HC Deb 11 July 1887 vol 317 cc454-75

Order for Second Reading read.


In moving the second reading of this Bill I shall only detain the House for a short time. It is a matter which has been so frequently before the House, and upon which there is such a strong feeling entertained in every quarter of the House, that few words of introduction are required from me. It is a Bill simply enabling prisoners to give evidence. It is perfectly well known to the House that up to the year 1836 prisoners had power to make a statement, and it is practically only from 1836 that there has been a difficulty as to prisoners being heard on their own behalf. That is not the principal ground on which we propose this Bill. There have been a series of Statutes from the year 1867, running almost continuously down to the present time, whereby the rule has been infringed in this sense, that prisoners in a variety of cases have been enabled to give evidence. Under the Masters' and Servants' Act, the Merchant Shipping Act, the Food and Drugs Act, the Mines' Regulation Act, the Army Act, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, and half-a-dozen, others, prisoners are able to give evidence. Notably under one particular Act which passed in 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, there have been a large number of prosecutions, and I have received communications from almost every Judge on the English Bench, and there is a unanimity of opinion among those who have thought out this matter that the giving of evidence by prisoners has conduced largely to the acquittal of those who have been innocent, and tended generally towards justice being done. I think there is hardly anyone in the House who will object to this amendment of the law being made. From 1865 down to the present time there have been eight or 10 Bills introduced with the object of effecting this change in the law. Bills suggesting this amendment have been introduced by Sir Fitzroy Kelly, the right hon. and learned Member for Bury (Sir Henry James), and the late Sir John Holker. Indeed, there is practically a consensus of opinion on the part of those who have had much experience of the administration of the Criminal Law in favour of this change being made. I am aware that I shall be told that some hon. Members below the Gangway opposite are opposed to this Bill; certainly I know that the hon. and learned Member for North Longford (Mr. T. M. Healy) is prepared to oppose this Bill as far as Ireland is concerned.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Longford, N.)

Explain why you have sprung it upon the House now.


There has been no attempt to spring it upon the House. The Bill passed through the House of Lords early in the Session, and I stated my desire to bring it forward much earlier than this, and had there been an opportunity I should certainly have done so. Of course, I regret very much that the attempt to exclude Ireland should be pressed; but I shall be only too glad, with the exclusion of Ireland, to get the Bill passed, in order that we may have the benefit of the working of it in all criminal proceedings. If an Amendment to exclude Ireland is proposed by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. T. M. Healy), I shall be prepared to accept it. As we have tried by experience what the effect of the change is in the cases brought under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and as we find that in a large number of criminal cases it has been found to work well, it does seem strange that in cases of murder and other grave crimes this power should not be given to prisoners. I am sure I shall have the support of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Sir William Harcourt), who at one time introduced a Bill proposing this change. In fact, there is no one who has occupied the Home Office, or taken any part in criminal legislation, who has not, at some time or other, expressed a wish that this alteration of the law should be made. I trust the House will assent to the second reading of the Bill. There are practically only one or two Amendments to the Bill which I shall be obliged to consider. So far as England is concerned, I am satisfied that the country desires that the proposed change should be made.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Attorney General.)

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

As I took part in the debate when a Bill similar to this was before the House in the last Parliament, a Bill proposed by the right hon. and learned Member for Bury (Sir Henry James), I desire to explain my exact position then and at the present moment. I do not oppose the amendment of the law which this Bill seeks to effect; but I did oppose the Bill in the shape in which it was then introduced. There was no protection afforded prisoners or accused persons appearing before unpaid magistrates or even Stipendiary Magistrates—my objection related more to unpaid magistrates—in cases of trade dispute, in cases of poaching, and other matters in which party feeling has very often moved Benches of Magistrates unfairly, as I thought, against prisoners or accused persons. The right hon. and learned Member for Bury, while thinking that I overstrained the point, agreed that the Amendment I suggested was a fair Amendment, but stated that there was not sufficient time to introduce an Amendment then and send it up to the House of Lords, it being so near to the end of the Session. I have, therefore, now to ask the Government whether they will insert, or permit to be inserted in Committee, a clause ensuring that warning shall be given or intimation given to a prisoner, that the Bill does not compel him to give evidence but that he has a right to give it, just in the same way as a man who is committed for trial is told that he is at liberty to make any statement he chooses to make, but is cautioned as to the legal effect of it. [Sir RICHARD WEBSTER assented.] I understand the hon. and learned Attorney General to assent to that. If such a provision wore inserted, it would make a most advantageous amendment of our law; and I, for one, would support the second reading of this Bill. I trust hon. Members sitting around me and representing Ireland will be content, if they think it right to their constituents, to have Ireland excluded from the operation of the Bill, and to allow the Bill to pass so far as the other portions of the United Kingdom are concerned. I have heard it suggested that if they allow the Bill to pass, Ireland being exempted, it may possibly happen that the other House will reinstate Ireland; but I am quite sure that the Government, giving such a pledge and accepting such an Amendment now, would not consent to such a proceeding. I trust that on this question the Irish Members will allow what is clearly an amendment in English jurisprudence to be effected.

MR. PICTON (Leicester)

As I believe I moved the Amendment in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which was afterwards in an amended form accepted, permitting criminals to give evidence, I desire now to support this Bill brought in by the Government. So far as I have been able to understand the provisions of the Bill it does provide that criminals shall be adequately protected, and that it shall be clearly understood that they are not required to give evidence. Still, I agree that the suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) is an exceedingly good one, and I am glad to hear from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General, or, at least, to understand from his manner, that he is willing to insert some such Amendment. Now, the case of Ireland arises, and I can sympathize with the objections which are felt by hon. Gentlemen representing Irish constituencies to allow this Bill to be applied to their own country. The circumstances into which they stand are peculiar. A Bill which they very strongly oppose is about to be passed into law, and they well fear that if accused persons under the Coercion Act are even allowed to give evidence they may, under some circumstances, be put into a very unfair position. I trust that in these circumstances the Government will not press upon hon. Members representing Irish constituencies the acceptance of this Bill for their own country. Let us try the principle in Great Britain first, and if it works well here, in happier times it may be extended to Ireland.


I have said that if an Amendment is proposed to that effect I will accept it.


Then I have no more to say, but to express the hope that the Bill will be allowed to pass.


For some years past I have been successful in preventing the passing of this legislation, and if I remain in this House for 50 years I shall continue to offer such a measure as this the strongest opposition. I am happy to say that there is every probability of my succeeding in procuring an adjournment of this measure. Even Englishmen, I think, "will recognize, when they think of French jurisprudence, that there would not be any advantage in the making of such a change as this. In nine cases out of 10 our Courts of Justice would be changed into inquisitorial chambers. Take the case of the trial of Pranzini now going on in France. What is occurring in that trial is exactly what would occur in English Courts of Justice if this amendment of the law were adopted. You would degrade the position of a Judge into that of a mere Juge d'Instruction. But, you will say, the prisoner is not compelled to give evidence. I say that if he does not give evidence comments will be made on the fact by the Judge, or the Crown Prosecutor, and the question would be asked, why does the prisoner not speak? It must be remembered that, as a rule, prisoners are uneducated men, and that they are opposed by the greatest intellects at the Bar—that they have opposed to them the best cross-examiners in the whole world. It must also be remembered that jurors flatter themselves that they can see through the deceptions of the human mind; therefore, if a man refuses to give evidence he is put into a position of comment. There is one sentence from the concluding observations of the Judge in the trial of Pranzini—fancy an English Judge addressing an English prisoner in such terms!—which merits attention. The President of the Court said—"Listen, Pranzini"—think of an English Judge addressing an English criminal whose life may be at stake in such a manner. The President said— "Listen, Pranzini, I am going to leave you alone till Monday." The torture was to be suspended over the Sabbath day. There were 12 men who were to pronounce upon the case, but they were to have rest and repose over the Sabbath day. That is what occurs whore there is no political question, no political feeling no bias, and no Party interest; where there is simply a desire on the part of an official of the law to do justice between man and man. But what would be the case when, instead of that, you had some political consideration raised, perhaps when the Law of Conspiracy, or perhaps when the Plan of Campaign was under discussion, when it was a question of the rents of tenants. I may be told that you are only applying this change of the law to England. If you apply it to England, that will be a very good reason for applying it to Ireland. In 1879 Lord Cross promised us an Amendment on the question of appeal, promised us that no person should be sentenced at Petty Sessions to a single day's imprisonment without the right of appeal. Why have no English Gentlemen brought in a Bill to give us the benefit of that English law; and why, when the Irish Secretary promised it, did he, when some hon. Gentleman wrote to The Times upon the point, recede from his promise? I say that this Bill puts a prisoner in England, oven in cases where there is no question of politics, in a hopeless, in an unfortunate, position; and in Ireland a prisoner's position would be hopeless in the extreme. The hon. Member for South Tyrone(Mr. T. W. Russell) is always boasting that he was one of the men who tried the agrarian prisoners in 1882–3. Would it not be a frightful thing if I or my Colleagues were to be tried by jurors of such a description; and if, in addition, we were to have men bullying us from the Bench by saying—"You know the evidence is against you; answer me this question." And then you would have the prosecuting counsel, paid out of the money of the taxpayers, allowed to insult you under the ægis of the Bench. We know what the Irish juries have come to be in such a system of select juries; we know what to expect in a county like Kerry, where, with a population of 250,000, you have only 100 special jurors. If this Bill was brought from the Lords on the 7th of March, where has it been all this time? By an arrangement which I do not care to characterize the Government, at an early hour on Saturday morning, obtained the first reading of this Bill. Remember that this Bill was brought down from the Lords on the 7th of March; you had all April, May, June, and July for the passage of this Bill; but you have not chosen to bring it forward until now, and in order to prevent its being blocked you put it down in a workmanlike manner for Monday. I consider that is not fair play to hon. Members of this House. The Government seem to consider themselves very clever in preventing the operation of the block; but the block was provided as a protection against hasty legislation—as a means of providing that the Government may have time to consider the exact meaning of proposals made in the House. This Bill has been brought in frequently. I remember that when I was in gaol in Richmond I spent many weary hours in drafting Amendments to it. It may be said that in a normal state of affairs in a country a Bill of this kind can do no harm; but you had 1800 years of the present system. Well, in the Reign of Charles II. prisoners were interrogated. But read the accounts of the trials. Are the proceedings at those trials such that you would like to recur to them? Would you like to revert to such trials as those which were conducted by Jeffreys and Scroggs? I say that the English people should be careful of their liberties; they have maintained their liberties by being careful of thorn and by not adopting hasty changes. You are proposing to adopt the principle of interrogating prisoners at a time when the French themselves are thinking of abandoning it. For years it has been the subject of debate on the part of those who are interested in the question of legal administration in France, whether the system of interrogating prisoners is not most mischievous. Why introduce such a system here? You have a fair system of trial; you have a Judicial Bench in which you have confidence; you have jurors who cannot be prejudiced against prisoners, because they have everything in common with the prisoners, so far as race and nation is concerned. I think it would be a hasty step for this House to adopt a measure of this kind, simply because Her Majesty's Government ask for it on the recommendation of the Judges. This country owes nothing, so far as liberty is concerned, to Her Majesty's Judges; they have opposed every reform of the Criminal Law; they opposed the abolition of hanging and long periods of penal servitude. Their ideas are not the ideas which generally prevail among the people at large, and I am in favour of legislating according to the common sense of the multitude at large. There may be, of course, individual gentlemen of high position who have more brains than the whole of us put together; but I prefer to trust to the common sense of the English people. The English people have approved of the present system of criminal procedure, and I do not think that this second reading of a Bill appointing such a change ought to be rushed through in this way. I do not think it is honest or fair to attempt to buy off the opposition of the Irish Members by stating that the Bill shall only apply to England. If the principle is good for England, it ought to be good for Ireland. Under the circumstances in which the Bill has been hurried forward, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. T. M. Healy.)

SIR HENRY JAMES (Bury, Lancashire)

The hon. and learned Member for North Longford (Mr. T. M. Healy) asked why this measure should be introduced? The object of introducing it is to secure the acquittal of innocent persons. That is the whole object which we who supported the Bill in past times had in view. I care very little whether it will secure the conviction of more guilty persons or not; but I know it will secure the acquittal of innocent persons. I am not going to weary the House by wading through the list of authorities in support of this measure. It has been before the House since 1873, the principle of the Bill was adopted in a Conservative House of Commons by more than two to one, and we have never been allowed to pass the Bill, partly on account of the opposition of the hon. and learned Member for North Longford and those who act with him. The French system is not attempted to be followed.


The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not speaking to the Motion for the adjournment.


I beg pardon, Mr. Speaker. It had escaped me that that is the Question before the House. I will only beg of hon. Members to allow us to proceed with the debate.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 74; Noes 208: Majority 134.—(Div. List, No. 293.)

[1.10 A.M.]

Original Question again proposed.

MR. MAC NEILL (Donegal, S.)

I think this hour of the morning (1.20) is scarcely suitable for introducing an important modification into the Constitution of the country; besides, we should remember that by those New Rules, which are to make the procedure of this House so perfect, the time of adjournment has been fixed at 12 o'clock. I hope, having regard to the importance of the question, and to the fact that we only received a copy of the Bill this morning, the Government will see the propriety of adjourning the debate. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Mac Neill.)

DR. TANNER (Cork Co., Mid)

I rise for the purpose of supporting the Motion for Adjournment, and also to express the hope that the hon. and learned Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster), and everyone present who considers the matter, will be able to see that it is too late an hour at which to spring this proposal upon the House. The Bill was passed through the House of Lords in the month of March last, and no notice of it was taken by the Government until Thursday last. I may also mention that no Notice was put upon the Paper when the Bill was going to be read the first time, and that is a point on which I shall be glad to receive some explanation from the hon. and learned Gentleman. The hon. and learned Gentleman probably knew that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Longford would block the Bill, and he was, no doubt, afraid on that account to put the Notice on the Paper. If I am right in my supposition, I say that the hon. and learned Gentleman ought to be above anything of that sort. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to say and to prove that the Bill was not brought forward in an unworthy way; and, further, that this was not to prevent the legitimate opposition of hon. Members on this side of the House. If this Bill is intended to be what it professes—namely, a serious measure of remedial legislation—I say that to make it complete it should have come before the House earlier in the Session, and at a more fitting hour than the present.


I can only say, in reply to the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, that if, in bringing this Bill before the House, I have been governed by the desire to prevent unnecessary opposition, I have, at any rate, not succeeded in doing so. With regard to the Motion before the House, I can only say that the Bill has been before the country for a very considerable time, and that in the minds of those well acquainted with the position of the Criminal Law the subject is one that is ripe for decision. The Bill has met with the general approval of the Legal Profession; and I, therefore, protest against the Motion for the adjournment of the House.

DR. CLARK (Caithness)

I support this Bill in principle as applied to England and Scotland; but I point out that it was only printed this morning, and I am, therefore, in favour of adjournment until to-morrow, in order that we may have time for consideration. I support this course, having regard to the convenience of the House, and not out of opposition to what I believe to be a valuable measure.

MR. CHANCE (Kilkenny, S.)

The hon. and learned Attorney General has not stated the reason why it was that this Bill did not make its appearance before last Saturday.


The reason for the delay was the pressure of Business. I expressed my desire to bring this Bill forward earlier in the Session; but, on consideration, it was thought desirable to bring it forward at a time when there was a prospect of its being carried through.


The hon. and learned Gentleman had ample knowledge of the fact that the principle of this Bill was bitterly contested by us; because he said that the Bill had been produced eight or 10 times, and that it had not been carried into law owing to the opposition which existed. It is under those circumstances that he considers this a reasonable opportunity to bring in the Bill, and to put it down in a way which evades the block which we are entitled to place upon it. All I can say is that, taking the hon. and learned Gentleman's definition of "a reasonable opportunity," we shall contest the Bill as long as we can, and he may find that the discussion may occupy a great many more hours than will be agreeable to him.


I should like to say a few words in favour of the withdrawal of opposition to the Bill on the part of hon. Members below the Gangway. I understand the hon. and learned Attorney General to have given a guarantee that he would exclude Ireland from the operation of the measure. I believe this is a Bill which, in its operation, will tend more to the acquittal of innocent men than to the conviction of the guilty. I hope hon. Members will see their way to allow the Bill to be read a second time to-night, so far as this country is concerned.


I regret that the appeal which the hon. and learned Member for York (Mr. Lockwood) has made to us is one to which we cannot accede, because we feel satisfied that, if the Bill were passed for England, it would in a very short time be applied to Ireland. That would be the inevitable result; and when we proceed to resist the introduction of a Bill for Ireland we shall be charged with wasting the time of the House and resisting a proposal which is already the law in England, and to which there ought to be no objection so far as Ireland is concerned. I do not think the House has reason to be satisfied with the explanation given by the hon. and learned Attorney General of the somewhat peculiar circumstances in which this Bill comes before us. He has told us that the reason why this Bill was not issued before was, that there was no reasonable opportunity of discussing it at an earlier period of the Session. That is, of course, true; but it does not furnish the slightest reason why the Bill should not have been issued to Members, and why we should not have had some notice of a measure which proposes so radical and organic a change in the Criminal Law of the country. I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman has made that point clear, neither do I think he has given us a satisfactory explanation of the reason why—although, no doubt, he had the best motives—he so fixed the date of the second reading that it came on at a time when there was no opportunity of our putting down Notice of opposition. Now, I venture to say that if there has been, in the course of this Session, a matter to which the half-past 12 o'clock Rule ought to apply, it is a Bill to enable prisoners to be examined. There are many reasons why we should not proceed further with this discussion to-night, and one of them is that we have not had suitable opportunities of considering the Bill in its present form; and it is no answer to that argument to say that the Bill has been brought forward in previous Parliaments. There are many here who were not Members of the House in former Parliaments; and, that being so, it is a strong argument in favour of a reasonable period being given for the consideration of the Bill before it becomes law. I appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite to say whether they think one day is sufficient time to have elapsed since the Bill was in the hands of hon. Members? Hon. Gentlemen opposite have great powers of assertion; but I do not think any one of them will say that we ought to be asked to read the Bill a second time on so short a notice. There is no reason why that course should be taken, having regard to the fact that the Bill passed in "another place" so long as four months ago; nor can there be any pretence for saying that it was not open to the hon. and learned Attorney General to bring it into this House at an earlier period of the Session.


If this Bill is as important as the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite alleges it to be, I am surprised that during the last four months no attempt whatever has been made by the hon. and learned Attorney General and Her Majesty's Government to give prisoners an earlier opportunity of escaping unjust sentences by submitting to examination. We ask for a little more time to read a Bill which was only circulated this morning; and I say that it is monstrous that a Bill of this immense importance, which practically was only ready this morning, should be read a second time to-night. As far as we are concerned, we shall maintain our opposition to this Bill. We have a duty to do, and we shall perform that duty notwithstanding the attitude of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The Bill has been before the country for a considerable time, no doubt; but serious changes have been made in it, and I say that in many respects it is a different Bill altogether from that which was introduced in the House of Lords in previous Sessions. It is true that the differences are not of a remarkable character, but there are many of them.


I rise to say that if the second reading of the Bill is agreed to, we shall be ready to postpone the Committee stage for a week, which will give hon. Members ample time for considering the measure.


But we want the second reading postponed. We do not want to give any stage if we can possibly help it. It is most unreasonable that the second reading of this Bill should be snatched in the way proposed. If you think you have the great power which you have enforced against us on previous occasions enforce it now. Let us see whether you have got your 200.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 52; Noes 201: Majority 149.—(Div. List, No. 254.) [1.40 A.M.]

Original Question again proposed.

SIR HENRY JAMES (Bury, Lancashire)

I do not know whether it is any use discussing this matter further now if hon. Members are disinclined to enter into the merits of the question; but I hope the House will allow me to make a few observations in respect to the Bill with the view of showing the advantages which will accrue from the passing of it. When the Explosives Act was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Sir William Harcourt), a clause was inserted giving a prisoner the right to be examined. Within a very few months of the passing of the Act a man was charged with having been guilty of an offence under the Act. That man would have been convicted, and would have been now undergoing penal servitude, if he had not been able to tell his own tale. Again, in 1885, we passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and in opposition to the Irish Representatives we allowed persons charged under that Act to give evidence. I do not exaggerate when I say that many innocent persons have been acquitted in consequence of having been able to give evidence on their own behalf. My hon. and learned friend the Member for York (Mr. Lockwood) defended a prisoner who would have been convicted and sent to penal servitude for many years if he had not been able to go into the witness-box and tell his own tale. And now we are in this position. [An hon. MEMBER: That is all in England?] I am speaking of England; I am asking for the acquittal of innocent Englishmen, to whom alone this Bill is to apply, and we cannot allow innocent Englishmen to be convicted because Irish Members think that at some future time the operation of this Bill will be extended to Ireland. Under the Criminal Law Amendment Act prisoners charged with minor offences are able to tell their own tale, and undoubtedly innocent men in consequence have been acquitted. On the other hand, I believe that many innocent men have been convicted of the major offence because they have not been allowed to give evidence; and I beg of Irish Members not to run counter to the testimony of persons, be they Judges, counsel, or whoever they may be, who know that the innocent are frequently convicted solely because they have not the power of stating their own case. There could be no abuse of this system. It has been demonstrated that this is a great and necessary change which will be adopted, and must be adopted, because the public demand it. I do not know what course the Government intend to take; but I think this is a great measure of justice which is being refused only by those to whom there is no desire to apply it.

MR. CHANCE (Kilkenny, S.)

We fully expected to hear the eloquent appeal from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Bury (Sir Henry James). He belongs to what is called the legitimate Opposition, which signalizes itself in supporting all measures of Her Majesty's Government, be those measures conformable to their former views or not. We have been told that in every Statute creating new offences power has been given to the prisoner to tell his own tale. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman forget the Coercion Bill, which he has so ardently supported for the last few months?


There is no new offence created by that Bill.


The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been supporting that Bill so ardently that he has forgotten the admission made upon the Treasury Bench. He says that there are no new offences created by the Coercion Act; but the words of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the late Attorney General for Ireland (Mr. Holmes), who is now a Judge, are on record in Hansard, and in the pages of The Times newspaper. They have been quoted by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone), and no denial of those words has come from the learned Judge who is alleged to have used them. Well, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Bury makes an eloquent appeal that innocent Englishmen should not be convicted; he seems to forgot that an equally eloquent appeal was necessary in regard to innocent Irishmen. He is so anxious that justice should be done that he found it perfectly consistent with justice to vote in favour of sending us to packed juries of Northern Orangemen and to special Courts of two Resident Magistrates.


The hon. Gentleman is not speaking to the Question before the House.


Very well; I will confine myself to the question of the Bill itself. We have been told there is a strong opinion in favour of the Bill. There is, undoubtedly, such a feeling on the part of English Members; but it is not our fault if we cannot give effect to that opinion. We have been told that a pledge has been given that Ireland will not be included in the Bill. Now, I draw the attention of the House to the very careful and technical phraseology in which that pledge was given by the hon. and learned Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster). The hon. and learned Gentleman said. "he would not insist that Ireland should be included in the Bill." Such are the words of his pledge. There is nothing to prevent the other House resolving that Ireland shall be included—there is nothing to prevent the Unionist majority insisting upon the inclusion of Ireland. There is no reason why we should accept a pledge of this character. I have no doubt the Attorney General for England would do everything he could to carry out every pledge he gave; but it must be remembered that he cannot bind the other Members of the Government. We have had very good reason to distrust Members of the Government. I recollect a pledge was given by a certain prominent Member of the Government last year in respect to a measure, and that there was an attempt to break that pledge. It was only by a majority of two that we were enabled to force the right hon. Gentleman of whom I am speaking to keep his pledge. What is the provision of this Bill? I assume it is now in Order to discuss the Bill. We must deal with this Bill as one which must be applied to Ireland, either by the action of "another place," or by the action of the Unionist majority, of which we hear so much. What is it? We are told in the most bland terms by the hon. and learned Attorney General, that it is a Bill to enable prisoners to give evidence. I deny that most emphatically. It is a Bill to enable Judges and juries to convict prisoners when they refuse to come forward and subject themselves to cross-examination by lawyers who are thought best worthy to be retained by the Crown, and by Judges who have been promoted for their political services. Under Section 5 of this Bill, not only can witnesses be examined as to the precise crime a prisoner has committed, but can be examined as to the whole past life of the prisoner. We are asked why we should not have equality of law, and why we should not have this Bill enforced by Irish Judges and juries. We are asked to assume that Irish Judges are moat capable officials; but that has not always been the case with English Judges. When a certain Bill of a permanent character becomes law, there is no reason that we should not assume that the character of Irish Judges may not change. In addition to that, we object to allow our prisoners to make their case before juries in Ireland, who are ready to convict them under any circumstances. Sir, it is impossible for us to allow this Bill to pass. We are told that in certain other Statutes powers of this character have been inserted. I think it would be a very reasonable thing if it was necessary to insert such powers in respect to certain offences to do so; and, following that example, I do not see why the Government should not in this Bill specify the offences as to which prisoners could be examined. They make a change which will apply to political offences, to the Law of Conspiracy, for instance, and then we are asked to allow this Bill to pass in order that in the near future it may be applied to Ireland. This Bill should be called Coercion Bill No. 2. We would meet it then, and understand it. This Bill brought in, in the manner in which it was, lying for four months in the pocket of the hon. and learned Attorney General, and then hurriedly introduced on a Saturday morning when there is not even a reasonable prospect of passing it, will receive the most strenuous opposition we can possibly give to it.

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

I do not rise to prolong this discussion, but to join in the appeal made to hon. Members from Ireland not to continue their opposition. Whatever remarks may be made as to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Bury (Sir Henry James), they do not apply to me. I have been willing to give the Irish Home Rule, and I ask that in return they should give us a little Home Rule for England. If the Bill were to apply to Ireland, I could see there would be many objections to it; but as an express pledge has been given that the Bill shall be confined to England and Scotland, and as the Bill is intended merely to complete the change or reform in the Law of Evidence, which has been carried on for 50 years past, I join very strongly and earnestly in the appeal to the Irish Members that they will allow this Bill to proceed.

MR. BRYN ROBERTS (Carnarvonshire, Eifion)

If the Bill would only have the effect of securing the acquittal of innocent persons, or securing the conviction of guilty persons, it would have my most hearty support; but I am afraid, in a great number of cases, it will not tend to secure either one or the other, but will tend to increase, to a frightful extent, the crime of perjury. I believe there is considerable misapprehension as to the reason why the principle of law was originally established. It is generally thought it was established out of some sort of concession for a guilty person. It has been hold that a guilty person ought to be compelled to give evidence. If you could secure that a guilty man would be compelled to give evidence convicting himself I would earnestly support the Bill; but that you can never secure. You can secure, possibly, that a man shall be sworn; but you cannot secure that he will give evidence convicting himself. In 99 cases out of every 100 a guilty man will swear he is innocent, and that is the great mischief of this Bill. The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) and the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Picton) showed great anxiety that prisoners should not be compelled to give evidence. The hon. Member for Leicester went further, and said that a prisoner should be informed that it was not compulsory that he should give evidence. But the nature of things will oblige him to give evidence, because if a man charged with a crime does not go into the witness-box, or present himself to be sworn in order to deny the crime, his action will be taken as an admission of guilt. I call the attention of the House to a case which took place a short time ago. It is well known that in all divorce cases the co-respondent may give evidence, and we know that in a celebrated case the co-respondent did not evidence, because it was considered it was not necessary, the legal case against him having failed. There was such an outcry that the co-respondent moved the Queen's Proctor to get the case re-heard in order that he might go into the box. When he was in the box giving his evidence on the second occasion, he was asked why he did not give evidence when the case was last heard, and he said— That the torture to which he had been subjected by newspapers which had assumed his guilt, because he had not denied the charges, forced him to the action he had taken. Now, that will apply with ten-fold force against every person who is charged with disgraceful crime. Most of these statute-made offences are not offences which bear with them any great moral condemnation. [Sir RICHARD WEBSTER: Assaults upon children.] That, of course, does not come within my argument. In all cases which partake of a civil nature, or in all cases where a person may reasonably be expected to tell the truth, even at the risk of his own conviction, it is desirable to allow accused persons to give evidence; but in all cases of serious crime it will be found that guilty men will swear they are innocent. The whole principle of law has been to prevent a constant repetition of perjury. I should prefer that there should be some opportunity given to a prisoner of making a statement, and I believe that that is the practice which has been adopted by the Lord Chief Justice. I believe the Lord Chief Justice allows counsel to state that his instructions are so and so, and thus to give the prisoner's account of the occurrence. I think something of the kind would be far preferable. It would secure all that is desired for the protection of the guiltless, and would not secure the multiplication of crimes of perjury.

MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)

I am far from wishing to obstruct this measure, and I hope the hon. and learned Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster) will not accuse me, as he has accused others on this side of the House, of being desirous of obstructing the Bill. I think the speech we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for the Eifion Division of Carnarvonshire (Mr. Bryn Roberts) shows there is by no means unanimous feeling about this measure which we have been given to understand exists, and I advance that as a plea for greater delay. I have not gone very deeply into the matter, and, therefore, I do not wish to discourse upon the merits of the Bill; but I am bound to say that in the course of what professional experience I have had I have heard a great deal said against the proposal contained in this measure. My experience, at any rate, is that while most people would be in favour, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, of allowing the prisoner to make a statement, or of allowing his counsel to make a statement on his behalf, there is a very great diversity of opinion, not only in the Profession, but also among laymen in the country, as to the propriety of allow- ing prisoners to be put into the box to be subjected to a cross-examination, which certain bullies in cross-examination know so well how to apply to the discomfiture of innocent men. I appeal to the Government to allow us a little more delay. I have not seen the Bill. It was not amongst my Parliamentary Papers this morning, and I knew nothing, until I came down this evening, about the measure being on for discussion. It is perfectly impossible for any hon. Member to give any attention to the principle or the details of this measure in the course of a day. It is perfectly well known that a great many Members go out of town on the Saturday and only return on the Monday afternoon in order to take their places in the House. That being so, I think there is an additional reason why we should be granted a little further time. I do not impute to the hon. and learned Attorney General anything of the nature of a trick. I have always found him straightforward, and above anything of the kind; but I do observe that there is a difference between the practice which has been insisted upon in other cases, and that which has been adopted in this case. I could recall instances in which we have been refused a second reading even of very insignificant measures at so short a notice as this. I could recall instances in which we have been actually debarred from bringing forward measures which may be of importance to us—although, perhaps, not of Imperial importance—simply because sufficient time has not elapsed between the printing of the Bill and the second reading. In a case of this importance it does appear we ought to be as jealous of the convenience of hon. Members as we ought to be in small matters; and, as I have said before, while I am very far from desiring in any sense to obstruct the measure, I do think it is only fair to allow us to have another night—say until Thursday night—in order to make ourselves more acquainted with the principle of this Bill. The fact which has been relied upon by hon. Gentlemen opposite—namely, that this Bill has been before the House of Commons on former occasions—does not apply to us. We were not Members of the House of Commons—at least most of us—when this Bill was last considered. I am not aware that the Bill was before the last House of Commons—certainly, I never saw it. We never had an opportunity of discussing it; and I maintain that what happened in former years cannot be said in any way to be a valid reason why we should not have sufficient time—I do not say more than sufficient time—to consider the bearing of this great and novel principle which it is sought to introduce into our criminal procedure. A variety of suggestions have been made this evening which I do not think unreasonable. It has been suggested that the scope of this measure should be confined to certain offences. That is a consideration which I think may well weigh with the Government. Having regard to the hour at which we have arrived, and having regard to the very strong reasons which have been urged by Gentlemen from Ireland in favour of their contention that this Bill should not pass, I think it is only fair and reasonable that we should now adjourn this discussion, and be allowed to get away for some little though much-needed rest. I, therefore, Sir, shall, without the slightest wish to obstruct the measure, move the adjournment of the debate. And I hope, considering the difference of opinion which exists amongst hon. Members upon this subject, the Government will not resist my Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Conybeare.)


Of course, I shall not oppose the Motion for the adjournment of the debate. I deeply regret these proceedings should have taken place to-night with, regard to this measure. I feel I am justified in saying that the opposition to this measure has not proceeded from any bonâ fide reason. I have never in this House brought a charge of obstruction against anybody, except when I felt the proceedings were such as called for some criticism or comment of the kind. Every English Member, and, I believe, every other Member, who has studied the subject at all, knows what the feeling of the country with regard to this matter is. I have received numerous appeals upon this subject, and I do trust the constituencies will note from what quarter the opposition to this measure comes. Of course, it would only be wasting the time and strength, not only of the officials of the House, but of hon. Members, to keep up this discussion longer. I hope that, at any rate, we have demonstrated that there is a strong necessity for this Bill, and that no one below the Gangway who has spoken has been able to speak against the merits of the Bill, as far as England, or Scotland, or Wales are concerned. I consent to the adjournment of the debate; but I hope the people of the country will take notice of the quarter of the House from which the obstruction to this measure comes.

Question put, and agreed to.

Debate adjourned till Thursday.