HL Deb 03 February 1818 vol 37 cc123-8

Lord Sidmouth moved, that the Papers which, by order of the Prince Regent, he had yesterday laid on the table, should be referred to a secret committee, to be chosen by ballot.

The Marquis of Lansdowne

said, that when he considered what had been the nature of the early proceedings on the subject to which the papers proposed to be referred to a committee related, he thought it necessary to call the attention of the House to the course now proposed to be adopted by the noble secretary of state. As the papers were unaccompanied by a message from the House, he thought their lordships were entitled to some explanation from the noble viscount, of the reasons on which his conduct was founded. The papers laid on the table must have one of two objects: either it is meant to found on them some prospective measures, which however he hoped would not be the case; or else it is intended to make them serve to the House and to the country as a justification of the past. If either of these objects were in view, or both of them, it was equally important that their lordships should have the opportunity, not only of examining witnesses, but of investigating every circumstance connected with them, which might be necessary to elicit the truth. The mode of selecting the individuals to whom the papers were to be submitted, was therefore a question of great importance: for it was most essential, with a view to any measure that might be adopted, that the investigation should be full and complete. That was the only inquiry which could be satisfactory either to the House or the country. It was, therefore, an important question for their lordships, whether, in choosing a committee, it ought not to be one so constituted as to ensure a full investigation of all the parts of the subject submitted to their consideration, and thereby to lay a foundation for measures which could not fail to be satisfactory. For this reason he submitted to the noble viscount, whether he ought not to state to the House the reasons which had induced him to propose the course of, secret investigation which his motion implied.

Lord Sidmouth

referred to the proceedings in the appointment of the two former committees of secrecy, on which occasions no measure was previously suggested, but it was left to the committees to recommend whatever measures they thought necessary, from the nature of the information laid before them. The same course was intended to be pursued with regard to the present committee. With respect to the precedents, there were several of communications of this nature being made, without the intervention of messages from the Crown; one, for instance, in 1801. He had no hesitation, however, in stating, that the object with regard to the present measure was, to lay before the committee documents with respect to the state of the country since the report of the last committee of secrecy, and also repecting the mode in which the powers entrusted to the crown had been exercised. It would be for the committee, on the investigation of the evidence before them, to say whether any, and what measure was necessary. With regard to the powers given to the committee, it should be recollected, that the practice differed in that House from that of the House of Commons. It was not the practice of their lordships' House to impower any committee to send for persons, papers, and records. But the committee might suggest any evidence that they might consider necessary, and apply to the House upon the subject, when cither witnesses might be sworn at the bar to attend to give evidence before the committee, or the House might order papers to be produced for the information of the committee. He could not anticipate any objection to the appointment of a committee for the consideration of the papers communicated from the crown. It would be for the House, upon the report, to determine whether any and what course should be adopted in pursuance of that report.

The Earl of Carnarvon

said, that after the House had been told from the throne, that the country was in a state of perfect tranquillity, they could not be acting on the spur of any necessity, or feel the influence of alarm; there was, therefore, full time for deliberation. But if it was to be the province of the future committee to inquire how ministers had exercised the high discretionary powers that had been vested in them, the House must not delude itself or the country, by consenting to go into that inquiry upon such information as should be furnished by ministers themselves: the committee should have power to call for other evidence, and examine other facts. He would not then go into much allusion on the two reports of last session, but he intreated their lordships to compare those reports with the judicial proceedings that had followed upon them, and then to see whether they would still be so enamoured of secret committees, as to be satisfied, from similar documents to produce a similar report. He entreated them to consider, whether such a report, grounded on such evidence, would not be a solemn mockery, from which no benefit could result to the country. The noble lord had referred to the precedent of 1801. That precedent led to a bill of indemnity for all the acts of power exercised by ministers: but after all we had seen and heard, after all ministers had pledged themselves to prove, and the number of verdicts they had subsequently recovered; after it had been repeatedly stated that there was but too great reason to believe that the servants of government had themselves excited the disturbances that had occurred, before they passed such a bill they ought to be well satisfied, whether all the acts of insurrection proved (and there were none proved but at Derby), were not attributable to the very agents employed by ministers. If their lordships should be content, on a secret inquiry, completely to indemnify ministers for all that had passed, and by that means preclude all those who had been injured in fortune, health, and character, who had languished in dungeons, or groaned beneath the weight of fetters, from any hope of retrieving their losses, or establishing their character—if their lordships should be satisfied to give such an indemnity as should exclude these victims of power from all redress of their wrongs—if their lordships should act thus, they would not do their duty to themselves or to their country. He must enter his caveat against instituting an inquiry into the conduct of ministers, upon any mere showing of their own, and thus making them at once their own accusers, witnesses, and judges.

The Earl of Liverpool

contended, that the simple question for the consideration of the House was, whether they would appoint a committee to examine the information laid before them, and follow the invariable usage on such occasions? He was aware that, in some instances, proceedings of this nature had originated in a message from the crown, and at other times not. But in all cases where the crown had made a communication on the state of affairs, whether foreign or domestic, whenever that communication had been secret, it was usual to institute a secret committee to enter into the inquiry. The proceedings of that House were of a nature peculiar to itself, and the course pursued in them applied to all cases of proceedings on inquiries. Even where those proceedings were public, no power was delegated to committees of that House to call for persons, papers, or records, but they were compelled to come to the House, and through their chairman to name the persons and papers they required, and then move for their production. This was the rule and invariable practice of the House. Under these circumstances, he did not think the House could have any doubt as to the course it ought to pursue. That was not the time to discuss the merits of the two reports, or the measures that had arisen out of them, or the nature of the report that the present committee should make, or whether any or what measures should follow it. He should only say, that if the noble lord opposite thought him ready to admit, from the result of the trials that had taken place, that any facts in those reports had been contradicted, he was so far from making such admission, that he thought the result of the trials strongly confirmed all that had been laid before the committee. Not only had 50 true bills for treason been found by the grand jury, but 36 individuals had been convicted, or had admitted their guilt. He would not now discuss any farther the reports of last year, but those reports had been, in that House at least, the result of unanimous opinion on the part of the committee; and, in the other House, the committee was also unanimous on the report, though there was a difference of opinion as to the measures that ought to be pursued in consequence. Their lordships had now laid before them important information on the state of the country since the period of the last report up to the present time; and the question was, whether the House would refer that information to a committee in the ordinary course? It would be open to that committee to determine how it should act on that information; it would be open to the House, whether it should act on the representation of the committee; and it would then be for them to consider, whether any other measures ought to be pursued?

The Marquis of Lansdowne

said, he had not opposed referring the papers to a committee of secrecy, oh the contrary, he thought that was the most advisable course to be pursued. What he contended for was, that a large and extensive inquiry was necessary; and whether it was to be effected by creating a precedent, and giving the committee powers to send for persons, papers, and records, or whether they were to apply to the House to order the attendance of such witnesses or the production of such papers as they thought necessary, was immaterial. He was certain of this, that if the inquiry was to be confined to the papers furnished by ministers, the result would not, he should hope, be satisfactory to that House; he was certain it would not be satisfactory to the country.

The Earl of Carnarvon

observed, that he had not stated that the reports of the committee of secrecy had been falsified, but that they had not been borne out by the subsequent judicial proceedings. As to the bill of indictment found by the grand jury at Derby, they had found it upon ex parte evidence; so the secret committees of last session had made their report upon ex parte evidence; and upon ex parte evidence ministers might get what report they pleased, as by making their own case they of course could obtain whatever report they pleased, if no other evidence was allowed to be brought forward.

The motion was then agreed to.