HC Deb 16 July 1888 vol 328 cc1495-501
THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)

, in moving for leave to introduce a— Bill to constitute a Special Commission to inquire into the Charges and Allegations made against certain Members of Parliament and other persons by the Defendants in the recent trial of an action entitled 'O'Donnell v. Walter and another' said, the Commissioners were to have power to examine witnesses on oath, to compel full disclosure of all facts and documents, and to grant certificates protecting from all further proceedings, other than proceedings for perjury, witnesses who may have criminated themselves by such disclosures. The parties to be represented by counsel if they think fit.


I am very much surprised, Sir, to see the right hon. Gentleman move this Bill in silence, especially after his reply to my Question to-day in reference to the same matter. The right hon. Gentleman then stated that the Resolution of which he had given Notice had been introduced in response to the offer he made "to the hon. Member and those associated with him, and," he continued— It is for him and them to say whether they will accept the proposal of the Government or not. We do not desire to debate that proposition, and I have put it therefore in this position in order that it may be either accepted or rejected by the hon. Member in the form in which it stands. If it is received and accepted the Bill will be immediately printed, but I may frankly say that I do not anticipate making any arrangements for a debate on the second reading of a Bill of this kind. It was an offer made by the Government to the hon. Gentleman and his Friends to be either accepted or rejected. I am surprised, Sir, that the right hon. Gentleman should have moved this Bill in silence after having informed the House in his reply to my Question that he would expect us to accept or reject the Bill before it was printed. It turns out from his action, or rather non-action, to-night, that, in addition to expecting us to accept or reject the Bill before it is printed, he expects us to accept or reject it before he has even explained it or told us anything about it. A more monstrous proposition was never made by a Minister occupying the position of the right hon. Gentleman. [Loud cheers.] The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. A. J. Balfour) might conceal or repress his ill-timed levity. Although he has heard nothing from his Chief, he has not heard the end of my story. Now, Sir, I say this is not a question for me. It is not a question for the right hon. Gentleman. If these letters are true and genuine, if they were ever dictated by me, if they were ever signed by me, I, who am termed an honourable Member of this House, am dishonourable and dishonoured. The hon. and learned Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster), in dealing with this matter in his speech, and in referring to one of these letters, of which a fac simile was published last year, said—"That without doubt, if it was untrue, it was the worst libel ever published upon a public man." If these libels are true, if these letters are authentic, the right hon. Gentleman, if he believes that they are genuine—and he has the hon. and learned Attorney General at his elbow, who ought to know, if he does not know, and ought to have taken steps to know, whether they are genuine or not—the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury, instead of talking about making a bargain with me, ought to have come down and said—"The Government are determined to have this investigation, whether the hon. Member, this alleged criminal, likes it or not—the Government will investigate this matter to its very source and very root." That would be the language to be expected of a Minister representing a great nation and a great country. The right hon. Gentleman, however, adopts very different language and tactics. He, as First Lord of the Treasury, the Constitutional Representative in this House of a great Party, of the Government, and of the nation, comes and says to me, this Bill Sykes—"It is for the hon. Member to say whether he will take this Bill or not." He asks me to accept the Bill before it is printed or even explained. He offers me this as a substitute for a jury. He asks me to accept this Bill, and he says I am to accept this tribunal without knowing the names of the Judges who are to be placed upon it, or whether the number is to be three, or five, or seven. Why, in the case of an ordinary jury we should, at any rate, have the chances of the ballot. In the case of the jury he proposes we have nothing except the vague terms of his Reference and a jury of Judges nominated by himself. Well, Sir, why should I trust the right hon. Gentleman, I, knowing that he and his Party and his Attorney General and his organs in the Press have made themselves accomplices in these foul, scandalous, and disgraceful libels? Yet I am, under these circumstances, to trust the right hon. Gentleman blindfold to do me that justice which he says he is so willing to do. I am not in a position of knowing what the Bill is going to be. I cannot criticize it. I cannot say to-night whether I shall accept it or reject it; but I say, judging from the terms of the Resolution, that it appears to me that the Government desire to put the cart before the horse, that they desire—following the example of their Attorney General in the recent trial—to keep in the background the question of the authenticity and genuineness of these forged letters, and to investigate every other question—what Tom did, and Dick did, and Pat did, and Harry did, all over the country—before they come to the investigation of the question of what I did. And then, Sir, this is no longer, even by the terms of the Reference, a question for me alone or for my Colleagues alone, because the terms of the Reference go to the doings of other people as well as to my doings. This has become a public question, and it is not one out of the investigation of which the right hon. Gentleman will be allowed to back. I shall hold the right hon. Gentleman to an investigation. I shall give him no chance of creeping out of it; but I shall claim my right, when this Bill reaches Committee, if I find that its details will not afford that fair investigation which I claim and demand. [Cries of "Oh!" and "Order!"] I shall claim my right—


Mr. Speaker, I rise to a point of Order—[Cries of "Order!" and "Sit down!"]


Order, order!


I have just finished, Sir. I shall claim my right, when this Bill reaches Committee, to influence the judgment of the House upon its details if I think it is necessary to do so; and I shall decline to make any bargain with the right hon. Gentleman beforehand that I will withdraw it from the judgment of this House as to its final shape and effect.


The hon. Gentleman accuses me of not having caused this question to come before a jury. I wish to remind the hon. Member that I have stated, over and over again, that the view of the Government has been, and still is, that the proper tribunal to try the accusations which he declares to be foul charges against himself and his Friends is a jury and a Court of Law in this country. It is because the hon. Member has deliberately declined to avail himself of that tribunal, which is open to him and every one of Her Majesty's subjects, and because he claimed to have a tribunal of this House, which we have always declared to be absolutely unfit to try a question of this kind—that, in order that the facts may be ascertained, Her Majesty's Government have proposed a Royal Commission, with full powers to investigate the whole of the circumstances of the case. I have put upon the Paper the fullest description I can of the measure which we propose to introduce. It was perfectly useless for me to attempt to enlarge upon the description I have given in the Notice of the measure. I am most anxious to avoid expressing any opinion or judgment of my own; and it appears to me that the Government would be wanting in their duty if they sought to introduce into the discussion of a measure of this kind anything which, in the slightest degree, tended to show that we had prejudged the question, which they have proposed to refer to as high a tribunal as they think, under the circumstances, they ought to appoint. I refrain from replying to any of the observations of the hon. Member personal to myself. I can only say that the hon. Member will have the opportunity on the second reading of the Bill of what we believe will be an adequate discussion; and if he thinks fit to discuss the provisions of the Bill in Committee, it will undoubtedly be in his power to do so, and when the names of the Judges whom the Government think should be appointed to the Commission will be given.


I am glad to hear these words of the right hon. Gentleman, for certainly the language we heard from him earlier in the evening conveyed to everyone the impression that this was a Bill that was not to be debated. ["No, no!"] I understand the right hon. Gentleman said, "the Bill we do not intend to have debated." ["No, no!"] It is very well for hon. Gentlemen to say "No, no!" but I do not hear the right hon. Gentleman say "No, no!" and he is the important person upon the truth of the statement. Well, it is quite impossible on a Bill of this character—a Bill extremely unusual in its nature—a Bill which is for the discussion of charges and allegations made against certain Members of this House and other persons—that is against any and everybody, should not be debated. Allegations made how? The allegations were made in newspapers, conveyed through a speech—I do not call it of the Attorney General, but of Sir Richard Webster. Now, that is the character of the inquiry which is to be made. Of course, that is a very important subject, and I am glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that, at all events now, the subject is one which ought to be fully debated in this House.

MR. DILLWYN (Swansea, Town)

I do not rise to prolong the discussion, but to protest against one word that fell from the right hon. Gentleman. He spoke of the proposed tribunal as a proper one; but I demur to that description. I cannot think this will be a proper tribunal. The House has already sufficient powers in their own hands to deal with a question of this kind. The plan they were now entering upon of always making new laws to meet new difficulties was a very unsound one. There was ample power in the House to investigate these charges; or the Government might either have arraigned his hon. Friend the Member for Cork for what he had done—which the hon. and learned Attorney General had declared he could prove—or, if they were not satisfied with the statement of their Attorney General, they might have remonstrated with him for taking the course of making such an unauthorized statement. He protested against the course now proposed, as throwing a doubt upon the power of the House to deal with this matter and bring it to a fair issue. He did not think that what was proposed was a proper way to bring it to a fair issue, because be did not think it would secure an impartial tribunal, which Her Majesty's Government will have the power of nominating in any way they liked.


I do not rise, Sir, to address myself at this stage to any matter of controversy; but, as my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell) and his Colleagues are anxious to facilitate a thoroughly full and effective inquiry into the subject of the Motion before the House, I only rise for the purpose of asking the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury whether, with a view to that, he will circulate the Bill to-morrow; and whether he will set down the Bill for second reading at the earliest possible day, and what facilities for debating it he will afford on that occasion? I rise to ask him, in the interests of the time of the House and of the convenience of debate, whether he will not consider the propriety of naming the persons who will constitute the Commission when the Motion for second reading is made, instead of reserving it until the later stage of Committee?


It would not be possible to circulate the Bill to-morrow, but I have every hope that it will be circulated the first thing on Wednesday, and I propose to take the second reading on Monday next. I will ascertain whether the suggestion of the hon. Member as to the names can be carried out?


What will be the opportunity of debate on Monday?


I stated this afternoon that there would be some discussion, but I trusted that it would not be a prolonged one.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

At the commencement of the evening the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury said he would not consent to give any information as to the discussions which had taken place between himself and other Members of the Government. That we can perfectly understand; but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman another question. The right hon. Gentleman came down here last Thursday, and stated that he was willing to give a Royal Commission, while before that he had declared that it was a great principle of the Government that if a man was libelled he ought to go before a jury. But, as usual, the Government ran away from their principle. Now, he tells us that if a Member of this House is attacked in his honour, he ought not to appeal to this House and ask for a Select Committee, but that be ought to go before a jury, and that if he does not go before a jury, then, with his consent, a Royal Commission ought to be appointed. Well, what I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman is this—Before he came down to this House did he or did he not have an interview with any representative of The Times newspaper? And perhaps he will be good enough to tell us whether any sort of arrangement was made with the editor of The Times newspaper; and, whether The Times newspaper was consulted in reference to this matter, and, if so, if he considers it fair when there are two parties to a dispute like this, that before coming down and making a declaration to the House he should consult one of the parties, and have no consultation with the other?

Motion agreed to.

Bill to constitute a Special Commission to inquire into the Charges and Allegations made against certain Members of Parliament, and other persons, by the Defendants in the recent trial of an action entitled "O'Donnell v. Walter and another," ordered to be brought in by Mr. William Henry Smith, Mr. Secretary Matthews, and Mr. Solicitor General.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 336.]