HC Deb 09 May 1887 vol 314 cc1421-32

Order for Second Reading read.

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

MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

I beg leave to move that the House do now adjourn. In making this Motion I do not wish to be uncourteous, or intend to be unfair, towards the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh), who is specially interested in this Bill. Let me say I am equally interested in the matter, and I do not think it is reasonable to enter upon a measure of such importance at such an hour (4.30 A.M.). Its importance has been acknowledged by the Party opposite below the Gangway, for though I was not in the House I remember that, a few years ago, they voted against a Bill not so comprehensive as this Bill—the Parliamentary Oaths Bill—for substituting an Affirmation for the usual Oath at that Table. The Bill is of great importance, and is so felt to be by the great body of my constituents. I beseech the House to defer the consideration of it to a more reasonable time, and let us now retire to our rest.

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

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

No one doubts the great interest of the hon. Member who has moved the adjournment of the House in the measure now before us; he has shown that interest by blocking the Bill. The hon. Member says he desires to be courteous towards me. I have no desire he should be courteous towards me, but I have a desire that he should be fair towards this measure. I quite agree that at this hour it would be an absurdity to discuss a measure, however insignificant. I do not, therefore, intend to oppose the Motion beyond testing—by the votes of hon. Members present, without any long debate on the adjournment —opinion on the Bill; and I will ask those who are voting for the adjournment to remember that they are really voting against the Bill. If a Division could have been taken some few hours earlier there would have been more votes on this side. I trust the hon. Member, with his professions of courtesy, will show it by not blocking the measure in the future; for I feel sure he would not have professed courtesy now if he had already handed in a block to prevent it coming on again. I will not, then, put the Bill down again for to-day, but will leave some time longer for its consideration.


I may remind the House that earlier in the Sitting my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. W. H. Smith) said he had no desire to use his influence to prevent the Bill being brought forward for second reading; and after the statement now made by the hon. Member for Northampton, I hope hon. Members will not think it necessary to go through the form of a Division, for this reason—that before any decision upon its principle be taken it should be fairly discussed. There is one aspect in which I am certainly anxious to see the Bill passed; it would certainly, whatever else it does—it would harmonize judicial procedure in this country in regard to juries, witnesses, and—


I rise to Order, Sir. I carefully refrained from going into the merits of this Bill myself, and I ask, is the hon. and learned Solicitor General in Order in going into the provisions of the Bill on a Motion for Adjournment?


The Motion before the House is the Motion for Adjournment.


I was aware of the Motion; but I did not think I was trespassing on the Rules in pointing out reasons for not pressing the Motion now. I hope the hon. Member for Mid Leicestershire will not persist. The hon. Member for Northampton has fairly earned the step for the Bill at this hour of the morning, and I think it might be taken, it being quite understood that the discussion will be taken on the next stage.

DR. CAMERON (Glasgow, College)

May I point out that the hon. Member, if he carried his Motion for Adjournment, would shut out all other Bills on the Orders? If he would confine his Motion to an adjournment of the debate he would not prejudice other Bills.

MR. STANLEY LEIGHTON (Shropshire, Oswestry)

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Leicestershire will go to a Division, that we may make a protest against the weakness of the Government in not either bringing in a Bill of this sort themselves or else opposing this Bill. If the Government think such a Bill should be brought forward, let them undertake it; if not, let them stand to their guns and oppose the change. Where is the Leader of the House? Where are the Cabinet? They have all fled precipitately in a body. They have left the conduct of the debate to their Solicitor General. Questions of morality are ill-handled by practising barristers. The late Prime Minister used to resign the Leadership whenever a vote on this question was taken, though he always remained in the House. But the First Lord of the Treasury evidently considers that in such a crisis absence of body is better than presence of mind.

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

Let me point out that if this Motion is carried now there will be a double wrong. I understand that the Question for second reading is put?


Yes; but it was followed by an amending Motion, that this House do now adjourn.


If the Motion is carried, the Bill becomes a dropped Order, and the hon. Member for Northampton could not move his Bill another night without a Motion to set it up again, which might be opposed by the hon. Member for Mid Leicestershire.

COMMANDER BETHELL (York, E. R., Holderness)

I must take exception to the statement that Members voting for the adjournment are voting against the Bill. I shall vote for the adjournment, but I should have voted for the Bill.

MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)

Yes; but by voting for the adjournment now the hon. and gallant Member votes for the destruction of the Bill, for this is not simply a Motion for the adjournment of the debate, the carrying of which would give him an opportunity of voting for the Bill on another occasion. If this Motion is carried, all chance of voting upon the Bill itself will be lost. In passing allusion to the remark of the hon. Member for the Oswestry Division of Shropshire (Mr. Stanley Leighton), in which he called on the Government, if they intended to see a Bill of this kind passed, to bring it in themselves, I beg to say that the worst chance for passing a Bill was to entrust it to a Government, the Loader of which is discredited.


The observation of the hon. Gentleman is a little misleading. I understood him to say that if this Motion were carried it would involve the destruction of the Bill.


For this Session.


I understand that the Bill might be set down to morrow, for the Thursday, at the same stage; therefore it would not mean the destruction of the Bill.


On the question of Order, may I ask what would be the effect if the Motion for the adjournment were carried, you, Sir, having put the Question for the second reading?


The effect of the Motion being carried would be that the Bill would be dropped from the Order Book. It could be revived on Notice, to-morrow, by an ordinary Motion.


On the question of Order, may I ask whether that Motion could be made the subject of a "block?"


It would be subject to the same condition as now.


It would be competent to oppose the Motion to set up the Bill?


Yes; the block might be interposed at any moment.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 104; Noes 195: Majority 91—(Div. List, No. 123.) [4.40 A.M.]

Original Question again proposed.


The Division which has taken place indicates a good deal of cross voting; but I hope before the Bill is read we shall take a Division on the Main Question, when I, for one, shall certainly vote against the second reading, for I think it would be unworthy of the House of Commons, and unworthy of the Party to which I belong, not to take the opportunity of assorting at least once their desire to keep in public Affirmations an appeal to the Supreme Being, in token of fidelity to our engagements.


I was at first under the impression that this Bill related only to Parliamentary Oaths; but I find that it relates to our whole system of law, and witnesses and anyone else may make an Affirmation, omitting the appeal to the Deity on the truth of their statements. This, I think, would be a great misfortune for our country and for the course of justice. It is a very important matter, indeed, too important for the House to pass lightly over, coming to a Division almost without debate, probably even passing the second reading, at the end of a long Sitting devoted to other Business, at 5 in the morning. I hope we have sufficient knowledge of our duty in this Christian country to press the importance of this upon hon. Members of the House. I have listened frequently and with great pain to quotations from Scripture used to point a joke or sarcasm, but I think there are deeper feelings that will make themselves felt, and should have, a definite way of expressing themselves. Certainly, to pass this Bill now without full debate would be a most imprudent thing for the Conservative Party to do. I shall oppose such a course, and would, if it were the best means of doing so, move an adjournment of the debate.

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

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

I feel that I should be in the highest degree unwise, on the Motion for Adjournment, to allow myself to be influenced by words which have no relation whatever to the measure before the House. I deeply regret this opposition to the second reading, and I specially regret it if any act of mine should have given a Party colour to the Division which has just been taken, because I quite feel that a large number of hon. Members on the other side of the House who have voted did so with the intention of supporting what they considered to be a reasonable change in the law apart from any Party conflict. I shall ask the House to divide on the Question of the adjournment of the debate. I quite feel it is in the power of hon. Members opposite to hinder further discussion, but it is due to hon. Members that I should take at least one Division on it.

MR. GEDGE (Stockport)

I really have a good deal to say on this subject, not on religious grounds, but on the practical grounds of obtaining the truth in Courts of Justice, of which I have had considerable experience. I shall be prepared to speak on this subject, even at this hour in the morning, if hon. Members will listen tome; but, seeing that the House has now been sitting over 12 hours, it is scarcely likely we can go into the subject as it deserves. Therefore, I must support the Motion for Adjournment, because I wish to insure a full discussion of this important Bill on its second reading.

MR. ILLINGWORTH (Bradford, W.)

I wish to make an appeal to hon. Members opposite. I think it is necessary in order to clear the Government supporters from the suspicion that the protracted debate on an earlier measure was carried on for the purpose of preventing this Bill being read a second time. If the Bill is read a second time, I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) will give an undertaking not to press it further until the House has had a fair opportunity of discussing it. I make this appeal to withdraw the Motion in the interests of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General, and I would point out that a very large number of hon. Members have stayed behind for this Bill, thus showing the deep interest they feel in it. I hope we shall make some progress with it.

MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)

Although I sit on this side of the House, I strongly support the Motion of the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh). I do trust hon. Members on this side of the House will not press this Motion to a Division. I like to be as fair and as square as I can; and it seems to me that this is simply an obstructive Motion. We have just had a Division, there has been an overwhelming majority, and even if I were opposed to the Bill, I should say the vote should be taken as settling the question. When we object to factious opposition, and to fictitious Amendments coming from the other side of the House, we certainly ought not to imitate those tactics. 1, therefore, urge most strongly that this further Motion for Adjournment should not be pressed, and that we should go to a Division on the Main Question.

COLONEL BLUNDELL (Lancashire, S.W., Ince)

The opposition to this Bill is no factious opposition; the question is whether the evidence of witnesses given on oath is more reliable than evidence not given on oath. I think that anyone who has seen witnesses being sworn before giving evidence, and has noticed how some witnesses have attempted to kiss the thumb and. so avoid kissing the Book, will have formed a strong opinion as to whether testimony on oath is necessary to insure eliciting the truth, but no stronger confirmation of the importance of evidence being given on oath than was furnished only the other day by the hon. Member who brought in this Bill.


Order, order! The Motion before the House is the adjournment of the debate. The hon. Member is not entitled to go into other matters.

MR. JOHNSTON (Belfast, S.)

I think a fair course now to be taken is for the Motion for the adjournment to be withdrawn. Let us take a Division on the second reading. I am entirely opposed to the Bill, and shall vote against it. I think we should have a fair and square debate upon it.

MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

I have no wish to prolong the debate; but I wish it to be understood that before the Bill goes to a second reading I shall certainly claim the privilege of an independent Tory Member of this House, and give my reasons for voting against it.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 87; Noes 191: Majority 104.—(Div. List, No. 124.) [5.20 A.M.]

Original Question again proposed.

MR. J. G. HUBBARD (London)

It is quite evident that a majority of the House desire the second reading. This professes to be a Bill to amend the law relating to oaths, and it should, therefore, give an increased value to oaths and affirmations either as promissory declarations or as evidence in Courts of Law; but would that be its effect? If we assent to the second reading now, it is with the distinct understanding that the Bill has careful consideration in its future stages. I do not deny that there may be certain cases in which an alteration of the law may tend to promote the interests of justice; but, at the same time, I say, although we may accept it now, it will not be allowed to proceed without prolonged and careful consideration, for its provisions are of a very sweeping character, and we may find it necessary to introduce large and important Amendments in Committee.

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

I will only say that I quite accept this statement in the spirit in which it is made, and it is in accord with what was said earlier by the Solicitor General— that the fullest discussion should be taken at another stage.

MR. GEDGE (Stockport)

I do not understand how we can assent to the second reading of a Bill without thereby admitting its principle, and I am not prepared to do that. I am sorry to take up time at this late hour, and that I have to do so without that preparation I should have liked to give to the subject. I am not going to argue the question on religious grounds, as that has been done already by others; and I may say at once that, so far as promissory oaths are concerned, I sot very little value by them. I know there is a strong feeling in favour of them in many parts of the House; but, at the same time, I must admit that those who take promissory oaths of allegiance to Her Majesty are no better subjects than those who do not, nor is there any difference in the result in the Army between privates who do and officers who do not take the oath. I doubt very much whether any promissory oath of allegiance ever prevented a man from becoming a traitor to his Sovereign or his country when so inclined. On the other hand, when we come to deal with oaths in a Court of Justice, experience shows that we cannot attach the same value to evidence whether sworn to or not, and to point the distinction I may refer to the action of the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) himself, who, when a short time ago he desired an inquiry to be made into transactions connected with the Corporation of London, was anxious to have witnesses examined upon oath. I do not at all believe that this was done merely in order that those who gave evidence should render themselves liable to the penalty attaching to perjury.


I said it was proposed solely for the purpose of being able to proceed with a prosecution for perjury.


I did not hear that, and should be sorry to impute to the hon. Member that for which I had no warrant. We do not believe that the sanctity given to the truth when a witness takes an oath springs entirely from the fear of punishment for perjury. There is a feeling that when a man calls upon God to witness the truth of his statement, he, if that statement is false, commits a greater sin than if he was merely telling a lie. I do not say that the feeling has very much weight with me, yet, having had experience for years in Courts of Justice, I am bound to acknowledge the difference there is between the affirmative statement and the giving of evidence on oath. Over and over again I have had to notice this difference. In the first instance, a solicitor takes a careful note of a statement for the instruction of counsel, and afterwards you take down the statement in a more precise way in the form in which it is to be presented in Court; and I have continually found with even educated people, religious people, that when reminded that the statement will be made on oath there comes a pause, and the witness, drawing a long breath, says—"Yes; I said that, but if I am to swear to it"— then he begins to think about it, and finally the statement becomes more accurate. I do not say this would be so with enlightened minds of hon. Members in this House; but I say it is the continual experience of those who have to take the evidence of ordinary people. You may say that a man may object to taking an oath against his conscientious scruples; but these are the people who would not think of telling a lie at which the unscrupulous man would not hesitate, in either case. Has anyone seen a Jew of low class give evidence? I do not for a moment say that Jews are less scrupulous than other people. Has it not been known for a Jew to lift his hat off when taking the oath in order to take it in such a manner that he may flatter himself that any want of truth in his statement will be less important, because the oath is not binding, in his opinion, unless he keeps his hat on in the proper fashion. Again, I recollect an important case in Chancery in which Sir John Karslake was engaged as my counsel; it was necessary to prove that a certain claimant was legitimate. That the father and mother were married there was no doubt, but there was a shrewd suspicion that the father was married before, and that his wife was living at the time of the second marriage. Affidavits were filed on either side, and the attempt was made to establish the inference that there had been a Scotch marriage between the husband and his first wife, and several Scotch witnesses had made affidavits to the effect that the first wife was living at the time of the second marriage. These witnesses had sworn to these affidavits in the English form—that is, they signed their names and kissed a Testament— they were brought up to London to be cross-examined, and took the oath in the Presbyterian fashion, holding up the right hand; each in turn, when cross-examined by Sir John Karslake, swore diametrically opposite to the facts in his affidavit. He swore he was a God fearing man, and when he was confronted with his name to the affidavit, he said— "That is my name; but I did not swear to that as I do now, and it is not equally binding on my conscience." And said Sir John Karslake—"You call yourself a God-fearing man?"—"Yes."— "Then you may leave the box." I might give other illustrations to show the effect upon some minds of going through the ceremony of taking an oath. In Criminal Courts we know that care is taken that a witness shall not kiss his thumb instead of the book. However superstitious this may be, we have to take account of these things and their effect upon our endeavours to elicit the truth. There is a vast difference in the minds of people—notalways among the most igno- rant classes—between lying and perjuring I themselves, quite apart from the punishment that attaches to the latter. However foolish that may be, however we may look forward to the time when it shall cease to be, I say, at the present time, we cannot leave it open to a witness to exercise his option whether he will swear or not, for if he intends to lie he will not swear, and will salve his conscience with the idea that a lie unsworn to does not matter. Therefore, I must vote against the second reading of the Bill.

MR. MARK STEWART (Kirkcudbright)

From a deep sense of personal duty, and feeling sure that my feeling is one that animates a large number in and outside the House, I must protest against proceeding with such a measure at 6 o'clock in the morning. It is absolutely ridiculous to attempt to do so. To attempt to discuss the bearings of the question now is sheer nonsense. It is due to the country that the matter should be fully discussed, and I, therefore, move the adjournment of the House.


I second that Motion.

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


I should not do wisely to attempt to prolong a series of Divisions. I admit that the offer of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General (Sir Edward Clarke) was an exceedingly fair one, and the Government have given evidence of their desire to carry it out by voting in each of the Divisions with me. [An hon. MEMBER: No; not all the Government.] Well, some Members of the Government did. I do not wish to imply more. A very largo majority has twice expressed a clear declaration in favour of the principle of the Bill. [Cries of "No, no!"] Each Division was specially challenged by myself on that principle. I will merely repeat that, and add nothing more, believing I should best consult the wishes of the House by agreeing to an adjournment, being content with a moral victory.


I would just like to say that what has been done this evening is not intended to indicate the action of the Government on the one side or the other. It was not a matter on which the Government intended to call upon their supporters to act. Some hours before the Bill came on the matter was discussed, and, having regard to the circumstances of the time, some of us thought it would be better to postpone the real discussion to a later stage.


If the hon. Member will withdraw this Motion, I offer no opposition to the adjournment of the debate.

MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

It is my intention to offer determined opposition to the Bill, and I shall renew the block which by accident failed last night. I merely ask, is it competent for me to put a block on the Paper before I leave the House renewing my opposition to the Bill?


signfied assent.


It will be competent, but not courteous.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question again proposed.

Debate arising;

Debate adjourned till Thursday.