HC Deb 15 July 1889 vol 338 cc410-6

Order for Consideration of Special Report of Select Committee read.

Special Report read.

* MR. BRADLATUGH (Northampton)

Perhaps, as the Member of the Committee out of whose examination of witnesses this case arose, the House will not consider that I am improperly intruding myself if I make a brief statement before the Government say what course they intend to pursue. The House will be aware that the Select Committee on Friendly Societies made a special Report that, in their opinion, Richard Martin had conspired with other persons to deceive the Committee with false evidence. And the House will know that the Committee is one dealing with Friendly Societies under Section 30 of the Act of 1875—that is, collecting Friendly Societies and Industrial Assurance Companies. The case that comes before the House now is in relation to one of the Industrial Assurance Companies, by which persons are assured for small amounts, collectors being employed to collect at the houses of poor people. I think the inquiries of the Committee have already shown not only the necessity for the appointment of that Committee—which is now in its second year of work—but that there probably may be need for some more close examination into the affairs of these Societies by a Royal Commission, and I hope the Government will follow up their good work on this question by getting such a Commission appointed. This special Report of the Committee arises immediately out of the answers given to myself in the examination of Richard Martin, when he admitted that a cash book which he had handed in as one of the cash books of the company had been written out under the direction of himself and three other persons, whose names he gave, by the present secretary to the company, the writing out of the book beginning at 11 o'clock on the night before the sitting of the Committee and ending some time in the night, and this book being, as the Committee are of, opinion, and as I am of opinion, concocted solely for the purpose of deceiving the Committee. It is because I trust the Government will do nothing to bring this man to the Bar of the House, but will take measures to bring him before a tribunal which I hope may be more fitted to deal with him, and with any others with whom he has conspired—if he has conspired with others, as I believe he has—that I desired to make this statement. It is clear that the House, in its judicial capacity, could deal with the case at once; but I do not think the House acts best in its judicial capacity on statements made to it, nor do I think it is worthy of the dignity of the House to deal at its Bar with petty criminals who would be best dealt with by a Police Magistrate. This is a case in which, on the admission of the man himself—and I will not go outside his sworn answers, all the evidence having been taken on oath—he and some others paid a small sum of money—£500—for the purpose of reviving an old Assurance Company, so as to avoid that which the Legislature has decided shall be done in all these cases—namely, a deposit made of £20,000 to show bona fides on the part of those who go to the poor for their money. The whole of the transactions of this society, from the time of taking it over until now, have been so irregular in their character that unless they had been intended to be fraudulent the irregularity is inexplicable. The premiums have never been paid into any bankers, and the banking accounts on July 1st, with something like 150,000 policies out, show £3 2s. 6d. to credit at one bank and £3 13s. 6d. overdrawn at another. The witness gave most extraordinary answers. It is just to him that I should say that the Chairman of the Committee has sent me a letter from Martin stating that his replies were given in a state of great mental confusion, but as his mental confusion extended over both sittings and only arose when he was confronted with inconvenient facts—for he was very distinct when he said he had paid a sum of money on his shares, and his confusion only arose when asked how he had paid it and when he had paid it, and it turned out that he had not paid it at all—I suggest that there can be no escape on the ground of mental confusion. The Yorkshire Provident Association, as it stands on the evidence reported to this House by the Committee, to be taken at its best is a society without any means whatever except £300, in two debentures—one at Burnley and the other at Leeds—has to face a vast liability to a large number of poor unfortunate people, who can never possibly get their money unless other unfortunate people can be induced to pay premiums. The thing is fraudulent from beginning to end. The mere fact that this man committed perjury at his examination will not, I hope, be treated as a breach of privilege. I trust the Government will think it right to appoint a Committee to examine into this special Report and the whole question connected with this Assurance Company, and if it is possible to do it—as I believe it is—will send the case to a Court having criminal jurisdiction, so that there may be a full investigation into the frauds which I allege it has been attempted to perpetrate on poor people during the past three years. It is because I hope the House will not treat this as a question of privilege that I have taken leave to make this statement to the House before the Government submit their proposal.


I need scarcely assure the House that this special Report has received the most careful consideration of Her Majesty's Government; but I do not think it would be fitting or desirable that I should follow the hon. Member for Northampton into the merits of the case, as I feel that no expression of opinion should be given with regard to them until there has been a thorough examination of the matter; though I have no doubt the hon. Member may have ample grounds for the opinion he has expressed, it would not be well for the House to pronounce upon the conduct of this man or this society until after a full investigation. The Government have considered the evidence very carefully, and I am bound to admit that there are circumstances connected with this man's evidence, both with reference to the answers he gave and, I should think, the manner in which he gave them, as well as the transactions in which he was concerned, which call for the fullest and strictest investigation. It must be plain to everyone that the House cannot deal with the case, not having seen the book in which the entries were made. The book has very properly been sealed up for the purpose of being kept intact until inquiry is made, and I gather that it is necessary that the matter should be sifted and investigated by further evidence. This House, fully assembled, is not fitted to deal with such evidence, and I, therefore, do not think it necessary—though I admit the gravity of the matter—to give further reasons for the Motion I mow submit. I venture to move— That a Select Committee Tie appointed to inquire into the affairs of the Yorkshire Provident Assurance Company, to consider the special Report of the Select Committee on Friendly Societies, and to report to the House what action should be taken thereon. I have ventured to put in the last words of the Motion because it has been on previous occasions found inconvenient that the House should not receive some sugges-from the Select Committee. The question as to what action should be taken will be left open, and probably those who make the investigations will be the best able to offer a suggestion as to the course which should be followed. My reason for inserting the opening words is that I am not quite sure whether without special power the Committee would have power to inquire into the special affairs of the Assurance Company. It might be said they only had power to inquire into the general organization and the rules of the society. I think it is better that power should be given to the Committee on the terms I have submitted. Ordered, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the affairs of the Yorkshire Provident Insurance Company, to consider the Special Report of the Select Committee on Friendly Societies, and to report to the House what action should be taken thereon."—(Mr. Attorney General.)

* SIR E. WEBSTER (Isle of Wight)

I think I am entitled now to move the names of the Committee.


Notice should be given.


As this is a matter of privilege, standing on the Paper as such, the hon. and learned Member is entitled to move the Committee without Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Solicitor General, Sir C. Russell, Mr. Forrest Fulton, Mr. F. W. Maclean, and Mr. Molloy be appointed the Committee."—(Mr. Attorney General.)


I do not make any objection to the proposal of the hon. and learned Gentleman as to the names he has given, but I think that in matters of this kind we ought not to lay down precedents that may be dangerous in the future. I do not see on the Notice Paper any intimation that this is a matter of privilege, and I rather understood that the hon. Member for Northampton disclaimed treating it as a question of privilege, desiring that it should be dealt with otherwise with a view to its being made a criminal charge. That alters the case very materially, and I certainly think the House should not embark on the initiatory stage of criminal proceedings without due notice. As to the names of the Committee, it is very material that we should reserve to the House generally its judgment, and particularly in cases of privilege. I hope the House will not imagine that I am saying this by way of captious objection to the names on the present proceeding. I only desire to impress upon the House the necessity of guarding precedents, for there might in future cases of breach of privilege be names suggested without notice, to which some might object and for which Members might like to substitute other names.


I believe it will be held by the authorities that when evidence of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Northampton has been given and a Committee has reported as the Friendly Societies Committee reported the question is treated as one of privilege. I admit that precedents must be carefully guarded, and if I had not understood that precedents were in favour of the course proposed, I would not have asked the Attorney General to make the proposal he has made. Even now if there is any desire that the nomination of the Committee should be postponed until to-morrow, there will be no hesitation on the part of the Government to accede to it. It is, however, always desirable in these matters, to proceed with convenient haste, and if the matter is dealt with at once, it shall be on the distinct understanding that this is not to be regarded as regulating future action.

MR. GLADSTONE (Edinburgh, Mid Lothian)

No one can complain of the spirit of this conversation. Perhaps you, Mr. Speaker, will say what the practice in these cases is.


Any case of perjury before the Committee of this House is an offence which constitutes breach of privilege upon which the House could immediately take action. The hon. Member for Northampton put the case before me the other day, and stated that he would move that the Report of the Committee be considered to-day. It would have been more in order, perhaps, if the matter had been put on the Paper in a different form, and I had intended that it should be, so as to draw special attention to it—that is, with a line separating it from the other Orders of the Day. As, however, the question is one of privilege, the names of the Committee can be proposed immediately, although I do not say the course may not be objected to, if the House thinks proper.


That, I think, is quite enough.

DR. CLARK (Caithness)

I would propose that the names of the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. W. F. Lawrence) and the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) be added to the Committee, as those Members have sat on the Friendly Societies Committee, and are familiar with the circumstances of the case.


It is for the House to say what other Members shall be on the Committee. The Government have no objection to the suggestion.


I must say I think it would be better—and in this I believe I am expressing the views of the Chairman of the Friendly Societies Committee—if this Committee were composed of Members who would bring fresh minds to bear on the question. It should not be dealt with by those who are prejudiced—as I myself certainly am.

The Select Committee was accordingly nominated of Mr. Solicitor General, Sir Charles Russell, Mr. Forest Fulton, Mr. Francis W. Maclean, and Mr. Molloy.

Ordered, That the Committee have power to call for persons, papers, and records.

Ordered, That three be the Quorum.