HL Deb 12 December 1912 vol 13 cc196-201

*LORD CHARNWOOD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is true, as has been stated in the newspapers, that the Home Secretary has sent a Commissioner to Newcastle to make a special inquiry into the case of the engine-driver Knox who was lately convicted by the Newcastle magistrates of drunkenness; and if so, whether this is an unusual proceeding due to the existence of the strike on the North-Eastern Railway or a proceeding which is, or will be, frequently taken in the case of persons who complain to the Home Office that they have been wrongly convicted by the magistrates.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not sure that even the most diffident new-comer to this House need apologise very much for asking your Lordships' attention to the subject of my Question, but I am afraid I do owe an apology to my noble friend who is going to answer me because I am afraid, through unintended negligence on my part, he received notice of this Question rather late. First may I briefly state the facts of this matter so far as I am able to gather them from the newspapers? Some weeks ago an engine-driver on the North-Eastern Railway was convicted by the Newcastle magistrates for drunkenness. It appears that there was some other charge against him which the magistrates dismissed and upon which the evidence against him was unsatisfactory. That fact may have given some colour to the impression which got about that he had been wrongly convicted, but the magistrates, rightly I fancy, have taken the unusual course of publicly explaining the circumstances and stating that they have no doubt whatever of the evidence on which he was convicted of drunkenness. The North-Eastern Railway Company did what it might have been supposed regard for public safety imperatively required of them. They reduced this man from his employment as an engine-driver to a lower grade in their service, and the company, I understand, are absolutely willing to reinstate him as an engine-driver if his conduct is satisfactory after a year's further trial.

Then there occurred a strike upon the North-Eastern Railway based upon a demand that this man should be im- mediately reinstated as an engine-driver upon the ground that the magistrates had been mistaken in convicting. The strike, I understand, was not authorised by the trade union concerned, though I am not aware that that trade union has taken any active measures to prevent it. The strike also involved breaches of agreement with the railway company on the part of a considerable number of the strikers. The Home Secretary was asked whether if the men at once returned to work he would hold a judicial inquiry into the rightness or wrongness of the man's conviction, and the Home Secretary in response has sent down to Newcastle a Metropolitan Police magistrate, who, I understand, is to-day holding a public inquiry into this matter at which all parties concerned are represented by legal gentlemen. To complete the story, the last news which I have received on the subject is that the men are now ready to go back upon the further condition that the railway company will withdraw all the summonses which have been taken out against the men who struck in breach of their agreement.

I confess I am myself ready to assume that when there is a state of indiscipline in a great service like that of a large railway company there is probably some abiding cause of friction that gives rise to that feeling on the part of the men, and I am not myself one of those who regard the impulsive class loyalty which actuates workmen very often on these occasions as not having its commendable, even its admirable, side; and if, as I sincerely hope, the strike is now coming to an end, and if, as may be the case, the action of the Home Secretary may have contributed to that result, I think possibly the criticism which I am venturing to pass upon the action of the Home Office might seem pedantic or cantankerous were it not for two considerations which I submit to your Lordships are really very serious considerations. This is a matter affecting not only the course of a strike but affecting the ordinary administration of justice in a class of cases of which there are thousands every year. It would be deeply unfortunate if even in a singular and very peculiar instance it were proved that the Home Secretary was more or less attentive to the case of a poor and ignorant man and more or less obliging to him according as that man had or had not powerful friends behind him, whether those friends are a trade union who are in a position to inflict great inconvenience upon the public at Christmas time and check the course of trade, or whether they are powerful individuals of any sort whatsoever. I do not wish to enter upon any lurid prophecy, but I think one can easily imagine evils which may and which must little by little spring up if it should come to be generally the case that a man convicted in a Court of justice will, if a strike causing great damage to the public could be brought about in his favour, receive what is practically a new trial of, I believe, a somewhat unprecedented form, and a new trial in which there must inevitably be a strong desire on the part of the Court to acquit him if possible.

Then again, my Lords, this North-Eastern Railway strike is not an isolated occurrence. It is the culmination, not indeed in its magnitude but in what I can only call its phantastic character, of a series of labour disturbances about which those who pay the most careful attention to the possible grievances of the men feel most strongly that the action taken by the strikers is utterly disproportionate and even irrelevant to any grievances which they may have, and the Government—I say so very respectfully—must be aware of the growing feeling on the part of many who are keenly interested in the progress of labour that the Government in some instances of late have done something themselves to encourage this lamentable tendency. I will not dwell much upon that point at this moment, because if I can secure your Lordships' indulgence I desire on some future occasion to say a few words on the more general aspects of the question. But an impression is growing up that if a strike can only be made sufficiently injurious to trade and if it can only cause sufficient suffering to the poor, then the Government will in some way or other intervene. Labour leaders are becoming apt to say, "We know that the men have made a great and deplorable mistake, but we won't call them back now. If we wait for a while the Government or Parliament or some great persons will do something or other which will make it easier for the men to come back and possibly secure some advantage for them as the issue of the strike into which they have so rashly entered."

Reluctant as I am in any way to criticise the action of the Government in a difficult matter of this kind, I do seriously suggest to them that in this instance they would have acted more wisely, and in view of larger public interests, if, even at the cost of very considerable public inconvenience for the time, they had allowed the strike and had allowed the administration of justice to take their natural course. Nobody will be better pleased than I if my noble friend who is going to reply to me can entirely demolish my argument. He can sweep away the very ground of my Question if he will assure me that any carter on a farm who may be convicted of drunkenness and who may lose his situation in consequence and who represents to the Home Office that he has been wrongly convicted will, if the circumstances present any difficulty or doubt, have a Metropolitan Police Magistrate sent down from London to re-try his case. I am sorry to have detained your Lordships so long, but I would like to say this in conclusion. I do not raise this question from any sort of hostile feeling to trade unions, or, indeed, from any objection on general principle to all strikes that may occur. I have only done so because I am completely convinced that an attitude on the part of the Government or on the part of the public of lax and cheap good nature towards the aberrations of the labour movement does the greatest disservice to the interests of labour generally and to trade unionism in particular. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, as my noble friend probably anticipates the answer to the first part of his Question is in the affirmative. The action that has been taken by the Home Office in this matter has been taken in view of the very special circumstances of the present case. If any person petitions the Home Office with regard to his conviction by a Court of Summary Jurisdiction and can produce new evidence, or show other good prima facie reason for believing that he has been wrongly convicted, and give also a satisfactory explanation of his having failed to appeal—in those cases, of course, where appeal is open to him—it is now the practice of the Home Office to consider the petition, and, if necessary, they do make inquiries with regard to the matter—although cases in which the Home Secretary finds himself justified afterwards in interfering actively with the decision of the Justices are as a matter of fact comparatively rare. If there appear to be conflicting evidence and serious doubt a special officer may be sent down to make inquiry on the spot and report to the Home Office, but it is only in exceptional cases that this course can be taken. But it was taken quite recently in a case where some new evidence was produced after a prisoner had completed a short sentence of imprisonment, and the result was that a grant of pardon was issued which restored his character and removed the difficulty in the way of his being re-employed. That shows a recent instance of the exercise by the Home Secretary of a similar right to that exercised in the present case of asking for further information.

In the present case the circumstances are exceptional. The driver in question, after a long hearing involving much more serious charges than that of drunkenness, was acquitted on the more serious charges, but convicted of being drunk and disorderly and fined 5s. Against this conviction he might have appealed, but as the amount at stake was only 5s. he did not think it worth while to do so. It was only a fortnight after his conviction, when the time for appealing had expired, that he found that disciplinary action was taken against him by the company, and he was severely dealt with in consequence of his conviction. The driver asserts his innocence, and states that had he known the sentence would have involved such serious consequences he would have appealed at once; but unfortunately the time during which it was possible for him to appeal had elapsed, and therefore he has applied to the Home Secretary to review the circumstances of the case with a view to the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. The case was admittedly one of exceptional difficulty, and there was a most serious conflict in the evidence given before the magistrates. Further, it could not be overlooked that very grave issues affecting the whole community have been raised by the action taken, in consequence of this conviction, by the North-Eastern Railway Company and by its employees. The Home Secretary, therefore, has felt that in these circumstances he was justified in taking the present course and sending an experienced metropolitan magistrate to review all the facts and advise him whether he could or could not recommend any exercise of the Royal Prerogative. In view of the exceptional character of the case and the gravity of the issues involved, I am bound to say that I think the course taken is one which is fully justified. The Home Office do not interfere unless the ordinary channels of appeal have been closed for some reason. In this case the ordinary channels have been closed because the man did not appeal within the time allowed, and I think the noble Lord who has put the Question rather omitted to take into consideration the fact that the time for appeal had elapsed and that therefore this was the only course open to the driver. The noble Lord, I am sure, will see that in this matter all that the Home Secretary has done has been to arrange for further inquiry, and that for the present at any rate no action has been taken beyond seeing that there is an opportunity of further investigation into this case.

As to the direct challenge from my noble friend behind me as to whether the same course would be followed in the case of a carter who had been dismissed, I can assure the noble Lord that in similar cases the Home Office would consider the advisability of taking such measures. But it must be realised that, generally speaking, in such a case as this the man does appeal, and if he does not appeal he must have very serious reasons to put forward before the Home Office would be likely to interfere on his behalf. In view of the grave inconvenience to the public and the great misfortunes which often arise from a strike so serious as this is in its nature, I venture to think that my right hon. friend the Home Secretary was fully justified in taking this measure of investigation which he has taken by sending down Mr. Chester Jones.