HC Deb 04 July 1905 vol 148 cc1103-6

Order for the Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a third time.

MR. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

said he did not know whether it was the intention of the Government to press this Bill through this evening, but if so he should like to ask the Attorney General a question. He understood that there was no compulsion in regard to the proceedings under this Bill. He believed that there was a general desire, both inside and outside of this House, that the whole proceedings of this Commission should be open to the Press. Already there had been a great mount of secrecy in regard to the questions to be dealt with, and he hoped the Attorney-General would be able to give them some reassuring statement in regard to this point. He was aware that it was open to them last night to move Amendment securing this object, but as they were anxious to facilitate the business they refrained from moving any such Amendment. As things stood at present the whole matter was in the hands of the Commission. That might be a wise course or it might not, but he thought that there ought to be some instruction given by this House in the matter. The public were deeply interested in this matter, and he hoped the Attorney-General would tell them what the desire of the Government was in regard to this point.


said he also wished to press very strongly what his hon. friend the Member for Kirkcaldy had urged, namely, that the proceedings this Commission should be made public. He thought there ought to be a Parliamentary mandate to this effect. He remembered when the War Commission was being established he asked the then Secretary for War, the paragon Minister, whether the proceedings would be public or not, and he gave the House a definite assurance that they would. As a matter of fact, they were not public, and instead they were furnished with misleading, wretched, belated, jejune, scanty, scrappy notes. Now they wanted to have this Committee open to the public and no hugger-mugger about it. He must have from the First Lord of the Treasury, who was accustomed to make promises and not so accustomed to keeping them, literally [Cries of "Oh"], some assurance there would be a Parliamentary mandate to this Commission that the proceedings would be made public, and that they would not be hugger-muggered and concealed from the public.

MR. WHITLEY (Halifax)

said he had not looked into this Bill so closely upon the Committee stage, which was taken without discussion, but statements had been made to the effect that there was a clause in the Bill which provided that a witness who gave evidence could not be proceeded against even if he was proved to be one of the guilty parties. Take, for example, the contractors. The indemnity absolutely prevented any proceedings being taken against them. He should like that point cleared up either by the right hon. Gentleman or the Attorney-General before they passed the Third Reading. Another point was whether there was any provision in this Bill to provide for the taking of evidence under the same powers in South Africa as in this country, and he should like to know what were the views of the Government in this respect. It seemed to him that there was a loophole for the contractors to escape if it was found that they were to blame.


said he acknowledged frankly that as far as this particular measure was concerned, hon. Gentlemen opposite had done their best to facilitate its passage through the House. As regarded, the particular point put to him as to whether the Commission should sit in public or in private, the Government proposed to follow the unbroken practice of allowing the Commission to settle for themselves whether their proceedings from day today should be open to the public, or whether they should reserve a full disclosure until the fitting moment in their judgment, arrived. His learned friend, in consultation with the learned Gentleman opposite, came to the conclusion that in the interest of a true and full disclosure of all that had taken place, it was desirable to put in this Bill, as in many previous Bills, a provision which would enable any witness who could not otherwise give evidence without subjecting himself to pains and penalties to disclose the whole truth without fear or favour. There was no provision in the Bill for making inquiry under oath in South Africa. It was not desirable that the Bill should create a new offence in portions of the Empire not under the immediate jurisdiction of Parliament. As regarded the Transvaal they might secure such a provision, but they could not impose upon Cape Colony or Natal such an obligation. They had, however, some reason to believe that Cape Colony would favour the passage of a Bill of this kind, and if it were found necessary they would follow the example of this House. It would be eminently desirable that when this Parliament had passed the Bill, a similar measure should pass in South Africa, and nothing the Government could do to secure such a result would be omitted by the Government. That prom se be gave on behalf of the Government, and he had every reason to think that no difficulty would arise with the independent Legislatures of our South African Colonies, but they would be as anxious as the Government to further the interest of truth by furthering investigation into the darkest corners of these complicated proceedings.

MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

said that in the case of the Parnell Commission and the Belfast Riots Commission the proceedings were held in public. He thought it was a serious matter to give Commissioners such powers as were contained in this Bill, and leave a matter like this to their own sweet will. They had great powers in regard to witnesses, and he thought those powers ought to be exercised in public.


said he did not know of any statutory requirement that publicity should be insisted upon.

MR. LEIF JONES (Westmoreland, Appleby)

said the Commission would inquire into the question as to what had become of certain sums of money. He wished to know whether in case it was shown that any of the witnesses had wrongfully got possession of any of this money if there were any means of compelling them to disgorge it. Would the indemnity leave them in possession of their ill-gotten gains?


said that the Bill protected, or might protect, witnesses only if the Commission so decided. It was in the power of the Commissioners to protect them against criminal proceedings, but not against civil proceedings, and it was in civil proceedings that persons would be compelled to disgorge any money if illegally acquired.