HC Deb 08 April 1884 vol 287 cc11-23

I rise now to speak to a substantive Motion—that of Privilege—and in order to take as early as possible the opinion of the House on the Circular which has been communicated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Lincolnshire. The reason why I raise the point now is that I do not myself perceive how it is possible for the House of Commons to command the confidence of the public in matters relating to private legislation, where, as I have said before, enormous pecuniary interests are involved, if individual Members of the House lend themselves to such proceedings as are undoubtedly set forth in the Circular now before us. The private interests of a particular Member are set forth particularly as a motive why particular Members of the House should support a Bill. There is not a line in this Circular, from first to last, about the public interest—from first to last it is a personal appeal from a Member of the House to his own Party to defeat a Motion of opposition to a Private Bill on the ground of the lowest personal interest. Now, I say that the explanation with which the hon. Member for Stockton has favoured the House is no explanation at all; and it adds to, rather than detracts from, the gravity of the occurrence. There was some kind of an arrangement by which the hon. Member for Stockton left town, leaving to his son and secretary the duty of Lobbying Members of the Liberal Party, and after or before he came back to town the Circular was issued, and at once became public property. Allusions were made to it in the Press, and, I believe, it was current talk in the Reform Club. But I cannot understand that the hon. Member for Stockton made the slightest effort of any sort or kind to withdraw this Circular before the Bill came on. Therefore, although the hon. Member for Stockton says now that the personal portion of the Circular, or a particular portion of it—I do not know which he said—was issued without his knowledge and consent, assuredly he was perfectly willing to derive any benefit that might follow from it. Now, what is this passage in the Circular, which I will venture to say is quite unprecedented in the history of the House of Commons— My son is Solicitor for the Bill, and I am exceedingly anxious to carry the Third Reading and defeat Mr. Lowther's opposition. Why is he exceedingly anxious? Not on account of any public good, but because "my son is Solicitor for the Bill," Now, I want to ask the House what would they have thought if, instead of the words "my son is Solicitor for the Bill," they had been—"I have an interest in it to the extent of £10,000?" What would the House have thought of it? But what is the difference? The son of the hon. Member is pecuniarily interested in the passage of the Bill. The son of the hon. Member is not only pecuniarily interested, but he is absolutely the partner in business with the hon. Member in regard to it. And that is put forward, without concealment, in the face of day—such are the morals of the Liberal Party now—put forward as a reason why the Liberal Party should support this Private Bill; and then we are asked to allow this matter to stand over, after the publicity which has been given to it, and after all the censures that are freely lavished on the mode in which this House conducts Private Business, though I must allow it has never yet been attempted to connect it with the private pecuniary interest of Members. We are asked to pass this over, to allow it to stand over, as the Home Secretary says, as a matter of very little importance—one of those personal questions hon. Members are so fond of raising, but altogether a triviality that ought not to delay the speech he is going to make. Now, I venture to say, the honour of the House of Commons is of far more vital interest than the Government of London. Whether the hon. Member belongs to the Liberal or the Tory Party, it is absolutely necessary for the House of Commons, if it is to maintain its character and retain the confidence of the people, to dispose of this matter without the slightest loss of time. I move, with every confidence, in the absence of any much more satisfactory explanation, and a much more apologetic withdrawal of the Circular in question than we have heard offered— That the issue of the Circular concerning the Stockton Carrs Railway, by the hon. Member for Stockton, is a gross breach of the Privileges of this House.


seconded the Motion.

Circular put in, and read as followeth:— Reform Club, Pall Mall, S.W. 5th April, 1884. Stockton Carrs Railway. This Bill stands for Third Reading on Monday next, hut Mr. James Lowther, M.P has given Notice of opposition, and consequently, the Third Reading will he taken on Tuesday next, at Two o'clock p.m. precisely: My son is the Solicitor for the Bill, and I am exceedingly anxious to carry the Third Reading and defeat Mr. Lowther's opposition: May I beg that you will do me the very great personal favour to attend the House on Tuesday next, precisely at the hour named, to support the Third Reading: Hoping very earnestly for a favourable response, I remain, yours faithfully, JOSH DODDS.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the issue of the Circular concerning the Stockton Carrs Railway Bill, by the honourable Member for Stockton, is a gross breach of the Privileges of this House."—(Lord Randolph Churchill.)


rose, and was called upon by the Speaker.


I rise to Order. I wish to ask whether, under the circumstances, the hon. Member for Stockton ought not to withdraw?


endeavoured to speak, amidst cries of "Dodds!" and "Order!"


The course the hon. Member for Portsmouth (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) suggests was followed the other day.

An hon. MEMBER: It is usual for the Member to withdraw.


I rise to Order.


It seems to me that no one is to be allowed to speak except the noble Lord.


called on Lord Randolph Churchill, and Sir William Harcourt resumed his seat. LORD RANDOLPH CHUECHILL: I rise to a point of Order. It will be in your recollection, Mr. Speaker, I am sure, that when the vote of the hon. Member for Middlesex (Mr. Coope) was contested on the ground that he was personally interested in the Corporation Water Bill under discussion, he was told to withdraw. The conduct of the hon. Member for Stockton with respect to a Private Bill being now under consideration, I submit that he ought also to withdraw.


The hon. Member for Stockton will be heard in his place. I do not know with what object the right hon. Gentleman (Sir William Harcourt) intervenes.


I do not know that I can add anything to what I have said on this subject. Perhaps I had better repeat what I said. I stated that I had no personal interest whatever in this matter, either as partner or in any other way with my son, any more than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Lincolnshire has; and I beg to repeat, in the most unqualified terms, that if there be anything in this Circular not merely in contravention of the Privileges of this House, but which, in the slightest degree, is supposed to approach to a breach of the Privileges of this House, I am exceedingly sorry for it, and beg at once and fully to withdraw it. I should be exceedingly sorry to infringe the Privileges of this House in any way whatever. I had not the remotest intention of doing anything of the kind. I thought I had said that before; but, at any rate, I say it now. If there was anything in the Circular which can be supposed, in the least degree, to infringe the Privileges of this House I am exceedingly sorry.


The hon. Member for Stockton will now withdraw.

[Mr. DODDS accordingly withdrew."]


I rose before, because I thought the hon. Member for Stockton had already made the explanation which the House demanded from him. He has now repeated it, and I really do ask any fair-minded man in this House whether, after the explanation he has given, there is the smallest foundation for this Motion. Let us see what the hon. Member for Stockton has said, and what it is averred he has done. There is a Bill before the House affecting the town which the hon. Member represents. It is habitual in this House to send round private Whips. Whether the practice is a good or bad one I do not say; but, at any rate, it is a practice very frequently adopted in reference to Private Bills. I have received Whips of this kind myself from Members of both Parties, although they are things I never pay much attention to. If the hon. Member for Stockton is to be attacked under the Orders of the House, it must be because he used his position as a Member of the House to seek some personal interest for himself. The noble Lord said that this Circular indicates the lowest and most grovelling personal interest. Well, I believe the noble Lord is a father himself, and I do not know why he should describe a reference to his son as the lowest and most grovelling of all interests. The point is this—Has the hon. Member any personal pecuniary interest in this matter? He has said he has none, and there is no pretence for saying he has any. He sends a Circular round to his friends—a sort of "fiery cross"—asking them to come and meet a gentleman whom he describes as "Mr. James Lowther." I believe that up in the North there are feuds very similar in character to. those which used to prevail between the Border men of old, the Lowthers being ranged on one side, and the Doddses on the other. As to the expressions contained in the Circular, the hon. Member says that he did not draw up the document; but that it was drawn up in his absence, by his secretary.


He signed it.


Or it was signed on his behalf. He has told the House he is not responsible for the wording of the Circular, nor, I suppose, for this reference to his son; and then he added that if there was anything irregular, or that the House had reason to complain of, in what he had done, he very much regretted it. After that, I should like to know whether there is the smallest reasonable ground for this violent proceeding of a Vote of Censure on the conduct of the hon. Member? Suppose he did invite his Friends to come down to the House, it was, no doubt, out of regard to his son, and in opposition to Gentlemen on the other side. The right hon. Gentleman opposite says his own Friends have come down to oppose the Bill.


In consequence of this Circular.


On public grounds.


At any rate, hon. Gentlemen engage their Friends to come down on the one side and the other. There is no question of pecuniary interest; and, so far as there may be anything improper in the wording of the Circular, the hon. Member has expressed his regret that such language was employed. Under these circumstances, I think the House will see there is no ground for raising this question of Privilege.


I must say I was greatly surprised when I came down to the House to-day and found what was going on. I had not seen or heard anything of this Circular; but, from what I have heard since I have been in the House, it does appear to me that, whatever may be the amount of blame that may be applied to one person or the other, the House has a matter of great importance before it, and has to consider how far its Privileges are concerned in what, as far as I can judge, is certainly a step in advance of anything ever known to take place in regard to a Private Bill. It has been said that the practice of summoning Members to vote against Private Bills is one liable to abuse, and one which it is not desirable to see extended. I concur in that opinion; and this, it seems to me, is a case where there is a distinct step— I do not say whether it is a long step or a short one—in advance of the ordinary practice. It is hardly to be expected that the House will pass over such a matter without taking some note of it; otherwise it would be set up as a precedent, and we may incur greater and more serious inconveniences than, we have at present. When the hon. Member for Stockton told us he had not been responsible for the drawing up of the greater part of the Circular, it struck me that it must have been a document setting forth at considerable length the public aspects of the case, that he had allowed his secretary to fill in the facts, and that he was sorry to find that some expressions had been introduced without his subsequent approval. When, however, we heard the Circular read, it seemed to rest entirely on the fact of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the Bill, or his connection with the Bill, either through his son or otherwise. This is a step beyond anything we have known, and certainly deserves the notice of the House.


I wish to say one or two words on this extremely painful incident in the history of Private Bill legislation. I am the more sorry to have to animadvert on the conduct of the hon. Member in this connection, because we know that for some time past he has been good enough to assist the hon. Baronet the Member for Walsall (Sir Charles Forster) in taking under his especial charge the management of private legislation. I cannot help thinking that is a circumstance it will be well to take into consideration, because the House should always have a scrupulous and a nice regard to the propriety of the conduct of those who undertake, even voluntarily, the transaction of Private Business. Apart from the personal question as it relates to the hon. Member for Stockton, the House has to deal with not only an individual, but an overt act. We have heard the Circular that is under discussion read; and, I must say, I fail to see how any explanation, even if it were more satisfactory than that offered by the hon. Member for Stockton, or the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, could operate to prevent the House expressing its regret at such an attempt to influence Members in regard to a Private Bill. Observations have been made as to what the Circular contains; but nothing has been said with regard to what it does not contain. From beginning to end there is no reference in it to the public interest, or the interest of the borough represented by the hon. Member who signed it. There is no reference to any public interest in it in any shape or form. There is a reference to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Lincolnshire, whose name is brought into the matter for reasons best known to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stockton. We have, then, a reference to the son of the hon. Member for Stockton—Members being asked to support the Bill as a "very great personal favour" to the hon. Member, because of his son's connection with it. I venture to think that if the House does not, in some way, record its sense of this sort of conduct in connection with a matter on which the honour of the House ought to be above all suspicion, it will be paving the way to great trouble and misrepresentation in the future, and that it cannot, at this moment especially, when we are engaged in the consideration of a great question affecting its actual constitution, be too particular to preserve intact for our successors that untarnished honour which has been handed down to us.


I rise to express a hope that the noble Lord (Lord Randolph Churchill) will not think it necessary to put the House to the necessity of going to a Division on this question. If we are compelled to divide, I shall feel myself at liberty, after the remarks of the hon. Member for Stockton, to vote against the Motion. At the same time, I am bound to say that I do not meet the Motion in the spirit, or even in the words, of the Home Secretary. I do not think the hon. Member for Stockton met it in that spirit, because ho expressed the greatest regret that he should have done anything, through accident or inadvertence, approaching a breach of the Privileges of this House. The noble Lord has performed a public duty in calling attention to the subject; and I think we should, to as great an extent as possible, put our foot down, in reference to Private Bill legislation, upon everything which bears even a shadow of a shade of a suspicion of any personal interest of private Members being involved in transactions of this kind. It is essential to the dignity of this House that we should seek to keep it above suspicion. If I am able to judge the feelings of the House, we are pretty much at one in regard to disapproval of this Circular; but I think that on this side of the House we are disposed to deal with the question leniently, having heard the handsome manner in which the hon. Member has apologized for the Circular. We are disposed to prevent, if possible, any such Resolution as that which has been put before the House being forced to a Division. But, from what I have gathered from the other side of the House, there is not the same disposition there to look on my hon. Friend's conduct leniently. The result of taking this matter to a Division, therefore, would be that on one side you would get Gentlemen of one Party, and on the other side Gentlemen of the other Party; and I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition whether it would not be a misfortune if, on a matter in which I agree with him—["Oh, oh !"]—yes, I say on a matter in which I agree with him, we were not jealous of the reputation of the House, and avoided a Party Division? I think the feeling of the House has been sufficiently shown, and that the noble Lord has attained the object he has in view; and, seeing that the hon. Member has absolutely withdrawn the Circular, I submit that the course which would be most likely to promote the Privileges of the House, and sup- port its character, would be the withdrawal of the Motion.


I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down whether he himself received a copy of the Circular in question; and I would put it to the House whether it is not a very remarkable thing that the Liberal Party, who condemn the Circular now it is exposed, should have come down here to support the Motion of the hon. Member for Stockton? The Home Secretary has taken up a most extraordinary position in this matter. He said—"You must not ask a personal favour for yourself; but you may ask it for your son." It is a breach of the Privileges of the House to ask a favour for yourself; but it is not a breach of Privilege to ask one for your sister, your cousin, or your aunt. Such is the declaration of the Home Secretary. I should like to point out that we cannot altogether dissociate this Motion from the personality of the Gentleman who has issued the Circular. No one in the House can be unaware of the fact that the hon. Member for Stockton has set himself up as a censor morum et arbiter elegantiarum, therefore any offence committed by the hon. Member must be viewed with much more severity than one committed by anyone else. On the 30th May, 1881, a Motion was made by the hon. Member for Galway County (Mr. Mitchell Henry), supported by the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. O'Connor Power) to declare certain matter published in The Freeman's Journal relative to a vote in this House on the Land Bill a breach of Privilege. The vote in question had been given so that, in spite of the heat of Party passion, there could be no question in regard to the anticipation of the decision of the House; but the matter complained of was decided to be a breach of Privilege. Now, however, the House is going to declare that it is no breach of Privilege for an hon. Member to ask a favour in this House in connection with a Private Bill for family reasons; and in so doing, I must say, you are taking up a most dangerous position. You may vote this Motion down by a Party Division, and the effect will be to give hon. Members a licence in the future to do as the hon. Member for Stockton has done. This House, by the machinery of the Liberal Party and its majority, will have endorsed the Circular of the hon. Member, and Ministerialists will have an additional cry to go to the country upon. Before now we have heard of Circulars of various kinds —now you have the Stockton Circular. We have had the Slave Trade Circular, which has been turned into a Party cry, and now the Government use their majority—get their Whips, the two noble Lords whom I see opposite—to drill up their followers and bring them into the Lobby to vote that to ask a personal favour for your son in connection with the passing of a Private Bill is no breach of Privilege. I trust the Liberal Party will put itself in that position, and that we shall have the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister bringing his big battalions into the Lobby to declare that the action of the hon. Member for Stockton is not a breach of Privilege. That will put a weapon in the hands of the Tory Party that no previous act of the Government has given them.


I have only two remarks to make. The first is, that I think it much more important for the honour of the House that we should have a retractation on the part of the Home Secretary of the support he has given to the hon. Member for Stockton than an apology from the hon. Member himself for the issue of the Circular. It appears to me that the credit of the House is in much greater danger from the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman than from the Circular issued by the hon. Member for Stockton. The other remark I have to make is that the hon. Member who has just sat down seemed to think that the chief objection to carrying the matter to a Division was that the whole of the Liberal Party were going to support the hon. Member for Stockton. Well, I would point out to the hon. Member that any evil which is likely to result from such a course can be obviated by himself and his Friends voting for the Motion of my noble Friend.


I do not at all agree with the action of the hon. Member for Stockton, or with the speech of the Home Secretary; but it does seem to me that when the whole House, with the exception of the Home Secretary, agrees in disapproving of the conduct of the hon. Member for Stockton, and when the hon. Gentleman himself has practically thrown over the Home Secretary by apologizing for that conduct, it would be a mistake to divide the House on the question. So far as I am concerned, I disapprove of the conduct of the hon. Member for Stockton; but if the noble Lord pushes this Motion to a Division I shall certainly vote against him, because I regard it as a species of persecution because of the loyalty of the hon. Member for Stockton to the Ministerial side of the House. If the hon. Member were sitting on the opposite side, I am perfectly certain the noble Lord would not have brought forward a Motion such as this, unless, indeed, he had been sitting on the Front Opposition Bench. Under these circumstances, I do hope, for the honour and credit of the House, that after this general expression of opinion the noble Lord will withdraw his Motion; but if he does not, I trust we Liberals will stand by the hon. Member for Stockton.


Should I be in Order, Mr. Speaker, in moving as an Amendment to the Motion proposed by the noble Lord— That the hon. Member for Stockton, having apologised for the issue of the Circular concerning the Stockton Carrs Railway, the House will now proceed with the further consideration of the Private Business appointed for this day?


Will the hon. Member bring up the Amendment?


accordingly brought up the Amendment to the Clerk at the Table.


Before you put the Question, Mr. Speaker, I would ask, as a point of Order, whether it is in accordance with the usage of the House that a Motion of Privilege should be met otherwise than by a direct negative?


There is no Rule applying to questions of Privilege. The Amendment is perfectly in Order.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words, "the honourable Member for Stockton having apologised for the issue of the Circular concerning the Stockton Carrs Railway Bill, this House do now proceed to the further consideration of the Private Business appointed for this day,"—(Sir Wilfrid Lawson,) —instead thereof.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 99; Noes 139: Majority 40.—(Div. List, No. 61.)

Main Question, as amended, put. Resolved, That the honourable Member for Stockton having apologised for the issue of the Circular concerning the Stockton Carrs Railway Bill, this House do now proceed to the further consideration of the Private Business appointed for this day.

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