HC Deb 12 April 1867 vol 186 cc1587-98

Sir, I rise to make the customary Motion that this House will at its rising adjourn till Monday, the 29th instant, and in doing so I cannot of course omit noticing the remark of the right hon. Gentleman opposite that this Motion might interfere with the continuation of the debate upon his Amendment. Sir, the debate did not originate on this side of the House, and therefore it would be presumption on my part to guarantee that the debate should terminate to-night. All I can say is that as far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned they are most desirous that the debate upon the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment should be concluded and the division upon it taken to-night. I shall use all the influence I may possess to secure that object; and I hope, under these circumstances, there will be no opposition to the Motion for the Adjournment.


Sir, before the House assents to that Motion, I wish to bring a little matter under its consideration. I think that little matter will have some effect upon the debate, and probably also upon the division about to take place upon the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire. Sir, I will put it in the form of a question, because you ruled last night that an hon. Member moving the adjournment of the House as a precise Motion early in the evening has the opportunity to reply, and as the reply in this case may be very important, I am very glad to make use of this opportunity. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's words with reference to me, and as "a sincere Reformer," speaking to a recent convert, I trust that I shall be listened to. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he has commissioned the Secretary for the Treasury and the hon. and gallant Member for the county of Dublin to enter into any arrangement with one or two Members on this side of the House professing peculiar opinions. ["Oh, oh!"] If the House will not be impatient I will lead them gradually up to the little matter. I will give my evidence and I will shrink from nothing. It will be in the recollection of the House that in the course of the debate last night the hon. Member for Oldham made a speech in which, although he expressed himself in favour of the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire, he yet held out hopes to the other side of the House, and to the Treasury Bench in particular, that circumstances might arise in which he would vote against the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment and would give his support to the Government measure. Now, Sir, a document has been put into my hands for which I am not responsible; and I hope, for the honour of Parliament, that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to deny its authenticity. We have all heard in past times of a thimblerig Administration, and if this document be authentic—and I have no reason to believe that it is not authentic—and possibly the hon. Member for the Anglesea boroughs will corroborate my statement—there is indeed the commencement of a thimblerig Government, Now here, Sir, are the minutes of a conference—a conference or conversation—which has taken place between the hon. and gallant Member for the county of Dublin and the hon. Member for Swansea, who sits below the gangway, together with one or two other hon. Members of the Liberal party. And it is this:—"At the request of certain Members Mr. Dillwyn has committed the terms to writing, and, at their request, he has shown it to Colonel Taylor to know whether it is correct. After reading it over, Colonel Taylor has admitted it to be correct—the purport being that Colonel Taylor undertook, as a gentleman and a man of honour, to press upon the Cabinet the desirability of adopting Mr. Hibbert's Amendment; and further, he gave an intimation that Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli were personally in favour of accepting it." Now, what I want to know is, was that hon. and gallant Gentleman commissioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House to enter into such an agreement? I wish to know whether he was commissioned to make this arrangement; and, if so, whether the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer has consulted his Cabinet upon the propriety of such a proceeding? I put to the right hon. Gentleman that question. The document I have read to the House has been placed in my hands, and the statement I have made will be authenticated by the hon. Member for the Anglesea burghs.


In answer to the appeal made to me, I have no hesitation in saying that I, in common with many other Members of this House, have seen and read this document; and I believe that its contents, or the purport of them, as read by the hon. Member for Nottingham, are substantially correct. At the time I saw it I stated to the hon. Gentleman from whose hands I took it and read it, that I hoped he would not confide in such a loose document; but that he would take the earliest opportunity of asking the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer if the hon. and gallant Member for the county of Dublin was authorized to make the statement referred to in the document.


As my name has been brought under the consideration of the House, I cannot but express my surprise that it should have been so used by the hon. Member without making any communication to me. And I am also surprised that the hon. Member for Nottingham should have brought forward this question without having given notice of his intention to do so. I have no hesitation in explaining the part I took in the matter, and in stating to the House exactly what occurred on the occasion referred to. I had some conversation with the hon. and gallant Member for the county of Dublin respecting the adjournment of the House for the Easter holydays. I told him that I was one of those who were very desirous—as I still am—of seeing some sort of compromise come to upon the question of Reform, and of seeing a Reform Bill carried this Session; and that I wished to see whether or not some arrangement might be made by which the views of the different parties might be met. In repeating private conversations with gentlemen, it is very difficult to say whether one is betraying confidence or not—especially if documents like the one I showed to the hon. Member are to be brought forward in this manner. But I believe I am not violating any confidence when I state what took place between the hon. and gallant Member for the county of Dublin and myself, in which there is nothing of which either he or I have any cause to be ashamed. I met the hon. and gallant Member for Dublin county, and I mentioned to him that the acceptance or non-acceptance by the Government of the proposition of the hon. Member for Oldham might influence my conduct with respect to other clauses of the Bill. We talked over the matter together, and it was said that there was great difficulty in discussing some of the questions at issue, in consequence of the illness of an eminent Member of the Cabinet—I hope I am not saying what I have no right to say, but an eminent man may be ill without being ashamed of it. In consequence of the illness of that distinguished person, I understood that the Cabinet were in some difficulty with regard to matters which required discussion; and it was then suggested that an adjournment of the debate over the holydays might be proposed—not for the purpose of delay or of throwing dust in the eyes of the House, or of postponing the question of Reform—but to secure the careful and deliberate consideration of a question which had been suddenly brought under the attention of the House. The notice of the Amendment which we are to discuss tonight was not handed in until about one o'clock this morning; and the Cabinet were desirous, as I understood—although I am not in the confidence of the Cabinet—of having an adjournment for the consideration of that and many other questions, and not for the purpose of throwing dust into the eyes of the House, or for the mere convenience of adjourning the question of Reform over the Easter recess. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the county of Dublin gave me the assurance frankly, and as between two gentlemen, that those were the only objects desired; and, in order that I might be accurate, I jotted down a minute of the conversation on some paper in the lobby. I showed this memorandum afterwards to the hon. and gallant Member for the county of Dublin, and he agreed that it correctly represented what had taken place; I also showed it to some hon. Members among my friends, and that is the sum and substance of what occurred; and I do not see that there is anything in what I did that I have any reason to be ashamed of.


As the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nottingham has asked a question this afternoon, may I be allowed, in my turn, to put another question to him? I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman, whether he has given notice to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the county of Dublin, as in common fairness he ought to have done, that he intended to refer to this subject to-night. [Mr. OSBORNE: Yes, I did.] Unfortunately, the hon. and gallant Gentleman has met with an accident which will probably prevent him from being in his place to meet the statement that the hon. Gentleman has brought forward. I cannot, however, help designating the attack which the hon. Member for Nottingham has made upon the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the county of Dublin as most unfair, uncourteous, and improper. I would therefore ask the hon. Gentleman if he has had the common courtesy which is usually exhibited by Members of this House to give notice to the hon. and gallant Gentleman whose conduct he has attacked this evening?


Yes, Sir, I have had that common courtesy.


All, Sir, will admit that no one renders a greater service to his country than a gentleman who in times of great crises endeavours to mediate between contending parties, and to arrive at a solution of great public difficulties. It is, however, necessary that a gentleman who acts that part should take a course consistent with his own honour, and consistent with the honour of the party to which he belongs, and if my hon. Friend below me thinks that he has taken such a course, I should be the last person in the world to question his conduct. But it is always desirable that when transactions of such a character take place they should be attended with as much publicity as possible, and that no one should be afraid of the purport of their communications being made known either to this House or to the country at large. But what I particularly desire to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to before he answers the question put to him is the fact that the Amendment to which this minute of conference refers is one of extreme ambiguity; and I wish particularly to know in what sense that Amendment is understood by the right hon. Gentleman, who has made it the subject of negotiation, since it is capable of two very different constructions. The hon. Member for Oldham has placed an Amendment on the paper which will have the effect of maintaining the clause to which it refers exactly as it now stands, superadding, however, a condition repudiating what I have always understood to be the fundamental position of the Government—the personal payment of rates by the occupier and voter; but the Amendment also assumes that any occu- pier of a dwelling-house irrespective of the question of value is to be qualified to vote. It proceeds upon these two assumptions—first, that the clause shall give to every occupier of a dwelling-house in a town the right of voting; and secondly, it assumes that the Government abandon the personal payment of rates as a condition of enjoying the franchise. Now, I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman, if he accepts the Amendment, whether he accepts it in that sense, or whether he accepts it in the sense that it will put a limit upon the right of voting very different from that put by the clause in its original form. If he accepts it in the one sense the Amendment amplifies the franchise conceded in the clause by striking out the conditions in the latter part of the Bill; if in the other sense, the Amendment is a further and greater restriction than that which is offered by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire. It has been authentically stated in the House that this Amendment has been the subject of negotiation between the Cabinet and the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn); and I therefore want to know in what sense it has been the subject of such negotiation, and I wish to put this consideration forward before the right hon. Gentleman answers the question. If he answers that he intends to accept the Amendment, I should like to know in what sense he does so, whether as an Amendment to the clause as it now stands, or as an Amendment to the clause as it may be very materially modified by the adoption of other propositions? I hope we shall have a very distinct statement on this point, as it would be a deplorable thing if some hon. Gentlemen who sit here, and who are not perhaps familiar with the forms of the House, should only be led into error through an imperfect understanding of what is proposed.


I am afraid that my communication will disappoint the curiosity of the hon. Member for Nottingham, for I have very little to say. This negotiation was quite unknown to me, and the matter seems to have been much exaggerated. All I know is, that on coming into the House yesterday, I was told that the hon. Member for Oldham would ask me a question with regard to an Amendment. I had not even read the Amendment at that time; but I said the hon. Member might ask the question whenever he liked. The House will remember—if they remember anything I say—what was my answer to the inquiry; and that is all the opinion I have expressed on the subject to the hon. Member for Oldham, and the only discussion I ever had upon it, either directly or indirectly. I regret very much that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the county of Dublin is not in the House. I am sorry to say that he has met with a very severe accident to-day, which has prevented his attendance as yet. With regard to the statement as to consulting Lord Derby, and other statements of that kind, it is hardly necessary for me to say that they are absurdly erroneous. I have had very little opportunity of consulting Lord Derby of late. He has been seriously ill, and he is only now recovering, and I have thought it best not to trouble him with matters of business of any kind. I should presume, therefore, that he is perfectly unacquainted with the circumstances of any such negotiation as has been alluded to by the hon. Member for Nottingham. I would venture to make one observation to the House upon this matter. I have always found it a happy characteristic of this House that, notwithstanding the severe emulation of our life, and the severe competition that prevails here, and notwithstanding the excited feelings sometimes, to which none of us are superior, there has always been among us on both sides of the House that trust and confidence which only can exist where there is the thorough breeding and feeling of gentlemen. I wish the House to consider carefully what may be the consequences of too critically examining conversations that may take place under such circumstances. I may say for myself that the moment I leave the House and get into the lobby, I readily converse with any Gentleman, whatever his opinions may be, with the same freedom that I should in society, and I should feel extremely embarrassed, and I must adopt a habit of very painful reserve, if every statement which is so made by us is to be afterwards the subject of conversation in Parliament. When I remember the frankness with which I have communicated the opinions of the Government to Members, I may say that I have had no cause in the course of my life, and having been in this House for thirty years, to regret having treated Gentlemen on both sides of the House with the utmost social confidence; and I always thought that this frankness has a great charm and consolation of its own. I do hope, though I have no wish to avoid an inquiry into the present matter, which is really a mare's-nest, that the House will not forget that which has always been our characteristic whatever may be our struggles and encounters, that there should always exist between us the sentiments of gentlemen, to soften the necessary asperity of political warfare.


I do not think that we should pursue this question further in the absence of the hon. and gallant Member for Dublin, an absence which we all naturally regret; and I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there ought to be that confidence existing between one Member of the House and another to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. But I think that this document, of which I have heard for the first time from the hon. Member for Nottingham to-day, can hardly be considered in the light of a private communication; for, if I understand it properly, it refers to a conversation which has been reduced into writing, and professes to give the opinions of most distinguished Members of the Cabinet upon a question upon which votes of hon. Members may depend, and that with this view it had been shown to hon. Members to influence their minds. A communication coming from a person, known to be in the confidence of the Government, and made use of for such a purpose, should have been made use of openly, and the whole House should have been put in possession of the matter.


Sir, I do not wish to prolong this discussion; but I rise to ask a question of the hon. Member for the Anglesea boroughs (Mr. Owen Stanley.) It is a question which occurred to me and to other hon. Members amongst whom I have been just standing at the Bar of the House. I ask the hon. Gentleman, then, why, when this letter came into his possession, he did not give notice to the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) of his intention to have it submitted to the House? And why, since he thought it a matter of such grave public importance that it was right to bring it before the House, he did not bring it forward himself instead of asking the hon. Member for Nottingham to perform that duty?


If the House will allow me I will answer the questions just put to me by the noble Lord. In the first place, I wish to assure the House that the document in question was not shown to me as a private document. I was passing through the lobby when I met the hon. Member (I believe) for Lincoln and the hon. Member for Swansea talking together. They called to me, and asked me to look at a paper which they had just been perusing. I looked at it, and read it twice over. As I have before informed the House, all I said at the time was:—"I hope that you will not be satisfied with such a document." That is the history of my becoming acquainted with the document. And now, in answer to the question of the noble Lord, I have to remark, that it was not necessarily my duty to bring the matter before the House. [Some hon. MEMBERS: Why not?] Why, because I was not the only person to whom the document was shown. I believe, for example, that the hon. Member for Derby, and several other hon. Members, have seen the document. I had no desire, nor had I asked the hon. Member for Nottingham, to bring this matter before the House. The fact is this:—The hon. Member came to me and asked me whether that was correct, meaning the document. I said it was. The hon. Gentleman then said, "If I refer to you in the House, and ask you if you have seen the document; will you get up in your place and say you have?" I stated that I should be perfectly ready to do so. I repeat that I did not consider it a private document; but rather one that was intended to influence the votes of Members upon one of the most important questions that could be brought before the House or the country. I am therefore ready fearlessly and openly to justify the share I have had in this matter.


I have no desire to prolong this discussion. I think now that we all understand the facts of the case. I will merely say, in reference to a remark made, that notice ought to be given to the parties immediately concerned before a letter is produced in this House—that this document is not a letter at all, but a memorandum made upon a public matter, and intended to be shown to various Members for the purpose of ascertaining whether they are likely to be induced to give their support to the Government. But I wish to state to the House what the moral is which a great many Members like myself, who are deeply interested in the question of Reform, draw from the matter. It is in the memory of the House that the noble Lord the Member for Chester recommended us yesterday to adjourn our decision upon any of the grave points of the Bill until after the Easter holydays, on the ground that in the interim a satisfactory understanding might be come to or compromises made. Now, Sir, I am just as anxious as any others to see a fair compromise come to by both sides of the House, so that this important measure of Reform might be carried. But I hold that such compromise or compromises should be openly and publicly arrived at after fair discussion in this House, so that the manner in which they are arrived at may be made known to the country. The conclusion I draw from the transaction is this—if we do adjourn over the recess without disposing of the critical part of the Bill which we are to debate to-night—if the compromises hoped for or anticipated are not such as may be publicly offered or accepted in this House, then it is much more becoming of us to come at once to a decision upon the question before us. I arrive, therefore, at the conclusion, and I think the House will also arrive at it, that it is more essential than ever to come to a conclusion this night upon the question now under debate publicly and in the face of the House and the country, and not leave it to be settled by any such compromises as those of which we have just heard.


I wish to explain a matter in justice to the noble Lord the Member for Chester. Not only did I not show the document in question to the noble Lord, but I believe it was not drawn up until after the noble Lord made his Motion yesterday.


I wish to say that I knew absolutely nothing of the communication to which reference has been made until I entered the House this evening. Whatever may be the nature of the communications that have passed between the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the county of Dublin and certain hon. Members on the other side of the House, in whom he seems to have confided, they will form a question which will doubtless be explained when that hon. and gallant Gentleman is able to resume his seat in this House. That point we can afford to set aside for the present—it can wait; but there is another point respecting which we cannot wait; it is an urgent and important matter, because it affects the position of the Government and the position of the House as regards this question, and is to us a matter of personal honour. We should deeply regret, Sir, that any vote should be given to-night under a false impression; and therefore I wish distinctly to say, and I am authorized by my Colleagues to state, that we go into this debate perfectly free and unpledged, and upon no understanding direct or implied between Her Majesty's Government and any individual Member of this House as to any concessions that will be made in this Bill. I think, then, it is due to the Government and to the House that that fact should be distinctly stated. As to the propriety of certain concessions, I have my own opinion, which perhaps I may on some future occasion express. We, however, desire that the vote to-night upon the question before us shall be taken upon its merits, and upon its merits alone.


I think that the speech which has just fallen from the noble Lord is one in every way worthy of him, and that it has been heard with universal satisfaction on both sides of the House. I have no doubt that when the hen. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the county of Dublin is happily able to resume his seat amongst us he will be able to explain satisfactorily the part which he has taken in the transaction introduced to our notice by the hon. Member for Nottingham, and the apparent discrepancy, so far as I can gather, between the contents of the document which has been read, conveying his view of the matter, and what has just fallen from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have only one word to say upon the Question of adjournment. The right hon. Gentleman expressed his desire that discussion upon the Amendment which I have moved in Committee upon the Representation of the People Bill should terminate to-night. I believe that it will be for the general convenience of the House that this result should be arrived at. I know that it is impossible to obtain an absolute pledge from hon. Members; but as the declaration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer proceeded without any contradiction or expression of dissent from any quarter, I apprehend that we may safely assume it is the intention of the House that the debate should terminate to-night. If any doubt exist upon this point, I think it would be the wiser course to postpone the Motion for Adjournment until the debate is concluded. I think, however, after the assurance given by the right hon. Gentleman, and the silence of the House in respect to it, it may be taken to be the general desire of hon. Members that the debate should close. For my own part, I am ready to assent to the Motion and to allow the Question to be put.


For my own part, Mr. Speaker, I beg to say that I draw a diametrically opposite inference from that expressed on the other side of the House from the event that has occurred this evening. We have heard with great sympathy of the unfortunate illness which has overtaken the head of the Government—an illness which prevents Lord Derby from taking his legitimate place at the head of the Cabinet. Such a circumstance is, of course, calculated to impede any of those concessions or compromises of which we have lately heard, and which I believe a very large proportion of the House is desirous of effecting fairly and honourably in the interest of the country as well as of this House. The Leaders on both sides have expressed a wish to settle this question without been obliged to resort to the extremity of a party conflict. The unfortunate circumstance of the illness of Lord Derby has, however, interfered to prevent any such settlement being arrived at.