We asked Sir David Beamish KCB, formerly Clerk of the Parliaments to comment on the connection between a former Dulwich resident and appearing before a Parliamentary Committee today.

Brass Crosby (1725-1793) was a resident of Dulwich from 1756 and Lord Mayor of London 1770-71. An article by Brian Green in the Summer 2011 issue of the Dulwich Society’s Journal records how during his year of office as Lord Mayor Crosby “became a national hero both in refusing to allow navy press gangs to operate in the City and for his defence of the free press”.

That defence related to the publication of Parliamentary proceedings. At the time it was illegal for newspapers to publish verbatim reports of the proceedings of the Houses of Parliament. Instead, accounts were published with titles such as “debates of Lilliput” and MPs were given fictitious names. Two newspapers (the Gazetteer and the Middlesex Journal) had published literal accounts of the proceedings and the MPs were properly identified. Other newspapers followed their lead, and the printer of the London Evening Post was taken into custody for not obeying the order for his attendance at the bar of the House of Commons and brought before the Lord Mayor for sentencing. Brass Crosby refused to do any such thing, saying that the citizens had the right to know what those who represented them and made their laws were saying and doing. Not only did Crosby release the printer but he supported the action of his aldermen who had committed the messenger from Parliament with assault and wrongful arrest. Crosby and Alderman Oliver were ordered to attend the House where Oliver was committed to the Tower, Crosby was allowed to withdraw because of a severe attack of gout. A week later he again attended the House attended by an enormous crowd and upon his refusal to be treated leniently on the score of his health he was also committed to the Tower.

There was a national outcry against parliament’s actions, and effigies of leading members were burned on Tower Hill. Crosby was released after six weeks imprisonment to scenes of great celebration. A column in his honour was erected at St George’s Circus where it still remains.

In recent years there has been something of a resurgence of interest in enforcing attendance before the House of Commons, mostly in relation to reluctant witnesses asked to give evidence to committees. In 2013 a Joint Committee (of members of both Houses of Parliament) on Parliamentary Privilege recommended against making it a criminal offence to fail to attend in response to a summons by a committee, but sought to begin a “process of reasserting Parliament’s penal powers”.

The lack of effectiveness of that approach seems to have been demonstrated by subsequent difficulties in enforcing attendance. For example, in 2016 Mike Ashley simply refused to appear before a committee investigating pay and working conditions at Sports Direct, the company which he founded. In May 2018 Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica, and Dominic Cummings, former campaign director of Vote Leave, were issued with formal summonses by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. In June Arron Banks, a major donor to UKIP and founder of the Leave.EU campaign, declined to appear before a committee inquiry into “fake news”.

A paper prepared in 2012 for the House of Commons Liaison Committee by the then Clerk of the House shows the gulf between the formal powers of the House of Commons and the reality:

“Recent events have shown to a wider audience what all insiders always knew; that there were considerable doubts about whether the House could really impose its will on those whom a Committee wished to summon, or punish those who gave (unsworn) false or misleading evidence to a Committee. … It is sometimes alleged that the process is unclear. It is not. What is unclear is how far it can be taken.”

Not since 1957 has the House of Commons summoned anyone to the Bar of the House to be reprimanded. The Commons last imposed a fine in 1666, and last imprisoned anyone in 1880. Any attempt to imprison someone nowadays would doubtless, in view of the lack of a clear formal process to allow the alleged malefactor to present a defence, fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In short, a modern-day Brass Crosby would almost certainly be able to avoid punitive action by the House of Commons - but thus would be unlikely to be remembered for suffering for their cause!

David Beamish