HL Deb 07 March 1867 vol 185 cc1432-43

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, their Lordships would probably remember that in October last a trade outrage was committed in Sheffield, whereby it was attempted to blow up a house and its inmates, and although large rewards had been offered for the apprehension of the perpetrators, they had not been discovered. Mr. Roebuck and Mr. Hadfield, the representatives of the borough, in consequence of that outrage, waited upon the Home Secretary, and having pointed out to him that within the last twenty years there had been some 200 outrages committed, represented that special powers of inquiry would be needed to discover the instigators of these outrages. A deputation, also headed by Mr. Roebuck, waited upon Mr. Walpole to disclaim, on the part of the Sheffield operatives, all connection with these outrages, and to urge that special powers of inquiry should be granted. He could not do better than read the remarks made by Mr. Roebuck on that occasion. Mr. Roebuck, addressing Mr. Walpole, said— They believe that a full inquiry will prove that trades unions have been and are of great benefit to the working classes, and through them to the country at large; that they are wholly innocent of any such foul proceeding's as are laid to their charge; that their conduct has been wise and just to their employers as well as themselves; and that the more searching is the inquiry the more patent and obvious will appear the wisdom of those who have directed the proceedings of these unions, and the immense advantage to trade and the country at large from their existence. Such being their firm conviction, they earnestly pray you to accede to their request, and that you will move the House of Commons to pass a law creating a Commission with ample powers to make all requisite inquiries into this most momentous subject, and that you will support such Motion with all the powers of this Government. Having complied with the requests addressed to him, Mr. Walpole thought the opportunity a very favourable one for inquiring' into the whole subject of trades unions, what good points there might be in their constitution and what bad ones, what defects existed in the law regarding such associations, and how those defects might best be remedied. The result was the appointment of a Royal Commission, and this Bill had been introduced to confer on the Commission the special powers necessary for effectually conducting that portion of their inquiries relating to the outrages at Sheffield. The preamble of the Bill recited the terms of the Commission, the scope of which was very wide. It was— To inquire into and report on the Organization and Rules of Trades Unions and other Associations, whether of Workmen or Employers, and to inquire into and report on the Effect produced by such Trades Unions and Associations on the Workmen and Employers respectively, and on the Relations between Workmen and Employers, and on the Trade and Industry of the Country, with Power to investigate any recent Acts of Intimidation, Outrage, or Wrong alleged to have been promoted, encouraged, or connived at by such Trades Unions or other Associations, and also to suggest any Improvements to be made in the Law with respect to the Matters aforesaid, or with respect to the Relations between Workmen and their Employers for the mutual Benefit of both Parties. A great outrage had recently been committed at Sheffield, which it was very desirable should be fully investigated. The 2nd clause of the Bill limited the inquiry of the Commission into any acts of intimidation, outrage, or wrong alleged to have been promoted, encouraged, or connived at by trades unions or other associations to the town of Sheffield and its neighbourhood; and to the last ten years, unless the Secretary of State should otherwise determine. The 4th clause gave power to the Commissioners to delegate all or any part of such an inquiry to one or more special examiners. But the most important clause was the fifth, which proposed to indemnify the witnesses against any proceeding for the evidence which they gave in the matter in question. The clause as originally drawn was objected to in the other House of Parliament, on the ground that without such indemnity the truth could not be arrived at, as it was alleged that the actual perpetrator was not really the most guilty person—that these outrages were planned by other persons behind the scenes; and therefore the Secretary of State agreed to the alteration of the clause to its present form. In conclusion, he could only say that he hoped that out of evil would come good, and that the result of the labours of this Commission would be that both employers and workmen would see that their true interests are not adverse but identical; that they would always remember that as they are fellow citizens of one country, and subjects of one sovereign, so are they members of one body politic, and always bear in mind this great truth, that whatever is injurious, or causes suffering to one member of a body, must, of necessity, cause suffering to all the others.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a,"—(The Earl of Belmore.)


said, he did not rise to oppose the second reading of the Bill, which, nevertheless, he thought demanded the utmost consideration, inasmuch as it involved principles of the deepest importance and interest. This Bill related to two distinct matters—the one, an inquiry into the trades unions, with the view of ascertaining whether their general policy was hurtful or advantageous to the country at large. But the second object had little or no connection with that question—it was to facilitate an inquiry into the outrages which had taken place within the last ten years at Sheffield. No one could object to the issue of a Royal Commission to inquire into the first matter; but he much doubted the policy of issuing a Commission, even under the sanction of Parliament, to inquire into outrages of that sort, which ought, in his opinion, to be met by the strong arm of the law in the ordinary way. If such a measure were to be adopted, it ought to have safeguards beyond those which were proposed by the Bill, and not to be encumbered with propositions the most startling, he did not, in the first place, like the clause which empowered the Commissioners to commit persons guilty of contempt. A person guilty of contempt in the Superior Courts was liable to be imprisoned for an indefinite period of time, and it was most undesirable that any two persons should have a power to commit against which there could be no appeal. To this clause he had a strong objection. But the 5th clause was in his mind still more objectionable, inasmuch as it empowered the Commissioners, or such one or more of them as they may appoint to conduct an inquiry and to examine witnesses, to exercise the highest prerogative of the Crown—namely, that of pardoning for the committal of serious offences. That appeared to him to be trenching upon the ordinary policy of the law. But the clause even went beyond that, inasmuch as it authorized those two Commissioners who were appointed to carry out this inquiry to delegate to a third person the power of discharging those duties, armed with the same functions as they themselves possessed. He felt it his duty to call attention to these objectionable provisions, and he trusted before the Bill went into Committee some means would be taken to remedy what he considered to be a great blot in the measure.


said, there could be no doubt but that the object of the Bill was of the greatest importance, whether the remedy proposed for the evil in question was right or wrong. It was of the utmost importance that a thorough inquiry should be made into an outrage which had shocked the whole kingdom, and by which an industrious man with his wife and seven children narrowly escaped being killed whilst in their beds. The main object of the Bill was to ascertain who were the original planners of this outrage, who were the men who it was supposed had employed others to commit a crime which they had the wickedness to plan, but lacked the courage themselves to execute. The Government had done everything in their power to bring the guilty parties to justice; but all their efforts had proved ineffectual. Every man in the kingdom, whether he were a master or a member of a trades union, was he was happy to say anxious for any measure by which the Government would be enabled to get at the bottom of these outrages. The noble Earl (the Earl of Belmore) was correct when he said that it was believed that the instigators of this crime were men belonging to a higher class than the wretched creatures who had been the actual perpetrators of the outrage, who had been made use of as tools to wreak the vengeance of those who had influence over them upon the unfortunate man who had so narrowly escaped being killed. Under such circumstances, it would be most desirable to get to the bottom of the matter, so that the real offenders might be discovered and punished. The late Government had done all in their power by offering rewards and a pardon for the discovery of the instigators and the perpetrators of the crime, but their efforts had been without result. Did their Lordships propose to rest content with this want of success, and to let this crime remain unpunished now that this Bill had passed the House of Commons? Let their Lordships suppose the possibility of these outrages being instigated by persons of higher station than those who really committed them, and that the perpetrators were paid for what they did, then they could hardly doubt that if the perpetrators knew they were personally safe, and that they could also obtain a large pecuniary reward, they would volunteer to reveal all that it was desired to know. He quite agreed that the course proposed was an anomalous one; but it was only adopted in order to trace a crime when the ordinary law had failed to enable them to do so. This Bill rested precisely upon the same ground as did the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus in Ireland—an anomalous course was pursued in order to protect all alike from a common danger. The bulk of Irishmen submitted now to all the consequences involved in the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, because they knew that common danger rendered that suspension necessary; and these outrages, in like manner, justified exceptional measures. The case was exceptional, and liberty was not injured, but preserved, by submitting to an exceptional course. They had already heard that the head of the Commission was Sir William Erie, and he must say that in all England they could not find a man upon whom greater reliance could be placed, and there could be no danger of the Commission under his guidance being led to do any unworthy act. It might be true that they wanted to get a man to tell that which would, under ordinary circumstances, bring him to the gallows, by granting him an indemnity, and that they would let off a criminal who ought to suffer the highest penalty of the law; but their object was neither to pardon nor punish that one man; it was to avoid future outrages, to save the lives of those who were exposed to them, and to put an end to the system which led to them. No one would oppose more than himself such a measure for ordinary cases; but there were powerful reasons to justify exceptional legislation in this mat- ter. As to some of the points which had been referred to, perhaps the Bill might require amendment, but that matter could be considered in Committee.


said, that living near Sheffield, and being chairman of quarter sessions there, he was constantly employed in trying cases of stealing wheel-bands, and outrages of a similar nature. Being, therefore, specially familiar with them, he desired to make a few observations. He gathered from the observations of the noble and learned Lord (Lord Cranworth), that he did not see any connection between trades unions and these outrages; but he (Lord Wharncliffe) thought that the combination of trades unions and trade outrages in the scope of the Commission's inquiry was fully justified on the ground that these outrages were committed only where the unions exercised great authority, as they did in Sheffield, and from what he know of Sheffield he was perfectly convinced that these outrages were connected with the trades unions. In saying this, he did not assert that trades unions were bad, or that they were responsible for these outrages; but they occurred only where the unions exercised great influence. The noble and learned Lord seemed to think that there were means under the ordinary law of obtaining the required information; but one of the strongest arguments in favour of exceptional legislation was the fact that the offering a large reward had totally failed to secure the slightest information, and a Royal Commission seemed to be the only machinery by which the truth could be arrived at. When the recent outrage was committed he (Lord Wharncliffe) had a conference with the leading men in Sheffield as to the course it was most desirable to pursue; they were strongly in favour of a Commission, and he accompanied a deputation to Mr. Walpole, to whom they announced that the case was one requiring the adoption of special means to arrive at the truth. He must, therefore, congratulate the Government upon having brought in this Bill, though he thought that some of the clauses might be beneficially amended in Committee. For instance, it was provided, as he understood, that the inquiry should be limited to the five years previous to this year, Now, with regard to that clause, he had received strong representations from persons of high authority in the town of Sheffield, who stated that such a limitation would render the inquiry of very little use. An outrage of the kind referred to was committed nearly ten years ago at Sheffield, and a man was tried at York on a charge of having been concerned in it. Now, that case could not be investigated if the period were limited to five years, and he therefore hoped Her Majesty's Government would extend it to ten years. Then, again, in his opinion, the Commissioners who were sent to Sheffield ought to be numerous and influential, for if the best men were not sent, he was sure the investigation would not be operative or satisfactory. By the 5th clause he noticed it was made compulsory that any witness giving evidence shall receive an indemnity. He was of opinion, however, that the granting of that indemnity should be optional and not compulsory.


interposed and said, he believed the clause in this Bill was the same as that in respect to the somewhat analagous case of Commissions to inquire into bribery at elections. The provision was that if, in the opinion of the Commissioners, any person had made a full and complete disclosure of all matters within his knowledge he was to receive a certificate indemnifying him against the consequences. Of course, if the Commissioners did not think the disclosure a full and complete one, the certificate would be withheld. The inquiry was limited to ten years and not to five as the noble Lord supposed.


expressed himself satisfied with the explanation of the noble Earl, after which it would be unnecessary to make any further remarks on the subject. He had, as he resided in the neighbourhood and bad a great deal to do with the public and judicial business of Sheffield, thought it his duty to offer these observations to the House.


desired to bring-before their Lordships' attention one point. The trades unions thought that if the indemnity were given in the way proposed, any man, capable of committing this outrage, would also be capable of coming forward and giving false evidence about it, and that the character of the testimony given would therefore be worthless. He also hoped that it would not be assumed, as the noble Lord who bad just sat down seemed to assume, that trades unions were in any way connected with these outrages. At the conference now being hold by trades union delegates they most strongly pro- tested against this assumption, and they said that if that assumption were proceeded upon it would have an influence upon the effect of the Commission. It was quite clear that such was the effect upon his noble Friend's mind; for he took this Bill to be an expression of that opinion, and to be framed for the purpose of connecting these outrages with trades unions. If this outrage were a perfectly independent act, and the trades unions had nothing to do with it any more than any of their Lordships had, surely it was unfair to appoint a Commission nominally and apparently to ascertain the connection between these associations and the outrages in question, whilst the effect of the inquiry in such a manner must seriously prejudice them in the opinion of the public. It would be for their Lordships to consider in Committee whether they should give an indemnity to persons who might come forward to give evidence against these organizations solely with a view of damaging them. He thought it might be well to consider whether, upon this point, they would be in danger of prejudicing the whole of the inquiry. They wished to approach this question without imputing to trades unions any connection with these outrages; but if they retained the clause in its present shape they would in some degree appear to implicate them.


felt that the discussion that had taken place very much confirmed him in his opinion that a great mistake had been committed in blending in this Commission two things which, as the noble and learned Lord (Lord Cranworth) said, were perfectly different objects, though that view was somewhat controverted by the noble Baron opposite (Lord Wharncliffe). For his part he agreed entirely with his noble Friend who had just sat down, that the construction given by the noble Baron mixed up the two questions together even more invidiously than before; for the noble Baron considered that the outrages which took place at Sheffield and in other parts of the country were so intimately blended with the trades unions that it would be impossible to separate the two subjects.


Not in any other part of the country; he only referred to Sheffield.


thought that the noble Lord would remember that he said that it was only in parts of the country where trades unions existed that these out- rages occurred; but, of course, he must be content with the noble Lord's contradiction. In his opinion, this was a most unfortunate position which they had to deal with. After all, there was good cause for inquiring into the circumstances of trades unions, who had a practical grievance of which to complain, and certainly he was not influenced by any personal prejudice in their favour, because they had cost him a great deal of money in the course of his life. They, however, had a claim for inquiry into that state of the law, which prevented them having any redress against any of their own officers, who embezzled their funds. He thought that it would be unfair to connect in the inquiry the trades unions with the outrages. He thought much evidence was likely to be obtained by the Commissioners which would be of much use in enlightening both the masters and the men in respect of their dealings among themselves. But the outrages committed in Sheffield were a completely different subject; and he confessed he did not look forward to such important evidence in that branch of the inquiry. The noble Lord (Lord Wharncliffe) had told them that in one outrage case a professional gentleman had allowed himself to be committed to prison rather than give evidence in a Court of Law. Now, he should like to know how the Commissioners were expected to succeed when the ordinary Courts of Law had signally failed. And it was to be remembered that, even if they do not succeed, an indemnity was to be given to all witnesses. Considering the very creditable feeling that had been exhibited in the matter by the operatives of Sheffield, he regretted that two subjects so very dissimilar should have been confounded together in the Commission. He admitted in that the subject was a difficult one; but he hoped the Government would give it some further consideration with the view of meeting the difficulties to which he had referred.


, in reference to the objections urged against the mixing up of the two inquiries, begged to remind their Lordships that the question before them was not whether a Commission should issue. The Commission had already issued, and the question was, whether Parliament should give the Commissioners certain powers to enable them to discharge the duty intrusted to them under the Commission. The noble Earl (Earl Granville) had objected to the mixing of the two inquiries, observing that it was unjust to the trades unions to have their general organization and the Sheffield outrages inquired into by the same Commission. But was the noble Earl aware that the trades unions themselves had particularly solicited that there might be inquiry into the Sheffield outrages in order that they might he afforded an opportunity of showing they had had no connection with those outrages? The subjects would appear, perhaps, at first sight to be not connected with each other; but, after such a request from the trades unions, there could be no offence in combining them. With his noble and learned Friend (Lord Cranworth), he admitted it would be desirable to leave such offences as the Sheffield outrages to the ordinary course of law; but if, as appeared to be the case, there was no chance of getting at the facts by that means, would it not be well to elicit them by means of an inquiry by Commissioners? As to the objection that the Commissioners ought not to have the power of committing for contempt, he would ask his noble and learned Friend how were they to deal with witnesses refusing to answer questions if that power were not given to them? There would, perhaps, he some difficulty with regard to the clause which enabled the Commissioners to delegate their powers to other persons. With respect to the indemnity, that was usual in the case of Parliamentary inquiries; and in a case like this they could not hope to get at the truth unless they protected witnesses against any prosecution for offences in which they might admit they had been concerned. In reply to the objection that this was a sort of invitation to wicked persons to come forward and give evidence against trades unions, he must observe that it would be impossible to protect themselves in every way against wicked persons; but there was a clause in the Bill making witnesses, who told falsehoods to the Commissioners, liable to the penalties for perjury. He had only to add that the Government would be ready to give their best consideration to any suggestions which might be made in Committee.


observed, that though the trades unions had asked for an inquiry into the Sheffield outrages, they had not asked that it should be made a part of the general inquiry into their own organization. As to witnesses being indemnified in Parliamentary inquiries, it could scarcely be said that bribery, grave offence as it was, equalled in enormity murder or attempt to murder. He doubted whether any precedent could be adduced for giving an indemnity to persons who came forward to accuse themselves of crimes of such a grave description. He earnestly trusted that Her Majesty's Government would re-consider their determination, and would see fit to restore the Bill to the shape in which it had been originally introduced into the House of Commons.


thought that strong reasons had been stated for combining the two inquiries. The trades unions had been induced to come forward and solicit investigation, because, throughout the country, their names were combined with these outrages. How was it possible for the unions to clear their character from suspicion except by showing, before the same tribunal which inquired into the outrages themselves, the true nature of the associations to whose door, rightly or wrongly, the crimes were laid?


said, nobody could entertain the slightest doubt of the necessity for inquiry, for it had been demanded both by employers and employed in the town of Sheffield, Great differences of opinion, however, might reasonably exist, as to the limits within which such an inquiry ought to be confined. And, as far as his personal feelings were concerned, he should gladly see the Commission relieved from that portion of their duties which consisted of giving an indemnity to persons who came forward to declare themselves the perpetrators of serious crimes. Such a course was unprecedented, and was further objectionable, because persons implicated in the most outrageous offences might, by their testimony, while securing for themselves entire immunity, implicate others, despite the legal maxim that the testimony of an approver should always receive corroboration. The Bill had only been laid upon the table yesterday, and for the important alteration made in "another place" he had been wholly unprepared. He hoped the Government would not unduly press forward the further stages of the measure.

Motion agreed to: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday next.


said, the noble Earl who had last spoken was himself named as a member of the Commission, and suggested that the Government, before proceeding with the measure in Committee, should take means to ascertain whether other members of the Commission shared the objections expressed by the noble Earl.


said, that he had only put forward his own individual opinion.


said, their Lordships would not be asked to go into Committee upon the Bill before that day week.

House adjourned at half past Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.