HC Deb 23 March 1882 vol 267 cc1770-83



, in rising to move that this House be called over on Thursday, the 30th March, said, in making the Motion at that advanced hour of the night, he would endeavour to be very brief. He acknowledged, at the outset, that his Motion was one of a kind which bad not often been resorted to in the recent proceedings of Parliament; but, at the same time, he was entitled to say that it was embedded in the practice of the House, and that it frequently appeared on the Records. He found, on reference to the Journals, that in 10 years—from 1822 to 1832—a Call of the House was moved and ordered as often as seven or eight times; indeed, he found that the only occasion on which the House refused to accede to the Motion was on the 10th July, 1855, when Mr. Roebuck endeavoured to get a Call of the House for the purpose of obtaining a Vote on a Motion introduced by him condemning the Crimean policy of the Government of the day. He (Mr. Sexton) could well understand the House refusing that Motion, because it was merely a Party movement against the policy of the Government. He found that in 1839, in connection with the repeal of the Corn Laws, a Call of the House was moved and ordered, and in the same year a Call of the House was ordered in connection with National Education. In 1852 there was a similar Motion in connection with the subject of the repeal of the Corn Laws. He was entitled to say that whenever any Member had made a Motion for a Call of the House, not merely upon a question of first-rate, or second-rate, or third-rate importance; but even on a question that did not concern the general policy of the State, on some Departmental question, the House had readily granted it. On the last occasion that a Call was enforced, it was in connection with a Motion by Mr. Whittle Harvey, the terms of which were— That a Select Committee be appointed to revise each pension specified in a Return ordered to be printed on the 28th June, 1835, with a view to ascertain whether the continued payment thereof is justified by the circumstances of the original grant, or the condition of the parties now receiving the same, and to report thereon to the House. It would be said that the question of pensions, one concerning the expenditure of a very small portion of the public money, was one, at least, of secondary importance; and the conclusion he wished to deduce from this brief reference to Motions of this kind was simply that, whenever it was deemed proper to make one the House readily acceded to it. In Sir T. Erskine May's Practice & Procedure of Parliament, the following occurred:— When the House of Commons is ordered to be called over, it is usual to name a day, which will enable Members to attend from all parts of the country. The interval, however, between the Order and the Call has varied from one day to six weeks. If it be really intended to enforce the Call, not less than a week or 10 days should intervene between the Order and the day named for the Call. Well, the interval contemplated by his Motion was a week; and he might say, on the one hand, that why he could not allow a longer interval was because circumstances did not admit of it, for the question, to decide which he required a full attendance of Members, would probably come to a division in a week; on the other hand, the interval would be amply sufficient to enable hon. Members to attend in the House from all parts of the country. What was the occasion for which he desired to have recourse to this somewhat unusual measure? No Member of the House would deny that the crisis which the House was now approaching was the greatest which had ever challenged its attention in the whole Parliamentary history of England. It was not a mere question of Departmental policy like National Education, in connection with which the Call was made in. 1839, nor a question of State policy like that in connection with which the House was called in 1852. It was a question most profoundly affecting the Constitution of the country—a question which touched the very essence of the Constitution—a question affecting its vital power—a question concerning its most material function. Without endeavouring, as he should not be entitled to do, to notice for a moment the merits of the proposal that would be presently before the House, he thought he was entitled to say that it touched not only the ancient Constitution of the country, but the inalienable and most valuable rights of every private Member of the House, from the greatest to the least. No one, he thought, would deny that, this being the case, it was desirable that there should be the fullest possible attendance of Members, on whatever side they sat, or whatever might be their political opinions; and he should wait with curiosity to hear whether the Government of this country, in view of the precedents he had cited, had any reason to allege against the reasonable demand he now made. He should make one more quotation from the learned author he had already referred to. The author said— In later years Calls were enforced less strictly. The attendance of Members is generally ample, and a Call is of little avail in taking the sense of the House, as there is no compulsory process by which Members may be obliged to vote. But the learned author did not deal with the contingency which had now arisen, and he could not be blamed for not dealing with that contingency, because it was unprecedented in the Parliamentary history of this country. He said there was no compulsory process by which Members could be obliged to vote; but the House had now to consider a compulsory process by which Members were to be prevented from voting. It was well known to the House that three Members of the House were now detained by main force in Ireland. One of them was the recognized Leader of a Party in the House, and was as familiar as any Member of the House with the Rules and Procedure of the House; and no man, whatever his political opinions, would deny that the hon. Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell), if allowed to take part in this debate, on this great and important question, would be able to contribute valuable matter for the guidance of public opinion. He was one of the Members detained by main force elsewhere, and there were two other Members detained. The hon. Member for the City of Cork was on the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the best method of conducting Business in the House, and his masterly knowledge of the subject was universally recognized on that occasion. These three hon. Members represented: one of them a very great county, another one of the most important counties, and another one of the most important cities in Ireland; and the question the Irish Members had to raise was whether the Government, by virtue of the mere will of an official of the Irish Executive, were entitled, in the opinion of the House, to keep these three Members out of the Division Lobbies, and to prevent their taking part in the final decision of the House upon a question of such momentous importance, by the mere will of the Chief Secretary for Ireland? He wished to point out, with all gravity, that these hon. Members had been detained in prison for six months, not in pursuance of any judicial process, or the verdict of any jury, or sentence following upon a trial, not even because of a committal by the humblest magistrate in the Realm. They were detained upon reasonable suspicion working in the brain of the official servant of the Head of the Government. And why were they detained? Because they were reasonably suspected of having incited to intimidation or violence, or of one of the acts specified in the Coercion Act of last year. The policy of release under the Coercion Act was by no means novel. There had been two classes of release up to the present time. Persons had been released on giving an undertaking not to take any share in a certain social movement which was at present agitating the people of Ireland; and others on undertaking to leave the country. He wished the House to understand that in making this Motion he was acting upon his sole responsibility, for he had not communicated with the hon. Members for the City of Cork, or Tipperary, or Roscommon. He was not aware whether, if the Government adopted this Motion, and the House confirmed it, those hon. Members would be willing to attend in the House; but it would be to the honour of this House, and to the good name and credit of the Government, that they should be afforded the opportunity of attending in their places. For was it to be said that by reason of mere suspicion operating in the mind of an official of the Executive, the counties of Tipperary and Roscommon and the City of Cork were to be deprived on this great question of their Constitutional right to express their opinion on the question of the clôture, and of their Constitutional force in the vote? That was the question he submitted to the Government. If his Motion were adopted and affirmed, what would be the probable consequence? He had already shown that persons had been released on the simple undertaking to go out of Ireland. He believed he did not go too far in saying that any one of the 600 men now in prison would be released by the Lord Lieutenant upon that undertaking. If the three hon. Members now detained were allowed to come and represent their constituencies on this question they might pursue wilier of two courses. If they were released either in obedience to the vote of this House, or by virtue of a visit of the Serjeant-at-Arms, they might decline to attend the House and remain in Ireland; or they might immediately come to this House and attend to their Parliamentary duties. He was unaware what course they would adopt; but if they adopted the former course, the powers of the Coercion Act remained unimpaired, and it would be open to the Chief Secretary for Ireland to re-arrest them. If, on the other hand, as he considered it highly probable, they would come to the House—for he could not think they would disregard the desire of their constituents to be heard upon this question—he supposed it could not be contended that their presence in the House could lead to further intimidation and violence in Ireland. That was the position he took up. If the hon. Members refused to avail themselves of the opportunity to take part in this debate and the Division, the Lord Lieutenant would know how to deal with them; if, on the other hand, they did avail themselves of the opportunity which he hoped would be given to them, it could not be contended that from such a course of action any danger would arise as to incitement to intimidation. As an Irish Member, he thought he was entitled and bound to offer this Motion to the House, because he could not conceive that the drastic measure now pending before the House, which might not merely affect the present Parliament and change the whole character, constitution, and efficacy of the Commons Chamber, but which might have a dominant and far-reaching effect on the future legislation of the country, was directed against the Irish Members. The only difference between the two great Parties was that the Party in power wished to apply this power to every other Party; and the Party out of power wished to apply it to the Irish Party. They were both agreed that to the Irish Party it must and should be applied; therefore, because the three hon. Members detained by main force were Irish, and because their constituencies were Irish, he felt that he had a special right and duty to entreat the House to give impartial consideration to the question. From the point of view of the Government there was another serious question arising in connection with this Motion. According to the public prints estimates of the probable vote on the clôture had been made; and while the noble Lord the Member for Flintshire (Lord Richard Grosvenor), according to his desire and the impulse of Office, formed a san- guine estimate, there were other people who were less confident of a majority. Some estimates placed the majority of the Government at a figure as low as 6, and others anticipated that, by one of those fluctuations which sometimes occurred at the last moment, the vote might be a matter of equipoise, or even leave the Government in a minority. But by the law of suspicion, involving no judicial process, and. by the exercise of the law vested in the will of the Nobleman who was the official servant of the Head of the present Government, on a question of vital gravity—on a question upon which the duration of this Parliament and the existence of the Government depended—the Government did not seem to be ashamed, in a great Parliamentary conflict which might determine their existence, to keep out of the Opposition Lobby the votes of these three Members. He asked the Constitutional Party in the House and in the country to take note of this—that on the presence or absence of the Members for Tipperary, Roscommon, and Cork might depend the success or defeat of the Government upon this momentous question. The keeping away of votes on mere suspicion, without proof and without sentence of defined duration, was a mean course, unworthy of any civilized Government, and especially unworthy of the Government of a great country and a great community like this; and it was not only unworthy, but unmeaning and foolish, when pursued by a Government so boastful of its strength and so confident of its success. The question he had raised was one which might well excite deep feeling in himself, for he could not refer to this angerine enactment without every fibre in his body being aroused; but he had preferred to keep himself within proper limits. He had preferred to treat the question as one of Constitutional freedom, and he trusted he had said nothing which was not entirely in accordance with that view.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House be called over on Thursday, the 30th March."—(Mr. Sexton.)


Sir, with reference to the last observation of the hon. Member, I have no complaint to make of the tone in which he has brought this Resolution forward, or the arguments by which he has supported it. I do not deny that the practice of enforcing a Call of the House has been, in the few cases which the hon. Member has quoted, a common one in former times; but I think the hon. Member has failed to show, among the precedents he has quoted, that this practice has ever been resorted to for any other purpose than to secure a full attendance of Members; and he has not been able to bring forward any case in which this proceeding has been adopted for an ulterior motive such as he has described in the concluding portion of his speech. The hon. Member quoted liberally several passages from the work of Sir Erskine May, and also quoted fairly the statement contained in that work, that this practice has now, for many years, fallen into desuetude, for the reason that the attendance of Members is generally so good that it is unnecessary to resort to any procedure of this kind to secure a good attendance. It is quite unnecessary for me to discuss the relative importance of the present Motion, and the vote we shall be called upon to give at the close of the clôture debate, which has just been adjourned. I do not think there is any reason to anticipate that the attendance on that occasion will be deficient, or that a Call of the House would tend to increase it in any way, because, as has been pointed out in the work referred to, a sufficient excuse offered for the absence of a Member is accepted by the House; and I have no reason to suppose that any Member of this House will be absent on this occasion whose attendance can possibly be secured by resorting to this proceeding. But the hon. Member has perfectly fairly acknowledged that his principal reason in submitting this Motion is to call the attention of the House to the question of the arrest of the hon. Members for the City of Cork and the Counties of Tipperary and Roscommon. I am under the impression that the case of their arrest has already, on several occasions, been discussed in this House, and that the opinion of the House has been given upon it. If that is not so, and there are any further circumstances connected with the policy of the Government in the arrest of those Members, I think the proper method for the hon. Member to take would be to raise a direct question upon the conduct of the Irish Executive, who have, under the Act of last Session, acted on their responsibility in the arrest of these hon. Members. With regard to this Motion, I have only to point out that I fail to see that the proceeding which is recommended by the hon. Member would in any way raise the question. The hon. Member spoke of the Government assenting to this Motion and the House agreeing to it, and I think he spoke of the Serjeant-at-Arms proceeding to Kilmainham to release these hon. Members. But I do not suppose that any such proceeding would take place. If a Call of the House were ordered the names of the three hon. Gentlemen would, no doubt, be called, and when they were called an explanation would, no doubt, be offered either by their own Friends, or from some other quarter, as to the cause which prevented their attendance; and the House would, no doubt, accept that explanation as sufficient.


It has been the invariable consequence of a Call of the House that defaulting Members are sent for.


As I have said, the hon. Member, in the course of his observations, quoted from the work of Sir Erskine May. I find, on reference to that work, that upon the occasion of a Call of the House being made, the names of Members who did not attend were called and taken down by the Clerk of the House; they were afterwards called over again, and if the absent Members appeared in their places, it was usual to excuse them for their previous default; but if not, they were ordered to attend on a future day. It was also customary to excuse them if they afterwards attended, or if a reasonable excuse were offered for their non-attendance; and it was only if a Member did not attend, and no such excuse was offered, that he was liable to be committed to the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms. I apprehend that the excuse that would be offered for those Gentlemen to whom the hon. Member for Sligo referred would be considered ample; and that, therefore, the House of Commons has no power, by any Order of its own, to release them from detention in pursuance of an Act, not of one, but of both Houses of Parliament. For these reasons it appears to me that the question supposed to be raised will not arise. When the hon. Member concluded his speech, he referred to the different estimates which had been formed with regard to the probable majority for Her Majesty's Government upon the question of Procedure; and he charged the Government not, by any action of theirs, to detain from the approaching Division Members who might possibly exercise any influence upon the vote. On the part of the Government, I must say that we absolutely decline to be in any way influenced by that suggestion. What would be said of the conduct of a Government who should release Members of the House, who were detained by virtue of an Act of Parliament, because a Division was about to be taken, on which, had they not been so detained, they might have exercised an influence? For my own part, I do not think any words could be used that would be too strong to reprobate such a course. If the release of the Members in question were improper in one sense, it would be improper in the other—that is to say, if there is sufficient reason of a political character for their detention, they ought to be detained altogether, without reference to any Parliamentary consequences which might ensue. On the other hand, if there is no sufficient political reason for their detention, then Parliament ought to be called upon to reconsider the whole question. Sir, I deny that the Government ought to be influenced in any degree by the question whether the vote of these Members would have any effect, one way or the other, on the question to be submitted to the House. It has been over and over again admitted that no distinction ought to be made with regard to the Parliamentary or non-Parliamentary position of persons who might be arrested under the Act. For these reasons, I cannot accept the argument put forward by the hon. Member in support of the position he has taken up with regard to the detention of the Members of this House now under detention; and I must, therefore, oppose the Motion which he has made for a Call of the House.


said, the noble Marquess had, in the course of his observations, only dealt with one of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Sligo. But it was difficult to find a good precedent which would apply in the present case, for there never was so absurd an example of the arrest or detention of Members of that House, without even a charge being made against them. The present situation was absolutely without precedent and without example. But there was an example of the House exercising authority over the person of absent Members, who were brought there under a warrant by the Serjeant-at-Arms. He perfectly well recollected a Member of the House being sent for, taken into custody, and brought back by the Serjeant because he had failed to attend upon one of the Private Committees. Again, in the famous case of Stockdale, the Serjeant-at-Ams took the Sheriffs of London out of one of Her Majesty's Courts, and brought them, under a kind of duresse, into that House. He did not pretend to say that this course should be followed now; but his hon. Friend thought that one effect of the adoption of his Motion might be that the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant should of his own motion release the Members of the House, now absent from its deliberations, from custody. The noble Lord could not pretend to say that this would not be a reasonable outcome of the adoption of a Motion such as this; and if that were its result, it would solve the whole question in the most practical and easy way. The Chief Secretary for Ireland, under the circumstances, would simply bend to the wish of the House in allowing those Members to vote; and when that had been done he had no doubt they would put no difficulty in the way of the right hon. Gentleman as to re-consigning them to custody. He asked the House to consider what must be the effect upon the public mind of the proceedings of the Government in this matter. How many persons were there in this country or in Ireland who would not believe that an arbitrary power was made use of to get rid of dangerous opposition, or, at least, to get rid of three hostile votes at a crisis of great importance to the Government? If the Government were willing to expose themselves to the consequences of that policy, he could point out to them an easy way of securing a substantial majority on the forthcoming Division. For instance, the question which had been the subject of debate that evening had been adjourned, and it might, by some possibility, be carried over the Easter Holidays. Indeed, he was bound to say that, after the speech just delivered by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary, the possibility of delay arising between that time and the taking of the division appeared to him to have considerably increased. In the by no means impossible event of the debate upon the clôture being continued after Easter, and as it was very likely that a considerable number of Irish Members might be able to visit their constituencies during the Recess, he suggested to the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland that he should, from a sense of public duty, issue his warrant for their arrest, and the desired majority would be assured. If the policy which now detained the three hon. Members in prison were persisted in, the country would certainly regard the Government as taking the course he had indicated; and the Government would really have established a method of carrying a vote something like that of which the famous Marshal O'Donnell, Prime Minister of Spain, once boasted, when he said he could carry any vote in the Spanish Cortes, because he would take care to have all the Leaders of the Opposition shot.


said, he certainly thought that the House of Commons was a more fitting place than a gaol for persons who had been elected to serve their country in Parliament. He was in favour of a Call of the House, inasmuch as there was another Gentleman who would make his appearance on the occasion, and who might possibly vote for the Rule proposed by Her Majesty's Government. He referred to the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh), his Colleague, who was prevented from discharging his duty to his constituents, not, as the noble Marquess had said of the three Irish Members detained in prison, by the Act of the whole Parliament, but in defiance of the law. His hon. Friend was prevented from attending, not in pursuance of any Act of Parliament, but in consequence of the act of one House of Parliament; and, were the Motion for the Call of the House agreed to, he would have an opportunity of explaining why he was required to take his seat outside the Bar instead of within the House; and perhaps, also, he would have the opportunity he had long sought, of convincing the House that he was as fit a person to take part in its proceedings as any Member now sitting in it. For this reason he should support the Motion of the hon. Member for Sligo.


said, he had been very much struck by one of the remarks which had fallen from the noble Marquess. He had contested the request of Irish Members for a Call of the House, which was founded on the consequence of not bringing into the House three Members who, in all probability, would vote against the Government on the question of the clôture, by the opposite supposition of the case of three Members incarcerated, who, it was known, would vote for the Government proposal, under similar circumstances. Now, he thought that the way in which Her Majesty's Government regarded this matter ought to be entirely apart from the consideration as to how the Members in question would vote, and not only the Government, but the House ought to look at the question entirely apart from any consideration of the kind. It would be just as legitimate for the House to call upon three absent Members who would vote for the Government, as upon three absent Members who would vote against the Government. He contended that, whether they voted with or against the Government, they ought to have an opportunity of giving their vote on behalf of their constituents on so important a question as that which was now engaging the attention of the House of Commons. With regard to the Motion of the hon. Member for Sligo, it was entirely a vote of the House, apart from that of the Government, which was solicited. He should hardly have expected that the Government would have met that Motion with any opposition, for the reason he had stated; and if, as would no doubt be the case, the question again presented itself, it could be shown that there were many reasons present in the minds of the Government in ordering the arrest of the three Irish Members which might be absent from their consideration of the matter now. Amongst other things, the position taken up by the Government with reference to the incarcerated Members was that they consumed a great deal of time, and that their action was purely vexatious.


I must point out to the hon. Member that he is travelling beyond the Question before the House.


said, he regretted that his observations should be considered out of Order, and would, therefore, not trouble the House with any further remarks.


said, he trusted that the Government did not wish to get any advantage from the fact that three of their opponents were in prison; and he suggested that the way out of the present difficulty was extremely simple. He did not see why the Prime Minister should not pair with the Leader of the Irish Party, while the Home Secretary and the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant paired respectively with the hon. Members for Tipperary and Roscommon.

Question put.

The House divided :—Ayes 22; Noes 90: Majority 68.—(Div. List, No. 59.)

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