HL Deb 26 June 1888 vol 327 cc1257-63

, in calling attention to the conditions under which evidence was given before Select Committees of the Houses of Parliament in certain cases, said, he was extremely sorry to have to call their Lordships' attention to this subject, especially as he had to do so chiefly on account of a personal matter. He thought it was much to be regretted that the private affairs of individuals and their conduct in reference to the management of their property should be brought before Select Committees without any previous notice being given to them, and without their knowledge, and that, when such evidence had been given, the persons concerned should have no right to see it. A Committee had lately been sitting in "another place "on "Town Holdings," with the object, he believed, of inquiring into the terms upon which leases of land were granted to persons for building purposes. He heard, by chance, that his own name had been very freely used before that Committee. Witnesses had come forward and made certain statements with reference to the management of his property in the town of Redruth in Cornwall, and, among other things, it had been suggested that in consequence of the agitation on the subject of the Leaseholds Enfranchisement Bill he had granted leases for long terms of years instead of on lives. This was contrary to the fact; it had never been his practice to give leases for lives, though he had succeeded to many; he altered the system long before the above agitation was heard of. He had no objection whatever to his conduct being made the subject of public inquiry if it served any useful public purpose; but what he did object to was this—that such an inquiry should be conducted behind his back, and that when he asked to see the evidence he should be told he could not see it until it was too late to take steps to refute it. Of course, the witnesses might have spoken in the most perfect good faith, and with as much accuracy as witnesses who gave evidence of the business and motives of another man could pretend to; but, on the other hand, they might have had a particular object in view, and coloured their evidence accordingly; or they might have a grievance against the person about whom they gave their evidence, and it was only by cross-examination and the opportunities of reply that the value and credibility of such evidence could be tested. He would submit, also, that when inquiries were made as to private property, the agent who managed that property should be called among other witnesses, and that a Committee should not rely merely on what he must be permitted to call for this purpose second-hand evidence. As soon as he heard that the matter had been brought before the Committee he directed his agent to ask for leave to be examined before the Committee and to see so much of the evidence as affected him (Lord Clinton). In reply to that application the Committee clerk, on the 12th of June, said— I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, and to inform you that it has been laid before the Select Committee on Town Holdings. The evidence taken before a Select Committee is printed for the use of the Committee only until it has been reported to the House. Some persons might have been discouraged by this reply, accepted it as final, and submitted patiently to what would have been an injustice. He hoped their Lordships would not think he was unduly impatient when he said that he was not content with that reply. At all events, on the 14th of June, he addressed the following letter to the Committee clerk:— I am not aware whether I am to consider your letter as a definite refusal on the part of the Committee to allow this portion of the evidence to be seen; but, if so, I would respectfully request the Committee to reconsider their decision. I am perfectly aware of the general rule which you quote, and which is laid down by both Houses of Parliament, but I cannot think that that rule is intended to he strictly applied in a case where the conduct of an individual has been called in question, and where evidence has been received which might reflect upon his character. I understand that evidence has been given as to the manner in which my property in Redruth and in other parts of Cornwall has been managed, and this has been done without any notice whatever, and my agent knows nothing of the nature of the evidence given except what he has been able to gather from newspaper reports. It is a serious matter for anyone to be placed, as it were, on his trial before such a tribunal as a Committee of the House of Commons without any notice and without his knowledge, and it is surely unjust that the evidence should be withheld from him until the Committee have agreed upon their Report and his opportunity of reply and explanation has passed away. I think I may therefore fairly appeal to the Committee to allow my agent to know, through the official report of the proceedings, what has been said which affects me, and also that he may have, if necessary, the opportunity of replying to it. On June 15 the Committee clerk replied to the effect that a copy of that portion of the evidence which affected him (Lord Clinton) would be sent to his agent at Devonport. Their Lordships would observe that there was no answer to his request to be heard, though, by the favour and courtesy of the Committee, he was allowed to see the evidence. He did not propose to comment on the evidence that had been given with regard to his property and his conduct. That was not the time or place for doing so. He would only say that the evidence contained many inaccurate statements, and inferences were drawn from them and motives suggested which were either false or misleading. It was most unfair that upon such evidence, uncontradicted and unknown to the person most concerned, the Committee should base their Report. Several of their Lordships had much the same complaint to make as himself. There were Lord St. Levan, Lord Robartes, The Lord Steward, and also Sir Redvers Buller. Under the present system individuals might be put on their trial before a Committee and not even know that they had been tried until the case had been summed up, the verdict given, and the Court by whom the case was tried had reported to the House which had directed the inquiry. He made no charge against the Committee, but he thought that what had occurred in this case showed the necessity of some alteration in the rules and regulations with regard to the proceedings of Select Committees. The practice of their Lordships' Committees was the same as that of the other House. An inquiry into the sweating system was now going on upstairs. As a Member of that Committee he would not divulge what had taken place; but it was well known that serious charges had been brought against long-established firms and individuals—one of whom was a Member of the other House—and no notice had been given to them that their conduct was about to be impugned. It was not in accordance with the principles of justice and the spirit of English law that charges should be made and no opportunity should be afforded to meet and refute them. He thought it would not be difficult to find a remedy. Witnesses who intended to attack individuals should be asked if they had given notice of their intention, and if they had not, their evidence should be postponed until they had done so; the person concerned should have access to the evidence which affected him, and should have the earliest opportunity of explanation and defence.


said, he was almost in the same position, though not quite, as the noble Lord. Ho had no personal complaint to make of the Committee of the House of Commons. But he might mention that he saw in the newspapers a summary of a statement made before the Committee in regard to his property in Cornwall, and he took steps to see a copy of the evidence that had been given. He found that evidence full of inaccuracies, but as the matter was not one of much consequence he took no further notice of such evidence. The witness who gave evidence as to the management of his property informed the Committee that, in consequence of the recent agitation, the granting of leases for lives had been discontinued. As a matter of fact, the practice of granting such leases was relinquished 40 years ago. He did not think that the witness desired to be inaccurate, but he certainly was. He quite agreed with the noble Lord that, not only in the interest of private individuals, but in the public interest, where charges against individuals, especially if they related to personal character, were made, those individuals ought to be afforded an opportunity of meeting those charges before the Committee drew up its Report. He did not like to lay down an absolute rule, but he hoped that a Committee of neither House of Parliament would be likely to neglect so obvious a duty.


said, he had no doubt that the proceedings which had recently taken place before Committees of both Houses of Parliament had given rise to a great deal of just dissatisfaction. A number of pri- vate individuals, such as the noble Lord, and various firms had been attacked, and their reputation to some extent endangered; but he did not suppose that any Committee, either of this or of the other House of Parliament, would for one moment wish to refuse to those individuals or to those firms a full opportunity, if they sought it, of justifying their character and of defending themselves. In the case to which the noble Lord referred, before a Committee of their Lordships' House, he might say that that Committee at once took steps to place themselves in communication with the persons against whom charges were made, to furnish them with the evidence given against them, and as soon as the evidence against them was concluded gave them the earliest opportunity of coming forward to repudiate the charges which had been made against them. He had great confidence in the tribunal of public opinion, and he did not believe that charges, if refuted, would do any permanent injury to the character of the person against whom they were made. On the contrary, great sympathy would be excited for such person. Similar things occurred in Courts of Justice. Charges were made and circulated and remained unrefuted for some time; but by-and-bye the turn of the party attacked arrived, and the verdict justified him and dispelled the charges. No doubt, great inconvenience was often caused by the publication of partial Reports and by the comments made upon them in the Press and in Parliament. He might, perhaps, be allowed to refer to a matter affecting himself, as it illustrated in a striking way the inconvenience attending the present practice of publication. An hon. Member in "another place "had lately referred to a Report of the proceedings before one of their Lordships' Committees, and had characterized the course taken by him in cross-examining a witness as "one of the meanest and shabbiest tricks ever played." He thought that if the whole of the evidence, and not part of it only, had been put before the hon. Member he would have taken a very different view. The witness in question was introduced to the Committee by a gentleman who took the greatest interest in the inquiry, and who challenged anyone to show that he had brought forward witnesses of blemished character. The question which he put to the witness was.—"Were you not reduced to the ranks by court martial on one occasion? "and the reply was—Yes; for not obeying orders and telling a falsehood." He thought that he was acting well within his right in challenging the credit of the witness, and he was confirmed in his belief that the course which ho took was not wrong by the fact that actions for perjury against witnesses who had been brought in the same way before the Committee were contemplated. It was not a satisfactory practice that reference should be made in one House to proceedings before a Committee of the other House, those who were concerned not having the power of immediate reply. Some people thought, perhaps, that it would be well to lay down the rule that all Committees should hear evidence with closed doors. That would be a course which he could not favour, because the publicity given to evidence was likely to result in this and other cases in a considerable amelioration of the condition of the persons whose unfortunate lot was the subject of inquiry; and, therefore, however great might be the inconvenience to Members of their Lordships' House of this practice of partial publication, it must, he thought, be suffered. He trusted that Select Committees would never consent to take personal evidence without affording the fullest opportunity to those who were attacked to reply.


said, he thought that Committees ought to be very cautious about hearing evidence which impugned a person's character. Where such evidence was given incidentally the person concerned ought to be apprised of the fact without a moment's delay. He did not quite agree that the case was like an action or proceeding in a Court of Law, where, if evidence was given impugning a man's character, the witness could be cross-examined at once, and the issue could be dealt with there and then. But in Committees, when damaging evidence was given incidentally, the same prompt steps could not be taken, and, therefore, it was the duty of a Committee to restrain a witness who proposed to tender such evidence. The advantage of sitting with open doors was that evi- dence affecting a man's character could be published in the Press, and the man was thus made aware of the attack made upon him. If Committees sat with closed doors great injustice might be done to persons placed in the unfortunate position to which he was alluding.