Mr. Bradlaugh, returned as one of the Members for the Borough of Northampton, came to the Table and delivered the following Statement in writing to the Clerk:—
To the Right honourable The Speaker of the House of Commons.
I, the undersigned Charles Bradlaugh, beg respectfully to claim to be allowed to affirm as 1 a person for the time being by Law permitted to make a solemn Affirmation or Declaration instead of taking an Oath.'
And being asked by the Clerk upon what grounds he claimed to make an Affirmation, he answered, by virtue of the Evidence Amendment Acts 1869 and 1870.
§ The CLERK, addressing the Speaker, said: I have to report that Mr. Bradlaugh, Member for the Borough of Northampton, claims to make an Affirmation or Declaration, instead of taking the Oath prescribed by Law, in virtue of the provisions of the Evidence Amendment Acts 18G9 and 1870.
§ MR. SPEAKER
If the hon. Member desires to make any statement to this House strictly confined to the point in question—that is, with regard to his not taking the Oath of Allegiance—I presume the House will give him an opportunity of making that statement. Having made it, it will be my duty to call upon the hon. Member to withdraw, in order that the matter may be considered by the House.
§ MR. BRADLAUGH
Mr. Speaker, I have only now to submit that the Parliamentary Oaths Act, 1866, gives the right to affirm to every person for the time being permitted by law to make affirmation. I am such a person; and under the Evidence Further Amendment Act, 1869, and the Evidence Amendment Act, 1870, I have repeatedly for nine years past affirmed in the highest Courts of Jurisdiction in this Realm. I am ready to make the Declaration or Affirmation of Allegiance.
§ MR. SPEAKER
I must now call upon the hon. Member for Northampton to withdraw.
Mr. Bradlaugh then withdrew.
§ MR. SPEAKER
I have now formally to acquaint the House that Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, Member for the Borough of Northampton, claims to make an Affirmation or Declaration instead of the Oath required by Law. He founds this claim on the 4th clause of the 29 & 30 Vict., c. 19, and the Evidence Amendment Acts 1869 and 1870. I have not considered myself justified in determining this claim myself, having grave doubts on the construction of the Acts above stated. I therefore desire to refer the matter to the judgment of the House.
§ LORD FREDERICK CAVENDISH
Mr. Speaker, the House having been made aware by you, Sir, that the hon. Member for Northampton had expressed a desire to make an Affirmation in place of taking the Oath ordinarily taken by Members of this House, and you, Sir, having stated to the House that you had not felt yourself justified in determining his claim, having grave doubts as to the construction of the Acts in question, and that you have referred it to the decision of the House, it is necessary that the House should at once take the question into its consideration. The House is always in some difficulty when it has to enter upon a prolonged discussion of a strictly legal character, and this would be considerably more so in the present instance, when the House cannot have the advantage of the opinions of those to whom it usually looks for legal advice in difficult circumstances —that is to say, the Law Officers of the Crown. At the same time it would be manifestly very inconvenient that when an hon. Member has applied to take his seat in this House any unnecessary delay should intervene. It seems to me, therefore, clear that it would be desirable that the House should proceed on this occasion as it has proceeded on former occasions of a similar character, and that it should appoint a Committee of Inquiry which should not itself in any way determine the question submitted to it, but should simply lay before the House the material on which the House itself should found its decision. In the year 1833, when Mr. Pease applied to make an Affirmation in this House in lieu of the ordinary Oaths, such a Committee was moved for by Lord Althorp and was appointed. In the year 1850, a similar Committee was appointed to 22 consider the question in the case of Baron Rothschild. I would, therefore, move—That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report their opinion whether persons entitled under the provisions of 'The Evidence Amendment Act, 1869,' and' The Evidence Amendment Act, 1870,' to make a solemn Declaration instead of an Oath in Courts of Justice, may be permitted to make an Affirmation or Declaration instead of an Oath in this House in pursuance of the Acts 29 and 30 Vic. c. 19, and 31 and 32 Vic. c. 72.I may, perhaps, be permitted to add that, as it is desirable that the question should be decided without delay, it is proposed that the Committee be nominated, if possible, at the next meeting of the House, and that power be taken for the Committee to sit during the adjournment of the House.
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
Sir, I rise to second the Motion. The course proposed by the noble Lord appears to me to be both in accordance with precedent and to be by far the most convenient course which the House could adopt. I therefore gladly second the Motion. With regard to the concluding intimation of the noble Lord, I do not know whether he has taken into consideration that if the Committee is appointed at the next Sitting of the House before the Queen's Speech, the Law Officers of the Crown will not be Members of the House, and therefore cannot sit as Members of the Committee. I think that should be taken, into consideration.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report their opinion whether persons entitled under the provisions of 'The Evidence Amendment Act, 1869,' and 'The Evidence Amendment Act, 1870,' to make a solemn Declaration instead of an Oath in Courts of Justice, may be permitted to make an Affirmation or Declaration instead of an Oath in this House in pursuance of the Acts 29 and 30 Vic. c. 19, and 31 and 32 Vic. c. 72."—(Lord Frederick Cavendish.)
§ MR. HOPWOOD
thought, as far as he could gather, that the Instruction proposed to be given to the Select Committee was not wide enough; for instance, the Promissory Oaths Act—31 & 32Vict. c. 72—which he understood to be relied upon, was omitted—at least, it had not caught his ear.
§ MR. SPEAKER
I wish to point out that the Act referred to by the hon. and 23 learned Member for Stockport is specifically mentioned. It is the last Act cited, and read by me, in the Resolution.
§ MR. HOPWOOD
was quite satisfied on hearing that that was so. He had nothing further to say, except that he quite agreed with the Motion for the appointment of the Committee.
§ MR. GREGORY
said, he had listened as well as he could to the terms of the Resolution; and, as far as he could collect, it was proposed to inquire whether persons who had been exempted by Courts of Justice from taking an oath were entitled to be exempted from taking the Oath in that House. If that was to be the whole scope of the inquiry, it would be subjecting the rights and Privileges of the House to an incident in one of the Courts of Justice, and making it subject to the judicial decisions which might have been given. It therefore struck him that it would be better if the inquiry were made more general and went to this question— whether persons were or were not, under those Acts, exempted from the Oath, irrespective of whether they had been exempted by a Court of Law or not. In that way they would avoid bringing the Rights and Privileges of the House in the slightest degree under the jurisdiction of the Courts.
§ MR. WHITBREAD
said, he only rose in consequence of the observations made by the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory). He did not gather it to be the intention of the noble Lord (Lord Frederick Cavendish) to do what that hon. Member supposed. He understood the noble Lord to wish for a Committee to inquire whether, under the true interpretation of the statutes, a Member was not entitled to make an Affirmation at the Table of the House, although it was not specifically provided for in the Parliamentary Oaths Act. After what had fallen from the Speaker and from the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Stafford Northcote), he hardly thought the House would desire to proceed with that question in any other way than with clue care and a proper regard to the precedents. The very statute recited by his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Hopwood) —the Promissory Oaths Act—gave the House reason to be cautious in its proceedings on that subject. That statute prescribed the Oath which was to be 24 taken by every officer of the State, and the very same words on which the hon. Member who desired to make an Affirmation at the Table relied were to be found in that statute. Therefore, if the hon. Member's construction of the law were the right one, it would follow that all those high officers, the Lord Chancellor and others, would be equally entitled to make an Affirmation. He mentioned that simply to show that it was not a question which affected that Chamber alone, but was part of a larger and wider question. He could only say that he thought the noble Lord had acted with great discretion in suggesting that that business should be referred to a Select Committee at as early a date as possible.
§ Mr. MORGAN LLOYD
said, he regarded the objection of the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory) as inapplicable, seeing that the House reserved to itself the right of determining the question when the Report of the Committee should be presented. All that the Committee had to do was to inquire into the present state of the law as far as they could ascertain it, and report their conclusions to the House. When that was done, the House would be possessed of the information necessary to enable it to form its own judgment upon the question, which it did not at present possess. He therefore thought there could be no objection to the appointment of the Committee.
§ MR. BAXTER
suggested that the terms of the Motion should be again read to the House, as a means of removing the misconception under which he thought the hon. Member for East Sussex laboured.
§ LORD FREDERICK CAVENDISH
I believe it is not in Order for me to read the Motion again; but with the permission of the House I will do so. [The noble Lord then re-read the Motion in the terms already set out.]
§ EARL PERCY
said, that the Motion appeared to have been made somewhat unexpectedly so far as many Members of the House were concerned. He was certainly not competent to give any opinion upon its merits; but the matter seemed to him to be so important and one involving such nice legal and technical questions that it would be well if the Members of the House had the Motion in print before them to consider it. 25 Even at the risk of some delay, which he could not regard as so serious as some hon. Gentlemen appeared to anticipate—for, after all, the hon. Member (Mr. Bradlaugh) could not take part in the transaction of Business of any importance for some weeks to come—he thought it better that they should have the Motion in form before them, in order that if they agreed to adopt it on a future occasion they should do so with due deliberation. With that view he now begged to move the adjournment of the debate.
§ MR. ONSLOW
said, he had great pleasure in seconding the Motion. This question had come upon them on a sudden. They had no idea of what the noble Lord intended to do, or when the House intended to sit again. Report said it was going to sit to-morrow; and report said it was not going to sit until Monday next. He did not think any inconvenience would be caused to the hon. Member for Northampton if time were given for the consideration of this important question.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Earl Percy.)
§ SIR CHARLES W. DILKE
Sir, the position which has been taken by the noble Lord would be a very reasonable one if it were not for the circumstances under which the question has arisen; but I think it would be very undesirable to give hon. Members the impression that the subject could be better dealt with at a later time than it could now. There can be no doubt that if the House were to sit on Wednesday, and the Motion should be adjourned to that day, there would be a small attendance of hon. Members. There would be no Business of any great importance to bring hon. Members clown to the House, and we know that many hon. Members have made arrangements to leave town. That being so, it will bo far better to settle the question at once. The question is an important, although not a large one, and it will not occupy much time; and I hope it will be thoroughly threshed out to-day if it is necessary to discuss it further. We have the point before us in the Speaker's words, and certainly it is not a very wide one. It is a point peculiarly fitted for the examination of a Select Com- 26 mittee, and the nomination of the Members for the Select Committee could take place at the next Sitting. I cannot agree with the noble Lord the Member for North Northumberland (Earl Percy) when he appeals for a few days' delay on the ground that no Notice has been given. By the nature of the case no Notice could have been given. It has arisen only to-day. The question is one of some delicacy, though, as I have said, not a large question. The point we have to deal with is, whether this matter of the Oath is one properly suited for the consideration of a Select Committee. There is no precedent for any other course. These cases have been invariably referred to Select Committees in which there was a strong legal element, and that is what is proposed to be done to-day. No doubt, in the selection of the names the most skilled lawyers in the House will be placed upon the Committee. The House is not asked to pronounce any opinion on this subject now. We are asking it only to decide that it shall go to a Committee, that the Committee shall give its opinion, and on that opinion we can act. I hope, therefore, the House will not consent to the adjournment.
said, he thought the hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke) had somewhat misapprehended the motive of the noble Lord the Member for North Northumberland in moving for the adjournment of the debate. The noble Lord proposed, not that the matter should be adjourned till Wednesday, but that it should be adjourned until the House met again after the Recess. The question was one of immense importance, and the Committee to be appointed ought to be a very influential one. What was more important still, the Reference to that Committee should be carefully prepared and drawn, so that the Committee might be able to make a satisfactory Report. It appeared to him that this point should not be rashly and hastily considered that day. The hon. Baronet the Member for Chelsea said they had a large attendance. That was so; but a very large proportion were Members entirely new to the House. The Leaders of the Ministerial side were absent; and the only Leader on the Opposition side present was the right hon. Baronet the Member for North Devon 27 (Sir Stafford Northcote), in whom they all placed implicit confidence. At least, many of the Opposition Leaders were absent; and before deciding the question the House ought to have the advantage of the advice of the Leader of the House and of the Law Advisers of the Crown. Those right hon. and hon. and learned Gentlemen were not at present Members of the House. For all these reasons he thought they ought not to proceed without the guidance of the Leaders of the House. He should support the Motion for the adjournment of the debate.
§ EARL PERCY
said, his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had misapprehended him. He had not suggested that the discussion should be adjourned until after the Recess. He had said nothing about the time he wished to see the question adjourned to. He was anxious that the terms of the Motion, the scope of which they did not quite grasp, should be in print, and that the House should have time to consider them.
§ MR. SPENCER WALPOLE
Sir, if we are going to decide the question which will ultimately have to be decided, the proposal which has been made for the adjournment of the debate would be desirable; but as the object of this Committee is that an inquiry should be made, and that the House should be put in possession of facts which will enable it to decide the question, I cannot but think that any unnecessary delay will be very undesirable. I think the hon. Member who wishes to take his seat on making an Affirmation is entitled to ask that there shall be no unreasonable delay, for the effect of such delay might be to deprive him of the opportunity of taking his seat for some time. It strikes me that under all the circumstances of the case the proposal to appoint a Committee is the best; but let it be understood— and it must be clearly understood—that the Committee will conduct a mere inquiry in order to present information for the instruction of the House. I hope the Motion for the adjournment will not be pressed.
§ LORD FREDERICK CAVENDISH
Sir, I am very sensible of the disadvantage which arises from the absence of those to whom the House ordinarily looks for guidance; but I would suggest that the question is one with regard to 28 which delay is undesirable. It is one of those which closely appertain to questions of Privilege. The hon. Member has claimed his right to sit in the House, and it would be contrary to all precedent to adjourn the question. The sole object of this Committee is to provide materials for the decision of the House. I may venture to add that the terms of the Resolution were carefully considered by the authorities of the House and entirely approved of by them.
§ MR. BERESFORD HOPE
trusted his noble Friend the Member for North Northumberland would not press the Amendment; still, the case was not so altogether on the one side as was represented. No doubt there was a grievance to the hon. Member for Northampton in not taking his seat as soon as he expected. Still, the grievance to one Member of not taking his seat was very little compared with the risk to the whole House of hastily and incompletely treating a great principle. The House was at present only a half-hatched chicken, and the ordinary channel of communication between the Speaker and hon. Members—the Votes and Proceedings of the House—was not yet in existence. The Committee, it was said, would only marshal facts; but a great deal would depend on how these facts were marshalled. The hon. Member for Northampton, no doubt, was within his right in claiming to take his seat; but the result of that was that, by the Forms of the House, a mine had been sprung upon them, and a very important question had been raised before an unprepared tribunal. The noble Lord the ad interim Leader of the House had, however, taken the only line open to him; but it would not bo forgotten action was proposed in a half-sworn House. Under all these circumstances, his noble Friend the Member for North Northumberland had a good case for recalling the House to the recollection of its position; and he hoped that if the Committee was resolved upon that day the debate on the Report of the Committee would be taken in a full House of Commons and with Her Majesty's Ministers on the Treasury Bench.
§ Question put, and negatived.
§ Original Question put, and agreed to.29
§ Resolved That a Soled Committee be appointed to consider and report their opinion whether persons entitled under the provisions of "The Evidence Amendment Act, 1869," and "The Evidence Amendment Act, 1870,"to make a solemn Declaration instead of an Oath in Courts of Justice may he admitted to make an Affirmation or Declaration instead of an Oath in this House, in pursuance of the Acts 29 and 30 Vic. c. 19, and 31 and 32 Vic. c. 72.
§ Power to send for persons, papers, and records.
§ Several other Members took and subscribed the Oath according to Law, and one other Member made and subscribed the Affirmation required by Law.