HC Deb 04 August 1909 vol 8 cc1847-9

asked for leave to introduce a Bill to amend the law relative to the right of accused persons to give and call evidence on their own behalf.

The Bill which I am introducing relating to the right of accused persons to give and call evidence on their own behalf, I propose to confine to one clause, which I will very briefly explain. I desire to make it the law that no one should be bound over or fined or imprisoned or suffer any punitive measure whatever on the part of the Executive until he has had at least an opportunity to give and call evidence in his own defence. That principle of jurisprudence is so elementary that no one can dispute it, and no one will ever dispute it under any system of law. Unfortunately in the United Kingdom it does happen in one portion—namely, in Ireland—that an accused person can suffer at least one of the penalties so mentioned without having the right to give or call evidence in his own defence. I may say it is usually imagined that it depends upon the Statute of Edward III., which, if my memory serves me aright was passed in the thirty-fourth year of that monarch. There is not a word in the Statute to that effect. This vicious procedure has been read into the Statute by the Law Officers in the course of the coercion, as I would call it, by the alien Government of the Irish people. And I would further say that it would not occur to me to take up the time of the House, or my own time, for that matter, in a matter of such elementary justice were it not that most English people do not know that such a state of things exists. Like other men who have been employed as journalists, I have followed politics pretty closely for some years, and I did not know that that rule of procedure existed in Ireland. And what is more remarkable still, the Chief Law Officer of the Crown (Sir William Robson) confessed yesterday that he did not know that such cases existed. I hope that this little speech will inform him that there are such cases. They used to be habitual, and even under the present Administration in Ireland they exist, and we had a case the other day. And what is more important still, that rule could be applied to the whole of the United Kingdom under certain circumstances. I want to make it impossible for any procedure of that kind to continue to be applied. The single clause which I propose is to be confined to British subjects only. If I did not do that summary action against aliens under the Aliens Acts might be questioned. I also propose to confine it to the United Kingdom only, because, as we know, the circumstances of the subject races outside that Kingdom are of immense complexity and immense difficulty. This Bill will therefore apply only to British subjects within the United Kingdom. Before I sit down I wish to add this word. No protest, no action by a private Member is of any value under the present Parliamentary rules. It has no effect. But it is in the power of the Government to make this Bill law. There is no opposition. I do not think there is anyone in this House who would speak against so elementary a principle of common justice. It is in the power of the Government to make this law, and I would appeal to them to make it law—it is in the strictest sense non-contentious—if possible, before we go to the country. I for my part, with the feeling I have for the Irish people, would not meet those of the electorate who are of the Irish race, or any man who calls himself a Liberal, or any man with a sense of what justice should be, if I had to tell them that it was in the power of the Liberal Government to pass this Measure, and that they had refused to exercise that power.

Leave given. Bill presented accordingly, and read the first time. (To be read a second time upon Monday, 9th August.)