HL Deb 04 July 1879 vol 247 cc1407-14

(CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES) rose to move— That a Select Committee he appointed to inquire into the proceedings taken upon an order of reference made by the Court of Common Pleas on the 26th of June, 1869, in an action entitled Edmunds v. Greenwood,' and in relation to the award of the arbitrators under the said order of reference. The noble Earl, in giving a summary of the proceedings into which he proposed the Committee should inquire, said, that Mr. Edmunds was, from 1848 to 1865, Reading Clerk in the House of Lords, and discharged the duties of that office in an unexceptionable manner. Mr. Edmunds at the same time held two other offices—that of Clerk of the Patents and that of Clerk to the Commissioners of Patents. In the year 1864 great confusion prevailed in the Patent Office, and in consequence of great complaints against the conduct of Mr. Edmunds an inquiry was directed. On the 12th July, 1864, the gentlemen in-trusted with the inquiry made a preliminary Report; and in consequence of that Report, on the application of the Lord Chancellor, Mr. Edmunds surrendered his combined offices of Clerk of the Patents and Clerk of the Commissioners of Patents. A further Report was made in January, 1865, in which it was stated that Mr. Edmunds was indebted to the public in the sum of £9,100. Mr. Edmunds was induced to resign his place as Reading Clerk, the Lord Chancellor undertaking " to throw no obstacle in the way of his pension." This pension was granted; but was withdrawn on the 9th May following, in consequence of the Report of a Committee that had been appointed to inquire into the circumstances connected with Mr. Edmunds' resignation of his various offices. On this occasion Mr. Edmunds asked to be allowed counsel, which the Committee granted only on condition that he should neither examine witnesses or address the Committee. On the 8th February, 1866, a Bill was introduced into Parliament to consolidate the Exchequer and Audit Departments, and to provide for the examination of all public accounts by that Department when required by the Treasury. In introducing this Bill special reference was made to the case of Mr. Edmunds, through which, as was stated, it had become known to Parliament that many branches of the public receipt and expenditure were not subject to audit. In May, 1866, after the Bill had passed the Commons, an information was filed in the Court of Chancery by the Attorney General v. Edmunds. This proceeding could only have been taken in order to prevent the accounts of the Patent Office being referred by the Treasury to the Audit Office according to the provisions of the statute. Those who had prepared the Report which had led to the resignation of his offices, and the finding of the Lords' Committee, not liking to have their accounts so tested—not wily was that not done, but though Mr. Edmunds had repeatedly applied for the statutory audit of his accounts, he had never yet been able to obtain that audit. The Treasury case against Mr. Edmunds was not decided in Court until the 3rd June, 1868. On that occasion Vice Chancellor Giffard delivered himself very strongly in Mr. Edmunds' favour, going so far as to say, at the opening of his judgment— In one respect I am happy to say that the arguments and the evidence adduced on behalf of Mr. Edmunds have been successful, I think, in clearing his character from all imputation. They have satisfied me that his liability, whatever it may be, is a liability from mistake—mistake under circumstances of very considerable difficulty, brought about in some respect because he could not obtain the audits which ho asked for, I think, in 1834 and subsequently in 1852 or 1853, and brought about also by what is a most unfortunate Act of Parliament, which was passed with reference to a given state of circumstances, when, in point of fact, those circumstances changed very materially afterwards. He said that " it was with regret that he found himself compelled by the terms of the Act of Parliament " to declare that Mr. Edmunds had no right to make any deduction from the fee of £6 8s. 4d. received in the office for or in respect of the parchments used — in regard to which proceeding the Committee of the House of Lords acquitted him; and he stated that Mr. Edmunds had no right to take discount on stamps, if such stamps had been purchased with public money, which they had not been; and ho directed that an account be taken of all fees and monies received by the Clerk of the Patents during his tenure of office; that in taking such accounts all just allowances were to be made, and that in case of any settled account the same was not to be disturbed. In February, 1869, Mr. Edmunds brought a private action for libel against Mr. Greenwood, who had been one of the two gentlemen appointed by the Treasury to inquire into the case; but after consultation between the parties before trial an arbitration was agreed upon, which should include all matters in question between Mr. Edmunds and the Crown, including the questions pending in the Chancery suit. Mr. Justice Bovill drew up the order of reference, and appointed Mr. Denman, now Mr. Justice Denman, and Mr. Pollock, now Baron Pollock, to be arbitrators. He directed that Mr. Edmunds' accounts ordered by Vice Chancellor Giffard to be "taken by the chief clerk" of his court should instead be " taken and adjusted before the arbitrators," and that all matters in question in the said suit not already concluded by the said decree be brought before the arbitrators; that in the case of any money being found due by Mr. Edmunds, in taking the accounts, the arbitrators should take into consideration— Whether there are, having regard to all the circumstances, any moral grounds for recommending the Government to relieve Mr. Edmunds from payment of all or any part of the same. On 27th November, 1869, the arbitrators issued their award. Against this award Mr. Edmunds protested—on the grounds that it was not satisfactory, because as he had never succeeded in obtaining an audit of his accounts of the Patent Office, the arbitrators had not the proper material whereon to decide in respect of the charges brought against him, or the allowances Mr. Edmunds claimed. But though, no doubt, the final award found. Mr. Edmunds indebted to the Crown, there was nothing in that award which reversed Vice Chancellor Giffard's decision as to Mr. Edmunds' moral character. Many of the more important papers connected with the inquiry and the award had been destroyed. No certified copy of the award was to be found in the Treasury or in any Law Court. No doubt the Treasury took up the award; but they admitted that they had not preserved it. In 1872 the Treasury produced to an Order of the House of Commons a Copy of a Paper purporting to be a Minute of Treasury relating to this matter, which had been published in The Times, and was of so libellous a character that Mr. Edmunds brought an action against Mr. Gladstone, whose initials were appended to it. He was then thrown into prison, and kept there until his solicitor, who he had ordered to put off the suit, had been induced to withdraw it. The contents of the award were known to Parliament only from unauthorized sources, and it was only within the last few days that he (the Earl of Redesdale) had discovered that a short-hand writer was employed by the Treasury in the case, and that he had furnished a copy of his notes to the Treasury; and it was desirable that these should be examined. He could not but consider it very hard and unprecedented that a public servant should be denied the audit of his accounts in the manner provided by statute; and especially since, upon an application made by Mr. Edmunds to the Court of Queen's Bench to order such audit, the Chief Justice, though unable to make such order as beyond the power of the Court, expressed a strong opinion that he was entitled to it. The granting an audit could do no harm, and was the only effectual means by which he could re - establish his character, impaired by the result of an inquiry conducted in an irregular manner, and founded on insufficient materials—and especially since Vice Chancellor Giffard, deciding on the case, had declared that no moral blame rested upon him, and other Judges had declared that they considered it ought to be granted. In respect of his performance of' his duties in that House there never had been a more efficient officer than Mr. Edmunds; and since he had been deprived of his pension for his services in their Lordships' House in consequence of proceedings taken against him in respect of alleged misconduct in another office, in respect of which the Judge had declared that no moral imputation rested on his character, he had again brought the subject before their Lordships. It was for these reasons that he hoped the House of Lords would grant a Committee to inquire into the circumstances connected with the award, in order that explanations might be given relating to certain findings contained therein, and that the House might be able to determine whether, under the circumstances of the case, it was or was not desirable to restore to Mr. Edmunds his pension for his services in that House.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the proceedings taken upon an order of reference made by the Court of Common Pleas on the 26th June 1869 in an action entitled "Edmunds v. Greenwood," and in relation to the award of the arbitrators under the said order of reference.—(The Earl of Redesdale.)

said, this was the fifth or sixth time the case of Mr. Edmunds had been before their Lordships' House; but it was bound to admit that, on the present occasion, his noble Friend (the Earl of Redesdale) had introduced two novelties. His noble Friend, the pattern and model of a Member of their Lordships' House, with the Parliamentary Papers delivered to their Lordships that morning, had circulated a document in which they had had the pleasure and advantage of reading the whole of the arguments which his noble Friend brought forward that evening in support of his Motion. If that practice was to be followed, there would be no necessity for their Lordships to assemble until much later than 5 o'clock, because they would come down to the House with all the arguments for and against every proposition which was to be brought before them. Again, the Session before last a noble Earl (the Earl of Rosebery) presented a Petition from Mr. Edmunds, which, when it came to be examined, was found to be filled with statements of the most scandalous and scurrilous description, affecting the character of public men living and dead. On that being pointed out to the noble Earl, he expressed his regret that the Petition had been presented to the House through him, and it was removed from the Table. Well, lately his noble Friend (the Earl of Redesdale), whom he regarded as the depositary of the Rules of the House, moved for a Paper sent in to the Treasury by Mr. Edmunds. That Motion was agreed to; and the result was the production as a Parliamentary Paper of a document of 87 pages, printed at the public expense, and not a page—hardly a sentence—hardly a line of which was not scandalous, scurrilous, and libellous. It was so in respect of Members of their Lordships' House and of persons who were now in their grave; and, as an Appendix, it contained that very Petition which had been removed from the Table of their Lordships' House. He deeply regretted to say a word against a gentleman who had been an officer of their Lordships' House, and whose errors he believed to be due more to carelessness than to moral obliquity. The noble and learned Earl, having gone through the history of the case, said that it would appear from the details that every consideration had been shown throughout to Mr. Edmunds. With regard to the arbitration, the noble and learned Earl said it had been instituted with the consent and at the solicitation of Mr. Edmunds himself. Mr. Edmunds named Mr. Pollock, now Baron Pollock; and the Treasury, Mr. Denman, now Justice Denman, as arbitrators. Those arbitrators, so eminent in their Profession, after due inquiry, found that there was legally due by Mr. Edmunds to the Crown a sum of £8,500, and that after all deductions on moral grounds, he owed the Crown a sum of £7,142. The arbitrators had agreed to the award without its being necessary to refer to the umpire a single point. Mr. Edmunds had been worrying the public officers and causing great trouble and expense for many years past, and it was quite time that such proceedings should he stopped. When the award was made and a sum was found to be due from Mr. Edmunds, the comparatively mild course was adopted of simply stating what had been found by the arbitrators and asking for the money. Mr. Edmunds had even then an opportunity of saying anything he had to say against the award. The Government had throughout acted in a spirit of the utmost forbearance towards Mr. Edmunds, with whom there was a certain degree of sympathy, inasmuch as his fault seemed to have arisen rather from carelessness than from moral obliquity. The noble and learned Earl concluded by strongly opposing the Motion for the appointment of a Committee to undo the solemn legal judgment that had been pronounced. He thought his noble Friend could hardly have considered what was the real effect of the Motion he was asking their Lordships to agree to.


said, he was in favour of the noble Earl's Motion for the appointment of a Select Committee. Of all painful and disagreeable subjects for consideration, personal questions were the most disagreeable. The case of Mr. Edmunds had been discussed more than once or twice in that House, and he had always entertained the uncomfortable feeling that justice had not been done to Mr. Edmunds. Considering that Mr. Edmunds was once an old officer of that House, and that other officials were concerned in these matters, it was necessary that there should not be a shadow of cause for a suspicion that Mr. Edmunds had been treated with injustice. In his belief, the worst enemy of Mr. Edmunds had been Mr. Edmunds himself. If he had not adopted the proceedings which he most unfortunately had done, his case would have been considered in a different spirit from that in which it had been; but he (the Earl of Camperdown) submitted that in a case like this, where moral delinquency was not imputed, the claim of Mr. Edmunds, that his accounts should be audited, ought to be granted. The Papers showed the course of the legal proceedings; but it was quite sufficient for their Lordships to remember only this—that Mr. Edmunds was once an officer of that House, and for 30 years Clerk of the Patents; and that if Mr. Edmunds failed to make the affidavit which he ought to have made in reference to his accounts, it might be said that the Treasury failed to ask for it. It was a question not between the Government and Mr. Edmunds, but between an accountant to the Crown and the Exchequer; and was it right that the Crown should, after 30 years of negligence, turn round and call for these accounts? He submitted that every public accountant should have his accounts audited by the Accountant General regularly. But the question before their Lordships was in respect of the arbitration, and that House had a right to see that all the proceedings which had taken place were correct, because Mr. Edmunds was an old officer of that House, and because that House had taken away the pension which, but for these transactions, he would now enjoy. The pecuniary award had gone against Mr. Edmunds, but there was nothing in the Papers against his moral character, and what they had to do was to see whether that pension should or should not he restored to him; therefore, lie contended that a Committee should be appointed to consider the whole matter. He supported the Motion, not because he thought that Mr. Edmunds was not in the wrong, but because he wished that no suspicion of injustice should remain on the public mind.


said, that the case had been completely disposed of in three speeches—that which they had just heard from the Woolsack, and in two delivered on separate occasions by Lord Selborne. He did not think that more could be done to do justice in the case than had been done; he wished, however, as one of the few survivors of the Committee of 1865, to mention that it was an unusually strong Committee, and that it included, among others, the Duke of Somerset, the late Lord Derby, the late Lord Chelmsford, the late Duke of Montrose, Lord Malmesbury, the late Lord Panmure, and the late Lord Stanley of Alderley. None of these Peers had the slightest prejudice against Mr. Leonard Edmunds—who were acquaintances, some intimate friends of his. Lord Derby was, at first, a strong advocate for Mr. Leonard Edmunds, cross-examining the official witnesses with much severity; but after two or three days he gave it up. It was Lord Chelmsford who drafted the Report of the Committee. No one could be more anxious than himself that the servants of the House should not be treated with injustice; but he did not think it would be to the credit of the House that, after a lapse of 14 years, a Committee should be appointed to reopen the subject.


was understood to say that, in his opinion, Mr. Edmunds had been treated harshly and unjustly. He was entitled to an audit, or if the Government of the day thought he was guilty, they should have prosecuted him—it was a satisfaction to him (Lord Stanley of Alderley) to find that on that point he was in agreement with his father, for one of the questions which he had put as a Member of the Committee to Sir Roundell Palmer was in that sense. He would support the noble Earl's Motion.

On Question? Resolved in the Negative.