friend because of this attempted change in the law ought not to rest upon him alone. This proposed change formed originally part of the Code which treated of this matter, and this branch of the subject was peculiarly under his own jurisdiction. But, having said that, it could not be denied that the change was a very serious revolution in the law. It had been one of the cardinal principles of the administration of the Criminal Law that no person who was himself accused should be a witness; and it seemed to him that referring this Bill to a Grand Committee in these circumstances was not altogether desirable. The question of principle—although he himself held a strong view in favour of the proposed alteration—was one on which there was among the Legal Profession and the public very considerable division of opinion. Under those circumstances, if that Bill was referred to a Grand Committee, ingenious Members would be found to devise Amendments which would raise the question of principle in a direct form, and the effect of which would be not to reduce the Bill to a satisfactory shape, but to defeat it in some way or other. The result would be that the labours of the Grand Committee would be absolutely thrown away. From the very constitution of a Grand Committee the sending of such a Bill as that before it would not facilitate the passing of the measure afterwards, because those who had been defeated in the expedients to which he had alluded would inevitably raise those questions of principle in the House when the Bill came back from the Committee. He, therefore, deprecated the sending of that Bill to a Grand Committee. The House had had no substantial opportunity of discussing that matter. He, for one, should have been glad to have had an opportunity of discussing at full length the questions of principle which lay at the root of the measure, and to show that the alteration it proposed was a just and proper one; but he knew, after what the Speaker had said, that that was not a fit occasion for doing so. Therefore they had had the Bill read a second time at a late hour of the night without discussion, and then they were asked to send it to a Grand Committee.


remarked, that the principle embodied in that Bill had been already affirmed on three separate occasions by the House of Commons. In the first place, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies had carried a Bill that was substantially the same in principle as the present Bill; then, under the late Government, the hon. and learned Member for Launceston (Sir Hardinge Giffard) introduced a Bill which was read a second time, containing the same provision, and the present Attorney General had also introduced it. He agreed very strongly with the substantial provision of the Bill that accused persons should be allowed to give evidence; and as that principle had been adopted over and over again in that House he did not think there would be any difficulty in the Grand Committee accepting it, and dealing with the details of the measure. At the same time, he must say that he, for one, should be glad that such a proposal should be discussed before the whole House, that he might have an opportunity of expressing his views. If, however, the Bill were sent before a Grand Committee, in his opinion, the only substantial questions to be discussed would be the details of the principle to be adopted; and he felt confident that afterwards every opportunity of discussing the matter would be afforded them in the House.


said, that whilst a good many gentlemen connected with the Incorporated Law Society, to which he had the honour to belong, did not look with disfavour on the principle of this Bill in regard to prisoners giving evidence on their trial, he unfortunately differed from them; and he certainly thought that Members of the House should have more opportunity than had hitherto been afforded them of discussing the measure. So far as they had admitted the principle of it hitherto, it had been comparatively limited in its extent. It had never been attempted on the large scale now suggested; and whether the Bill was going to a Grand Committee or to the Whole House, what he wished to see was whether they could not make some provision against what he thought was the tendency of the Bill —namely, of forcing or compelling every prisoner into the witness-box. There would, in ease of the Bill becoming law as it stood, be such a prejudice of feeling against a man who did not tender himself in evidence, that he thought it must inevitably lead to his conviction. How that obstacle was to be met he did not propose to discuss at that stage of the Bill; but he thought it was a point worthy the attention of the Committee, and that in respect of it, as far as possible, the prisoner ought to be protected.


asked the Solicitor General for Scotland whether it was intended that the Bill should apply to that country? The Scottish Members and the Scottish people had had no opportunity of discussing the matter. He hoped the old system of examining Scottish prisoners was not going to be re-established. His own belief was that the process of examining the prisoner was not desired by the people of Scotland. He was in favour of devolution as far as the principle was concerned, but not in the middle of the Session. If Bills were to be sent to Grand Committees, it should be done at the beginning of the Session.


said, that the Lord Advocate and he were of opinion that that Bill ought to be applied to Scotland; and, consequently, they proposed to move the Amendments in the Grand Committee which were necessary to make the Bill applicable to Scotland. He thought there was nothing in the Scottish system which should make the principle of the Bill, if it was a sound principle, inapplicable to Scotland.


said, that the proposal was not new to the House or to the country. For many years it had been the subject of discussion both in and out of Parliament; and during the last Parliament a Bill was introduced by his hon. Friend the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Evelyn Ashley), and it was read a second time after a full discussion. The objection to the present Bill seemed to him related rather to its details than to its principles; and those, he thought, were better fitted for consideration by a Grand Committee than by Committee of the Whole House. But he hoped that some opportunity would be afforded to the House for its discussion at a future stage.


said, he held that this Bill was about the last one which ought to go to a Standing Committee. There was in it no detail at all. It altered the law in a most material particular affecting life and liberty, and made a change to which the House ought not to assent without full discussion.


said, he hoped the Government would reconsider the matter. The House ought to have the opportunity of discussing the principle of the Bill.


said, that the real reason why the Bill should not be referred to a Grand Committee was that both the principles and the details ought to be brought prominently before the public, as they would be by being discussed in the House rather than in the Grand Committee.


said, that he approved of the principle of the Bill, but he did not think it was carried far enough; and the House was the proper tribunal to discuss the question whether the principle should be carried further by making a prisoner compellable as well as competent to give evidence.


said, that all were agreed that the principle of the Bill was one on which the sense of the House ought to be expressed; and if it was to be discussed, after leaving the Grand Committee, the labours of that Committee would be wasted. As there was no procedure in the Bill, but only a simple, though very important, question of principle, it was not proper to refer such a Bill to a Grand Committee.


said, he hoped the Government would consider what had been urged upon their own side of the House. It was quite clear that there existed differences of opinion as to the application of the principle; and the discussion of the subject ought to reach the public, which it could not do through the medium of a Grand Committee, whose proceedings were practically not reported.


thought that the principle of the Bill ought to be decided in that House. In the interests of the Bill itself, he would urge the Government not to send it to the Grand Committee. If they adhered to their decision much time would be wasted, and the Bill might not reach the House again before August.


said, he did not believe that the course which the Government had adopted would tend to pass the Bill into law this Session. He was anxious to see it passed; and, believing there was an overwhelming majority in the House in favour of the Bill, he regretted that anything should be done to impede its progress. No doubt, the Attorney General was taking the course which seemed to him the best; but if the Bill reached the Standing Committee it might not be dealt with until a late period of the Session. He was of opinion that when once the House had affirmed the principle of the Bill, the consideration of the Amendments would not take more than a few hours. If the Attorney General still desired that the Bill should go to the Standing Committee, he would support him with his vote; but the responsibility would rest with him.


said, he hoped that the Government, after the appeals which had been made to them, would reconsider their decision. He entertained a very strong objection to the proposals made in the Bill; but whether he was right or wrong in his view, he considered it most important that the principle should be discussed fully and clearly before the public. In his opinion, the Government would save time by declining to send the Bill to a Grand Committee.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 179; Noes 135: Majority 44.—(Div. List, No. 91.)

The House suspended its Sitting at twenty minutes to Seven of the clock.

The House resumed its Sitting at Nine of the clock.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at five minutes after Nine o'clock till Monday next.