HC Deb 26 July 1898 vol 62 cc1467-72

On the Motion— That this Bill be read a third time.

MR. DUNCOMBE (Cumberland, Egremont)

On the question that this Bill be read a third time, I may say at once that I have no intention of keeping the House for any length of time in recapitulating the arguments used on previous occasions in this House. I merely wish to give three or four reasons, which I venture to think are cogent and sufficient reasons, why the House should not proceed any further with this Bill at the present time. In the first place, Sir, this Bill introduces a very revolutionary change in the criminal procedure, a change so great that I do not think it ought to be entered upon unless it is the unanimous opinion of those best qualified to judge that such a change should be made. Such an opinion on this Bill we have not got. In fact, expert opinion, so far as we have heard it expressed in this House, is, I may say, hopelessly divided. Then, Sir, we have been told, and I have no doubt told perfectly honestly, that the intention of the Bill is not to secure more convictions than there are at the present time. Well, Sir, I venture to think, if this Bill is passed into law, the only result will be that it will secure more convictions than at the present time, and for this reason: at the present time a prisoner or his wife is not competent to go into the witness-box. Therefore, if they do not give evidence, it does not prejudice the mind of the jury. But it is quite clear there may be cases, especially amongst ignorant men, where it would be inadvisable, even if they were innocent, for them to go into the witness-box, and although I have no doubt that no judge or counsel would comment adversely upon the fact, it seems to me it would be impossible to disabuse the prejudice arising in the minds of the jury from the fact that the prisoner might have gone into the witness-box, and declined to do so. I think that places prisoners in the future in a position to which they have not hitherto been subjected. On the third point my right honourable Friend the Solicitor General for Scotland did me the honour the other evening to suggest that I was not serious in an Amendment I moved, that persons giving evidence under this Bill should not be indictable to prosecution for perjury. I fancy my right honourable Friend forgot at that moment that he was not indulging in an occupation which, I have no doubt, is very congenial to him—that of cross-examining a defenceless witness. But, Sir, what happened on Saturday? Two days after the Solicitor General for Scotland presumed that I was not serious in the Amendment which I moved a man who had given evidence on his own behalf, under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and was acquitted, was immediately re-arrested, and committed for trial for perjury, and brought up on indictment. In a few sentences I will tell the House what Mr. Justice Wills, whom I hare every reason to believe is a judge of some experience, said in his charge to the grand jury. He said the charge against this man of perjury was founded upon misapprehension of a perfectly well-known principle in our law, a principle that was at the root of the administration of justice—that when a question had once been decided in a court of jus- tice it could never be raised again against the same person in any other proceedings. What was attempted in this case was to try a man for perjury in having sworn that he was not guilty of the accusation, and denying the circumstances of the story told against him. It was, said the judge, a perfectly novel experiment, and one in which it was his duty to put his foot down as firmly as he could. One of my objections to this Bill is that you are driving another nail into the coffin of our laws against perjury. We have laws against perjury—whether desirable or not, I am not prepared nor disposed to argue—but if we intend to stick to those laws it is not our part to bring those laws against perjury into contempt. I repeat now what I said on a previous occasion, that you will never find any jury in this kingdom who are prepared to find a man guilty of perjury who has committed perjury when endeavouring to save himself from punishment, or any jury which will find a wife guilty of perjury who is endeavouring to save her husband. I do not intend to labour the point, but that is one of my objections. There is one more, and that is the exclusion of Ireland. Either this is a good Bill for the whole kingdom or it is not, and I for one, sitting on this side of the House, will never consent to the doctrine laid down by the First Lord of the Treasury, that, because the Government have not time to pass this Bill in the face of the opposition of the Irish Members, therefore the votes of the Irish Members are to be used to cram this Bill down the throat of England.


My honourable Friend is wrong. I have not used that argument.


I was under the impression that my right honourable Friend said, when the question was raised on a previous occasion, that it would be impossible to pass this Bill if Ireland were included in it. I may have misunderstood him.


No, no! That was right.


Well, if that was right, I say it is a vicious and dangerous principle. If it is to be the principle of the Government that one portion of the kingdom is to be coerced by the support of another portion of the United Kingdom, then I say that is a thoroughly bad principle. These are my objections against this Bill, and I move that the Bill be read a third time this day six months.


Does any honourable Member rise to second the Amendment?

MR. LLOYD MORGAN (Carmarthen, W.)

I rise to second the proposal of my honourable Friend, and I ask leave to associate myself with what he has said in the briefest possible manner, because I feel that at the stage at which we have now arrived I should serve no good end by recapitulating the arguments which have been used against the reform which this Bill seeks to accomplish. I have all along felt myself that the Bill was a mistake, that it was not required, and that when the Bill was put into operation we should find that, so far from improving matters, we should really create chaos, instead of removing some appearance of confusion which exists at present. I say at once that I am personally very sorry that the Bill has passed. My opposition to the Bill has not arisen from the fact that it has been introduced by the present Government, because my attitude in reference to this Bill has always been the same. When it was introduced by a Liberal Government I opposed it, because I thought that the Bill was a bad Bill, and I have adopted the same attitude with regard to the Bill from whatever Party or side it emanated. I am sorry myself that some Amendments have not been accepted. I still think that it is a mistake to allow prisoners, under any circumstances, to be cross-examined as to previous convictions and in reference to character. I am perfectly satisfied in my opinion—I hope I am wrong—that it will lead to the conviction of men who are innocent, and it will lead to the conviction of men who ought not to be convicted. I do not imagine that the evil results which I anticipate will be seen for some years to come. I daresay it may take a generation, or perhaps two generations, before the evil results which I anticipate will become apparent. For the present, judges and lawyers who will be called upon to administer our criminal law are men who are sufficiently imbued with its great traditions, and are not likely to depart from them when this reform has been brought about, but I look forward with grave apprehension to the time when other lawyers, who have not been brought up in those traditions, will introduce into our criminal procedure a system which many of us who live to-day would be very sorry to see brought about. I have opposed the Bill. I do not wish the Bill, now that it is likely to become law, any harm. I hope, Sir, that all these anticipations of mine, which are rather gloomy, will prove by experience to have been without any foundation. Though, as I say, I oppose the Bill, I shall watch its progress with very great interest, and if I find that I am mistaken in the views I have entertained, and entertained quite honestly, I am perfectly certain no one will rejoice more than I shall myself.


I only desire to say in reference to the Motion that really the arguments against the Bill have been adequately discussed, both on the Second Reading and the subsequent stages, and I venture to hope, having regard to the majorities which supported this Bill on previous stages of discussion, that the House will not spend its time by dividing this evening.

MR. S. EVANS (Glamorgan, Mid)

It is rather pathetic to see, at this late stage of the Bill, that the honourable Member opposite is alone upon that side of the House, and my honourable Friend is alone on this side, in their opposition and gloomy forecasts. There were other doughty champions against the Bill on former stages. One was the Member for Dublin University, who was rash enough to engage in a duel with the First Lord of the Treasury, and has never been seen in the House since. Another honourable Gentleman, the Member for Lymington, I think, was got at by the Attorney General, and he has not been seen since in the House. With regard to another doughty opponent of the Bill, the Member for a division of Manchester, he, since the Report stage, has also not been seen. We have come now to the last stage of the Bill. I took part in improving it, as far as I could, and I join with my honourable and learned Friend in expressing the hope that it will be found that the gloomy apprehensions which have been felt on various sides by honourable Gentlemen will not be fulfilled, and that we shall find that the administration of the criminal law in this country will be a credit in the future, as it has been in the past.

The Bill was read a third time.