HC Deb 10 February 1881 vol 258 cc509-23

Sir, I rise with great reluctance to call attention to a question of Privilege arising out of an article in The World newspaper, which contains, I believe, a gross violation of the Privileges of Parliament, and which I know to be a gross calumny on the character and independence of many Members of this House. The passages I complain of are contained in an article called "Squaring the Irish Members." I do not propose to read the whole of that article; but I will ask leave to bring the paper itself to the Table, in order that the passages to which I have referred, and which I have clearly marked, may be read by the Clerk, after which I will venture to offer some observations to the House, and will conclude with a Motion.

The Cleric at the Table read the passages from the article as follows:— The interesting little performance to which the select company of 36 Irish Members treated the House of Commons last week may, perhaps, he repeated before the end of the Session. It was part of a programme in which Mr. Parnell and His associates have consented to figure for a handsome pecuniary consideration. The Land League does not pay its delegates in the House of Commons 15 guineas a-week to sit still and do nothing. These gentry are for the moment cowed into decent behaviour; but their employers are likely soon to call upon them again for fresh exertions…So far as England is concerned, the Land League's reason of existence is to create disturbance, and to cause trouble in or out of Parliament. Its Representatives in the House of Commons are paid to do this, and if they cease to do it their salaries will be stopped.


confined: The House will, I am sure, believe me when I say that, having regard to the fact that the principal Business which is now under the consideration of the House has already been declared urgent, I should naturally shrink from bringing a question of this kind before the House if I could possibly avoid it, because I know there may be those who are inclined to suspect that the Members upon these Benches will be only too glad to avail themselves of any excuse, or of any material, which could serve as a block to that measure, which we are desirous, but, I hope, only by fair fight, to oppose. Under these circumstances, I should have shrunk, if I could have thought it consistent with my duty, from bringing the Question before the House; but after the House has heard the assertions of that article read by the Clerk at the Table, I think it will justify me in bringing the matter forward without Notice. The character, Sir, of the publication in which these articles appear is probably pretty well known to most Members of this House. It is one of those journaux de societe which cater for the depraved taste of idlers, and I think it might fairly take for its motto that expression of a Roman poet,"Qua-libet in quemvis opprobria fingere savus." The character of that publication would as a rule induce most men to treat it with contempt. I know I have been told personally by Members of my own Party that this particular publication should be allowed to sink to the limbo of contemptible trivialities without being formally noticed by this House. Sir, I can understand the position of these Gentlemen, but I cannot assent to their request. There are Members for Irish constituencies who have such ample fortunes that any aspersions of this kind fall upon them without any danger of injuring them; but I, Sir, am not one of these men. I am a poor man, known to be a poor man, and I am afraid that if I allow such an insinuation as this to go unchallenged and unrefuted on the very first opportunity that presented itself, there might be in the minds of many hon. Members of this House, whose generosity would prompt them instinctively to abstain from believing evil unnecessarily of anyone, a lurking misgiving as to whether there was not, after all, some foundation for such a charge. I cannot afford, for these reasons, to allow this article to pass unnoticed. For those who know me well I have no misgiving. They know what such charges are worth. For those to whom I am utterly unknown it is a matter of little importance, perhaps, whether the charges be true as regards myself individually, and upon their opinion I should not set much store. But there are Members of this House to whom personally I am almost unknown, who have had no particular means of judging of considerations of this kind, men with whom I am brought necessarily into certain relations, and whoso good opinion, though they may not think it, I do most highly value. If it was on no ground but this, I should avail myself of the first opportunity to expose the atrocious calumnies in this article. As I have said, I am a poor man, but, thank God, I am independent. I do not look, I never have looked, and I never will look to any man, or to any body of men, no matter who, for assistance of any kind or description, direct or indirect, in any way in regard to my position in this House or anything connected with it. The House will, perhaps, allow me in justice to myself to mention, what under other circumstances I could not have thought of mentioning, that I became a Member of this House against my will—refusing invitations from three constituencies before I consented to stand as a candidate, and only consenting to serve after urgent representations had been made to me that by becoming a Member of this House I might be of some service to my country. The consideration of what I owed to my country, and not any consideration of what I owed to myself, was the motive which induced mo to become a Member of this House. My being a Member of this House is matter of personal sacrifice, not only as regards means, but as regards time, which at my period of life is valuable to most men, and a sacrifice of social relations, because many old and dear friends whom I used often to see years gone by somewhere or other I now seldom meet; and in one particular quarter, where reparation can never be made to me, and from which I could naturally have looked for proud encouragement and guidance, I meet with just the reverse. God knows, Mr. Speaker, that the seat which I occupy in this House is not a matter of advantage with me, past, present, or prospective. But, while I hold it, I trust I shall hold it with honour; and if I thought that any section of this House, English or Scotch, could for one single moment believe the calumnies which are contained in this article in The World, I would not consent to remain a Member of this Assembly for one single day. But, Sir, I am not speaking on my own account only. There are other Members of the Irish Party for whom I am empowered to speak, and who repudiate as emphatically as I do the allegations contained in that article. If my honour is aspersed, so also is theirs; and if my character for integrity would be endangered if I allowed this article to pass unnoticed, so also would theirs. But not only as an individual do I bring this matter before the House, not only as representing a considerable section in this House, but also as a Member of this House I think I have a right to complain of these calumnies, and to ask the House to express its opinion upon their character. Sir, on April 24, 1844, in similar circumstances, Sir James Graham used the following words:— Whatever concerns the. character and honour of any hon. Member in this House is intimately and indissolubly connected with the House itself. I wish, before concluding with my Motion, to draw the attention of the House to one or two precedents on which I found the course I mean to adopt. On February 27th, 1699, on a complaint made to the House of certain printed papers, one of which, presented and read at the Table, was subscribed Edward Stevens, and contained reflections on the conduct of the House in general, and in particular of Mr. John How, it was resolved that the said paper was a false and scandalous libel. Again, on February 26th, 1701, it was resolved— That to print or publish any books or libels reflecting upon the proceedings of the House of Commons, or any Member thereof, for or relating to his service therein, is a high violation of the rights and privileges of the House. And again, on April 20, 1844, on a complaint made of certain expressions made use of by Mr. Ferrand, and reported in The Times, with regard to Sir James Graham and Mr, Hogg, the Chairmen of Committees, the House re-solved— That Sir James Graham and Mr. Hogg having denied the imputations east upon them, and Mr. Ferrand having declined to substantiate the truth of them, this House is of opinion that the imputations contained in the said expressions are wholly unfounded and calumnious, and that they do not affect in the slightest degree the honour and character of the Members at whom they were aimed. The last precedent I will mention is that of May 21, 1858, when complaint was made by Mr. George Clive, the Member for Hereford, of an article in The Carlisle Examiner, imputing to him corrupt conduct as Chairman of a Committee on a Railway Bill. The article in question was read, and it was ordered— That Hudson Scott and Washington Wilkes, the printer and the proprietor of the paper, do attend the House on Friday next. They were called in on that day and examined, and the House resolved— That the said article is a false and scandalous libel on the Chairman of a Committee; secondly, that Washington Wilkes, in publishing the said article, has been guilty of a breach of the privileges of the House; and, thirdly, that Washington Wilkes, having been guilty of a breach of the privileges of the House, be, for the said offence, committed to the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms attending the House, and that Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant accordingly. Now, Sir, whatever may be the position of hon. Members who sit upon these Benches in respect of recent proceedings, whatever may be the amount of indignation or of acrimony in the minds of some hon. Members, in consequence of their recent attitude, I do trust, and I believe that there is sufficient sense of fairness in the minds of English and Scotch Members to afford to us the same protection which they did not hesitate to give to Sir James Graham and other Members of this House in times gone by. I, for one, Sir, am perfectly prepared to place my good name in the keeping of my English and Scotch Colleagues in this House, and at their hands I will await my vindication. I, Sir, on the precedents I have referred to, beg to move— That complaint having been made of an article in The World newspaper of the 9th February, entitled 'Squaring the Irish Members,' the House will take the said complaint into consideration on Thursday next; and that Mr. Fob-son, of 20, Pancras Road, printer, and Mr. Frederick Evans, the publisher of the said newspaper, do attend at this House on that day.


I must point out to the hon. Member and the House that, in point of form, there is an objection to the Motion. It proposes to take what the hon. Member deems to be a Breach of Privilege into consideration on a future day. Now, the uniform practice of the House is always to deal with questions of Privilege at once; and I must point out to the hon. Member that it is quite out of the question to postpone to a future day the consideration of that which he deems to be Breach of Privilege. I would, therefore, submit to the House that the hon. Member should be allowed to revise his Motion, for the purpose of meeting the objection raised.


With your permission, Sir, and that of the House, I will revise the Motion so as to make it declare that the publication of the article in The World newspaper is a Breach of the Privileges of this House.


I beg, Sir, to second the Motion of my hon. Friend. When I, yesterday, read the article in question my first impulse was to take the course which has since been taken by my hon. Friend. To my mind the gravity of the offence is greater than seems to be the impression on the mind of my hon. Friend. I do not share his estimate of the character of The World, or of the amount of mischief it does in a case like this. The World is a paper conducted with great ability, and it circulates largely among the middle and upper classes of society. Besides, the scraps of gossip news which it collects are systematically reproduced in the Provincial newspapers. All this combines to give a peculiar gravity to the offence. In the present state of public feeling, both inside and outside the House, the Irish Members have, in all conscience, sufficient odium to contend against without having articles like this written about them. I am one of the most obscure Members of this House, I am hardly known in this House, and known still less out of it; but I feel as jealous of my own reputation, as an honourable and upright man, as the highest and most important Member. In regard to the finances of the Land League, I know, and care to know, nothing of them. I know nothing about the relation of my hon. Friends with the Land League, I am sure they are quite able to defend themselves; but I complain of the wrong done to myself as one of the 36 Members mentioned in that article; and with all the vehemence, and earnestness, and indignation I can command I second the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Queen's County.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the article in the 'World 'newspaper of the 9th day of February, entitled 'Squaring the Irish Members,' is a breach of the Privileges of this House."—(Mr. Arthur O'Connor.)


I think, Sir, that Members of this House generally, and, indeed, without exception, will sympathize with the honourable sensitiveness of feeling which has led the hon. Member for Queen's County and the hon. Member who has seconded the Motion to take indignant notice of the article which has boon quoted, and parts of which have been read by the Clerk at the Table. The conduct of Members of this House is presumed and believed by all of us to be dictated on every occasion by honourable motives; and all Members of this House, whether they be younger or older, or from whatever part of the country—whatever Party divisions there may be—stand upon a footing of precise equality in this respect. Hon. Members have a fair claim to that avowal; and if it be the object they have in view to obtain from the House, at any rate from the mouths of individual speakers, are petition of the words which the hon. Member for Queen's County quoted on the occasion that happened in 1844, I am quite sure they will have now difficulty in obtaining that satisfaction. Those words were— That the charges which have been made do not affect in the slightest degree the honour and character of the Members at whom they are aimed. Not only do I utter those words myself —if I did it on my own part it would be a matter of small consequence—but I am quite certain in giving utterance to these words I give utterance to the general sentiments of the House, and that neither the two hon. Members who have spoken, nor any of those who sit near them and who believe themselves to be aimed at by this article, will stand one whit the worse, will suffer anything in character and reputation in the eyes of the House or the public in consequence of this publication. The hon. Members have not stated in precise terms what it is that they conceive constitutes the gravamen of the charge. I do not suppose that they treat, as involving the essence of the charge, the allegation that they have received emoluments from any given source for their Parliamentary services. I do not enter into the question whether such emoluments were received by any hon. Gentlemen in that part of the House—[Mr. ARTHUR O'CONNOR: And improper behaviour in consequence.] Quite so. I was going to say that I hoped it would not be understood that the charge upon Members of this House of receiving emoluments for Parliamentary services apart from any other duties involves anything that is dishonourable. Gentlemen enjoying the respect of Parliament and belonging to both of the great Parties in this House have received such emoluments. It is the opinion of many Gentlemen—and it is founded upon principle and the example of other countries, supported by argument—that it would be well if all Members did receive, or were entitled to receive, such emoluments. Most certainly it would not rest with myself or other Gentlemen who sit upon this Bench, and who are liberally paid by the State for such services as they render, to consent, for one moment, to consider as a charge against any Member of this House that he has received emoluments for public services, although I am aware that the salaries paid to officers of State are not paid directly in respect of the services they render in Parliament. I am quite sure, if I make a personal appeal to the hon. Member, I may refer to the times of Mr. O'Connell, who never was ashamed to confess in this House and out of it— and I think his ingenuousness in this House was admirable—that he was the paid servant of the people of Ireland. With regard to the Motion which has been made, I earnestly hope, if we can render all just satisfaction to the honourable sentiments of the Members who have spoken, that they will not invite us to enter upon the disputable and uncertain ground that is open by the Motion itself. Motions of this class always involve us in considerable difficulties, and I may be permitted to say that the Motion now made and supported by the two hon. Members would involve us in greater difficulties than Motions that heretofore have been submitted. I will explain what I mean by reference to the precedents which have been quoted. The precedent of 1699 was an offence directed against a particular individual, but still declaring, undoubtedly, that certain comments made upon proceedings in this House constituted a Breach of Privilege. But when hon. Members carry us back to 1699 they must bear in mind, or allow us to bear in mind, that all comments whatever, of the most legitimate character—those comments which we now look upon as an essential condition to the working of our institutions in the daily Press—were then, and for a long time afterwards, treated as Breaches of Privilege, and as really punishable matter. Therefore, we should not go back to precedents of that date. But if we look to the precedents of 1844 and 1858, I am quite sure the candour of the hon. Member will induce him to allow that those matters were of quite a different character from the proceeding to which he now invites our attention. In 1844 the whole of the parties concerned were Members of the House; and it was an adjudication of the House on a charge of a gross nature made by a Member of the House against other Members of the House, and the concern of the newspaper Press in that charge was wholly secondary and incidental. The House was pronouncing upon matters of character of the highest importance between Members of the House, and the House could not possibly avoid giving judgment in the case. There is no such case now before us. In 1858, so far as I recollect, there was some doubt in the minds of many Members whether the matter need have been taken up; but the hon. Gentleman will observe this vital difference—first of all, that the charge was a charge against an individual; it was not against a body of Members. The hon. Member has gallantly taken upon himself the brunt of this charge; but that which belongs to him is but a small fraction of the broad allegation which involves some 40 or 50 Members of this House. Again, Sir, in 1858, the charge made against Mr. Clive was a charge of direct corruption in the exercise of an Office of trust committed to him by this House—namely, the Chairmanship of Committee. It is, therefore, certain that, whether the article be technically a Breach of Privilege or not, to discuss it would lead us very much further upon ground which it is not desirable for us to tread than we have ever yet been induced to go. Still, I would not too rigidly urge this consideration if I did not believe that what is desired is rather the sympathy of the House in rebutting these highly injurious and offensive imputations. I again say that I am quite convinced that the hon. Member and all those who sit near him do possess that sympathy entire and unbroken; and, under these circumstances, I feel warranted in appealing to them on every ground, both of prudence and good feeling, and respectfully submitting that this matter may not be further proceeded with.


Sir, I will not detain the House more than a minute; but I wish to say that I feel sure that the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister are such as the great body of the House will accept. I think the general feeling will be that it would be unwise and unnecessary, on the present occasion, to bring us into one of those disagreeable and highly inconvenient Privilege discussions; and I hope, after what has fallen from the Prime Minister, and the general expression of sympathy which I think would be given by the whole House with regard to the language which has been used of hon. Members, that they will not consider their personal honour is in danger from the imputations which have been made, or that there is any occasion for pressing the matter further.


hoped that the House would come to an arrangement that would give satisfaction to the hon. Members who had been insulted. He disliked the raising of this question of Breach of Privilege, especially when it concerned the newspaper Press. He was willing to give liberty, and even something approaching to licence, in the criticisms of the newspaper Press. He was conscious himself of having sometimes written thoughtlessly, inaccurately, in newspapers—[Mr. NEWDEGATE: Hear, hear!] —and he was induced to make the utmost allowance for criticism that might even be unjust. But this was not merely a question of criticism or insinuation; it was a very distinct charge, put in the rudest and most offensive terms, against Members of the House. The charge was not merely that Members had accepted remuneration from some organized body of persons. That, of course, would not necessarily, in itself, be a discredit to those who gave or who received. On the contrary, it might be a very high honour, alike to the organization who paid the Members and to Members who received it. He could quite imagine the Land League sending a tenant farmer to Parliament to express the sentiments of tenant farmers generally; and nothing would be more proper than that they should enable him to live in London without suffering personal loss. But this was a different transaction. It was suggested that it was something secret, underhand, and disgraceful. It was suggested that Members were paid secretly by the Land League to disturb the proceedings of the House, and were, or would be again, compelled to obey the dictate of their employers and be disorderly. Nothing was more natural and more proper than that hon. Members should feel that to be an intolerable accusation, and should seek the most direct means to give the most fiat denial to it. At the same time, he thought if a formal Resolution could be adopted in some such words as had been used by the Prime Minister, it would satisfy his hon. Friend and the Members of the Party with which he was associated. He only spoke fairly in their names when he said that they denied altogether the existence of any fact whatever on which to base the monstrous accusation, and the still more outrageous inference drawn from it by the author of the article in The World.


considered that Irish Members had been subjected to a very gross slander. He could not agree that it was less because it was not against an individual. If he had been individually attacked, he could have challenged the writer to the proof; but the cowardly writer sheltered himself behind the contemptible and miserable plea—"It is not you I meant, but some other Member of your Party." The allegation was not that they openly received payment for services openly rendered; but that they secretly received payment for service supposed to be rendered gratuitously. Such libels reflected not only on the Members directly affected, but upon the House itself. He had seen a statement in a newspaper, that, on a certain night, three Members were armed with revolvers. People in the country, unacquainted with the House, might be led to think it was becoming a sort of Alabama Convention. It was time the House took steps to prevent the occurrence of such offences by the Press.


said, that he perfectly remembered O'Connell in that House speak of his receiving payment for the services which he rendered in that House to his country. Why should the hon. Members who had been attacked shrink from following O'Connell's example? Suppose the charge should hereafter become true. If hon. Gentlemen had been charged with having been suborned by persons for personal and selfish ends, they would have commanded his entire sympathy. He could not but be reminded of the French proverb, Qui s' excuse s' accuse. He looked upon the Motion with something of suspicion, because he had himself been the object of the most severe comments by portions of the Press conducted in the interests of those hon. Members. He had never shrunk from such criticisms, and he would never be a party to crush attempts to restrain the Press, as was desired by those hon. Members.


said, if there had been anything to induce hon. Members who had been the subject of attack not to adopt the suggestion of the Prime Minister it would have been the speech just made by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate). The hon. Member was in error in assuming that the epidermis of every hon. Member ought to be as pachydermatous as his. He confessed he was not accustomed to square his conduct by the opinion of the hon. Gentleman, and he did not intend to do so upon the present occasion. He would make the suggestion to the hon. Member for the Queen's County (Mr. Arthur O'Connor) that he ought to adopt the suggestion of the Prime Minister, and be content with an expression of an opinion, which was only emphasized by the single dissent of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire. He, at the same time, thought the Prime Minister was in error when he stated that this was not an individual accusation. In terms it was an accusation against 3G individuals that each was subsidised by a weekly salary, paid by the Land League, for the purpose of dis- turbing the proceedings of the House. That was an accusation under which they could not possibly consent to remain. Hon. Gentlemen who knew him, and any of his Colleagues, would not believe the accusation; but it must be remembered that it was made and circulated in England, and copied very widely, and was read by persons who knew nothing of them beyond their names, and it was really necessary they should take steps to vindicate themselves from this definite and precise charge. Insinuations had been made in a general way within the House; but they could afford to treat them with contempt. Here, however, was a specific charge, and it was impossible for them to pass it over. He agreed with what the Prime Minister had said—that there was nothing dishonourable in hon. Members being paid for public services rendered within the House. There were hon. Members, he believed, in that position, and they wore certainly as much respected as any other hon. Members in the House. The difference between the case of those Gentlemen and that of the hon. Member for the Queen's County (Mr. Arthur O'Connor) was this—that whereas theirs was open and aboveboard, with nothing secret or underhand about it, the allegation in the present instance was that the Irish Members at that side of the House were doing work there for no public purpose, but because they were paid a special salary and were subsidised to do a certain thing. He (Mr. Gray) was confident that there was no Member in that House, with the exception, perhaps, of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, who believed there was the slightest ground for that allegation. He was not a member of the Land League himself, nor had he ever received any subsidy from that body. Neither did he believe that any of the 36 Irish Members who sat on that side of the House ever received'a subsidy from the Land League; but certainly he thought that if the journal referred to did not think fit to withdraw the accusation, which possibly by inadvertence it had made, there were other remedies open to those against whom it was levelled; and, as Irish Members had received such an assurance as they had from the House, he trusted that the matter would be permitted to rest. As a journalist himself, he believed in the old maxim, "Hog not eating dog." He did not like to see members of the Press too severely handled for acts which were possibly completely beyond the control of those who would ultimately be held responsible. Many times articles were written that possibly never had attracted the attention of the proprietors; but still those matters should be treated with some consideration; and he thought, in the present case, they might be well content with the expression of opinion they had already had upon the subject.


said, he regarded the position of Members who received support from the self-imposed taxation of their constituents as a position of singular dignity and honour, and he had not a word to say against assistance so rendered. But in the charge brought against them, the distinct allegation, not to be shirked or blinked, was that they were there for an improper purpose, and were receiving from certain employers monies which would be withhold if they ceased to misconduct themselves. He could not rest for a single day under that stigma. However, he was prepared to accept the expression which had been so generously made in the House. He sincerely, and from his heart, thanked the Prime Minister for the kindly way in which he had alluded to him; and he thanked also the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition for the way in which he had spoken. After that expression of opinion, he was con-tent, with the leave of the House, to withdraw the Motion he had made.


, while concurring in the suggestion that the matter should proceed no further, could not share in some of the reasons given for that course. He considered that a distinct Breach of Privilege had been committed, and that an apology ought to be exacted. He was as desirous as anyone to defend the privileges of the Press; but privilege and licence were very distinct things. At the same time, he could fully understand the position in which the head of the Government had placed himself, in throwing cold water upon the proposal made upon behalf of the Irish Members. ["Oh!"] In a question of that kind it would be very inconvenient for the right hon. Gentleman to reprimand any newspaper on the score of imperfect Irish information. He considered that the charge made against the Irish Members by that newspaper wore neither more or less important, nor more or loss true, than the general charges made against Ireland by Her Majesty's Government. He could fully understand accordingly that, although some cynically disposed persons might like to see the Premier rebuking Mr. Yates for the character of his Irish information, that, notwithstanding, Her Majesty's Government might very reasonably object to affording that House an amusing variation of the ancient controversy between the kettle and the pot.


said, as a Member of the Land League and of the House of Commons, he wished to say a very few words. He considered that the charge which had been made was a very offensive one under existing circumstances; and he assured hon. Members inside the House, and the public out-of-doors, that he believed the very last purpose to which the Land League would desire to devote any of its funds would be the sustenance of Irish Representatives in the House, because it was of opinion that money could not be more utterly and completely wasted than in sending Members to the House of Commons, in the hope that they would be able to influence its action.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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