HC Deb 17 February 1880 vol 250 cc797-809

asked the honourable Member for Derby, Whether certain placards reflecting on his con-duet as a Member of this House, which have been posted all over Westminster, and are signed "Samuel Plimsoll," have been issued with his knowledge and assent?


Sir, those placards were written by me and printed and distributed by my direction. The statements contained in those placards are perfectly correct, and I believe the language in which I have spoken is well within the limits which are proper to fair criticism of the conduct of public men.


Sir, in consequence of the answer I have received from the hon. Member, I hope, as I am about to address the House upon a matter of Privilege, they will permit me to do so. I hold in my hand one of the placards which the hon. Member has posted all over Westminster, and, in order that I may make the circumstances intelligible to the House, I will state that the hon. Member having given Notice of a Bill called "The Merchant Shipping Grain and Cargoes Bill," I put upon the Paper a Notice that it be read that day six months, with the view and with the sole purpose of obtaining for that Bill a full and impartial inquiry. I was aware that by so opposing the Bill I should shut it out from discussion after half-past 12 at night; but I think that a Bill of such immense importance, affecting the price of grain and also the liberties of the shipowners, deserved that attention which I now hope it will receive. I will, with the permission of the House, read the language of which I complain, and which the hon. Member thinks it fit to justify, and I will conclude with a Motion in order that I may put myself in Order. [An hon. MEMBER: That is not necessary.] The placard itself is addressed to my constituents, and it is headed in very large letters, "Sir Charles Russell, M. P." It goes on to describe the names of vessels which have been lost, and the se rious injury and loss of life which have ensued in consequence, and then it appeals to my constituents to know whether they will allow during another winter, in consequence of my having blocked this Bill, a repetition of these disasters. [Cries of "Read!"] It is a lengthy placard; but if the House wishes I will read every word. [Continued cries of"Read!"] The placard is as follows:— Sir Charles Russell, M. P. To the Electors of Westminster. Last year these steamers were lost at sea: the 'Bernina,' the 'Joseph Pease,' the 'Surbiton,' the 'Telford,' the 'Homer,' the 'Zanzibar,' the 'Bayard,' the 'Capella,' the 'Emblehope,' the 'Heimdall,' the 'Tiara,' the 'Commonwealth,' the 'Trident,' the "Aberfeldy,' the 'Burgos,' and the 'Alfonso.' In the first six, all hands (one hundred and sixty-one men) were drowned. In the 'Telford' and the 'Surbiton' alone more lives were lost than in the Tay Bridge disaster. Nearly all these ships were laden with grain only; one or two had besides grain a little general cargo. It is universally admitted that loading ships with grain in bulk is the principal cause of these losses, that to put it in bags or sacks would ensure safety. A Bill was before the House of Commons to make it compulsory to load ships with grain in sacks or bags, and so stop this dreadful loss of life. This change in the Law is strongly advocated by the Chamber of Commerce of New-castle-on-Tyne; also by that of Gateshead. On Monday the Chamber of Commerce of Glasgow appointed a Committee to assist in passing the Bill. The Shipmasters' Association of the whole of the North of England have petitioned for it. The Bill is backed by Mr. Joseph Cowen, Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Gorst; its object is approved by all the Shipowners in the House of Commons; at least, no one was found to oppose it; and its Second Reading was anticipated last night by everyone. There is a rule of the House that no Opposed Business shall be taken if it comes on after half-past twelve. It was evident the Bill could not be reached before that time, so a Notice of Opposition would be fatal to the Second Reading. There was no Shipowner in the House willing to put down that fatal Notice. It was, however, put down by Sir Charles Russell, your Member! I ask you is it your wish that next winter should be as this—that hundreds of precious human lives, and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of property should be lost? I ask you to say, whether, if Sir Charles Russell has done this thing of his own motion, it is not inhuman? and, if he is merely the cat's paw of some who wish to oppose (but dare not openly for fear of their Constituents) it is not degrading! Electors of Westminster I appeal from your Representative to yourselves. SAMUEL PLIMSOLL. 28, Park Lane, W., Feb. 12th, 1880. I wish to appeal to the House to know whether, in the exercise of my simple and undeniable right, and with no other object than honestly and faithfully to discharge my duty as an independent Member of this House, I am liable, whilst Parliament is sitting and whilst the Bill is in progress, to be assailed in this manner, and to be placarded as inhuman, and to have my conduct characterized before my constituents as degrading! I wish, therefore, in order to bring the question to an issue, to move the following Resolution:— That the publication of printed placards throughout the City of Westminster, representing the part taken by Sir Charles Russell, the Member for the said City, in the proceedings of this House as 'inhuman' and 'degrading,' injuriously reflects upon the said Member, is an attempt to coerce and intimidate him in the discharge of his duties, and a breach of the Privileges of this House.


I rise, Sir, to second the Motion of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster. I can assure the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby—if he will allow me so to call him—that I have no feelings against him, and I hope the House will not be led away from the consideration of the question brought before it. I have sat for 27 years in this House, and I believe I have never opened my lips before in any matter affecting a breach of Privilege. I have never interfered in questions that have arisen between this House and some obscure person outside. This, however, is not at all a case of that kind. It appears to me a most flagrant breach, not merely of the courtesy that ought to exist between one hon. Member and another, but of the Privilege of the House, for an hon. Member to come down and avow that he has placarded the walls with a bill so scandalous as that which my hon. and gallant Friend has just read. Do not let the House mix—as hon. Members opposite seemed inclined to do—the two questions of the merits of this Bill and the conduct of the hon. Member for Derby. Of the merits of the Bill I know nothing. As to the conduct of the hon. Member in times past, his efforts for the benefit of our seamen have had my hearty sympathy, and some of his measures have had my support. So far as this Bill is concerned, from what I have heard, I approach it with no unfavourable view. Do not let us get into the question of the merits of this Bill; but when a Member, in the exercise of his undoubted privilege, says the Bill is of such consequence that it ought not to be disposed of without consideration after half-past 12 o'clock, and puts down the Notice which he is justly entitled to put; and when he is interfered with in the discharge of his duty by a placard, not emanating from some obscure quarter, but signed by a Member of this House, who is not ashamed to say he ordered it to be printed and distributed, then I say it is time for the House to take some notice of it. It is an attempt to coerce and intimidate a Member of the House of Commons. Of course, no one who knows my hon. and gallant Friend would think that the words "inhuman and degrading" would for an instant fit the noble character of my hon. and gallant Friend. The charge itself is utterly absurd, as many of us know. But, absurd as it is, it involves an attempt to create an idea amongst my hon. and gallant Friend's constituents that he is capable of inhuman and degrading conduct, and to act as a terror and a menace to him in the discharge of his duty. Therefore, with great reluctance, I am obliged to second his Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the publication of printed placards throughout the City of Westminster, representing the part taken by Sir Charles Russell, the Member for the said City, in the proceedings of this House as 'inhuman' and 'degrading,' injuriously reflects upon the said Member, is an attempt to coerce and intimidate him in the discharge of his duties, and a breach of the Privileges of this House."—(Sir Charles Russell.)


requested the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster to bring up the placard to the Table of the House.


As I, too, have incurred the wrath of the hon. Member for Derby, and as I, too, have been placarded in my borough, I should like to say a few words, for I think my case is even somewhat stronger than that of my hon. and gallant Friend. The hon. Member for Derby has not only sent these placards down to my borough, but he has also put himself in correspondence with the local paper, and has asked the editor to insert the placard in his issue of last Saturday. Therefore I, too, am paraded before my constituents as inhuman and degrading. I have no objection to strong language which an hon. Member may use towards another in this House—if he goes beyond Parliamentary usage Mr. Speaker calls him to Order, and he there and then withdraws the objectionable language; but I say that when I put down conscientiously a Notice of opposition to the hon. Gentleman's Bill because I do not wish to see hasty legislation in so important a matter, I can only say that the words used by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby are words which must have the effect of intimidating an hon. Member in the exercise of his duties. Neither I nor my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster have done anything more than the Rules of the House allow us to do. We oppose this Bill according to the legitimate laws of this House. We have exercised no particular privilege, and I am sorry the hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby has not expressed his regret to the House—not only to my hon. and gallant Friend and myself—for the language he has used. This is not a personal question between me and the hon. Member for Derby. It is a question which affects the working of every measure which comes before this House, and affects individually and collectively the privileges of us all. And if such course of action is allowed to be taken by hon. Members of this House, it must necessarily tend to prevent freedom of debate and proper discussion. I have heard it said that the hon. Gentleman had done this in a hurry, that he is enthusiastic in his cause, and sometimes is forgetful of what he may do; but when he comes down here, and, after he has had time for reflection, expresses no regret of any kind—when he, to use a nautical expression, "sticks to his guns"—I think it is a most serious question for this House to consider. The hon. Member now says that every word in that placard is true, and so, before the whole House, he accuses my hon. and gallant Friend and myself of "inhuman" and "degrading" conduct. I can conceive no more gross intimidation; but, so far as I am concerned, I am now perfectly prepared to leave the conduct of the hon. Member in the hands of the House.


I rather think that the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster is not correct in point of form in the way in which he has brought this question before the House. We have need to be careful, because we are narrowing every day in some respects the freedom of debate. I rather think that we should have had this placard brought up to the Table and read by the Clerk at the Table, and that thereupon a Motion might be founded; and I observe that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has not provided himself with—he certainly has not cited to us—any precedent for the course he has taken upon this occasion. If he will refer to Parliamentary precedents, he will find that there never has been a Motion of this kind treated in this way. However, the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) does not stand on any point of form, and he is here to-day with that manliness which has characterized his conduct throughout, and, upon all occasions—daring much peril and frequent misunderstanding—he is here to-day taking upon his head, in the face of the House, the full responsibility for the placard he issued. What is the question before us? That the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster performed an act of obstruction, as it is called, when practised by other hon. Gentlemen. [" No ! "J I say that I have heard like Notices given under the half-past 12 Rule by the hon. Member for cavan (Mr. Biggar) referred to over and over again as "blocking Notices" and as "obstructing Bills." There is a different complexion put on the character of the proceeding when it is done by hon. Gentlemen opposite. The hon. and gallant Member for Westminster told us that he had the most conscientious motives, and that his desire was to secure that full and free discussion which it ought to receive—that, in the interests of the Bill, he put a blocking Notice on the Paper to obstruct it. Was that a specimen of the genuine sincerity and candour of the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster? Would I insult this Assembly by pretending that hon. Members do not know that a blocking Notice is an act of obstruction designed to strangle a mea- sure by the Forms of the House? I have heard the hon. and gallant Gentleman himself complain that Irish Members would not go on with the public Business at 2 o'clock in the morning. The placard contains a statement as to the loss of life through loading grain in bulk. Is that controverted? It also states that Chambers of Commerce and shipowners own that the remedy proposed by the Bill would be in the interests of humanity, and whoever obstructs, in this House or out of it, an attempt to save human life, is certainly practising in effect, if not in intent, inhuman conduct. I claim the right to say that the votes we gave for the Afghan War or South African War—[Cries of "Question!"]—I say it is the Question, because I have seen this language used about votes in this House. The only substantial part of the accusation complained of is that in reference to inhumanity. [An hon. MEMBER: "Degrading."] First, with regard to inhumanity, I say, candidly, considering that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby has been unintermittingly labouring in the cause of humanity, and that when the moment comes when he might hope to get the Second Reading of his Bill he finds the Second Reading obstructed, and every effort used to strangle and destroy the measure by a process which those who practise it will admit is only had resort to by those who are hostile to it—I say that I deny that that is humanity. Then, was it degrading? I do not think the expression can be taken in any other than a hypothetical sense. If the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster was merely the catspaw of somebody who wished to oppose the Bill, but dare not, for fear of his constituents, I do not know that I should use the phrase "degrading;" but I should find a Parliamentary phrase that would express the same idea. That is what I might do if I believed, which I do not believe, that the hon. and gallant Member has been the catspaw of another. My hon. Friend (Mr. Plimsoll) has the most profound respect for the liberties of this House as a collective Assembly, and for the liberty of Members individually; but he appeals to the House not to be led away on this occasion. Has the hon. and gallant Member any precedent? I see sitting on the Treasury Bench an hon. and gallant Gentle- man (Sir James Elphinstone) who, describing other forms of what he considered to be obstruction, used much stronger language, and who, during the last Recess, regretted that he could not get at certain Members on this side of the House, and there were some hints of violence. I may say that if he does cross the floor of the House, angered by anything that appeared to him like obstruction, although he might come on belligerent purposes intent, we should receive him here with good humour and try to keep him with us. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Onslow) has addressed the House. Parliamentary obstruction of Public Business is an offence which one hon. Member is not allowed to charge against any other hon. Member, but he has probably run to the closest verge of committing Parliamentary obstruction. He is the most skilful practitioner of the art. I intend to vote against this Vote of Censure of my hon. Friend (Mr. Plimsoll), and I hope I do not in any way commit him by expressing my own regret that he should have used, even in a hypothetical sense, the phrase "degrading." But I sympathise thoroughly and heartily in the spirit which has animated him in the issue of this placard. The Bill to which reference has been made was a Bill in which all the interests supposed to be adverse to him agreed with him. ["No !"] The shipowners agreed with him. ["No!"] Now, at all events, we will see who had the courage to oppose it. It was strongly advocated by the Chamber of Commerce of Newcastle-on-Tyne, and by the Chamber of Commerce of Gateshead. The Shipmasters' Association of the whole of the North of England petitioned for it. Was I far short of the truth, then, when I said that the interests opposed to it as might have been supposed, have manfully and humanely come forward to advocate it? What would be the natural result of the obstructive Notices to this Bill? Why, that the Bill will fall through, as many Bills fell through last year, and that by reason of the course taken by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the slaughter of human life was to be continued. And I say to my hon. Friend, believing that this is not a matter of sentiment, but the saving of precious human lives, I appeal to him to stand manfully to his measure, but to guard himself carefully against excesses of language that might play into the hands of his astute and skilful enemies who wish to hinder his work. I appeal to this House not by any fatal precedent to encourage conduct so detrimental to Public Business, so manifestly designed to arrest an action of humanity, nor because of any warmth of language used by my hon. Friend, say that he is to be answered, as I hope he never will be, by a censuring vote of the House of Commons.


Sir, I rise to make a suggestion to the House which, I think, if adopted, may enable us to arrive at the most prudent decision on this question. I am perfectly aware that it is usual that a question of Privilege, when it is raised, should be decided at once; but in this case there are some reasons why I think it desirable that the consideration of this case should be adjourned. When any question of Privilege is brought before us, the House is generally in possession of full knowledge of the facts and the words complained of; but on this occasion, although I heard the Notice of the hon. and gallant Member for "Westminster (Sir Charles Russell) last night, I was not aware, until I heard the placard read, what were the statements made by the hon. Member for Derby of which the hon. and gallant Gentleman complained. Well, there is another point in this case which appears peculiar. I have never heard a case of Privilege brought forward in this House without the Member who brought it forward supporting his Motion by quotations of precedent. Now, I notice, as has been noticed by the hon. and learned Member for Louth (Mr. Sullivan), that neither the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster nor the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Mowbray) referred to one single precedent bearing on this case. I cannot say, having come down to the House without any clear knowledge of the complaint that was going to be made, that I have been able, and other Members and the Government have probably been unable, to make themselves fully acquainted with the nature of the complaint. Now, it appears to me that the House will be extremely anxious to bear in mind two considerations—First, it will not be anxious unduly to strain or to stretch beyond former precedents the law of Privilege; and I think, at the same time, they will not desire that conduct such as that which is complained of on the part of the hon. Member for Derby should be tolerated, or that undue interference outside the walls of this House for the purpose of intimidating Members in discharge of their duty, if the conduct complained of does not come strictly within the rules of Parliamentary usage, should be regarded with any favour. I cannot hesitate for a moment to say that I deeply regret the language which has been used by the hon. Member for Derby. There can be no doubt that it is language, as has been admitted by the hon. and learned Member for Louth, that we must all regret. I must also say I regret the hon. Member has not taken the earliest opportunity of withdrawing the expressions to which objection has been taken. At the same time, a most cursory reference to the book to which we always refer on these occasions—I mean Sir Erskine May'sPractice of Parliament—shows that innumerable cases of this sort have been brought before the House, and with very different results—that in some cases action had been taken, and the person complained of had been punished. But, as far as I can see, in the more numerous class of cases, the House has decided not to take notice of the complaint made. I think that our conduct in this case ought to be strictly guided by precedent. If we find that such conduct has been formerly held to be a breach of Privilege, then I think the House will not be disposed to condone the conduct of the hon. Member for Derby. But if, on the contrary, conduct of a similar description has been passed by without serious notice, then I am sure the House will not be anxious to stretch the law of Privilege further than it is at present. I think that we should come to the consideration of this question better prepared to give a decision if we were to adjourn the debate so as to consider the case, and to obtain the Parliamentary precedents applicable to it. I beg leave to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(The Marquess of Hartington.)


Sir, I am quite sure that the whole House will feel that in this matter much more is at stake than merely the question which is raised by the hon. Member for Derby, and by my hon. and gallant Friend, and the right hon. Gentleman who sits behind me. The question, as far as it rests between the hon. Member for Derby and my two hon. Friends who have been aggrieved by this proceeding, is one upon which, I think, there will be very little difference of opinion in the House. I think almost everybody, while entirely acknowledging the purity of the spirit which animates the hon. Member for Derby, must at the same time admit that his course in this matter has been such that everyone must regret. The language which he has used is, I am sure, language such as hardly any Member would like to apply to a brother Member, and such as certainly is most inapplicable to men of the high character of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford. I also join with the noble Lord in expressing my extreme regret—and I believe the regret of the great body of the House—that the hon. Member for Derby has not, when challenged upon this occasion, taken the opportunity of expressing his regret. I cannot think that there would be anything unbecoming in his doing so, and I believe it was a course which everyone expected he would follow. Now, with regard to this matter, I think we ought to separate the particular question which has given rise to this unfortunate incident from the great principle involved in the question raised by my hon. and gallant Friend. By the Motion which he has submitted, my hon. and gallant Friend asks us to declare that such an appeal to the constituents of any Member, as has been made in this case by the hon. Member for Derby, is in the nature of an intimidation of a Member in the discharge of his duties, and that that being so, it is in the nature also of a breach of Privilege. Now, Sir, this House is jealous, and justly jealous, of its Privileges, and I am bound to say that as time goes on, and as we are more and more aware of the influence which the constituencies exercise, and the interest they take in public matters, so it becomes more and more important that we should rigidly and narrowly scrutinize our Privileges in these cases. Certainly it does seem to me that at first sight the hon. Member for Derby, if he thought that he had reason to complain of the course taken by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford with regard to this Bill, ought to have brought that matter forward in this House. He ought to have made any observations that he desired to make in their presence, and to have given them thereby the opportunity of at once explaining and justifying the conduct they had pursued. I do think it would become a most dangerous practice if it were encouraged that appeals should be made to persons out-of-doors whilst Parliament is sitting in regard to the actual current Business of Parliament, with a view not to comment upon the course that Members had pursued in their Parliamentary capacity, but in regard to the actual Business which is before us at particular times. Well, I say that that is a matter of a very serious character, and one which must demand the attention of the House. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that it is one of those matters which ought not to be decided upon hastily, and that it is one in which we ought to be guided by precedent; and I entirely concur in the suggestion the noble Lord has made that a Committee should be appointed to search for precedents in this matter, and I am ready to assent to the Motion which has been made for an adjournment of the debate. I am aware that there may be a natural feeling on the part of many Members that a matter of this sort should be brought to an issue and decided at once. I would remind hon. Members of what is at stake, and that in questions of this kind we should guard the Privileges of this House by a calm and judicial examination of the question, apart, as far as possible, from the necessary heat and feeling with which we cannot help regarding a personal question. I am prepared to agree with the noble Lord in the course he has suggested.


Sir, one word of explanation. I only moved the adjournment of the debate. I did not make any suggestion of a Committee; but if the right hon. Gentleman thinks a Committee should be appointed, I shall be very happy to consider that suggestion; but my suggestion was that the debate should be adjourned in order that we might be in a better position to decide upon the question.


I beg leave to assure the hon. Member for Derby that when his Bill is brought before the House I shall vote in his favour. I must say, however, that the words "degrading" and "inhuman," as applied to the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster are very hard words indeed; and I would most earnestly recommend my hon. Friend to immediately withdraw them.


said, he had been requested by the owners of theTiaraand theTridentto correct an error into which the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) had fallen. The hon. Member had quoted those two vessels as having been lost in consequence of carrying grain cargoes. He (Mr. 0. M. Palmer) had received telegrams to say that one of those vessels had been run down off the Goodwin Sands, and that in neither of them were any souls lost. One of the ships, according to the telegrams, was not even grain-laden. The hon. Member for Derby, in his placard, had laid great stress upon the fact that the shipowners of the North had been in favour of his Bill. As President of the Newcastle and Gates-head Chamber of Commerce he might say that there was a very divided opinion in the Chamber in regard to the Bill, and also among the shipowners of the North generally.

Question put, andagreed to.DebateadjournedtillFriday.