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Volume 203: debated on Thursday 28 July 1870

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

, in rising to move—

"That, in the opinion of this House, it is not competent for a Minister to allege or read in debate in defence of his policy any Document which is not upon the Table, and which he is not prepared to communicate to the House; and that it is incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government to lay forthwith upon the Table Copy of the entire deposition or statement of facts made in writing by one Holmes, erroneously represented by the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to have been in command of the British Ship 'Tornado,'"
said, the matter he had to lay before the House involved a question of Privilege, for it was clear that, unless a distinct rule was laid down as to which documents, after having been used in debate, should be produced and which should be kept back by the Minister, a serious injury would be inflicted upon the rights of independent Members, which had been encroached on too much already by the present Government. The fact was that two months ago he called attention to the case of the Tornado, with a view to show that it had been illegally seized, and was answered by his hon. Friend, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General. His hon. Friend (Mr. Otway) said that this vessel had been "steeped in crime from her very cradle," and the Attorney General said that beyond doubt the vessel was a privateer, and both the Under Secretary and the Attorney General rested their case upon the statement made by Captain Holmes of the Cyclone. He (Mr. Bentinck) afterwards addressed a Question to the Prime Minister, who admitted that the allegation of the Under Secretary was founded on a statement made by Captain Holmes. This document, which the Minister declined to lay on the Table of the House, proved to be the embodiment in writing of a statement on the subject which his hon. Friend had refused to accept verbally. Thus, his hon. Friend had first presented to the House a spurious article, and then refused a sufficient opportunity for its contradiction — a proceeding which might do very well in Spain, but was opposed to the principles of law and equity as understood in this country, and opposed, moreover, to the practice of Parliament. Sir Erskine May, in his text-book on this subject, laid it down that the proceedings of that House ought to be conducted similarly to the proceedings in a Court of Law, and that no person had a right to produce evidence, without giving to those affected by it a full opportunity of examining and, if possible, disproving it. The precedents on this subject were also very numerous. In 1857, in the debate on the China War, Lord Halifax, thon Sir Charles Wood, stated a certain position, and said that he had in his possession a letter from Sir Michael Seymour which bore out his view. Mr. Roebuck asked if Sir Charles Wood had any objection to produce the letter. Sir Charles Wood replied that it was a private letter, but that he was willing to bring it down to the House and show it to any hon. Gentleman. Upon that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) said it was monstrous that a Minister should rise in his place and make a statement upon an important matter, founded on a document which had not been produced, and he went on to say that neither a public nor a private letter ought to have been used that could not be laid on the Table. That was a principle which had ever been accepted in that House, and which he hoped would ever be their guide in such matters. The next case was in 1862, when the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth (Sir Robert Peel), then Chief Secretary for Ireland, stated that the Longford election was a mockery, and in proof of the assertion referred to certain documents in his possession. The Irish Members demanded that the documents should be laid on the Table, and Lord Palmerston expressed himself thus—
"It may, no doubt, be the true doctrine that when a Minister of the Crown reads a document in this House and founds upon it an argument or an assertion that document, if called for, ought to be produced."—[3 Hansard, clxvi. 2129.]
The last instance he would refer to occurred two years afterwards, when, in the Leeds bankruptcy case, the hon. and learned Member for Richmond (Sir Roundell Palmer) read his answer from a written statement which he had before him, and Mr. Ferrand moved that the Paper be laid upon the Table. The Speaker, being appealed to, said that public despatches, documents, and papers relating to public affairs, when read or quoted by a Minister, ought to be laid on the Table. But there was an additional reason why this document should be laid upon the Table, because, though the Spanish Government had at first agreed to give £1,500 by way of compensation to the unfortunate crew of the Tornado, it appeared that the money had not been paid, and, if so, he wished to know why there had not been payment. A rumour had reached him, which he hoped was not true, that the Spanish Government had declined payment because they had read the speech of his hon. Friend the Under Secretary, and because it was clear from the statement made that this was a Chilian vessel. He hoped his hon. Friend would press the case upon the Spanish Government, and he would, therefore, add to his Motion the words, "or any further paper in the matter of the Tornado.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is not competent for a Minister to allege or read in debate in defence of his policy any Document which is not upon the Table, and which he is not prepared to communicate to the House; and that it is incumbent upon Her Majesty's Government to lay forthwith upon the Table, Copy of the entire deposition or statement of facts made in writing by one Holmes, erroneously represented by the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to have been in command of the British Ship 'Tornado,' and also further Papers relating to that Ship,"—(Mr. Bentinck,)

—instead thereof.

fully recognized the constancy which the hon. Member had shown with regard to this case. The hon. Gentleman had now for some time been advocating the claims of the captain and crew of the Tornado; but whether his advocacy had been advantageous to those people was open to doubt, especially if it was true that the Spanish Government had now determined to withhold the £1,500 which they had previously offered as compensation. It was not his intention in any way to dispute the general principle for which the hon. Gentleman had contended, fortified as it was by the high authority of the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair and Lord Palmerston. It would have been more satisfactory, however, if the hon. Gentleman had read the whole of Lord Palmerston's opinion, for he would, if he was not mistaken, have found towards the end something to qualify the passage which he had quoted. But that ride did not apply in the present case, for here no despatch was used, but a verbal statement which had been made to him within the precincts of that House, which statement for greater accuracy he himself took down in writing, and then he asked the person who made it whether it was correct, and in proof that it was so to put his name to it. His hon. Friend admitted that he had seen the document, if it could be so called, indeed, there was no desire whatever to withhold it from any Gentleman who wished to see it. The hon. Member for Penrhyn (Mr. Eastwick) had also seen it. What was more he was ready to place it at the disposal of any hon. Member in that House. Now, though he was bound to state that it was not convenient to lay on the Table a memorandum of conversation passing within the limits of the House, this he would say—he was prepared to verify all the statements made in that memorandum; and though he would not be fulfilling his duty if he were to lay it on the Table, he was quite willing to make the hon. Gentleman a present of the only really important part of it—namely, the private instructions given to the commander of the Tornado and the other ship how they were to proceed so as to avoid capture. The photographs were open to the inspection of his hon. Friend. It was only the verbal statement of the individual reduced to writing by himself (Mr. Otway), or certified as correct by Captain Holmes. Under these circumstances he must decline to produce the Paper, because to do so would be to depart from Parliamentary usage in cases of that kind.

said, he did not rise to speak on the question of the Tornado, of which he had heard in his time a great deal, and on which he had formed an opinion which it was not necessary he should state at present; but he must say that the point brought forward by his hon. Friend (Mr. Bentinck) was well worthy of the attention of the House, and he was not himself quite satisfied with the observations made by the Under Secretary of State. One of the great securities for fair discussion in that House was that a Minister should not be permitted to refer to documents, public or private, if he was not prepared to communicate them to the House. He did not say there might not be special reasons why the particular document now in question should not be placed in the usual category in that respect; but at the same time it was not the interest of the House to encourage any laxity in regard to the rule on that subject. It was one of the guarantees for sufficient discussion that a debate should not be allowed to be unwarrantably influenced by speakers appealing, in order to sustain their views, to documents which were not in the possession of the House. That was a principle of which the House should be most jealous. It might be all very well for the Under Secretary of State to invite them to come down to Downing Street, and inspect the documents; but every Member must see that this was an important question, the importance of which was not diminished because the special instance which had now come before the House was not one of great dimensions. The principle was the same. When a document was appealed to and the Minister did not place it on the Table, it would be most inconvenient for hon. Members to call at Downing Street to examine whether the document referred to was a valid one or not; and they ought to be careful how they waived the Privileges of the House. The question was, whether their right to the production of documents quoted by persons in authority to influence debate was a right which ought to be maintained or not. He recommended the House to maintain it as being most important, and not to permit the comparative insignificance of the transactions connected with a case like that of the Tornado to blind them to what, if allowed to pass unnoticed, might be converted into an injurious precedent. He thought that the House could not be too strict in maintaining this ride, and though it was not desirable that his hon. Friend who brought forward the Motion should formally take the opinion of the House upon it, yet he thought it ought not to be disregarded, and that they ought to express in a manner that was not to be mistaken their resolution to adhere to their rules on the subject.

said, he thought it would be a pity if it should go forth to the world that there existed any serious difference of opinion with respect to the Rule of the House on that subject, as might perhaps be inferred from what has just fallen from the right hon. Gentleman. The Rule was intended to prevent undue advantage being taken by official Members in order to influence the judgment of the House. Ministers might often be supposed to have an advantage in discussion through their official knowledge, and it was quite right that every proper control should be placed on their use of that advantage. In the present instance, however, the issue was extremely narrow. The particular case before them was one that could occur only very rarely, and he thought his hon. Friend (Mr. Otway) was right in the view he took of it, which did not in the least degree derogate from the obligation to produce official documents. The question here was whether that was an official document at all. It was the substance of a conversation within the limits of the House, and reduced to writing for greater certainty; and it might impart an almost ridiculous air to the Rule if words so taken down were to be treated as coming within the definition of an official document. Although that very narrow issue might, however, give rise to some difference of opinion, still it was hardly a matter on which it could be thought desirable to take the formal judgment of the House. The Rule of the House would be made more safe by avoiding any attempt to stretch it. They should keep within the definition which the Speaker had given of it on a former occasion, and which made it apply to public despatches, documents, and papers relating to public affairs which were read and quoted by Ministers. This Paper was much more analogous to the report of a conversation given by a Gentleman in that House than to an official document. But, be that as it might, it was the desire of the Government on every occasion to observe the general Rules of the House with fidelity and strictness.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.